Foreign rescuers break through rubble ... and Russian reserve

Perhaps more than any other event in recent history, the Armenian tragedy has helped the Soviet Union rejoin the world. Suspicion of lands beyond its borders has been a theme in Russian life for centuries. The ongoing relief operation - said yesterday to involve flights from 32 countries and over 1,000 foreign aid workers on the ground - may serve to break down suspicion.

Foreign assistance has been given a prominent place in Soviet coverage of the disaster, and the work of foreign rescue workers has often been held up as an example for others to follow.

This is a striking break with the Russian tradition of deep reserve to the rest of the world. This tradition has led successive rulers to be slow to ask for help, and unwilling to acknowledge it. Influential political thinkers like Nail Bikkenin note that the Soviet leadership is only now preparing to give the West its full credit for World War II aid.

Reticence in requesting or acknowledging assistance was probably due largely to ideology: It was hard for Soviet leaders like Joseph Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev to ask for help, thus admitting inadequacies, when they were claiming to be building a superior political system.

Another reason may be found in angry letters to Soviet papers by citizens who are disturbed by the political muckraking now taking place. Revelations of tyranny, they say, allow enemies to ``gloat'' over the country's problems.

Suspicion of the outside world is profoundly entrenched in Russian political culture. For much of the nation's history, Russian leaders have felt threatened, either culturally or physically, by the outside world. In 1591 the Englishman Giles Fletcher wrote that Russian rulers do not ``suffer willingly any stranger to come into their realm,'' and were equally stringent in controlling travel abroad by Russians.

Almost 300 years later conservative Russian historian Sergei Soloviev emphasized the country's vulnerability to outside attack. Subsequent Russian leaders have tended to agree.

But Mikhail Gorbachev is trying to break the tradition of an inward-looking system. In a perverse way the earthquake may have helped. The Soviets have found that aid does not humiliate the nation and instead it brings people closer. The official media are driving home this message in every edition of their papers and in every newscast.

The earthquake has also shown the skill that the Soviet media can muster when it is allowed to do so. Much of the most detailed and critical information published on the disaster has come from Soviet newspapers. A comparison of the in-depth coverage of the earthquake with the scanty and hesitant coverage of problems in Armenia and Azerbaijan makes it all the more clear that, glasnost (openness) notwithstanding, Soviets journalists still operate under severe constraints when they cover tension in the south.

Most of the quake's political aftershocks, however, will be unpleasant. The disaster has exposed yet another crisis besetting the leadership - the administrative crisis. Before the quake, local government in the stricken area was unwilling or unable to enforce building codes. After the quake, all local administration collapsed.

But the problems are not just local. The central administration was unable to respond coherently to the crisis for several days. Government officials hindered rather than helped the operations, some Soviet journalists have claimed. And official spokesmen admit that it has taken almost a week to get a reasonably well-organized feeding operation under way.

Moscow radio Wednesday quoted Health Minister Evgeny Chazov attacking the country's civil defense organization as a ``bankrupt'' force in the rescue operation. At a press conference later the same day Dr. Chazov denied saying this, but avoided several opportunities to praise the organization's work during the quake.

And another serious problem thown up by the earthquake, sub-standard construction - said by officials to have been a potentially major factor in the scale of the death and destruction - will likely prove to be a nationwide issue.

Perhaps the most disturbing side-effect of the earthquake is the further demonstration it offered of the depth of ethnic hostility in the south. Officials deny that there were demonstrations of joy in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, after the quake. But the Communist Party daily Pravda referred Tuesday to mocking ``congratulatory cables'' sent to Armenia after the quake. In a press conference yesterday, Chazov said that earthquake victims had not been sent to Azerbaijan for treatment because of the ``complex'' relations between the two republics.

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