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On Kursk, a new caring Kremlin

As the recovery effort proceeds, Russians wonder if Moscow's solicitude is real change.

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"When we first heard what was being given to the families of the Kursk officers, I found it a little hard to believe," says Tatiana Kruglova, whose son was killed in Chechnya earlier this year. "In no way am I saying it's wrong for those families to be treated like that. I just felt a little hurt."

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Many families are never even told a loved one is serving in Chechnya until an official note arrives, informing of them of his death in action. "Sometimes boys come back in coffins, but often mothers have to travel to the military morgue in Rostov (near the war zone) to search for their own children," says Ms. Pantukhina. "There is almost no help from the military brass. One gets the impression the feelings of mothers are the last thing on their priority list."

Since the first Chechen war began in 1994, the Mothers Rights group has launched 350 "wrongful death" lawsuits against the Russian government on behalf of parents of soldiers killed there. Courts agreed to hear 19 of those cases.

"We lost them all," says Pantukhina. "Basically, the position of the state and its courts is that no one is responsible when boys die in an incompetent or unnecessary military operation."

The grim communications gap between state and citizenry on this issue is nothing new. There are still an estimated 3.4 million Soviet soldiers missing in action from World War II - known here as "The Great Patriotic War" - and there have been few efforts over the decades to ascertain their whereabouts or to assist their families.

"At the very least, our government could have renamed the category," says retired Army Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dudnik, an independent military expert. "Missing in action implies possible cowardice or desertion [in Russia]. The families of MIAs suffer in many ways from this taint, even to this day." Major General Dudnik says he tried to launch a campaign about 10 years ago to have World War II MIAs reclassified as people who died "defending the motherland in an unknown place," but found no interest in military or government circles.

The question many Russians are asking is: Will official sensitivity, generosity, and concern for those who make the supreme sacrifice extend beyond the already fading publicity around the Kursk disaster?

"All the signs are that the treatment given the Kursk crew and their families is seen by the Kremlin as a one-time concession to public opinion," adds Dudnik. "I would only agree things are beginning to change if we see this special treatment for the Kursk sailors and their families turn into new laws and military customs that affect all those who serve their country.

"As things stand, the obvious unfairness toward other bereaved families only makes our government look more capricious and arrogant than ever."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society