WHO SHOULD SAVE PRIVATE RYAN?

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Russian society’s lack of reaction to the Iraq hostage drama

The hostage drama in which four Russian Embassy staff were abducted in Baghdad lasted 23 days. The cruelty of the executioners is shocking, certainly. But there is also a lingering, painful impression caused by Russia’s reaction to the tragedy in Baghdad.


The hostage drama in which four Russian Embassy staff were abducted in Baghdad lasted 23 days. The cruelty of the executioners is shocking, certainly. But there is also a lingering, painful impression caused by Russia’s reaction to the tragedy in Baghdad. The reaction of officials and ordinary citizens alike.

Tell me this: when Westerners are taken hostage in Iraq, why does every newspaper and every Euronews program show pictures of them immediately? And why didn’t Russia see the faces of our martyred fellow-citizens until the terrorists posted the execution video on their website? All four people were working abroad for Russia. Photos of them must have been available somewhere, in Baghdad and in Moscow, so why was it necessary to keep the public from seeing the faces of the hostages? Why the secrecy, when the four were already in enemy hands? They weren’t high-level spies, after all; they were a cook, a driver, a guard, an aide to the ambassador.

Some would call this idle curiosity. In my view, however, shrouding such dramas in secrecy demeans both the individuals involved and all the rest of us, as citizens of a country that is prepared to rescue them from trouble.

And how did our society react to the fact that our fellow-citizens were in trouble, and to the suffering of their families? There was practically no reaction at all. The media, the mouthpiece of society, provided only brief reports: the appropriate state agencies are conducting appropriate negotiations, and all should turn out well. Not one bit of alarm about the hostages’ lives being in danger. This kind of coverage probably wasn’t due to any orders from the top to keep the story quiet. It’s more likely that media managers, with a professional ability to sense the mood of their audience, simply concluded that the people weren’t interested in the Baghdad drama. After all, working for an embassy abroad isn’t something that most Russian citizens can identify with. And the media managers weren’t wrong!

Why are the people of Russia so indifferent? Did the reform years of the 1990s harden our hearts, did the events in Chechnya brutalize us? That’s a research topic on its own, of course. But the facts remain: when our fellow-citizens were taken hostage, no one in Russia went out into the streets demanding their release. There was no flood of phone calls and letters to radio and television broadasters, newspapers, or the parliament. The people were silent, sweltering in the summer heat and thinking of vacations. They probably assumed that there are special organizations and agencies to handle that kind of problem. So let them deal with it.

The position of ministries and agencies is a separate topic. The executed Russian citizens were Foreign Ministry staff. State employees. By abducting and executing them, the terrorists delivered a calculated slap in the face to the Russian state. And Russia hadn’t done any harm to Iraq. So how did the Duma, the Federation Council, and the government react to the hostage-taking? In full solidarity with the people; that is, no reaction at all. They only started speaking out after the story had reached its tragic conclusion.

Russia is by no means the only victim of events in Iraq. Citizens of many other countries have been taken hostage and killed there, and the executed Russians are unlikely to be the last. However, most other countries react quite differently when their citizens are abducted by terrorists. A hostage-taking immediately becomes an event of national importance: parliaments debate it, the authorities make statements. Sometimes, important policy moves are made. In Italy, for example, a journalist’s abduction became the catalyst for a decision to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. And in many cases, this kind of reaction from society has facilitated the release of hostages.

The terrorists presented Russia with deliberately impossible demands. One would like to believe that the Foreign Ministry and other state agencies conducted negotiations properly and did everything in their power. It didn’t work. A tragedy. But why did the rest of us stand by and accept what was happening? Saving our Private Ryans is a job for both the state and society. Otherwise it will never work; we’ll never learn how to save them.

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