The curse of Russia has always been its pride in the motherland

'Vladimir Putin may soon find himself in a trap created by the very speed of recent history'
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The Independent Online

A country may transform its government. It can abolish its former ideology, revamp its economy and remove most of the physical barriers between itself and the outside world. What Russia cannot do, however, as Moscow's handling of the Kursk disaster demonstrates, is to change the obsession of its rulers with keeping up appearances at all costs.

A country may transform its government. It can abolish its former ideology, revamp its economy and remove most of the physical barriers between itself and the outside world. What Russia cannot do, however, as Moscow's handling of the Kursk disaster demonstrates, is to change the obsession of its rulers with keeping up appearances at all costs.

Every schoolboy knows about the stage-set villages that Prince Gregory Potemkin put up to impress Catherine the Great, Emperor Joseph of Austria and the King of Poland when they visited the newly conquered territories of southern Russia in 1787. Half a century later the Marquis de Custine wrote in the volume that immortalised his journey to Russia that for those living there, "to conceal is useful, to feign is essential. A sincere man in that country would pass for mad."

In the end, however, deliberate feigning turns into wilful self-deception. Thus officialdom's instinctive reaction to the tragedy playing itself out in the Barents Sea, obeying that ancestral impulse to maintain secrecy, and illusion. And in the process, as so frequently in Russian history, rational government has given way to a familiar brew of incompetence and wishful thinking, topped off by half-truths and downright lies.

But Russia has always been schizophrenic about Western Europe and its contemporary patron power, the United States. Tugging it one way is a superiority complex born of a belief in Russia's special mission; pulling no less forcefully in the opposite direction is a sense of inferiority at their country's indisputable, ultimately unconcealable, economic backwardness. "Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone," it has been claimed in an effort to square this circle. Many a frustrated foreigner will vouch for the truth of the observation. Unfortunately, it does not quite explain why it has taken so long to enlist the aid of the outside world to try to save the submarine.

In fact, the delay appears to have much in common with another instinct shared by tsars, general secretaries and presidents alike: that the fate of individuals is nothing compared to the raison d'êtat. In this case, the interest of the State was not only to avoid compromising military secrets but also, it would seem, to avoid any suggestion that the foreigners were better. So the foot-dragging, the absurdly ponderous first contacts through Nato in Brussels, before permission - most probably too late - for Britain to send its rescue craft.

This behaviour, too, is of a pattern - from the 30,000 labourers who died in the bleak and marshy Neva delta so that Peter the Great could have his new capital St Petersburg, "a city built on bones", to the hundreds more who perished following the order that the Winter Palace should be rebuilt within two years of the fire of 1837. As Custine remarked, "A ruler can be popular in Russia without attaching great value to the lives of Russians."

In time of conflict the casualties would be immeasurably greater. During the First World War, sometimes 25 per cent of recruits were sent to the front without arms, instructed to take what they could from the dead. So it was, too, in the even more desperate struggle against Hitler. The bravery and sacrifice of ordinary Russian soldiers defies belief. But they were also propelled by the savage discipline of penal battalions, the gulag and summary executions. According to archives, no fewer than 422,000 members of the Red Army would "atone with their blood for the crimes they committed before the Motherland" during the Second World War.

And now Vladimir Putin, who for almost a week has preferred to remain at a Black Sea holiday resort rather than fly to Moscow or Northern Fleet headquarters at Severomorsk to take command of the rescue effort, declining to summon immediate help from abroad to tackle a tragedy which was gripping the world.

President Putin however may find himself in a trap created by the very speed of recent history. Russia is caught between two mindsets: an old one, inherited from Soviet times and most visible in the military establishment which obeys the old xenophobic raison d'êtat - and a civil society with an opposition and a functioning press, ever more resembling the West.

Not very long ago, the foreigner visiting Russia would be allowed to see only Great Parks of Socialist Achievements and the Bolshoi Ballet; he would not learn about the squalors of rural life, unchecked industrial pollution - and certainly not about the plight of the most modern submarine in the national fleet, lying crippled on the seabed 100 miles off Murmansk.

And so the great myth of U Nas Luchshe, "It's better with us", would be publicly preserved, and along with it the eternal trade-off between Russia's rulers and their much oppressed subjects - that in return for their sacrifices and hardships, these ordinary citizens could derive the satisfaction of belonging to a country respected beyond its borders.

That bargain has now collapsed.The illusion has been shattered, and our attitude to Russia now is less fear than condescending bemusement. The Russian media, meanwhile, were this time providing the first details of a humiliating national tragedy within 48 hours. How different from Chernobyl, just 14 years ago, when only after a fortnight did Mikhail Gorbachev provide a first proper account to his own people - and then one as much a tirade against the Western press as an explanation.

But that was how the military initially behaved over the Kursk. First, the suggestion that the accident was not critical, that all was in hand; then dark mutterings about a collision with a foreign vessel; only finally could Russian pride bring itself to concede that a massive forward explosion might have been to blame.

And now the extraordinary spectacle of Russian newspapers mocking the official obsession with official fears that "if even one Russian sailor is saved from a Russian submarine with foreign help, this will end in a political catastrophe." The measure of how things have changed is that while Mr Putin has thus far been faithful to tradition in his handling of the crisis, his methods could indeed produce a political catastrophe - for himself.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

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