Russia saw a truly macabre chain of disasters last week. On Saturday, March 17, a Tu-134 missed the runway and crash-landed in Samara, killing six passengers but miraculously not bursting into flames. On Monday, March 19, a gas explosion at the Kuzbass coal mine claimed the lives of 108 people with two miners still listed as missing. In the early hours of Tuesday, a fire in a retirement home in Eisk, Krasnodar Krai, killed 61 of its 97 inhabitants as well as a nurse who had managed to save several lives.
President Vladimir Putin declared March 21 a national day of mourning, but the bad news continued to come. On Wednesday, two MiG-29 fighters collided in mid-air during training flights near the Millerovo airbase, Rostov Oblast, fortunately with no casualties. Later the same day, a Mi-8 helicopter went missing in a remote corner of the Komi Republic; rescuers did not reach the crash site until Saturday, when they confirmed that all six people on board had perished. On Saturday Moscow, hardly a stranger to traffic accidents, shuddered at the news of a collision of two cars on the Sadovoe ring-road, where five people burned alive in a fireball caused by the exploded gas tank. And yesterday, March 25, ten bodies were found in the smoldering ruins of a Moscow nightclub (Interfax, Lenta.ru, Newsru.com, March 25).
It is common to explain away the too numerous accidents in Russia as the inevitable consequence of decay and the breakdown of the old Soviet infrastructure, which had never been designed with high regard to safety in the first place. Air traffic has been affected the worst, and indeed the year 2006 set a new Russian record for air catastrophes with 318 lives lost (Lenta.ru, March 14). The imported airplanes and newly built infrastructure are, however, not much safer. The Ulyanovskaya mine, for that matter, was opened just five years ago and announced by Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev to be a “present” to Putin for his 50th birthday (Kommersant, March 20). Perhaps the most remembered tragic example of poor safety standards in new buildings was the roof collapse in the shiny Transvaal aqua-park in Moscow in February 2004 that killed 28 people (RIA-Novosti, February 14).
Typically, a “human factor” — pilot error or negligence by the night-guard in the retirement home — is found behind most tragedies, which gives ground to speculations about the uniquely Russian “fatalistic” disregard for the most basic safety measures, including car safety belts (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 21). Some of that attitude can be found in the popularity of the “live-fire” show at the unfortunate night club, but more telling is the widespread tolerance of alcoholism, which is by far the most significant factor in the staggering statistics of traffic accidents, not to mention the plain fact that 30,000 people in Russia die every year from alcohol poisoning (Economist, March 22). Cultural stereotypes and national habits are certainly slow to change, but state policy is quite a different matter.
The demographic crisis resulting in a steady decline of Russia’s population and dwindling labor force is recognized as an urgent national security challenge, but the policies that are supposed to address it are inadequate at best and often astoundingly irrelevant. The most radical measure in the struggle against alcohol poisoning taken by the Russian Chief Sanitary Inspector Gennady Onishchenko was the ban on importing wine from Georgia and Moldova. The Federal Service for the Control of the Circulation of Narcotics, instead of investigating the colossal underground networks of drug dealers, persecutes veterinarians and attacks chemical laboratories and businesses that refuse to pay bribes (Vedomosti, March 21). The key target for the state agency for environmental protection has been the “Sakhalin-2” oil and gas project, where Shell and its Japanese partners were forced to yield to Gazprom’s hostile takeover (Lenta.ru, March 20).
The political or outright predatory aims of these policies are perfectly clear to the Russians, who quite rationally deny their government any trust or indeed respect. The only outstanding exception is Putin himself, who is never held responsible for any catastrophe and enjoys unassailable approval ratings. One tragedy that did reflect upon his personal standing was the sinking of Kursk (again, a newly built submarine) in August 2000; since then, however, he has grown such thick layers of Teflon skin that not a speck from the recent tragedies has smeared his polished image. In fact, his aura of the “competent leader” is now partly covering also Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, the unofficially designated successors, who are perceived by the loyal citizenry as pale carbon copies of the one who remains “beyond compare” (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 20).
It is not only the incessant and fine-tuned propaganda that maintains this phenomenon. The last few years have seen a steady, if incremental, increase in the disposable income of the majority of Russians, who have started to believe in “golden times” and desperately want them to continue. Experts could argue all they want about the trickle-down of the energy rents and the inevitable weakening of this economic driver as oil prices have stabilized; they can calculate the accumulating price of postponed reforms in every area from the pension system to communal housing — but all these warnings fall on public ears waxed deaf by the tangible improvements in the quality of life (Gazeta.ru, March 22).
Putin is seen as a guarantor of the continuation of this prosperity — but this guarantee is fast approaching its expiration, since a new president should be elected in mid-March 2008. The ideas about extending Putin’s protective umbrella by forcing him to stay are in abundant supply. Each passing week, however, adds a new crack in the foundation of Putin’s stability as more people — shaken by one tragedy or another — start to ask questions not about the personality of contenders but about the reason for the existence of a colossal bureaucratic machine that values human life less than a PR sound-bite but cares about its self-preservation above everything else, including Putin’s political afterlife.