- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

In Russia, a country of countless shortages, the scarcest commodity may be the simple, unvarnished truth. Former President Ronald Reagan once referred to the Soviet Union as an "Evil Empire." The recent Russian submarine disaster suggests that "Land of Lies" may be more precise. The reports on the sinking of the submarine are but the latest examples of falsehoods that have been a staple in Russia's approach to sharing information with the outside world.

When the submarine suffered the explosions which sank her, Russian naval spokesmen first delayed the announcement of the disaster, then as late as four days afterwards continued to falsely report pounding signals from the ship and finally blamed the sinking on a nonexistent foreign vessel. All this in the face of contradictory foreign opinion, especially that of nearby Norwegian and English naval experts, who clearly pinpointed the time and cause of the disaster proving that all reports from the Russian sources were suspect.

This sad sequence of events calls to mind two other examples of official Russian lies: the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the Katyn Forest Massacre, the 60th anniversary of which has just been observed.

On April 26, 1986, when the accident at the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl occurred, news of that disaster was not even announced to those who lived nearby and who quickly became victims of the spreading radiation. The May 1 celebrations took place as if nothing had happened. Mikhail Gorbachev did not appear on television until May 14 to announce what had been known in the West from the very start. It soon became clear that the casualties were far greater than the numbers the Russian government eventually and grudgingly provided to its concerned neighbors and the world at large. The long-range effects of radiation continue to plague the Russian people to this day. I was visiting Warsaw at the time and I remember speaking to a Polish sports broadcaster who was in Kiev, near Chernobyl, when the accident occurred. He and others who were in Russia for a cycling meet were not even told of the danger. When he returned to Warsaw doctors diagnosed him with radiation poisoning.

But it is the Katyn Forest massacre which remains the most dramatic example of Russian lies and misinformation. Last month thousands of Poles came to Katyn Forest to commemorate the deaths of 27,000 Polish commissioned and noncommissioned officers who were slaughtered by the Soviet intelligence services in the spring of 1940. This happened right after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact on the division of Eastern Europe. The Polish officers were trapped as Russia, in fulfillment of its obligations with Germany, joined her in partitioning the Polish state. For half a century Russian officials denied that they were responsible for this atrocity and blamed the Germans for the killing. The Germans were responsible for many massacres, but Katyn was not one of them. Shortly before Mr. Gorbachev was deposed and succeeded by Boris Yeltsin, the Russians finally revealed to the world documents signed by Stalin and members of the Politburo decreeing the deaths of the Polish officers. There is no clearer example in history of lying than the half-century of falsehoods regarding this massacre. To this day the Russians still have not revealed all the burial places of these brave soldiers and books are being published in Russia still claiming that its officials were not guilty of that crime.

More than a century and a half ago, a visitor to Russia, the French nobleman Marquis de Custine (he is the one who described Russia as a "prison-house of nations"), wrote in a language that cannot be improved upon, that "in Russia secrecy presides over everything." Custine observed that the Russian officials have a dexterity in lying and a natural talent in falsehood. Machiavelli counseled leaders to lie if necessary, but he did not envisage a society where leaders would deceive others not as a matter of state policy but as an undiscriminating, automatic response.

The pattern whether in Soviet times or today has been the same. It can be seen in the way the Russians have reported the tragic submarine disaster. First, declare brazenly that what the whole world accepts as truth is a lie. Then when death and delay has robbed the matter of its urgency agree that the so-called lie was indeed the truth. Finally in a script that could only be crafted by some master of the theater of the absurd, welcome the praise of one and all (at least in the West) for candor and reasonableness. When truth finally dribbles out of Russia it is truth-telling not as a principle but as a strategy.

It is particularly important that the American public understand this record at a time when American treasure and trust are being invested in a Russia whose leaders until recently concealed the truth about Chernobyl and Katyn, just as they have about the Kursk submarine. It is sad to report that truth in Russia, like that unfortunate ship, lies submerged and is still far from being salvaged.

Frank Fox is the author of "God's Eye: Aerial Photography and the Katyn Forest Massacre."

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