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Another Russian Tragedy, Another Lackluster Response

In many countries, when an easily preventable lapse in public safety claims the lives of citizens in an accident, there is usually widespread outrage, followed by dismissals, arrests, accountability procedures, investigations, trials, and new laws by regulatory authorities.  In Russia, as demonstrated most recently by the breathtaking accident of the cruise ship Bulgaria on the Volga, instead we have public outrage, a couple firings, and then back to business as usual.

Russia’s uncorrected pattern of calamities makes it one of the most accident-prone countries in the world, illustrating the broad damage caused by a horizontal of incompetence against the false “stability” of the vertical of power.

The sinking of the Bulgaria, which was carrying some 50 children taking refuge in an internal cabin, was quickly dubbed by the pundits as “a typical Russian tragedy,” meaning of course that there was almost nothing accidental about it.  The 56-year-old ship was a visibly un-seaworthy “rust tub” not even licensed to carry passengers, but was nevertheless overpacked with 200 people, well above the 140 person capacity.  As soon as the storm hit, its engines failed – which shouldn’t be surprising given that it hadn’t been serviced since 1980.  Don’t even ask about life jackets and rafts.

The problem is how Russia arrived to a point at which such events are accepted as normal rather than exceptional.

In response to these repeated tragic accidents, the politicians will usually put on a good show of diligent and responsible rhetoric.  Vladimir Putin, for example, was apoplectic with anger:  “It is horrible that we have to pay such a toll for this irresponsibility, such complacency, such greed,” he said. “How could a company without a license for tourist operations, without a licence to use ships—how did it manage to exist at all?

But some people might remember how Putin also got angry when the submarine Kursk tragically sank in 2000, claiming the lives of all 118 sailors aboard.  The incident was horribly mishandled by the president, who refused offers of help from other governments, frozen with indecision, while a delayed, botched rescue attempt has only been forgotten in light of even worse crisis management, such as Beslan and the Nord Ost Theatre terrorist hostage showdowns.  When interviewer Larry King asked Putin what happened to the Kursk a few years later, his curt, ice-cold reply was:  “It sank.

The very last place you want to find yourself is in a public safety crisis situation in Russia, wherein the rapid response of the authorities to beat the clock and rescue the victims like a Hollywood movie is what is needed.  The horrific accident at Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric power station is just one example of many of how high the human cost can be of poor management and governance.  Sometimes it even just feels like a long streak of bad luck:  Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist who was assassinated in a hail of bullets in 2004, only died after having arrived to the hospital, when the elevator carrying his stretcher got stuck between floors.  The anecdotal experiences on a simple, personal level for many Russians is staggering.

Putin’s response to the Volga incident was interesting for several reasons, most notably because it stands in stark contrast to the official silence that follows most tragedies in Russia. And there have been many. Just a day after the sinking of the Bulgaria, a Russian passenger plane caught fire and crash-landed in a Siberian river, killing at least six people and refreshing concerns about the safety of Russia’s aging Soviet-era aircraft.

A day later, Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, recommended grounding all Tupelev-134s and Antonov-24s currently in use in the Russian civilian fleet, and for good reason: in June another Tupelev crashed in northern Russia, killing 44 its 52 passengers; and in February an Antonov passenger plain fell apart in mid-air and crashed in the Belgorod region.  Just one day after the cruise ship sank, 150 Russian passengers refused to reboard a Tupolev jet whose engine had caught fire before take-off.  “The turbine was in flames,” an eye-witness told Interfax. “We have videos of how the fire engines swarmed around the plane from all sides. Then we were told that the aircraft had been repaired and we should fly home with it. Naturally, we all refused. Why should we risk our lives?

But it’s not just boats, airplanes, radically unsafe roads, mines, and power plants.  Russia’s culture of disaster has systemic features that prevent self-correction, no doubt engendered by a crippled Russian civil society and a broken legal system.

The solutions that are available to the authorities are appalling.  After a deadly methane blast in Mezhdurechensk, Siberia killed 90 miners in 2010, miners’ protests over safety and wages were met with derision and crackdowns by riot police.  Following the infamous and deadly fire at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm in 2009, it was discovered that the club, which caught fire due to an illegal indoor fireworks display and a highly flammable ceiling, had been operating in violation of code for more than 8 years.  According to one source, more than 17,000 people died in fires in 2006 in Russia, nearly 13 for every 100,000 people, more than 10 times the rates typical of Western Europe and the United States.  Most commonly, as has been the case with the Bularia sinking, the Russian government fires a few people symbolically in charge of these areas, and everything resumes unchanged.

There is a criminal levity toward life, one’s own and the lives of others, that prevails in this country,” analyst Alexei Makarkin told CSM following the Perm fire. “There is a Russian attitude which we call ‘avos’ (roughly meaning ‘que sera, sera’) that led them to think, ‘hey, we’ve been doing this for eight years and it’s always been OK. So why worry?’”

Of course not all the public safety issues in Russia can necessarily be tackled by traditional political measures.  Laws already exist requiring regular maintenance check ups of these types of ships – but corruption has eliminated any real effect that the legislation might have (the same goes for safety regulations, including anti-terrorism measures for the airports and metro).  The problem also requires a sincere effort from the leadership to tackle a deeply embedded culture of fatalistic indifference – but to pretend that this is not possible is just an abdication of the most basic duty of governance: to protect the people.