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Jewish World Review August 24, 2000/ 23 Menachem-Av, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Why are liberals still squeamish about judging other nations by American standards? --
THE KURSK SUBMARINE DISASTER -- first and foremost, a terrible human tragedy that has taken 118 lives -- has revealed both how little and how much has changed in Russia since the Soviet era.

For days after the submarine went down off Russia's northern shores, crippled by an explosion, the Russian government covered up and lied, in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet handling of the downing of a Korean airliner in 1983 and of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Western offers of help in the rescue operation were initially rejected by the authorities, and accepted only when no hope was left for any sailors who may have survived the blast. President Vladimir Putin waited four days to comment publicly on the tragedy, and did not even immediately interrupt his vacation at a Black Sea resort.

Astonishingly, some U.S. commentators who would have eviscerated our government for such behavior think it's wrong to criticize the Russian response. An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer begs us to "give the Russians a cultural break": it's easy to see how a bankrupt ex-superpower would be sensitive about "accept[ing] help from Western nations it once nearly beat in the technology race," particularly since it also has valid concerns about spying. Besides, say the editors, Russia's history is filled with death and devastation; while fortunate Americans are shocked by each loss of life, to Russians "the loss of 118 sailors is just one more tragedy to endure."

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, some liberals are still squeamish about judging other nations by American standards. To do so, they believe, is culturally arrogant.

But such an attitude would not be popular in Russia, where the press is filled with blistering, bitter criticism of the government. The commentators speak of "betrayal," immorality," "cynicism." Many Russians are especially angry that the promise of a new, open society has turned out to be a lie. "Our dream of finally becoming human beings, of being free from Soviet-style shamelessness and deceit, has been shattered," writes Vladimir Yermolin in a front-page column in the daily Izvestia.

Like many Russians, including the families of the dead seamen, Yermolin wonders if some lives could have been saved if Western aid had been accepted sooner. (The government's claims that the crew died almost immediately -- after initial claims of establishing contact with the sailors -- are widely seen as a dishonest attempt to deflect criticism.) The biggest question, he says, is: "Why, on the eve of the third millennium, does Russia, which proclaims herself a civilized country, continue to have such contempt for human life and for her own citizens?"

Try telling him that to the long-suffering Russians, losing 118 countrymen is no big deal.

The ideals of openness in government and respect for each individual life are not some cultural prejudices that we should refrain from imposing on others. They are the West's, and America's, gift to humanity. Obviously, Western governments, including our own, have not always adhered to these ideals; we know we must hold our elected leaders accountable. Now the Russians know it too. Most of them don't think dishonesty and disregard for life are traditions worth preserving.

The Kursk tragedy will have a major effect on Russian public opinion.

The ambition of rebuilding Russia's prestige as a great military power, which has been at the core of Putin's program, is likely to be seen viewed far less sympathetically. "For those who played at being a superpower, there is no excuse," writes Izvestia. The usually pro-Putin Nezavisimaya Gazeta is equally harsh: "It is not just evil but criminal to build up unfounded illusions about Russia's defense ability." Mistrust of the West, which the Russian leadership has also tried to revive of late, is also likely to be seen in a different light as a contributing factor in a devastating tragedy.

One hesitates to speak of anything good coming out of such horror. But perhaps the lessons of this disaster will give Russia a better chance of becoming the "civilized country" that remains the Russian dream.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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