I was on the phone this week with my Russian friend Val, trying to plan a trip to Moscow, but all she wanted to talk about was Sunday’s tragedy in Kemerovo – and how disgraceful it was that CNN International ignored this disaster because of nonstop coverage of Stormy Daniels.
Kemerovo is a Siberian city where at least 64 people, two-thirds of them kids, died from a fire in a mall cinema because the doors had been locked and the fire alarm shut off. The children were frantically text-messaging their parents and screaming for help into cellphones. One fifth-grade student, Maria Moroz, posted: “We’re burning. It’s probably goodbye.”
No rescue workers came to her rescue, and her whole class died.
So, my friend Val was correct; the Kemerovo fire does deserve serious attention here, not only because it is a gripping human story, but because it reveals so much about Russians and about Vladimir Putin – at a time when our two countries are increasingly at odds.
The fire occurred only 10 days after Putin’s huge fourth-term “victory” (in a presidential election where the chief opposition candidate was barred). State-run news channels initially tried to ignore the fire in favor of tirades at Europe’s expulsion of Russian diplomats. But TV news soon had to turn to condolences – and coverage of Putin’s rushed trip to Kemerovo.
“Russia saw Putin, unfamiliar to her, gloomy, stunned, short-lived, aged, and frankly avoiding communication with people,” wrote Fedor Krasheninnikov in the independent Russian newsmagazine New Times.
When the Russian leader arrived in Kemerovo, people were entirely banned from the streets (and sidewalks) as his motorcade sped through. He never met with the crowd of enraged families and friends who gathered outside the cinema. He referred to the tragedy as “a demographic problem” because kids died.
And no wonder they were outraged. According to news reports, the private mall was a substandard product of a typical local city bureaucracy that behaves worse than in Soviet times, forcing companies to pay endless bribes – sometimes for evasion of safety rules.
In cases such as the mall fire, the welfare of individuals is usually treated with indifference by officials. “There is nothing new about Kemerovo,” says Yevgenia Albats, editor of New Times, referring to terrorist attacks on a Moscow theater and a school in the city of Beslan. In these cases, official rescuers killed hundreds of terrified hostages by launching a gas attack inside the theater and a shooting attack on the school.
In this case, asks Albats, “when it became known that the doors were locked, why did no one [of the cinema staff or rescue teams] run to unlock the kids or give the keys to the firemen? We have nuclear cruise missiles, but we don’t have what is needed to save kids from jumping from the fourth floor?”
Anton Gorelkin, a member of the Russian parliament from Kemerovo, bitterly accused the mall’s financier and an unnamed deputy mayor of bribery: “People whose pockets this shopping center filled with millions, I believe, knew that this money might someday smell of blood,” he wrote on Facebook.
And Igor Vostrikov, a father who lost three children, his wife, and his sister, furiously attacked Putin on his VKontakte page (the Russian equivalent of Facebook), saying: “My family is no more. The ruling regime is to blame in my country. Every official dreams to steal like Putin. Every civil servant treats people like dirt.”
In other words, Vostrikov was blaming the system. But the regional governor accused this bereft father of being a self-promoter. National TV never even covered the angry demonstration of 1,500 people that gathered outside the cinema.
Here is where we come to the wider meaning of Kemerovo.
You might think that the national anger sparked by this needless tragedy might even lead to a drop in Putin’s sky-high popularity ratings (which he is very attuned to) or to public pressure for long-delayed reforms at home rather than foreign ventures such as Syria.
But scan through the 6,400 comments on Vostrikov’s post and you mostly find resignation. “Hold on, find the strength to live in yourself. We are powerless,” writes one woman.
Vostrikov himself rails that Putin’s government will “find a scapegoat and close the topic. The threats, negligence, total corruption, total degradation of the population, will go nowhere.”
Albats says: “It’s not that people love Putin. It’s that they fear things getting worse.” Russia, she told me by phone, “is a nation of survivors that lost 60 million people in the 20th century.” Even with dropping incomes, after the oil-price plunge, many Russians feel better off than they have in decades, she adds.
In other words, neither domestic tragedies such as Kemerovo nor a stagnant economy will turn Putin from his course, which is to reestablish Russia as a global power equal to America. Nationalists will cheer on his foreign adventures; other Russians will tolerate them.
And U.S. officials, with or without support from President Trump (we don’t yet know if the U.S. expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats means a new direction), must take this reality to heart.