This Date's Issues: 4465
Johnson's Russia List
19 August 2000
[Note from David Johnson:
1. AP: Russia: Almost No Submarine Hope.
2. Moscow Times EDITORIAL: Chechnya's Election an Ugly Farce.
3. Washington Post editorial: Candor and the Kursk.
4. Jacob Kipp: Kursk, Chernobyl and Glasnost.
5. The Straits Times (Singapore): John Helmer, RUSSIAN SUB DRAMA
LOOKED LIKE WAR AT THE START.
6. US Department of State Foreign Media Reaction: Kursk Submarine
Disaster: Russian Elite Scored, Democracy Tested.
7. Christian Caryl: My piece for today's Newsweek.MSNBC website.(re Russians' reactions to sub crisis)
8. gazeta.ru: Key Witnesses Turn Prime Suspects. (re Moscow bombing)
9. Moscow Times: Sergei Roy, Funny Kind of Elite. (Review of Evan Mawdsley and Stephen White's The Soviet Elite from Lenin to
Russia: Almost No Submarine Hope
August 19, 2000
By SERGEI SHARGORODSKY
MOSCOW (AP) - The Russian navy said Saturday there is almost no hope of
finding any survivors among the 118 sailors who have been trapped for a week
in a crippled nuclear submarine on the bottom of the Barents Sea.
Vice Adm. Mikhail Motsak said rescue efforts would not end but there was
little chance that anyone could still be alive on the Kursk. He called it the
greatest catastrophe in the history of the Russian navy.
``Regrettably, in effect we have crossed the critical boundary of insuring
the life of the crew,'' he said in an interview on Russia's RTR television.
``The lack of contact with the submarine allows us to say that apparently the
critical condition of the crew has already arrived,'' Motsak said. ``Most
possibly, we will have to admit that our worst expectations have
Officials say a huge explosion shattered the submarine on Aug. 12. Motsak
said it appeared most of the crew members were killed in the first minutes
afterward, when the submarine slammed into the bottom of the sea and many
survivors likely drowned.
A British rescue team with an advanced mini-submarine was still heading for
the rescue scene and was expected to arrive Saturday night. The Russian navy
did not indicate whether the British would still launch a rescue bid.
Motsak said rescue efforts would continue at least through Sunday.
A government commission investigating the disaster said Saturday that the
Kursk suffered a massive explosion which ripped through the confined space of
the submarine. The explosion apparently was in the forward torpedo
compartment, which was loaded with up to 30 warheads.
Russian rescue teams have been gathered at the scene of the accident for
days, but high currents and zero visibility have frustrated the rescue
efforts. On Saturday, Russian rescue teams failed to latch on to the badly
damaged rescue hatch at the rear of the submarine.
Earlier Saturday, navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo said the situation was
Adm. Vyacheslav Popov, commander of the Northern Fleet, said there had been
no contact of any kind with the submarine since Monday despite repeated
claims that knocking had been heard from inside the vessel.
The navy had given wildly contradictory estimates of how long the Kursk's
emergency oxygen supplies could last, ranging from a few hours to two weeks.
But officials admitted they had no idea of conditions inside the submarine.
Russian officials have not determined precisely how the submarine got into
trouble. There have been no reports of other vessels in the area with which
the Kursk might have collided. A likely scenario was that a torpedo in the
Kursk's forward compartment exploded, setting off a much bigger explosion.
Officials said earlier the Kursk had been in a collision, but Popov said the
explosion could have been triggered from inside.
``There may be two causes of the explosion - an external impact, that is to
say a collision, or internal,'' he said on RTR.
U.S. and Norwegian authorities detected two explosions in the area Aug. 12 at
the time the Kursk was lost. A Norwegian seismic center said the second blast
registered at magnitude 3.5, equivalent to a mild earthquake.
Many Russians are distressed that the military was slow to accept help and
are angry at President Vladimir Putin for keeping a low profile and staying
on vacation when the vessel went down.
Putin returned to Moscow from Ukraine early Saturday, cutting short his trip
to a summit of former Soviet republics. He said he did not fly to the rescue
site because it would have been a distraction to the recovery efforts.
August 19, 2000
EDITORIAL: Chechnya's Election an Ugly Farce
Chechnya is to be subjected this Sunday to yet another useless and dangerous
humiliation: The federal government intends, in the face of common sense and
decency, to organize elections for a Chechen seat in the State Duma.
This week, the expected violence has broken out. Anti-federal terrorists have
hit security forces in Grozny with a car bomb that injured four police
officers and killed two civilians Thursday and then followed with attacks
that killed eight more servicemen Friday f bringing the week's toll to 30
dead and 84 wounded servicemen and two dead civilians. Much of this blood was
shed in direct and predictable response to the election: As with the Kursk
fiasco, officialdom again casually writes off innocent lives in the name of
Russia opted not to hold the 1999 Duma elections in Chechnya on grounds that
the territory was not sufficiently under federal control. Three months later,
however, it claimed, absurdly, that the situation had dramatically improved f
and organized elections for president.
Vladimir Putin did startlingly well in Chechnya: Nationally, he won 52.94
percent of the vote, while in a patch of the Caucasus he has coolly ordered
scorched he officially won 50.63 percent. Much of that came from the tens of
thousands of soldiers quartered there f in an outrageous practice that will
be repeated Sunday, military votes are counted as votes from Chechnya instead
of, say, from the soldiers' home towns.
International observers refused to visit Chechnya during the March 26 vote f
it was judged too dangerous f and refused to recognize the validity of
results from there. After all, aside from the danger and chaos, nothing had
been done to extend the vote to tens of thousands who had fled the conflict
zone; voters had little access to information or mass media and little
freedom of movement; and ostentatiously pro-Putin federal troops were posted
everywhere for "security," in what amounted to intimidation.
Given there were only about 460,000 voters in Chechnya (including 100,000
federal troops), against about 75 million voters nationally, fraud in
Chechnya could not have affected the final results in the presidential race.
But the vote in Chechnya was so obviously wrong-headed that it remains an
So this is why we are now charging forward with another election: As a way of
insisting, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Chechnya is a
normal part of Russia. But it's not f nothing has changed since the absurd
March 26 farce. No doubt, hundreds more f at minimum f will end up uselessly
killed in the name of fake "democracy" before the Kremlin admits otherwise.
August 19, 2000
Candor and the Kursk
DISASTER AND democratization are linked in recent Soviet and Russian history.
The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, too catastrophic to
deny, forced the Soviet Union to end its systematic coverup of defects in its
civilian nuclear program. Accountability for the disaster was imposed on
responsible officials, and changes in nuclear policy were implemented.
Chernobyl had terrible human consequences, but one salutary political result:
It catalyzed Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika.
In a different way, the sinking of the submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea
poses a test for the post-Soviet political system still taking shape in
Russia. Under President Vladimir Putin, the trend has been toward more
official suffocation of independent media and less governmental candor,
especially in military matters. A steady stream of disinformation has
emanated from the Kremlin regarding the war in Chechnya, for example.
Chaos and confusion must have gripped the navy officers in the storm-tossed
area when the Kursk went down. And military establishments generally, not
just the Russian one, are instinctively tight-lipped. Still, Russia's
handling of the accident seems of a piece with the broader recrudescence of
old Soviet standards of candor and competence. The Russian navy took two days
to admit what had happened. Officers have put out conflicting information
about facts as basic as the cause of the sinking--even suggesting, apparently
with no foundation, that a U.S. sub might be to blame. Worst of all, offers
of help from the United States, Britain and Norway were initially refused.
British and Norwegian help has now been accepted--almost a week after the sub
sank. U.S. assistance, however, is apparently still more than the Russian
military can countenance. In light of the Clinton administration's effort to
engage and reassure Moscow, this is frustrating and, as a measure of Russian
officialdom's basic capacity for trusting the former Cold War adversary,
Russia's electronic and print media have covered the plight of the crew's
families and voiced skepticism about the government's performance. "If this
were a NATO submarine, the crew would already have been rescued," one Russian
newspaper declaimed. Given Mr. Putin's recent hostility toward press critics,
this coverage suggests that all is not lost for press freedom in Russia. But
no matter how the Kursk drama ultimately ends, many questions must still be
addressed: Was the accident preventable? Why the refusal to let other
countries help? And, most fundamental, what does this incident reveal about
whether Russia truly possesses the money and trained personnel to operate
safely the large fleet of nuclear-powered ships--not to mention the vast
arsenal of nuclear weapons-- that the great-power ambitions of its current
leaders seem to require?
Date: Fri, 18 Aug 2000
From: "Jacob Kipp" <KIPPJ@LEAVENWORTH.ARMY.MIL>
Subject: Kursk, Chernobyl and Glasnost
Am I loosing my mind? It seemed to me that Chernobyl was one of the key
events that led to glasnost and not the other way around. Financial Times
has it the other way round. Did Gorbachev claim "to change Russia's
traditional reticence with his policy of glasnost or openness, but kept
silent when the Chernobyl reactor melted down." I seem to remember a good
deal of Soviet/Russian coverage of the event and a great deal of foreign
involvement. But then who am I to argue with the Financial Times. As they
have, the current Russian muddle in getting an accurate account out of these
events is just a continuation of Soviet practice which Gorbachev just
continued. The point is that the decision to internationalize Chernobyl was
a responsible course because the consequences of an on-going disaster with
unknown international conseqeunces made that both prudent and necessary.
This course was taken in direct contradiction of the Soviet penchant for
secrecy above all.
I do note that submariners around the world seem to have all this pretty
right. This is a time to pray for the crew who are trapped or dead in a
terrible tragedy. Our compassion should go out to them and their loved
As to explanations, they are all hypothetical right now. We will only know
what happened when the submarine can be examined first hand by competent
technical experts. Until that time we are having a "festival of spin," which
does little to honor the memory of those lost under the sea or contribute to
public understanding. One would hiope that Gorbachev's much-rebuked glasnost
might play some role here in the investigation of the accident/event and its
From: "John Helmer" <email@example.com>
Subject: RUSSIAN SUB DRAMA LOOKED LIKE WAR AT THE START
Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000
Coming in The Straits Times (Singapore), August 20, 2000
RUSSIAN SUB DRAMA LOOKED LIKE WAR AT THE START
>From John Helmer in Moscow
If you were the ruler of Russia, and you were told late one night that
one of your most powerful and secret submarine weapons had been
hit by a mysterious explosion, and sent to the bottom without word from
the crew, would it be prudent for you to suspect an attack? An attack by
a nuclear superpower and old rival?
And if it is your sworn duty to defend your country from attack, would it be
reasonable for you to determine whether there was a cause of war, or an
And finally, is 48 hours too long or too short a time, from your point of
view, and for the rest of the mankind, to decide whether Russia should go to
war with the United States and NATO; or cooperate in a peaceful rescue
Those Russian and western critics of President Vladimir Putin's performance
since the "Kursk" submarine crisis began haven't considered those questions.
The rest of the world should.
The Kremlin is not saying publicly that it withheld the first news of the
"Kursk" submarine disaster, until the Russian Navy could report to Putin
the vessel had not been attacked by a foreign power, but that is what
caused the delay in releasing the first news, sources close to
the drama now believe.
President Putin confidently defended his handling of the crisis at a press
briefing in Yalta, on the Black Sea, where he was attending a summit meeting
of leaders of former Soviet states. At the same time, on the Northern Fleet
flagship, "Peter the Great", the Fleet commander Admiral Vyacheslav Popov
provided the first glimpse into the reasoning behind the Kremlin
decision to remain silent for almost forty-right hours after the "Kursk"
exploded and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea.
Putin told reporters that he was first informed that the "Kursk" was in peril
at 11 p.m. last Saturday, August 12. His first reaction, he said, was "to fly
to the region of the fleet. I refrained -- and I think I did the right thing
-- because the arrival of non-specialists would not help...and more often
would hamper work. Everyone should keep to his place."
What had been done for the stricken submarine and its crew, Putin emphasized,
were "the necessary steps". They were taken "immediately".
Admiral Popov, speaking from the deck of his cruiser, told a national
interviewer that it took 3.5 hours for the Fleet command to locate the
after the initial explosion and loss of communication.
Russian naval sources said the acoustic recordings available to the Fleet
command showed two loud noises or explosions. One occurred at 7:30:42 on the
Saturday evening. It was relatively small. The second occurred at 7:32:57,
135 seconds later. It was at least four times more powerful. The details have
been confirmed by a seismic centre in Norway which initially did not connect
its recordings to the "Kursk", because reports of the loss of the submarine
appear until later.
Popov said there are still too many details lacking to form a clear
picture of the cause of the crash. Asked to say what he thought caused the
sinking, he said there were two versions of the sequence. In the first, the
admiral said the submarine hit a foreign object, registering the first
acoustic signal, and then exploded internally.
According to Popov, the second theory is that both explosions occurred inside
the vessel, with the first triggering the second. It is the latter version
that most Western reports support, pinpointing an accident in loading or
firing in the torpedo-room as the precipitating cause.
Earlier Russian press reports have claimed the last communication between the
"Kursk" and the Fleet command was an advisory that the submarine was getting
ready for torpedo firing. This has not been confirmed officially by the
Russian Navy. No official sources have publicly accepted the western
speculation that an accident in the torpedo-room detonated the ship's
and killed most of the crew within seconds.
The accounts of the President and the Fleet commander indicate that
it took the Navy three and a half hours before Putin was notified. That time,
Popov claimed on Friday, was necessary to locate the "Kursk".
Some Russian officials, including Defence Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev,
continued to imply that a foreign, presumably American submarine may have
in the area, and that a collision underwater is what caused the first
sound, triggering the internal explosion that wrecked the "Kursk".
US officials have denied this; they have admitted there were two US
in the area, which picked up the sonar signals of two explosions inside the
vessel. Russian officials are reported as saying they know of no surface
vessel in the vicinity of the "Kursk's" position at the time of the incident.
A Kremlin source says that although the picture looks clearer now, "at
the time last Saturday, the command had to deal with the possibility there
been an attack on the "Kursk". There was no way that could have been released
to the press." When critics of the Russian leadership's handling
of the crisis jump to the conclusion that Putin should have acted
faster, they ignore the much greater danger if Putin and his military
jumped to any conclusion too quickly, at the start of the crisis.
Immediately after it became clear, Putin said Friday, "that the military had
an extraordinary situation on their hands...the sailors had to sort out
happened." The president acknowledged there had been media criticism, but
insisted that analyzing the blow was a military priority.
He also defended the chain of military command, dismissing reports
appearing in Russian media controlled by Putin's political enemies that
he had sacrificed the lives of the crew out of false pride.
Boris Nemstov, a leader of the Duma's right-wing faction and onetime favourite
of President Boris Yeltsin, called Putin's actions "immoral". Nemtsov is
the first party politician to attack Putin. He has a political axe to grind.
Criticism of the way the Kremlin has treated the families of the "Kursk" crew
was deflected by the grief-stricken wife of the submarine captain,
Gennady Lyachin. "People are saying a lot of different things," she told
newsmen, "I decided I will listen only to officials."
A Kremlin source said Putin should not be faulted for taking his time before
the first release of public information. He was less sure, he conceded,
that the president did the right thing to remain at the Black Sea to hold
the Friday morning summit meeting, before flying to Moscow.
"Those are important meetings. It's true," the source said. "After the way
Yeltsin called them on and off abruptly, I understand Putin felt obliged to
behave differently. Only he's paying a PR price for that now."
US Department of State
Foreign Media Reaction
August 18, 2000
Kursk Submarine Disaster: Russian Elite Scored, Democracy Tested
The "nightmare" plight of the Russian nuclear submarine, Kursk, and the
uncertain fate of its crew touched a nerve in overseas newspapers, as much
for its indictment of the Russian government's "poor" response as for the
"human tragedy." Editorials from Europe, Asia and Canada roundly denounced
Russian authorities for putting "pride before urgency" and reverting to
Soviet-era "secrecy and lies," by initially failing to disclose the extent
of the calamity and then refusing offers of international assistance until
late in the game. Nowhere were the recriminations harsher than in Moscow's
print media. Centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta spoke for many in accusing
Russian leaders of being "still in the grip of the morally outdated Soviet
ideology" that fails to make "human lives the primary concern." Among
reformist papers, Kommersant averred that "someone must answer for the loss
of human lives," while Vremya-MN charged that "our military refuses to see
the obvious--it takes an international effort to cope with emergencies like
this one." Izvestiya added, "The Russian elite's reflexes have not changed
in the past 10 to 15 years. It has yet to adapt to this new world.... Its
first reflex is to hide the truth. But it can't--this country and the world
have changed." Judgments were also condemnatory elsewhere, echoing a Madrid
daily's claim that "the Russian government acted belatedly, badly and
begrudgingly, wielding all the habits of secrecy and autocracy of its
predecessors." Additional highlights follow:
POLITICAL FALLOUT AGAINST PUTIN: Writers reserved especially strong censure
for President Putin. Many claimed that in dealing with this "first major
disaster" on his watch, "his ability to comfort and sustain, as well as to
rule" has been found lacking. This could "come back to haunt him
politically," warned one. Particularly irksome, declared a Moscow daily,
was that "he has not interrupted his vacation...if only for an hour, to
support the seamen in distress." Alluding to his seeming inability to grasp
the "demands" of democratic leadership, Oslo's independent Dagbladet
observed that "every other democratically elected head of state would have
gotten as near the site [of the accident] as humanly possible."
LITMUS TEST FOR RUSSIAN DEMOCRACY: Despite the "old," "Soviet-style
fortress mentality" at the top, several held that the "wave of criticism"
heard among the Russian public and particularly in its media--which
European papers called "virulent" in their criticism of "Putin's silence
and inaction"--was proof that "democracy is working." Said London's
centrist Independent, "At first, there was little reaction from the Russian
public.... But then the gates of democracy opened, and the whirlwind of
accountability swept into...Putin's holiday dacha." The dichotomy between
"Russia new and old" was also cited in Moscow's reformist Segodnya, which
suggested that while the Kremlin can no longer "hush up" such an accident
and dismiss Western media reports as "lies," Kursk is evidence that human
life "still costs nothing here."
STATE OF MILITARY, NUCLEAR SAFETY: A handful of writers, some recalling
Chernobyl, contended that the accident "casts an alarming light on the
state of Russian nuclear power" and should spur Moscow and the West to
intensify efforts to improve nuclear safety in Russia. Others held that
Kursk serves as a warning about "the dire state" of Russia's armed forces.
EDITOR: Katherine L. Starr
EDITOR'S NOTE: This survey is based on 61 reports from 17 countries August
15-18. Editorial excerpts are grouped by region; editorials from each
country are listed from the most recent date.
RUSSIA: "Russian Elite's Old Reflexes"
Reformist Izvestiya (8/18) front-paged this comment by Georgy Bovt: "The
Russian elite's reflexes have not changed in the past 10 to 15 years. It
has yet to adapt to this new world and it slips into its old ways whenever
there is a danger to it, exactly as in the days of the Chernobyl disaster
in 1986. Its first reflex is to hide the truth. But it can't--this country
and the world have changed so. That makes their antics look even more
"Russia New And Old"
Leonid Radzikhovsky asserted in reformist Segodnya (8/18): "The Kursk
disaster shows that Russia is new. In the USSR, the accident would have
been hushed up, and Western media reports would have been dubbed lies and
psychological warfare. That is impossible now. On the other hand, the
disaster shows that Russia has not changed. Human life still costs nothing
here. At least it costs less than the lives of incompetent ministers, sham
generals and Kremlin toadies. All of a sudden, Russia has a chance to open
up to the world. Having the world, that very West, rescue Russian boys...
Isn't it an emotional bombshell? Isn't meeting the British on the Kursk
just as meaningful as the meeting on the Elbe? Help, brothers! This would
make a great political slogan. Simple and brilliant. Not to our generals,
though--who would then need them?"
"Time To Live Within Our Means"
Vadim Solovyov queried in centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta (8/18): "How good
are our armed forces? We've been told that they are combat ready. I
wouldn't be so sure after what happened in the Barents Sea. Why keep an
enormous and costly fleet of nuclear submarines if we can't support them on
combat missions as short as three days? Do we need them to feel like a
great power?... We should live within our means. And that goes for the
army, too. It's wrong to have illusions about defense. It is as bad as a
crime. The crisis in our North Fleet in a small way reflects a crisis in
our army reform.... Our president, the supreme commander, has not been at
his best either. Three weeks ago he stopped his important work in Moscow to
spend a day in Baltiisk, celebrating Navy Day. But he has not interrupted
his vacation to visit Severomorsk, if only for an hour, and support the
seamen in distress. Too bad, the American president, during their telephone
conversation the other day, did not advise him to go there, as he himself
would certainly have done."
Vladimir Yermolin said on page one of reformist Izvestiya (8/17): "Our
nuclear subs don't sink but they 'lie on the ground.' What we are doing in
Chechnya is not a war but a 'counterterrorist operation.' Our officials
like euphemisms. Euphemisms have become their language and, even worse,
their way of doing things. Our commander-in-chief is on vacation. He has
worked hard and traveled a lot lately. Once he even visited a submarine. So
he deserves rest. Our generals and admirals, supposedly the bravest of all,
as the defenders of our motherland should be, are afraid to tell the truth
about the fate of their subordinates aboard the stricken submarine. They
are afraid to lose their jobs. They are afraid to ask the West for help,
lest their military secrets and their own helplessness become known to the
'potential adversary.' Being rational, brave and honest is what is expected
of a normal government. Lies and fears are the qualities of the Russian
government. Our state has long since run aground, with people having no
trust in its ability to protect them from mischief."
Reformist Vremya MN (8/17) remarked in a page-one piece by Yulia
Petrovskaya and Aleksandr Shaburkin: "With the kind of mentality it has,
our military refuses to see the obvious--it takes an international effort
to cope with emergencies like this one."
"No One Risks Taking Responsibility"
Nikolai Gulko said on page one of reformist business-oriented Kommersant
(8/17): "Experience shows that you can fight terrorists successfully,
without naming the criminals. But you can't be a success in a rescue
operation unless you rescue people. Someone must answer for the loss of
human lives. This is exactly why state officials refuse to take
responsibility for anything. And so does the president. Only yesterday did
he inform U.S. President Bill Clinton about what was going on."
"U.S.' Sympathetic Response"
Yuri Garyaev in New York noted in a report for official parliamentary
Parlamentskaya Gazeta (8/17): "The Americans, we must give it to them,
"U.S. Offers Aid"
Aleksandr Morozov reported in reformist, youth-oriented Moskovskii
Komsomolets (8/17): "U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen sent a letter to
Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, offering 'every assistance you
need.' But no immediate reply followed. It is anybody's guess why our
military pushed away the helping hand. To those who are slowly dying aboard
the Kursk it does not matter who--the Russians, Americans or British--pulls
them out of that inferno."
"President Silent. Why?"
Igor Chernyak wondered in reformist youth- oriented Komsomolskaya Pravda
(8/17): "How come that in the past five days, Putin, who once spent a night
aboard a submarine and knows what being underwater means, has not found
time to address the families of the Kursk's seamen? Why does he think he
can remain silent these days, with all of Russia keyed up, its heart going
out to the people aboard the hapless sub?"
Official government Rossiyskaya Gazeta (8/16) front-paged its readers'
comments: "It is not an accident. It is a disaster. Strangely, it did not
happen before. The years of gloom and doom in this country must have taken
a toll on the navy, as well. The Kursk is the result of army reform quietly
choking the Navy. Just as a shortage of air causes irreversible
consequences in a human body, a lack of funds kills the Navy. You can't
live on the enthusiasm of the officers and men forever."
"Human Lives Primary Concern"
Alan Kasayev said on page one of centrist Nezavisimaya Gazeta (8/16): "The
people aboard the incapacitated submarine must be the primary concern, but
for some reason, they are still there, three days after the accident. Could
it be that the leadership of the Navy, Army and country is trying to save
the ship in the first place? Our leaders are still in the grip of the
morally outdated Soviet ideology which said that servicemen must save their
materiel even if they have to die. Defense Minister Sergeyev and Chief of
the General Staff Kvashnin, in their dispute over army reform, use a lot of
figures and references to geopolitics, but they never mention the 'human
complement' of the army. After all, the principal goal of any army reform
in today's world is to ease the workload of servicemen, to prevent the loss
of human lives in the army, and to make national security, which is
basically the security of people, the chief vector of national policy."
"We Should Accept Foreign Aid"
Igor Dvinsky argued in reformist Segodnya (8/16): "Clearly, asking for
foreign aid to save the Kursk hurts the Kremlin's ego. Russia's status as a
great naval power may suffer for that too. But it will suffer even more if
the rescue operation fails."
"Why Not Ask The Americans?"
Reformist Izvestiya (8/16) front-paged a letter by a 16-year old reader:
"It seems that things are getting worse every hour. From what I see on TV
and read in newspapers, it is clear that nothing serious is being done to
save the Russian seamen. If we can't get them out of there, why not ask the
Americans for help? Who said that they will refuse it?"
Date: Fri, 18 Aug 2000
From: Christian Caryl <CCaryl@compuserve.com>
Subject: My piece for today's Newsweek.MSNBC website
By Christian Caryl
Nina, a building custodian in my apartment building in a placid
in southwestern Moscow, was shaking with frustration. "Now it turns out
the British are only going to get there on Saturday. On Saturday!" The
night before, on Wednesday, the Russian government, had finally announced
its willingness to accept Western offers of help in the race to save 118
sailors trapped in the nuclear submarine Kursk on the floor of the icy
The announcement followed days of arrogant displays from Russian
officialdom. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who heads the government
commission assigned to investigate the disaster, bragged about the quality
of Russian rescue equipment, which was, he said, "no worse than what the
Americans have" - as if the Kursk were on display at a trade fair rather
than in the center of a life-or-death emergency.
Days later, after a series of failed attempts to save any members of
the crew, Klebanov was telling a press conference that Russia had never
rejected any offers of foreign aid. The same day a Russian newspaper came
out with an appropriate headline: "The Price of National Pride - Human
For ordinary Russians, this is a crisis that has struck right to
their hearts. Yuri and Ivan, two of our building's small army of
security guards, were listening to Nina. Yuri nodded angrily. "It's only
100 meters down and they can't even pull it up."
"Pull it up with what?" asked the skeptical Ivan. "How are we
supposed to do that?"
"That's the point," Yuri snapped. "We don't have the technology. They're
our children down there. How can you not be worked up?"
"I'm so worked up I can't even sleep," says Nina. "And that Putin,"
she suddenly added. "What's he staying down there [on vacation] in Sochi
for? It's a scandal."
That remark, in its fusion of emotion and politics, demonstrates
why the Kursk
fiasco may turn out to be a turning point in recent Russian history - and
perhaps also in the country's relations with the West. Until now, Putin has
ridden an unprecedented wave of support from ordinary folk. After years of
drift and decline under Boris Yeltsin, it was just the formula Russians
needed to feel good about themselves again.
Putin finally presented a leader Russians could look up to again:
tough, competent, energetic. They voted for him in droves, undeterred by
glaring lack of a coherent program, simply because he promised to "restore
order" by getting tough with Russia's real and imagined enemies, ranging
from corrupt business tycoons to Chechen separatists. His sky-high
popularity ratings remained undented even after 11 months of costly war
against the Chechens, and even held firm after the recent bombing in the
center of Moscow that cost a dozen lives. "It's the terrorists who are to
blame, not Putin," one Muscovite told me in the wake of the attack. "He's
the one who's trying to finish them off, and I'm all for it."
That vague sense of a generalized threat, easily blamed on
outsiders, could also explain the extraordinary equanimity with which many
in Moscow reacted to that attack - just another natural catastrophe.
The Kursk, though, is already bringing a fundamental change to that
perspective. This time citizens don't see it as the sundry enemies of the
regime who are responsible for the disaster (even though senior naval
officers have been working hard to put the blame on a collision with some
other, preferably foreign, ship). This time it's the Russian government
itself - the senior military and leading politicians - who have been
working overtime to prove their own culpability for the disaster.
Many of the navy's original announcements about the accident turned
out to be lies. The sub sank on a Saturday, not Sunday - and it was only on
Monday that the navy made the news public. It was an economical approach to
the truth that soon had TV commentators wondering aloud, "Were two days
lost?" Russians on the street were even less diplomatic.
And Putin himself? For the first days there was resounding silence.
It was only in the middle of the week that he finally brought himself to
make a few terse remarks - from the cushy Black Sea resort of Sochi, where
he's been vacationing. That Putin had elected to stay there throughout the
crisis amounted to a monumental act of political misjudgment. It was
compounded by his own scandalous delay in accepting outside help. The next
day, possibly at the prodding of his advisers, Putin reappeared on TV --
this time clad in dark suit and tie, rather than casual sports clothes --
explain his decision to stay away from the site of the Kursk's predicament.
This time, Russians can't blame anyone else for the accident -- not
the oligarchs, nor the
Chechens, nor even the Americans (still viewed by many Russians as the real
instigators of most of their woes).
The general disillusionment triggered by this new failure of their
leaders could spawn new cynicism among Russians. Perversely, though, it
could also have some positive side-effects. Not only are there no foreign
bogeymen, but so far, at least, the role played by foreigners in the
has been only positive. (Among other remarkable details, Russian TV showed
letters of sympathy that had been sent to a Russian naval veterans'
association by American and British
Perhaps, as a result, this scandal may ultimately make Russians more
realistic about the source of their country's ills -- and perhaps even
inspire new accountability among their leaders. The price of that lesson,
however, looks likely to be 118 lives. And for those like Nina, that's
simply too high.
August 19, 2000
Key Witnesses Turn Prime Suspects
On Thursday the law enforcement organs leading the investigation of last
week’s blast in the pedestrian subway under Pushkin Square delivered a
progress report on their efforts to detain the culprits of the terrorist
act that killed 12 people.
Unspecified law enforcers were quoted by Interfax news agency as saying
they had released the names of two men suspected of arranging the terrorist
act on August 8. The names of those two men were N.Bikmanov and Y.Kulikov.
For three days Moscow City police searched the capital for the two
suspects. On Thursday they gave themselves up.
It transpires that both of them the key witnesses in the blast
investigation. They were the first to provide the investigators with a
detailed description of a suspicious individual who had been seen at the
site of the blast a few hours before all hell broke loose on August 8.
Bikmanov and Kulikov are the employees of a private security firm, Blok-94.
On the day of the blast both were on duty in the Izvestia publishing house
on Pushkin Square.
Bikmanov told journalists that on August 8, around 3:45 pm a strange man,
wandering near the statue of Pushkin on the square caught his attention. He
said there was something was unusual about the man’s behaviour. He was
walking, looking around and appeared somewhat preoccupied… Soon afterwards
he disappeared out of sight and then the blast occurred.
The security guard informed the investigators of what he had seen and a
composite sketch of the suspect based on Bikmanov’s evidence was issued.
Bikmanov says he was glad he could be of help but said it was too early to
Usually, investigators write down the name of the witness above the
composite sketch of a suspect, drawn according to the witness’ testimony so
that if the suspect is detained, it is easy to find the witness fast for
The name of the witness is erased from the copies distributed to protect
the witness’ privacy and security. However, in this case, something went
wrong and the witnesses’ names appeared on the copies of the picture. As a
result the city’s police thought that those names were those of the wanted
Last Tuesday every member of Moscow’s police force received a copy of two
portraits of suspects, marked with names of two main witnesses.
It did not take them long to detain a few Bikmanovs and a lot of Kulikovs.
Kulikov is a common Russian surname.
In the meantime, Bikmanov and Kulikov, employees of a security firm
Blok-94, had no notion they were wanted by the police, until Interfax news
reports appeared on air on Thursday.
“An acquaintance of mine called me and said I was wanted by the police,”
Bikmanov told a journalist from Kommersant Daily. “I did not believe it
until I saw the TV report for myself. I was shocked. I called the
investigation headquarters, but they only laughed and said it was
absolutely impossible. But then the matter obviously grew more serious.”
Only a few hours after the scandalous ‘wanted’ report, the Prosecutor
General’s Office and the Interior Ministry denied that any suspects had
been named. The Interior Ministry press service admitted there had been a
mistake and that checks would be carried out regarding the matter.
The Interior Ministry insists it did not provide any such information to
the news agencies and Interfax did not reveal its source.
Nobody has yet apologized to Bikmanov or Kulikov.
Bikmanov told a journalist at Kommersant Daily that he would have to claim
moral damages in court.
“You see,” said Bikmanov, “I am a devoted hunter. I was planning to go to
the Tver Region, 280 km away from Moscow on Friday. Naturally, I would take
a gun with me. At the first traffic police (GIBDD) check point on my way
they would detain me and beat my kidneys to pieces. You know how they
detain terrorists here. It’s not a laughing matter. It will be some time
before the law enforcers in distant areas receive refutation. My name is
over that photokit portrait and I carry a gun so they would not waste too
much time on formalities. I have a wife and small kids… Maybe, I should
carry a paper certifying I am not a terrorist?”
August 19, 2000
Funny Kind of Elite
By Sergei Roy
Sergei Roy is editor in chief of Moscow News.
In the early 1990s, the new ruling class of Russia adopted, with extremely
doubtful warrant, the self-appellation elita, or elite. Considering that the
word comes from the Old French adjective for "choice," and that in reality
this post-Soviet "elite" consisted mostly of power-mad, thieving Party
nomenklatura in democratic disguise, power-mad, thieving "democrats," robber
barons soon to be christened "oligarchs" and their intellectual and political
menials, the word looks to me like the misnomer of the century.
The usage, however, appears to be well-established, and in Evan Mawdsley and
Stephen White's The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev. The Central
Committee and its Members, 1917 to 1991 it is even extended to the Soviet
Mawdsley and White limited their study, the first of its kind, to the 1,932
persons who "were members (full and candidate) of the Central Committee
between 1917 and 1991." The criterion is certainly convenient: It is "small
enough to be manageable using computer technology," and various interesting
tables can be drawn up based on computer analysis, reflecting the changes
over the indicated time span in the Central Committee membership's size,
turnover and holdover, age, gender, ethnic origin, social roots and so on.
The authors draw some noteworthy, if not exactly novel, conclusions from
these data, like the plummeting proportion of Jews (originally the
second-largest ethnic group in the CC) in the later period of Stalin's rule
and after. They touch, in fact, on a very raw nerve of Russia's history as
they show that the top crust of the first-wave Bolshevik elite consisted
primarily of rank marginals, socially and ethnically, but they merely comment
on this in a half sentence: "this perhaps gives ammunition to those who see
the Bolsheviks as an alien presence in Russia."
This looks for all the world like cavalier treatment of the crucial
historical problem f why should a backward, predominantly peasant society
like the Russian one have gone along, in 1917, with ideas that stemmed from a
completely alien, capitalist European civilization, of which the carriers
were the "thinnest crust," in Lenin's own words, of intellectuals socially
and ethnically alien to 99.99 percent of the population?
Education-level curves are as interesting as the ethnic and social ones,
although in a different sense: Curiously, the authors base their conclusions
on the statistics of credentials commissions of various party congresses, so
that, say, if Leonid Brezhnev told such a commission that he had graduated
from a couple of universities, it was taken as God's truth and the fact that
he had, on very doubtful evidence, scraped through the Soviet equivalent of a
community college is outside the scope of the Mawdsley and White study.
The overall impression of the work's academic dryness is somewhat relieved by
case histories of some of the less prominent "faces in the crowd" of CC
members in each of the book's six chronologically based chapters. "Somewhat,"
because the overall impression from reading the case history of, say, Andrei
Andreyevich Andreyev f and it's a typical one f is one of superficiality.
Except for language and style, it reads like a bio from the late unlamented
journal Kommunist: "the peasant's son who had been filling samovars and
washing floors ten years before he entered the Central Committee owed
everything to the party." One almost has to pinch oneself to recall that this
lover "of literature and classical music" was an iron-clad Stalinist; that
his signature was on execution lists that sent tens of thousands of people to
their deaths; and that he was responsible for millions of other deaths during
the famine engineered by him and others of his ilk.
The same credulity marks the pages of the book devoted to the last years of
the Communist Party in power. Mawdsley and White seem to take on trust what
the top Communists themselves said of the CC, quoting Mikhail Gorbachev's
words in an epigraph to Chapter six: "After all the Central Committee f it's
This was said in 1989, at a time when the locus of power was shifting from
the party as a whole, not just its CC, to the congresses of people's deputies
of the Soviet Union and of the various republics, to People's Fronts,
nationalist and democratic movements, and so on. To continue to speak of the
CC as the "top elite" after 1989, and probably earlier, is simply
This leads us to questioning the basic assumptions underlying the
Mawdsley-White study as a whole, not only in their treatment of the
concluding years of Communist domination in Russia. Was the group of 1,932 CC
members really the prime moving force that dominated the Soviet Union
throughout its existence? Is it, one might even ask, truly representative of
the Soviet elite of the period?
A DAIRYMAID ELITE?
It was a fact of Soviet life that CC membership included elements that by no
stretch of the imagination can be called "political elite," if the term is to
have any meaning at all: alcoholic Stakhanovites, record-breaking dairymaids,
illiterate cotton-pickers in many-colored headgear from Central Asia and
other individuals whose sole function was to camouflage the party
bureaucracy's omnipotence in the "worker and peasant" state.
It was another fact of Soviet life that membership in the CC did not mark a
person as belonging to the political elite forever: Kicked out of that body,
people became nonpersons overnight (take Gorbachev's former rivals Grigory
Romanov or Viktor Grishin). But the authors continue to trace such people's
Even more curious is the omission of individuals known to have played a vital
role in the Soviet Union's political life without being committee members.
Included among these is the late Raisa Gorbachev, who figures just once in a
footnote. It also makes little sense to exclude from the political elite, on
purely formal grounds, the influential groups of academics and other
intellectual aides to general and other secretaries whose thinking often
determined the country's development over whole historical phases.
One might go on, but Mawdsley and White beautifully do the job of undermining
their own assumptions themselves: "The Central Committee had never taken off
as a self-standing institution and its role was progressively reduced." I'll
say it was reduced: By Mawdsley and White's count, of the 139 CC members
elected by the 17th Party Congress in 1934, 101 members were executed in 1937
It is certainly a very curious kind of elite political institution whose
members can be killed off by other political institutions not just with
impunity, but with relish. After all, politics is about power, "political
elite" means "power elite," and if all the power CC members wielded boiled
down to the will power needed to face a firing squad, there is obviously a
need to reconsider the notion of "[top] political elite."
True, the killings petered out to a mere handful toward the end of the Stalin
era f as "few" as 11 out of 158 CC members elected in 1939 and 1941, a mere 7
percent, were shot then, but to say that the Great Terror of 1937 to 1939 was
an "aberration" and that "physical security and even job security were more
the norm" afterward, as Mawdsley and White do, merely reveals a failure to
understand the essence of Stalinism. After 1937, the tyrant did not need to
resort to wholesale murder (not of the top nomenklatura, at least) f everyone
knew that he could do so again at the drop of a hat, and behaved accordingly.
Those 11 were merely a reminder that the despot was keeping his shooting hand
in training. Throughout that period, what was later called the "subsystem of
fear" was firmly in place.
But there are even more obvious facts about the true situation of CC members
than the scale or threat of killings: Between 1939 and 1952, no party
congresses f the only assemblies empowered by the party rules to elect
central committees f were held, in flagrant violation of those rules. CC
plenary meetings were only convened at the tyrant's whim, not at regular
intervals stipulated by the rules. Whenever Stalin wanted yet another batch
of CC members, or any other "enemies of the people," shot away, instead of
convening a plenum he sent a circular letter to the remaining members, and
they eagerly endorsed his decision: This was called golosovaniye oprosom, or
correspondence ballot. All these facts and more are discussed in Mawdsley and
White, and still they speak of "job security."
No such security came even in the times of Nikita Khrushchev, often referred
to as "herbivorous," as distinct from the preceding carnivorous regime:
Khrushchev could still kick from office anyone he didn't like or saw as a
threat to his personal power (such as Marshal Georgy Zhukov), whether they
were CC members or not. But Khrushchev's avoidance of wholesale murder, as
well as his direct appeal to the CC in his 1957 struggle with the prevailing
Stalinists in the Presidium (Politburo), is taken as proof that in the
post-Stalin era the Central Committee became a real "parliament of the party"
and could thus, apparently, claim the status of a bona fide political elite.
There may be some truth in this, at least for the "stagnation period" under
Brezhnev, but on the whole I'd be wary about claims like that. Consider the
fact that, not until the Gorbachev-engineered implosion of the party
leadership (which can in itself serve as an indication of CC impotence), CC
plenary meetings required unanimous votes on every issue. Consider the fact
that most CC meetings were, in Mawdsley and White's own words,
"stage-managed." Consider the fact that the crucial decision to go to war in
Afghanistan was taken by some three individuals on the Politburo without
previously informing even the rest of the Politburo, let alone the entire CC.
The list of these facts is practically endless, and they all point to the
same conclusion: Throughout its history, the Soviet Communist empire was a
tyranny run by one, two or at most three individuals relying, like all
tyrannies, on a subservient bureaucracy: in the Soviet case, on the party and
secret police apparat. That was the real Soviet "top elite" f all the other
kinds, the CC included, were expendable. So describing the top Communist
elite in the sham terms defined by the regime itself is a bit like that drunk
in the well-known Russian joke looking for the lost key under a lamp post
where it's light. Sober-minded historians would be better advised to look for
the keys to Soviet history in certain much darker, and bigger, recesses.
Evan Mawdsley and Stephen White. The Soviet Elite from Lenin to Gorbachev.
The Central Committee and its Members, 1917 to 1991. 323 pages. Oxford
University Press. $39.95
Web page for CDI Russia Weekly:
Archive for JRL (under construction):
to CDI's Home Page I Return
to CDI's Library