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Not Afraid to Accept Help Now : Quake Aid Influx Gave Soviets New Self-Image

Times Staff Writer

For more than two weeks, Soviet citizens have watched with both gratitude and amazement as rescue teams and relief supplies have flowed into Armenia from around the world in the aftermath of the devastating Dec. 7 earthquake.

And in the process, the way the Soviet Union thinks about itself and the outside world has changed significantly on a number of fundamental political and social issues.

“For the first time, perhaps, in our history, we were not afraid to admit we needed help--really huge amounts of help--because we could not cope alone,” Yegor Yakovlev, editor of the influential weekly paper Moscow News, said Thursday as he announced plans for an internationally financed hospital to replace facilities destroyed in the quake.

“Before, we always pretended that socialism was so perfect, and certainly so superior to capitalism, that we needed no assistance from abroad,” he said. “This is a basic change in the way we see ourselves and the way that we see the world. We at last recognize that realism must prevail, that human lives count more than false pride.”

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Offers of assistance were accepted quickly--a decision by the Soviet Communist Party’s ruling Politburo that undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and continues to have a major psychological impact.

“They didn’t have time to think this through three or four times at the top, and so they did what came naturally, thank God,” one Soviet historian in Moscow said this week. “I hope that what has happened will now reinforce all the other trends for reform.”

As television viewers watched rescue teams from nearly 30 nations arrive in Armenia, the opening of the Soviet Union to the outside world became wider than ever.

A massive airlift from North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East brought thousands of tons of rescue equipment, medicines, food and clothing to the relief effort. In just 10 days, more than $100 million in assistance came from 73 countries.

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More than 2,100 foreign rescue workers--some among the world’s most experienced and skilled in such operations--joined the struggle to save those trapped in the ruins of Leninakan, Spitak, Kirovakan and other devasted Armenian cities and towns.

With more than 400 highly trained dogs, and with sophisticated equipment that listens for breathing and movement or detects body heat in the rubble, they helped Soviet rescue teams save hundreds buried alive in the debris.

Never had there been such a massive relief operation in the Soviet Union. And never had so many nations come to Moscow’s aid, even during World War II or after the 1966 earthquake that heavily damaged the city of Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia.

“The sorrow of our country has brought a response from all mankind,” Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, who has headed the relief effort, said as he returned to Moscow this week. “The world has shared our grief, and it has come to our assistance in a way for which we are deeply grateful and which we will always remember.”

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Indeed, the scope of the tragedy--a death toll officially estimated at 55,000 but perhaps as high as 100,000--would be dramatic enough to draw world sympathy almost anywhere.

Old Image Crumbled

But the Armenian quake gave the Soviet people an opportunity to be seen as very human, very vulnerable--and the decades-old image in the West of a militarized society determined to dominate the world seemed to crumble.

“When we learned there would be special charity concerts and soccer matches for us, when we saw how much money was raised in the United States in television appeals, when we saw one plane after another arriving with medicines and clothes and other supplies, we knew that we were not alone,” Eduard Aikazyan, the Armenian government representative in Moscow, said in an interview. “Grief shared is grief diminished. Hope shared is hope increased. . . .”

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In the outpouring of aid, the Soviet Union also found that its new foreign policies under President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had paid off in assistance when needed, breaking centuries-old barriers.

“The assistance was the direct result of glasnost ,” chief Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov said this week, referring to Gorbachev’s policy of openness. “We opened up, told the truth. . . . There was a wave of sympathy that I don’t think you would have seen five years ago--definitely not.”

A Matter of Pride

For the Soviet Union, the massive international effort is now even a matter of pride--a recognition of the country by the West as a full-fledged member of the family of nations after the lengthy Cold War.

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At the same time, it represents a show of solidarity with a people whose efforts at reform have captured the world’s imagination and a confirmation of Gorbachev’s insistence on common human values.

“We are no longer the ‘evil empire’ that President Reagan used to talked about,” one senior Soviet journalist remarked privately. “On the contrary, we were overwhelmed with love and sympathy. . . . As the significance of this sets in, I believe it will have a profound impact on the way we think.”

He added: “We must give credit to Gorbachev’s policies for finally being recognized not as an enemy to be contained and, if possible, damaged. . . . If this were (the late President) Leonid Brezhnev’s country, and if we were still trapped in what we call ‘stagnation,’ then a few neutral countries, the socialist countries and a few other special friends would have come to our aid--but that would be all. The cost in lives would have been even more horrendous.”

Stereotypes of West Fell

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Old Soviet stereotypes--the product of decades of harsh, isolationist propaganda--of the capitalist West bent on destroying the Soviet Union and socialism also collapsed as television viewers saw that the bulk of the foreign assistance was coming from capitalist countries, including the United States.

American Red Cross president Richard F. Schubert, who visited the earthquake region this week, said, “Sometimes bad things bring good people together, and that is what is happening here.

“Again and again, people told us how happy they were to see Americans there because it meant not just assistance now, but something for the future of the two countries,” Schubert said. “I think that people here got a sense of how Americans feel about people who are hurting--and that’s very important.”

Meanwhile, the honesty with which the government has approached the disaster seems to set a standard for the way it will deal with other problems.

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Fyodor Volkov, a Moscow engineer, agreed.

“We will have to ask ourselves why foreigners could work so quickly in a strange land, and work so well,” he said. “And we will also have to reflect on the question of ‘why?'--why so many people would come to our aid so spontaneously, so generously--because it says important things about the world we live in today.”


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