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Friday, January 12, 2007

The History of Fire Risk in Russia

La Russophobe recently reported that a person is 20 times more likely to be injured by fire in Russia than in the United States, this came on the heels of our reports about horrific fires wiping out dozens of lives in Russian hospitals. It's important to look back on the past analysts who got Russia right and give credit where credit is due, as well as to highlight Russia's failure to address basic problems and the contribution of Russophile maniacs to that failure. With this in mind, we reprint an article submitted to us by reader Greg Smith which first appeared in the Johnson Russia List three years ago, on November 24, 2003. Greg will be in St. Petersburg in the Spring and readers may look forward to reading his occasional posts from Ground Zero on this blog:

Yesterday's tragic fire at a Patrice Lumumba University dormitory highlights Russia's problems created by a legacy of deferred maintenance of the country's infrastructure. As a real estate practitioner, I've observed with fascinated horror, during almost twenty years of visits there, a bad situation getting worse.

During my first trip, in 1984, I found the state of most structures shocking. One of my fellow travelers, an electrical contractor, pointed repeatedly to jury rigged exterior wiring not contained in conduit. This was in major public buildings in Moscow and Leningrad. Each successive visit has seen some of same buildings continue to deteriorate with little of no maintenance.

The causes of this are several fold. First, much of the physical plant in Western Russia was destroyed or damaged during the Great Patriotic War. Replacement of structures or repairs had to be accomplished in a compressed time frame and quality of both design and craftsmanship undoubtedly suffered. Second, the West rapidly recovered from the war while Russia did not. The US emerged economically strong and via the Marshal Plan rebuilt Western Europe. The USSR believed it had to chose between "Guns and Bricks" it chose guns. A Russian friend once joked that the lights in his stairwell hadn't worked for years because the Soviets felt the resources were better used for "a hundred Kalashnikov magazines or maybe some parts for a T-62 Tank in Afghanistan."

The end result of all this was a lot of poorly constructed, poorly maintained buildings. Fifty some odd years later, it appears the chickens are coming home to roost. A few years back, the roof of a lecture hall at St. Petersburg State University spontaneously collapsed. Thankfully this occurred in the early morning hours and no one was killed or injured. About a year later, the same kind of spontaneous structural failure took place in a metro station. Sadly the colleague of a friend of mine was killed.

The third factor seems to be an effect of the unregulated cowboy capitalism of the '90's. Developers, wanting to take advantage of new opportunities, clearly cut corners, likely with the connivance of corrupt officials. As I've recounted in JRL # 6010, I've stayed in a couple of St. Petersburg buildings which required a pad code or skeleton key to get out as well as in. In a major US city, this would be unthinkable.

Solutions won't be easy. From an economic perspective a national project of capital renovation and repairs wouldn't be cost effective. In Tatarstan, the central core of Kazan is being abandoned and the population relocated a complete new city, with the attendant utilities, public transportation, fire stations, etc., at the city's edge. It's doubtful, however, that resources a would be available to implement this solution on a nationwide basis anytime soon.

As much as my industry chafes under regulatory requirements here in America, the only immediate answer may be more effective statutes governing the construction, renovation and management of real property. More importantly, serious enforcement of existing laws would prevent tragedies l such as the one yesterday. This would require, however, progress on addressing the incredible level of corruption in government and commerce which exists at every level.

First time visitors to Russia often comment to me that the country has so many problems, yet much potential. Wise decisions now, on the part of Russia's national, regional and local leaders to maintain protect and enhance the nation's buildings and the safety of its populace will help pave the way for a better future for succeeding generations.

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