On the Perils of August in Russia: World View

a | A

By Jeffrey Tayler

As the days of July tick by, Russians prepare for August – a month they have learned to associate with disasters, both natural and man-made. The 1991 hard-line coup attempt, the 1998 default and devaluation, the 2000 sinking of the submarine Kursk, and last year's choking peat-bog fires all happened in August.

This year, though, "August began in June," wrote Victor Davidoff in an op-ed for The Moscow Times. "On June 20, a Tu-134 plane crashed in Karelia, killing 44 people. On July 13, an An-24 plane made an emergency landing on water in the Tomsk region, killing seven people. And on July 10, the tourist ship Bulgaria sunk not far from Kazan, killing 114 people (15 passengers are still missing and presumed dead).”

All the crashing and sinking was bound to provoke an official response from the Kremlin. President Dmitry Medvedev called for a ban on the Soviet-era planes still coursing through Russia’s ether, reported Alexandra Odynova of The Moscow Times. Unfortunately, “. . . Medvedev neglected to say how the planes might be replaced.” The problem is that the “Soviet aircraft -- such as the An-24 turboprop and Tu-134 twin-engine jet -- provide the only connection to the outside world for hundreds of settlements in Siberia -- a region that the Kremlin wants to make sure remains loyal amid fears of weakening ties with the rest of Russia.”

The Ministry of Transport, for its part, said that while it is “looking into the possibility of grounding AN-24s on regular air routes . . . . there is no question of ending all flights by such aircraft.” The communiqué went on to say, “the further use of AN-24s after 1 January 2012, as with the Tu-134s, will be dependent on their being equipped with” safety systems to prevent in-air collisions and crash-landings. Only an “insignificant number of airplanes [in Russia] are equipped with such systems” – scant comfort for Russians and foreigners alike who need to fly to remote locals across the largest country on earth.

Doing much to improve transport conditions on Russian waterways – banning, say, aging cruise liners -- would also be problematic. Sergey Mamonov, the chief specialist for Russia’s river fleet, told Gazeta.ru’s Anastasia Berseneva that the newest ship was built in 1992, and “all [the boats in the Russian] passenger fleet can be described as broken-down tubs” – bad news for those sailing the waters of a country with some of the world’s longest rivers.

Will further presidential decrees really make Russia’s skies (or rivers) safer? In his blog  on Zhivoy Zhurnal (Live Journal), anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny scathingly declared that, “every time something collapses, sinks, or blows up, the leadership puffs up its cheeks and talks about” taking severe measures in response. In fact, Navalny noted, safety controls already theoretically in place should suffice, if only they were observed. But “every child in this country knows that the impossibly great number of supervising organizations exist only to feed the staff of those organizations.”

What, then, is to be done? “Even if we were to introduce [penalties such as] drawing and quartering and subsequent burning, it would do no good.” Rather, Navalny wrote, “Every time we announce ‘We’ll investigate and punish the guilty,’ we need to investigate and punish the guilty. We need to imprison those directly culpable, fire the bosses of the guilty, and the highest political bosses of the guilty . . . need to resign.” All of which are unlikely events, given the depressingly lengthy list Navalny himself presents of catastrophes and terrorist attacks in Russia for which no one has been held accountable.

Incidentally, flyers in Russia have more than just decaying aircraft to fear, as Komsomolskaya Pravda reported. An eleven-year-old “hooligan” goofing around by a runway and wielding a laser pen almost blinded the pilot of an incoming TU-134 passenger plane at the airport of Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Luckily, the jet, which was carrying twenty-three passengers, made it to the ground safely. The mother will be either fined for “improperly raising” her child, or possibly just given an official warning.

* * *

At times one gets the impression that the guilty never pay for their crimes in Russia. Meanwhile, many who have yet to be proven guilty sit in detention centers, where they face the perils of tuberculosis and their fellow inmates.

But life in Russian jail isn’t all bad. At the Serpukhov pre-trial detention center near Moscow inmates threw a lavish toga party to fete the birthday of a criminal leader, according to Life News. Outfitted in improvised Roman garb, and brandishing fake swords and shields, the prisoners yucked it up for the camera, feasted on caviar and tequila, and even downed fast food from MacDonald’s. (Somehow the pictures were leaked to Life News.)

Authorities are investigating, said RIA Novosti, which reminded readers that big-house rules do not provide for “celebrating any type of holidays.” How the detainees got access to the party supplies remains a mystery.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.

-0- Jul/21/2011 17:00 GMT