WASHINGTON — One thing that hasn't changed much in Russia since Soviet days is the tendency of high officials to cover up when disaster strikes.
So it was with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. So it was with President Vladimir Putin and the loss of the submarine Kursk in 2000. So it was in the first days after the schoolhouse massacre in southern Russia.
While Russian television was told to go easy on the grim footage from Beslan, officials were understating the death toll and overstating the effectiveness of the special forces deployed to end the confrontation.
When President Putin finally came out of his shell on Saturday to deal with rapidly growing popular anger, he went on television to say, "This crime of the terrorists, inhuman, unprecedented in terms of its cruelty" represents the "direct intervention of international terrorism against Russia."
He did not acknowledge that the hostage-takers had demanded an end to the war in Chechnya. It was clearly in Putin's interest to represent the assault as connected with international terrorism rather than a homegrown liberation movement.
With his regime as close to destabilization as it has been in his five years in office, Putin was reaching out to the West, and especially the United States, for support in his crisis. In his television speech, Putin alluded to fears abroad of a Russian nuclear threat that "must be removed."
The US has reason to worry about an unstable Russia. According to Harvard professor Graham Allison in a new book, "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," 90 percent of all fissile material outside the US is stored in the former Soviet Union. And, because of its huge supplies, its shaky safeguards, and its extensive corruption, Russia poses the greatest threat of loose nukes.
The Nunn-Lugar program designed to help finance the removal of Russian nuclear weapons has not been faring well under the Bush administration. But Bush officials might want to have another look at the danger of Russia's loose nukes in an unstable country.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.