A Lost Sub, a Gained Voice

Lessons are now being drawn from the loss of the Russian submarine Kursk and its 118 crew members in the Barents Sea.

Could this human tragedy have been prevented? Was the rescue effort adequate? How should the Russian military change?

The relatives of the lost men deserve answers to such questions, as well as public sympathy.

But one lesson will be more lasting than any other: The Kremlin learned that Russians will not tolerate official deception in a crisis.

All during this nine-day drama, resentment among Russians grew as the government neglected public opinion, controlled media coverage, and just outright lied.

The fact that President Vladimir Putin stayed on vacation for five days and that the military hesitated to ask for foreign help in the rescue attempt only aroused public anger.

In the half-democracy that is Russia today, such an outbreak of public opinion has great potential as a positive political force. It will counter Mr. Putin's attempt to restore authoritarian rule and stifle criticism.

And it will put more fire in the belly of journalists not to succumb to the power of the government or the bribes of oligarchs in reporting accurately on matters of public life.

Perhaps Russians have slowly learned to question Moscow's ways after being deceived about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, and two wars in Chechnya.

What's new in Russia is that the Internet and telephone polling by media can now tap public opinion and counter any official line. They were effective in forcing the government to reverse itself and ask for British and Norwegian help. The Navy was also compelled to let a television crew broadcast live from one of its ships near the rescue site.

Russia saw itself in this tragedy: a former superpower sinking under its own mistakes, resentful of its need for foreign assistance.

But Russians can be grateful they raised their voices against the Soviet-style instincts of tyranny - and won, even if a ship was lost.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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