On Kursk, a new caring Kremlin

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

It is an operation unique in Russian military history: At great expense and amid the glare of TV cameras, the remains of sailors who perished in the Kursk disaster last August are being carefully retrieved from the frigid depths of the Barents Sea and returned to their families.

This is definitely not the norm in Russia.

Typically, the rulers of this land of soaring war memorials, with its calendar full of glorious military holidays, have left Russian dead where they lay, failed to inform anguished relatives, and discharged wounded soldiers to fend largely for themselves.

The wave of official solicitude and extra cash compensation for bereaved relatives may signal a fundamental change in the state's traditional indifference toward those who make the ultimate sacrifice for the motherland. At the very least, it sets a hopeful precedent.

"We see all this effort to do right by those who died and their families, and we hope it is not just a political ploy," says Valeria Pantukhina, spokesperson for the Mother's Rights Foundation, a grass-roots organization of bereaved parents of servicemen. "We think it is a great victory for the public, and the media, that the sailors of the Kursk are receiving proper attention. But we don't see it extending to those who fell in Chechnya, or other places."

The Kursk took 118 crew members to the bottom after a pair of unexplained explosions shattered Russia's most modern nuclear sub during war games on Aug. 12. Russian officials maintain there was a collision with another, possibly foreign, vessel, a theory dismissed by US and Norwegian experts who studied recordings of the disaster. There followed intense public criticism of the botched naval rescue mission, including the delay in accepting foreign assistance, and of President Vladimir Putin's decision to spend the first week of the crisis at a Black Sea vacation resort.

Perhaps moving to limit the political fallout, Mr. Putin later met with sailors' kin and pledged to retrieve the remains of all crew members.

Despite harsh weather conditions, Norwegian and Russian divers have recovered 12 bodies from the submarine's rear compartments and yesterday breached the outer hull in a second spot. Last week's discovery of a note on one of the victims, Lt.-Capt. Dmitri Kolesnikov, raised public outcry by disproving official claims that all of the crew had died immediately.

Four of the sailors were given lavish memorial services on Sunday, with high-ranking government and military officials in attendance. In addition, the Kremlin has decreed financial compensation of 720,000 rubles (about $26,000) to each bereaved family, plus a free apartment in the Russian city of their choice.

By contrast, the parents of a soldier who dies in the grinding, 14-month-old war in Chechnya receive just 6,000 rubles (about $215).

"The [Russian military] tradition is certainly different than what we are seeing in the Kursk episode: more money, assistance to families, respect, and official attention," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert in Moscow. "The reasons for it are certainly political. The government and president are trying to counter criticism of their earlier behavior and have decided to buy their way out."

"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."

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

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