- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2000

In his classic "Russia Under the Old Regime," Richard Pipes poses a question which in the aftermath of the Kursk tragedy is highly pertinent:

Why in Russia, unlike in the rest of Europe, has "society been unable to impose on political authority any kind of effective restraints"?

The Kursk tragedy raises a second question: Can the Russia of Czardom, the Russia of V.I. Lenin and Josef Stalin, change under the new regime of President Vladimir Putin? Do the Russian people want a change?

Here we are a decade since the overthrow of the Soviet "old regime" and the newly elected Russian president can get away with arresting and jailing a media owner whose records are ransacked by armed masked raiders by saying he knows nothing about it. There is no point in listing the most flagrant violations of democratic norms murdered journalists, Duma representatives and other legislators with no subsequent arrests violations that have multiplied under Mr. Putin, first as Boris Yeltsin's prime minister and now as Russia's president. There is no point listing them; there will be plenty more because there doesn't seem to be any way to curb the power-hungry ex-KGB agent and his minions from doing as they please. Thus far.

The sunken Russian submarine shows the power of President Putin and his admirals in another way; it's as if they were all back in the good old days secrecy above all not only in the Soviet Union but also in the time of the czars.

Admittedly, things are a bit better than in those good old days. President Mikhail Gorbachev took nine days to respond publicly to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which was first revealed by Sweden. Mr. Putin took four days to respond to the Kursk catastrophe from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he was on his uninterruptible vacation. With a controlled media, Mr. Gorbachev was able to get away with lying about Chernobyl. But coverage of the Kursk sinking by the semi-free Russian media and a new phenomenon in Russia, public opinion, made lying difficult for the Putin regime. Perhaps this new phenomenon may be an answer to Professor Pipes' question I cited in my opening paragraph.

Contact with the submarine was lost Saturday, Aug. 12, but it took two days before the admirals publicly admitted the disappearance of the Kursk. They then refused not only to issue a list of the men aboard (there are three rotating crews) but they also rejected assistance offered by the British and U.S. navies to try to save the 118 men aboard.

The Kursk tragedy and the arrogant behavior of Mr. Putin and his admirals are reminiscent of a tragic episode described in the travel journals of the Marquis de Custine written in 1839 about what life was like in Russia at the time of Czar Nicholas I.

Each summer, the czarina gave a great outdoor reception at the summer palace at Peterhof, some 25 miles from St. Petersburg. Tens of thousands of people came to this event by carriage or on foot or by sail from St. Petersburg across the Gulf of Finland. On this year, an afternoon squall burst over the Gulf. Many of the yachts capsized but no attempt at rescue was made.

"Today 200 people," wrote de Custine of the tragedy to which he was an eyewitness, "are admitted to have drowned; some say 1,500, others 2,000. No one will ever know the truth, and the papers will not even mention the disaster that would distress the czarina and imply blame on the czar… . Any mishap is treated here as an affair of state… . Here, to lie is to protect the social order, to speak the truth is to destroy the state."

There was another such incident in the days of the last czar, Nicholas II. The Moscow Times said Aug. 22 that the Kursk tragedy "clearly has the potential to be for Putin what the Khodynka Field was for Czar Nicholas II." On Nicholas' coronation day in 1896, thousands of people were invited to celebrate at Khodynka Field outside Moscow with free beer and gifts. The crowd got out of control and panicky and the resulting stampede left 1,400 people trampled to death or suffocated.

"Nicholas and Alexandra," the Moscow Times recalled, "wanted to cancel the coronation ball, but at the advice of advisers they did not; and even though the imperial couple toured the field later and did much to help and comfort the families of the dead, Khodynka came to symbolize the arrogant czar, who danced at balls while the people died."

So can Mr. Putin's Russia change?

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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