The world's most secretive giant threw open its borders last week to bare the pain of the Armenian earthquake and let the world - and the Soviet people - help dig out victims from under the rubble.
Suddenly, Soviets were human. They were crying in grief, agonizing over the crumbled concrete hiding their lost loved ones, bleeding from their wounds.They had faces, unlike the thousands of unidentified Soviets irradiated and uprooted under cover of a media blackout following the Chernobyl nuclear power station explosion just 21/2 years ago.
In opening the region to international relief workers, the Soviet Union also gained $100 million in emergency aid, the official Soviet news agency Tass said Saturday. It also saved thousands of lives that would have been lost without French search dogs, Israeli doctors and Belgian artificial kidney machines.
The United States alone sent $6.6 million in assistance from both government and private sources.
It was the first time since World War II that international aid has poured into the fiercely self-sufficient Soviet Union, and once again it cracked the image of evil Western capitalists fostered by decades of propaganda.
Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov, thanking the world for help last week, fondly recalled eating Spam, an American canned meat product, during World War II. He said he still considers it a delicacy.
Foreign journalists, who normally must wait weeks or months for permission to enter the country, flew in aboard relief planes and were handed monthlong visas at the Moscow airport. Others went straight to the stricken area without papers and weren't disturbed by authorities, who ordinarily subject each new arrival to a thorough document check.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry, which holds press briefings but rarely provides news, gave regular updates on the number of casualties and the state of the relief effort.
In the same nation that covered up the deaths of more than 100,000 people in the Ashkhabad quake 40 years ago, the Soviet press pounced on the story this time. Tass poured out reams of copy and offered foreign agencies wrenching photographs of the tragedy.
Newspapers printed daily interviews with victims, rescuers and even critics of the disorganization hampering the relief effort. They printed articles with talk of shoddy construction practices that caused concrete-slab buildings to collapse and contributed to the huge death toll.
Only hours before the quake, President Mikhail Gorbachev told the United Nations that advances in mass media and transportation were making the world "more visible and tangible."
He did not know then that in a few hours he would have the opportunity to demonstrate that belief.