Moscow has a problem, one that is age-old. Russia and Russians do not face up to the truth. The society is unable to reconcile with its past, face up to its darkest periods and, thus, remains unable in its present to face up to ugly realities.
Russian bureaucrats and military officials are more used to instinctively lying rather than admitting some flaws of their own.
Not that honesty is a commonly found quality in politicians anywhere, but at least Western democratic systems do instill a fear of accountability. In Western democracies, senior officials would have to pay a high price for thinking they can get away with a lie. In Russia, people seem to get away with lies on a daily basis.
The knee-jerk reaction of Russian politicians and bureaucrats when forced by increasingly bold sections of society that demand answers is to crack down on freedoms rather than the causes of the problems themselves.
True, not a single law-enforcement official, intelligence officer or bureaucrat lost a job or was reprimanded following the Sept. 11 events, the biggest trauma suffered by the United States since Pearl Harbor.
No one is considered responsible or guilty. But there has been unrelenting public scrutiny, and the U.S. intelligence community just like its Russian counterpart has fought tooth and nail in preventing disclosures. The difference between Russia and developed Western democracies is that in Russia, such attempts still lead to some news outlets being closed down and some journalists being found guilty.
Outright lies that are fed to the public continue to stifle public discussion.
In the wake of the Moscow hostage crisis, Russians and the rest of the world saw the worst displays of political character, and the weakness of democratic institutions. The Duma was just as quick to crack down on the media as it was on the idea of open debate on the causes and failures of the tragedy and its aftermath. Moscow officials, who staunchly defended the medical and municipal services, were replacing chairs in the theater even before the blood had fully dried.
Money had been found to prepare the auditorium to resume the musical, even as relatives stood in the rain outside hospitals looking for their loved ones. Authorities did not bother to pitch tents, erect public toilets or offer hot tea or coffee for the relatives. The government offered families of those who died as a result of the tragedy a meager 100,000 rubles each, while 80 million rubles were found within days to refurbish the theater.
The spirit of "the show must go on" is commendable, but why must it be expressed at the cost of respect for basic human dignity and life? Similarly, why can Russian officialdom not admit to the wanton behavior by Russian troops in Chechnya?
Why does the whole military establishment have to protect a colonel whom any person can see is the culprit of a most hideous crime? The Russian government wants the world to believe that Chechen terrorism is an international disease and needs to be rooted out.
Admitting to mistakes in this military campaign and persecuting criminal behavior by individual commanders and soldiers is the real honorable solution for the country's own sake, not just for peace in Chechnya.
With Lenin's body still on Red Square, with the October Revolution still a holiday and the Soviet hymn as new Russia's "old-new" national anthem, the country is being forced to live with one leg in the Stalin-era past and the other in Yeltsin-era inefficiency.
Russia cannot move forward by building a nation on lies or half-truths. The worst within must be faced up to first, rather than trying to convince those outside of anything else.
Last month showcased the excellence of Russian medical sciences. Built on the principle of "no man, no problem," medical services in the Soviet Union were more adept at removing the person than the illness. Russian medical services, at the best of times, are a torturous process. It was never necessary to tell children about ghosts and dragons a threat of a visit to the dentist could settle the most rowdy and raucous kids.
Now President Vladimir Putin is marketing these excellent medical services in the West. He told a press conference in Brussels this week that Russian experts are better than any other at doing circumcisions. In Moscow, you can get a free circumcision at the synagogue located at 6 Bolshaya Bronnaya, tel. (095) 290-6266. Alternatively, you can get circumcised in the comfortable surroundings of the MedHelp clinic located at 11 Yauzskaya Ul., bldg. 2, tel. 915-3879, but this will cost you $110.
Some warn, however, that President Putin made the remark in a mood of black humor, having seen the capabilities of Russian medical services during the hostage crisis. They say that pulling the pin of a grenade between the legs might be less painful than getting circumcised by a Russian "expert." It remains to be seen if the French journalist will take up his advice, get circumcised, convert to Islam and go to cover the war in Chechnya. The choice is being beheaded by a Chechen terrorist or a Russian doctor.