Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 17

…It has already become almost a cliche that August was the cruelest month for the Russian people, with the fire in Moscow’s Ostankino television tower following on the heels of the terrorist bombing at the capital’s Pushkin Square, which killed twelve people, and the destruction of the submarine Kursk and its crew of 112 men. While the Ostankino television fire was the least lethal of the three events–three people were killed as a result of the blaze–the destruction of the 1770-foot structure was perhaps the most devastating event symbolically. It even elicited a gloomy observation from President Vladimir Putin, who said that the fire was emblematic of the overall shape the country was in. And if the Kursk disaster brought out Russian officialdom’s tendency toward Soviet-style mendacity when the chips are down, the Ostankino fire highlighted the degree to which other attributes of the era of central planning persist to this day. That sad fact was made clear by Leonid Korotchik, Moscow’s fire chief, who revealed that the blaze could have been localized had he and his men not had to wait three hours to get Putin’s permission to cut the tower’s power supply. The tower, of course, was one of the country’s most vital “strategic objects,” given that it carried the signals of the country’s politically all-important state television channels to viewers in Russia’s politically all-important capital.

The back-to-back disasters cast a shadow over what should have been a cheery month, given the warm weather and the good news in the economy and financial sector, buoyed as they were by continued record-high world oil prices. The disasters spawned a host of frightening prognoses in the media concerning the country’s crumbling infrastructure, which, according to the weekly Argumenty i Fakty, would cost US$50 billion a year for a decade to fix. Indeed, the new fears over the infrastructure, combined with those already well-developed fears concerning Russia’s demographic trends, created an almost apocalyptic vision of the country’s future. Alarming news rained down nonstop: even days after the Ostankino fire, the weekly newspaper Novaya gazeta warned that the crowds of Muscovites who had gathered to watch the blaze could face future health dangers, given that cables burning inside the television tower had given off clouds of highly toxic dioxin.