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Soviet Union Vision of Horror

12 minute read
David Brand

Only days ago, few people had heard of the town of Spitak, high in the Caucasus Mountains of northwest Soviet Armenia. But by last week it had become an international symbol of death and utter destruction, a place where the stench of corpses mingled with fading, desperate hopes that a voice, a whimper or a sigh might be heard from deep beneath the rubble. “A vision of horror,” gasped a stunned Dr. Patrick Aeberhard, president of the French humanitarian aid group Medecins du Monde. An estimated 70% of the town’s 20,000 population lies entombed, victims of the devastating earthquake that hit two weeks ago. Throughout the region, at least 50,000 are dead, 130,000 injured, 500,000 homeless.

Coffins were stacked in piles on nearly every street corner in Spitak, some cracked open to reveal arms and legs wrapped in plastic bags. Coffins lined the streets of other cities and towns throughout the stricken region. The Soviet news agency TASS said that as of Wednesday 21,755 bodies had been identified from the badly damaged cities of Leninakan and Kirovakan and from 48 villages that had been destroyed.

Early last week ten people were discovered beneath the rubble of Spitak, including an infant still sucking on her pacifier. One of the rescuers, a nursing mother, quickly put the child to her breast. It seemed likely that these would be the last of the estimated 7,000 survivors who have been pulled from the wreckage. “With every day the moans are decreasing,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov. By Friday the French, British, West German and Italian teams had given up the search and returned home and the official American relief team was packing away its equipment. At the beginning of this week, the Soviet army, concerned about infection from the rotting corpses, planned to send in demolition teams to start razing the few pitiful pieces of masonry still standing in the stricken cities and towns.

But that decision provoked an outcry from Armenians, who insisted on picking through the rubble until all their loved ones could be accounted for. On Friday Moscow suddenly reversed itself after dogged rescuers miraculously pulled out of the debris 21 more people, one in Spitak and the rest in Leninakan, who by then had been buried alive for more than a week. Said – Armenian official Eduard Aikazian: “We will continue looking for survivors until there isn’t the slightest possibility of finding anybody.”

The disaster may yield one positive result: the largest outpouring of foreign aid to the Soviet Union since World War II could produce a surge of goodwill that will further reduce East-West tensions. The disaster held the potential of changing perceptions on both sides: the humanitarian assistance might make the Soviet people view the West as less of a threat, while the pictures of stricken Armenians might make Westerners more sympathetic to the Soviets in general. “It has a humanizing effect,” said a senior Western diplomat in Moscow. “It has become part of official policy to express gratitude not only for the aid they receive now, but for past assistance as well.”

Of more immediate importance for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev are the domestic effects of the quake. The enormous costs of rebuilding Armenian towns and villages will be a serious setback to perestroika, his program of economic restructuring. The political aftershocks are already severe. Even before the tragedy, Armenians distrusted Gorbachev because of his rejection of their territorial claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian enclave embedded in neighboring Azerbaijan, a blood enemy of Armenia. The earthquake only heightened the Armenians’ anger, and that prompted a furious Gorbachev to describe the airing of nationalist grievances at such a time as “immoral.” His words, however, had little effect.

The Soviet press, meanwhile, lambasted some aspects of the relief effort as bungled and inept. Pravda, the Communist Party daily, said that because of a lack of cranes “seconds and hours are being lost — that means lives.” It complained that for each Soviet searcher “we have about ten observers who give advice rather than clear up the rubble.” Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya asked, “Why does it happen that many families are still living out in the open though there is an abundance of tents?” Some of the homeless spend their nights huddled over bonfires. Even a Communist Party commission report lashed out at the poor organization, noting that “in a number of localities food is distributed sporadically.” Health Minister Yevgeni Chazov urged that a national body be set up to handle major disasters.

Although in most cases the Soviets seemed remarkably adept at cutting red tape to get foreign disaster teams into Armenia, unexplained tie-ups cost time and possibly lives. Baxter International Inc. of Deerfield, Ill., assembled a flying medical lab, including 20 special dialysis machines to treat victims of crush syndrome whose kidneys had been affected, but four days passed before visas arrived. A Japanese offer to send an earthquake rescue team was rejected without explanation, as was a Turkish proposal to send helicopters and cranes. An American plastic and reconstructive surgeon, Claude Frechette, who arrived shortly after the earthquake, says he was told by a Soviet doctor in Yerevan that his help was not needed. “The problem is there is no central organization at Yerevan to dispatch people and equipment,” Frechette said. “No one knows what anyone else is doing. Information passes simply by word of mouth.”

The man in charge of what was left of Spitak last week was the local party leader, Norik Moradanyan, who lost eleven relatives in the disaster. He had no time for grief, working round the clock to resolve disputes over where to send cranes, advising people on how to seek missing family members, or barking out orders for feeding and clothing survivors. Numb with fatigue, he had no idea how many people in his area had died: “We have pulled 7,000 out of the rubble. Many were still alive.” Many died instantly, said Dr. Robert Gale, who was also present at the Chernobyl aftermath. “Once rigor mortis set in, they were frozen in time. Just like at Pompeii, you could tell what they were doing when the quake struck.”

Dazed survivors of Spitak last week began trying to rebuild their lives from what remained of the town: piles of stone and wood and shattered belongings. Men, their faces hairy with a week’s growth of beard, aimlessly wandered streets littered with scraps of clothing, pieces of furniture and broken dishes. Women with colorful head scarves plodded along, carrying heavy bundles of clothing salvaged from the wreckage; some carried buckets of water from distribution trucks. Most people lived in military tents, but Manuel Lambaryan and seven friends stayed in a makeshift hut built from the beams of his crumpled house, with a roof stitched from clothing. “This was a beautiful town, full of friends,” he said. “But now . . .”

Last Friday a green loudspeaker truck patrolled Spitak, urging all women and children to leave the town. In clipped Armenian, the voice assured residents that they would be sent to trade-union vacation centers in Georgia and the Crimea. Officials said about 38,000 people had been evacuated from the entire earthquake-damaged region and up to 70,000 were expected to leave. But many women in Spitak and other devastated communities refused to go, preferring to keep vigil by the still entombed bodies of their loved ones. “Why should we leave?” asked an elderly woman in Spitak. “This has been our home for 500 years.”

A few people apparently viewed the disaster as an opportunity to steal. Pravda said more than $400,000 in pilfered goods had been recovered and 150 looters had been arrested. But 20,000 tents bound for Leninakan disappeared. To prevent looting, a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew was imposed throughout Armenia, and troops patrolled the streets of Leninakan. TASS reported that a man was arrested in Kirovakan for stripping watches and earrings from the dead. Soviet soldiers were seen removing boots from the dead and trying them on for size. “We shouldn’t hide the fact that all kinds of scum are coming to tragedy sites for an easy profit,” said army Lieut. General V. Dubinyak, chief of staff of the Interior Ministry troops.

The Soviet press and officials have been questioning the clearly inadequate construction techniques and materials that may have caused many buildings in Armenia to collapse on their inhabitants. During his visit to Armenia after rushing back from New York City two weeks ago, Gorbachev asked a television interviewer, “Who is to blame for the fact that in the concrete blocks there is too little cement but more than enough sand? This means the cement was stolen. By whom?” Leonid Bibin, deputy chairman of the state building committee, launched an investigation into why so many of the more recently built homes collapsed, and said criminal charges could be brought. Pravda said the poor construction, like so many other shortcomings in the Soviet system, could be attributed to the “period of stagnation,” which has become the popular reference for the regime of the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Most of the criticism for everything from nonexistent planning to shoddy building came from the Soviets themselves, not from the West, which seemed intent on showing the Armenians just how much compassion can be tapped once Moscow simply admits it needs help. Sixty-seven countries sent assistance, including nearly 2,000 rescue workers and more than 100 planes loaded with earth-moving equipment, medical supplies, tents and clothing. Japan donated $9 million, Italy wanted to build a prefabricated village for survivors, and West Germany offered to send 16 heavy cranes.

Americans did not spare themselves. Washington sent eight planeloads of official aid, plus a U.S. Air Force C-141 carrying supplies that left from Italy. Private donors gave millions of dollars’ worth of supplies and equipment that required more than twelve planes to ferry them to Armenia. Industrialist Armand Hammer donated $500,000, and Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca announced a fund drive. In Chicago, one of five major Armenian population centers around the U.S., the local community raised more than $800,000 and collected 20,000 lbs. of supplies, from blankets to medicine. The Armenian Relief Society raised more than $10 million in little over a week.

Analysts disagreed about the lasting impact of the disaster on U.S.-Soviet relations. James Millar, a Soviet specialist at the University of Illinois, saw a danger in sentimentalizing Americans’ view of the Soviet government: “There is always the risk of feelings turning into a philosophy that all people are really alike. That misses the point about states and foreign policy.” And yet, noted Peter Frank, a Sovietologist at Britain’s University of Essex, the Soviet leadership may find it very hard to sustain the old image of the capitalist West. Instead, he says, Gorbachev himself is helping create a new image “of a compassionate West willing to share its technology, charity and money. In a diffuse way, I think that could turn out to be one of the most beneficial consequences.”

But Allen Lynch, deputy director of studies at the Institute for East-West Security Studies in New York City, argued that there is a craftiness to Gorbachev’s handling of foreign aid. By allowing unrestrained Western aid to pour in, “he is showing his folks how things need to be done properly, how his people need to learn to run things well, how much they need to adapt for things to work as they should. In a way, he is deliberately exposing Western vs. Soviet efficiency.” But, Lynch added, the earthquake is a “terrible drain” on Gorbachev’s hopes for a revival of the Soviet economy.

Perestroika, now in its fourth year, seems stalled, and has yet to bring much improvement in economic conditions, with worsening shortages of food and consumer goods. The economy is afflicted by a $58 billion budget deficit, a $12.8 billion cleanup bill after Chernobyl, and serious losses in revenues from declining oil prices and the enforced drop in vodka sales. Now the billions of rubles that will have to be spent on reconstruction of an area about the size of Maryland must be figured in. Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov admitted last week that the Soviet leadership “made a mistake” when it estimated the cost at only 5 billion rubles (about $8.4 billion). He said more money would be provided.

So far, Gorbachev has received generally high marks from Soviets for his handling of the disaster. He is being praised in Moscow for his fast reaction in cutting short his American trip and returning to the Soviet Union, and in keeping what appears to be a tight grip on events as they unfold. “He sent a high-level team to the region immediately and kept them there,” says a senior Western diplomat in Moscow. “They showed compassion and worked with the local people. The real test will be in how well they organize the long-term reconstruction.” The disaster catapulted Prime Minister Ryzhkov, 59, into prominence as a strong and compassionate official. Every day Soviet television has shown him visiting stricken areas and talking with victims.

Compounding Gorbachev’s problems is the bloody conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. In the days before and after the quake, tens of thousands of Armenians crossed the border into Soviet Armenia to escape violence, and many Azerbaijanis crossed the other way. Until Gorbachev rejected their claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenians regarded Moscow as their champion. Now, said Lynch, Gorbachev “has come to represent in Armenian eyes everything they deeply resent about Moscow.”

This depth of feeling boiled over in Yerevan last week when 600 people demonstrated with slogans accusing Moscow of deporting Armenian children orphaned by the earthquake. Soviet spokesman Gerasimov denied the allegations and said six of the ringleaders of the protest, all from the Karabakh Committee, had been jailed. The Armenian distrust has become so explosive that the Soviet army positioned tanks at main intersections in Yerevan. Pravda blamed the Karabakh group for spreading a rumor that the disaster was the result of a nuclear explosion detonated by Moscow. Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya reported that a convoy carrying aid from Azerbaijan to the earthquake area had been attacked and turned back by gangs of Armenian youths.

Clearly, Gorbachev’s daunting tasks at home have been complicated immeasurably by the Armenian disaster. And even if he should succeed in swiftly bringing order out of the chaos, the ironic fact will remain that this Soviet leader appears more popular abroad than he is at home.

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