Hundreds of dead, most of them children. They were shot, burnt, crushed under the wreckage. Eight days after the barbarous terrorist attack at the Beslan school, many parents still cannot find and identify the remains of their children.

The horror in Beslan is more than another Russian tragedy. It's an atrocity of such fundamental proportions that it must become a turning point in Russian life. Russia faces the danger of permanent terrorist war and grave destabilization in the North Caucasus region.

It is a moment that cries out for a leader who recognizes the enormity of the task before this country -- and who is capable of breaking away from the traditions of a bureaucratic state, with all its corruption, irresponsibility, heavy-handedness and inefficiency. This is essential to any improvement in public security, to dealing with the crisis in Chechnya and to preventing the further spread of terrorism. The difficulties seem insurmountable, but overcoming them has to become Russia's first priority, both as a long-term strategy and as the basis of a day-to-day effort.

That is what we need. What we have is a government that continues to follow the habitual ways of Soviet-raised bureaucrats, totally lacking any of the imagination, the ability to think in terms of breakthroughs, that the times demand.

As president, Vladimir Putin has eradicated political opposition and destroyed whatever checks and balances were taking shape. He has broadened the gap between the government and the public and lulled the Russian people into deeper passivity.

Putin cleared the political ground for himself and for the servile, faceless mediocrities who serve his government. Perhaps he thought that by ridding himself of rivals he'd ensure better management. The reality has proved otherwise, in the most gruesome fashion.

Putin is all alone in charge. His officials and advisers are not statesmen or people of stature but petty bureaucrats who seek above all to avoid responsibility. Not one federal law enforcement or security official was seen publicly taking charge during the tragedy. None has appeared on television to take questions. The handling of the school siege was delegated to officials in North Ossetia, a poor ethnic province with few resources and a serious shortage of well-trained security professionals.

The only person who went inside the school was Ruslan Aushev, former president of the neighboring Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. Shortly before the carnage he persuaded the terrorists to release about 30 hostages. Aushev's account of the rescue operation is one of procrastination and chaos. A brave general and savvy politician, Aushev had earlier been forced by Putin's Kremlin to yield his presidency in favor of yet another member of Putin's favorite constituency: a state security official. Like others in Putin's ex-KGB elite, the new president proved useless against the perpetrators of inhuman crimes in Beslan.

Throughout the ordeal in North Ossetia, the government shamelessly lied about everything: the number of hostages, the number of victims, the number of terrorists and their ethnicity. Even today any questioning of government policy is ruled out. State-controlled television networks have shown no independent analysts, no hostage accounts.

The Kremlin is engaged in petty pursuit of enemies in the media. Russian journalists Andrei Babitsky and Anna Politkovskaya, both well known for their critical views of Russian politics in Chechnya, were barred from covering the events in Beslan. Babitsky was arrested and held for a few days on a patent pretext. Politkovskaya fell gravely ill with a mysterious form of poisoning while on a flight to the Caucasus.

The country's best print media editor, Raf Shakirov, was forced to resign from his top position at the daily Izvestia; coverage of the Beslan barbarity was deemed "too emotional" by the owner. Observers in Moscow are certain that the owner's decision was influenced by the Kremlin.

Putin has said there will be no public inquiry into the events in Beslan. There was no inquiry into the Moscow theater siege in October 2002 -- the rescue operation that ended in 129 hostage deaths and did not leave a single hostage taker alive for further investigation. Those in charge of the sloppy operation got state awards. The only one to lose his job was the top manager of a TV network the Kremlin deemed excessively inquisitive.

Treating critics as the enemy is an old Soviet instinct, but it has failed to make Russia any more secure. Instead it has contributed to an increasing lack of accountability on the part of those in charge of the Russian people's security. This inevitably leads to incompetence and helplessness in dealing with terrorist threats.

Neither Putin nor anyone in his government has been able to reach out to the public at this time of crisis. Putin talks of the importance of civil society; meanwhile, government authorities sponsor Soviet-style rallies throughout the country that seem intended more to support the president and his policies than to consolidate public energy against terrorism. Rather than an outburst of human grief, the rallies have appeared to be propaganda events; official speakers ran out of things to say before the rallies were scheduled to end.

Putin engaged in vague talk about unnamed enemies in the West who seek to weaken Russia and thus indirectly abet the terrorists. He vehemently rejects any criticism of his shortsighted and hypocritical Chechnya policy. He no less passionately insists that the surge of attacks in Russia is all about world terrorism, not about his Chechnya policy backfiring.

Yet in the end, Russia has nobody but Putin now. He's popularly elected, and who else in the country can be regarded as a relevant public leader? Russian security, Russian lives, Russia's future depend on Putin. The outlook is grim if he cannot find it in himself to do what must be done to meet the challenge.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra Journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.