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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Horror of "Life" in Russia

The New York Times' Russia correspondent Steven Lee Myers reports on the fundmental horror of so-called "life" in Russia:

THERE was something sadly predictable about the reaction to Russia’s latest convulsion of disasters: a plane crash, a mine blast and a nursing home fire. In the span of four days, 180 Russians died and the country, more or less, shrugged.

“They thought about this between the borscht and the cutlet,” Matvei Ganapolsky, a radio host, said on Ekho Moskvy, comparing Russia’s collective reaction to tragedy, unfavorably, to that of other countries. Outrage or grief or sympathy lasts about as long as a pause between the courses.

It would be wrong to stereotype, to say that Russians are fatalistic or heartless. They are, however, not only resigned to tragedy but inured to it in a way that to many raises alarms about the country’s future. They’re not just helpless in the face of disaster; they could be called complicit, ever beckoning the next one by their actions or lack of.

Disasters, natural and man-made, occur everywhere, but unnatural death occurs in Russia with unnatural frequency and in unnatural quantity.

In a report in 2005 called “Dying Too Young,” the World Bank warned that accidents, which affect men of working age most, were contributing to Russia’s decline in population. The country is now a world leader in industrial accidents, like the explosion at a Siberian mine on Monday that killed 110, in traffic accidents, in fires, in murders and in suicides.

Russians grieve, but they do so privately. They rarely demand public action — through the media, elected representatives or, in the extreme, street protests. A result is a lack of accountability, even impunity, that lets corruption fester, otherwise solvable problems mount and disasters repeat.

A fire early Tuesday engulfed a government home for the elderly and disabled in a small town on the Azov Sea, killing 63 at last count. It quickly became apparent that the building had been declared unsafe, inadequately equipped to suppress fire and built with toxic materials that almost certainly increased the death toll. And yet somehow it remained open. A night guard, officials said, made things worse by ignoring two alarms before calling the fire department, which was more than 30 miles away, anyway.

If it seemed shockingly familiar, that’s because it was. A fire in December killed 46 at a drug-treatment hospital in Moscow. The doors and windows were locked. Inspectors had spotted violations that were apparently never fixed. A day later 10 patients died in a fire at a home for the mentally ill in Siberia.

Igor L. Trunov, a prominent lawyer in Moscow, argued that a lack of legal — or political — accountability allowed private companies and public agencies to flout rules and regulations and escape punishment for wrongdoing. He cited the airline industry, saying that aging equipment, shoddy maintenance and poor training contributed to a rash of crashes.

The latest came on March 17 when a Soviet-era airliner missed a runway in Samara and flipped, killing 7 of 57 people aboard in an accident preliminarily attributed to mechanical problems and pilot error.

That crash followed two major disasters last year — a crash landing in Irkutsk, in Sibera, which killed 125, and a flight to St. Petersburg that crashed in a storm over eastern Ukraine, killing 170 — that cast doubt not only on the safety of the fleets, but also on the state’s enforcement policies.

Mr. Trunov’s answer is still a novelty here: the lawsuit.

He has campaigned to win more compensation for victims of some prominent tragedies: an avalanche in the Northern Caucasus in 2002 (125 dead); the botched rescue of hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002 (128); the collapse of a water park in Moscow in 2004 (28); and both of last year’s air disasters (295). He has so far lost them all.

Russia, he said, suffers from a mentality in which human life is not valued. In a recent article he computed the value of a person based on various countries’ laws for compensating injuries or death. Life in Russia is, in fact, cheap. According to his calculation a Russian is worth $118,000; an American, $3.2 million.

While an avalanche may seem like an unavoidable act of God, Mr. Trunov pointed out that there had been four previous ones in the same gorge. And each time the authorities have rebuilt the village that was destroyed. “The fact that the authorities do nothing about it is, I think, criminal negligence,” he said.

President Vladimir V. Putin has carefully cultivated an image as a capable, competent manager. He has hectored officials about each new tragedy, but neither he nor they seem inclined, or able, to resolve the root causes.

A promised investigation into the terrorist siege at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, which resulted in the deaths of 334, was so intent to lay the entire blame with the terrorists that it lied about aspects of the rescuers’ actions (like tanks firing into the school). There was no effort to explore — and learn from — the mistakes or misconduct of any officials.

It has become a sorry routine: the promise of action and the failure to deliver. After the disaster at the indoor water park, the emergencies minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, appeared before TV cameras and demanded an end to shoddy building and maintenance. No one has yet been held to account. In February 2006 the roof of a market built by the same architect collapsed; 56 died.

History might explain part of the country’s indifference. Russia has endured revolution and war on a scale that can be difficult to comprehend. A former commandant of the Army War College in the United States, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, once recalled giving a Russian general a tour of Gettysburg. The Russian asked the American how many casualties the battle produced. Told that 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing, the Russian swept his hand dismissively. “Skirmish,” he said.

But Mr. Ganapolsky, the radio host, said history alone did not explain today’s Russia. Russians care, he said in an interview, but they stay home and express their anger or sorrow in private.

“Why do Italians come out into the streets?” he said. “Because they know they can change their government. Why don’t Russians come out in the street? Because they know they will meet the riot police.”

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