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“Shameful and disgraceful” — these are the words many Russians are using now to describe the attitude of their government toward the sunken nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea. Slow and incompetent rescue attempts, an inability to assess the scope and nature of the damage and, above all, a stubborn unwillingness to accept foreign assistance — all these descriptions characterize the Kursk rescue attempt and reek of the worst days of the infamous Soviet regime.

Of course, the comparison is not quite correct. All naval catastrophes (and all technological disasters in general) were the best guarded state secrets in the Soviet Union, and people not directly involved normally learned about them only years — if not decades — later, and as often from Voice of America broadcasts, which were only half-jammed.

Now reports on the sunken Kursk dominate all major national news programs. Comments and interviews abound and criticisms of high officials are loud and unrestrained. Yet none of this helped the 118 men trapped within the monstrous hull of the Kursk, who have been confirmed dead. Freedom of speech does not amount to much unless it can influence a government’s performance.

The questions angry Russians are asking these days are sharp and bitter. Why wasn’t help from Norway and Britain requested earlier? Why lull the public with false optimism for several days and then finally announce that all crew members of the Kursk must have been dead almost from the start? How come the famed Russian Navy was unable to do anything about the sunken vessel, lying at a depth slightly more than 100 meters — a span that barely exceeds the height of the Kremlin towers — when the Norwegian Navy could? How come this catastrophe happened in the first place? It appears that the accident was caused by one of Kursk’s torpedoes jamming, causing a horrific explosion. What are the chances that other Russian nuclear submarines could be involved in a similar accident? And last but not least, why was President Vladimir Putin conspicuously absent from the scene of the disaster?

The Kursk affair has been the worst blow to Putin’s reputation thus far. The man who had flattened Chechnya, spent New Year’s eve with Russian troops in the field there and showered the armed forces with praise, money and awards responded to news of the Kursk fiasco by calmly continuing his Black Sea vacation, apparently unperturbed by the agony of the 118 men trapped inside the sunken submarine.

Having found himself the target of fierce criticism, the president belatedly decided it was time to respond. He did so with extraordinary pose and dignity, but that only served to make his lame excuse look worse. He said that his presence in the Barents Sea would have made navy officers involved in the rescue attempt excessively nervous and would have slowed down the whole mission. Apparently, the rescuers must have been encouraged by the thought that while they were diving in the icy Arctic water, their commander in chief was stoically bathing in the south. What admirable self-restraint, what a sacrifice for the sake of the nation! Perhaps if something happens to one of Russia’s numerous nuclear power plants, Putin will undergo another tough measure of self-discipline by forcing himself to fly to the Caribbean.

What makes his behavior especially ugly is that several months ago he traveled all the way to the Barents Sea, boarded a submarine and boldly descended into the icy abyss (closely followed by cameramen). At that time he maintained he was not seeking cheap publicity, but wanted to demonstrate his appreciation for a noble military profession and all the hardships and hazards it involves. It now looks like the president is prepared only to shine in the rays of triumph; dark tragedy does not appeal to him at all. This is understandable. But if that is the case, then he would be more qualified to lead a Russian hockey team. Being commander in chief of a crumbling superpower involves various troublesome duties. Visiting the site of a dying ship is one of them.

One cannot help but wonder at leaders like Putin: Having risen to the top position of authority from absolutely nowhere in a matter of months, they manage to lose all sense of proportion and propriety sooner than you can learn their names. Only a year ago, nobody in Russia, with the exception of a handful of apparatchiks, knew Putin’s first name. Seven months later he won a landslide; five months after that, he behaves as if he had spent his whole life in the Kremlin and had already delivered the Russian economic miracle.

Last August, when President Boris Yeltsin suddenly named Putin his successor, Kremlin insiders described the upstart as cold, smart, calculating, detached, ambitious. Cold — yes; detached — absolutely; ambitious — certainly, but — smart and calculating? Putin’s mandate was to restore the good name of Russia. He won the election by associating himself with men in uniform, their pride and their cause. Then he abandoned them the very first time they found themselves in real trouble. What sort of calculation is that?

The Kursk catastrophe cannot hurt the reputation of the Russian Navy or of Russia itself: Nobody harbored illusions about either one as they have both been traditionally associated with mismanagement and technological calamities. But as far as Putin is concerned, his domestic reputation may be torpedoed by the accident in the Barents Sea. Once again, instead of a stern but caring father, the nation has a detached custodian, if not a coldblooded manipulator.

It will be instructive to see what Putin does next. Probably, he will press the issue of the “mysterious vessel” that allegedly hit the Kursk and caused the accident and hint at its foreign identity. His spokesmen are already doing this. But if by this or any other manipulative maneuver he fails to distract the wrath of the nation, the vacation he took at the Black Sea while people aboard the Kursk were dying will be the most costly holiday in his life.

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