In the wake of the latest tragedy in Russia, it is perhaps in bad taste to cite two clichés, but both apply stunningly to the present situation in that tormented land. The first is, "the more things change, the more they remain the same." That is certainly reconfirmed by the Putin government's "handling" -- a term that, as we shall see, may have a sinister aspect -- of the hostage horror in North Ossetia.
The second cliché is a phrase on the lips of every policy wonk in the Western world these days: "lessons learned." All and sundry claim to possess the wisdom of "lessons learned" about everything, especially about the global war on terror. But if there is a major lesson that has seemingly remained unlearned, it is that Russian political leadership is unchanging in its improvised, haphazard violence, its secrecy, and the willingness to sacrifice the blood of its subjects -- they can barely be called citizens.
In 1855 the great Russian liberal Aleksandr Herzen published a book titled From the Other Shore, in which he observed the following about his native land: "The revolution of Peter the Great replaced the obsolete squirearchy of Russia -- with a European bureaucracy; everything that could be copied from the Swedish and German laws, everything that could be taken over from the free municipalities of Holland into our half-communal, half-absolutist country, was taken over. But the unwritten, the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth, could not be and were not imported."
Exactly the same may be said of Russia in the aftermath of Communism's fall. Everything that could be copied from the West, from flamboyant gangsterism to sensationalist journalism to an uncontrolled sex industry, has been adopted. But the essential checks and balances on state power have not been and probably cannot be imported.
It is to further trivialize the tragedy for a moment, but whence will come Putin's Michael Moore? The slobby documentary film-maker has managed to make quite a success out of a video clip showing President George W. Bush remaining silent for seven minutes after receiving news of the terrorist assault in Manhattan three years ago. But Putin was silent for two days during the crisis in Beslan!
And now, according to The Washington Post, the Russian authorities have admitted lying to the people about the Beslan atrocity, while the same rulers seek to turn the recognition of their prevarication into a virtue. A report by Susan B. Glasser and Peter Finn in Monday's Post states blithely, "In previous crises with mass fatalities, such as the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 and the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater, officials covered up key facts as well, but afterward never acknowledged doing so."
This convoluted reality is not new. Did not the Russian government of Joseph Stalin lie about the artificial famine created in Ukraine in the early 1930s, in which several million died; about the brutal purge trials, in which the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution were portrayed as Nazi spies; about the 1939-41 pact with Hitler, in which Germany was presented as a friend of the Russian people while it prepared for genocidal war against them; about the slaying of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn forest; about, in the end, everything?
In 1956 it was admitted that Stalin was not a good man and that the victims of the purges were innocent, and at the end of the 1980s a certain Mikhail Gorbachev, a predecessor of Putin about whom nobody speaks today, averred that Soviet socialism had in some respects failed. Those were considered milestones of truth-telling in their time, just as the vague confessions of top state officials in the aftermath of Beslan are treated as a breakthrough. No irony is, however, perceived in the historical fact that the very conflict with the Muslim Chechens, always cited as the root of these terror incidents, derives from a sequence of characteristic lies by the Russian state.
During the Second World War Stalin deported entire Muslim nations from the Caucasus -- the Chechens were only the largest group -- on the charge of collaboration with the Nazis. At least 40 percent of the Chechens died during their forced transfer to Central Asia. In the 1960s the Soviet government admitted that the charge of collaboration was a lie, and that Chechens had actually fought valiantly in the Soviet forces. They were allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. But they did not forget or forgive, and after the breakup of the Soviet Union the "Chechen question" returned again.
So at least 350 children, parents, and teachers dead in Beslan, with more than 200 unaccounted for, is, finally, business as usual for the Russian state. It would seem to be high time for the West to recognize this. Russia and Putin are no more reliable partners in the global war on terror than the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which also engages in lying on a cosmic scale.
Of course, Putin, as a veteran of the Soviet secret police, has adopted the Stalin method for dealing with responsibility in such events. When the Soviet state proved unable to satisfy the exaggerated promises it had made to its citizens in the 1930s, under the Five Year Plans, of plentiful consumption and prosperity, first the Bolshevik old guard and then the top leaders of the military were massacred to give the people a sense that "those to blame would be dealt with." Today, Russian TV, under Putin's control, accuses "generals and the military and civilians" for the terrible outcome in North Ossetia.
Some startling details of the Beslan massacre deserve further investigation, but since Russia, like Saudi Arabia, feels no need to account for its state actions to its people or to the world, it is doubtful they will be the subject of serious inquiry.
First, many Russians, experts on Russia, residents of the borderland states in Central Asia, and experts on Islamist extremism believe there is some kind of hidden link between the terrorists involved in attacks on schools and other such targets, and the Russian secret police. The logic is simple: Russian leaders always need an enemy, preferably one both inside and outside the country, to unite their discontented masses behind them. In the past the enemy was the Catholic Church, then the Jews. But stoking hatred of Catholicism causes problems with Poles, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians, who fight with much better weapons than suicide bombs, namely, financial power and access to Western media. And incitement against the Jews brings on an instant and negative response in the U.S. and Western Europe. In this context, the Russian and Caucasian Muslims are the obvious best choice as a chosen, cultivated threat with which to terrify the ordinary populace. Putin needs the terrorists as much as they need him; they are engaged in a dance of death, where each justifies the actions of the other.
Second, while news reports alleged that the terrorist attackers were not Arabs, as claimed (in a rare moment of probable accuracy) by the Russian authorities, surviving hostages described them as Wahhabis, adherents of the state cult in Saudi Arabia that stands behind al-Qaida, and identifiable by their distinctive beards and prayer caps. Since 1999, Saudi infiltrators have striven to take over and manipulate the Chechen national movement, pushing aside moderate Chechen leaders who seek peace.
Indeed, in a very strange item also appearing in The Washington Post, the terrorist assault squad leader was addressed as "colonel" and described as communicating by telephone throughout the siege. "Colonel" of what? Islamist terrorist movements do not use Western-style military ranks.
I predict that independent Russian opinion, which will be heard despite the control of media by Putin's government, will soon ask whether this was not yet another provocation by the secret police, intended to boost support for Putin and utilizing Wahhabis ready, in any event, to die -- but which went horribly wrong.
To Westerners, such an idea smacks of the most complex and unlikely conspiracy theories. But to Russians, and those who know Russia, it would come as no surprise. Putin has a great deal to answer for, but it is unlikely he will have to do so, any more than any of his predecessors in power had to. And, barely mentioned in this landscape of evil, Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi cult also bear significant guilt.
In 1991, I wrote in the post-Soviet journal Arguments and Facts International, "The picture of Russia's future... increasingly resembles an 'India of the North:' a country that may achieve a partial or superficial democratization, but which is simply too handicapped by cultural factors to attain the stability and prosperity for which it hopes." After the passage of 13 years I would change nothing in these words.