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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Cost of Obliging Foolishness

My father once told me about a scene he had witnessed at a dog obedience school. "Comrade," the instructor said to a particularly hapless owner. "Unlike you, your dog long ago figured out what it's supposed to be doing."

In the aftermath of the hostage crisis at the theater on Dubrovka, the Russian authorities and the media they control remind me of that dog owner, making one inexplicable blunder after the next.

Worst of all is their boorish -- there's no other word for it -- treatment of the relatives of former hostages. Television coverage of these people being driven away from hospital gates like petitioners at court was guaranteed to arouse our indignation.

I'd like to suggest a term to describe this sort of behavior: 1941-45 Syndrome. The symptoms are a criminal lack of preparedness for a war everyone knew was coming, followed by a heroic mobilization of forces and a great victory that earned us the love and recognition of all mankind, but which was bought at the price of enormous losses. And one final symptom involves turning our former supporters against us in the name of falsely construed security interests. History offers ample evidence of how this syndrome develops if left untreated: the March 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri, which signaled the beginning of the Cold War.

Just as before, Russia today knows how to inflict defeat, but it has no clue how to secure victory. To a large extent this is the result of the authorities' flawed policies regarding the press and the public.

The time has come to understand that the state's worst enemy is the state-controlled press. An obliging fool is far more dangerous than any enemy, as they say. In the euphoria that followed the raid, for instance, the Kremlin committed a minor blunder with regard to its hostility toward Denmark for allowing the World Chechen Congress to proceed in Copenhagen after the hostage crisis. Within hours, the state-controlled stations Rossia and Channel One had turned the incident into a full-blown Soviet-style propaganda campaign. As a result, we are once more feared and jeered. It's already too late to correct this mistake without losing face.

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In last week's column I wrote that relations between the authorities and the mass media during the crisis were distinguished by a spirit of professionalism and cooperation. Law enforcement officials met regularly with journalists and earned their respect. The Press Ministry acted to impose restraint on the press. There were many grievances, but no animosity. Everyone understood that this was an extraordinary situation. The Press Ministry even announced that it would issue no official warnings for "violations" committed during the crisis.

When the military operation concluded, the special forces naturally withdrew into the shadows. If Press Minister Mikhail Lesin is to be believed, the ministry under his command immediately stopped "coordinating" press coverage. The government spin machine was taken off its crisis standing and returned to the control of the Kremlin's chief spin doctor, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. Unfortunately, his reputation is such that no one believes him even when he's telling the truth. During the crisis he was mercifully silent, but then, alas, he opened his mouth. The result was predictable: contradictory official statements, delays in making information available to the press. Once more we encountered the cowardice of bureaucrats who prefer to invent an answer, any answer, rather than honestly admit: "We don't know." This has led to the usual mix of conjecture, rumor and gossip in the press.

A process of self-analysis has begun in the journalism community. The responsibility that the press bears toward society, previously the topic of idle conversation, is now being debated in earnest. Will the authorities subject themselves to a similar self-analysis? Will they make the necessary conclusions in the wake of the victory they have very nearly let slip through their fingers? Or will they carry on confidently down the road to the next Fulton speech?

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)