Russians Search for Answers Amid Man-Made Disasters

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By Jeffrey Tayler

The awful fate of the cruise liner Bulgaria, which sank earlier this month during a storm on the Volga River, in the Republic of Tatarstan, still haunts Russia. On Friday, the Emergency Situations Ministry raised the wreck and released new information about the tragedy.

“The captain of the Bulgaria riverboat, whose sinking killed at least 120 people, tried desperately to steer toward shallow waters in a bid to save lives as the vessel went down, a senior emergency official said Sunday,” according to The Moscow Times’ Andrew McChesney. Nevertheless, “An initial inspection of the 79-meter boat provided no clue to why it sank.” McChesney explained that negligence may have contributed to the disaster: “The 56-year-old Bulgaria had suffered engine trouble when it embarked on its last voyage with more passengers than it was supposed to carry.” Criminal charges have been filed against the director of the tour company that chartered the Bulgaria and the federal inspector who certified the craft as fit to sail.

Russia’s transportation troubles are far from over. RIA Novosti reported that on Tuesday night a “hooligan” wielding a laser pointer temporarily blinded pilots landing a plane at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. The police arrested the culprit the following day, the news agency then announced. Shockingly, the “lawbreaker,” born in 1985, was not near the runway, as one might expect, but about 40 kilometers away “on Kosygin Street, in western Moscow.” He told policemen that “he couldn’t even imagine that his actions could cause a plane to crash.”

The Domodedovo “hooliganism” is but one of more than forty laser-pointer incidents recorded in the past few months, according to Anna Kurskaya of RIA Novosti: “So far, aircraft crews have managed to land their planes without problems, but the frequency of laser attacks is increasing greatly, and delay could cost the state dearly.” Authorities are launching an all-out campaign to deal with “laser hooligans,” wrote Kurskaya. “Law-enforcement authorities are catching hooligans, scientists are working out methods for protecting aircraft, and State Duma deputies are preparing a draft law that would make laser attacks a crime.”

The unending onslaught of man-made catastrophes in Russia has prompted much soul-searching and heated commentary in the country’s media. Yulia Latynina, a political talk show host and inveterate oppositionist, published a damning op-ed in The Moscow Times, in which she offered a partial recap of disasters caused by human error, including the Bulgaria shipwreck, a flood at a hydroelectric plant (“The cause: A repaired turbine was off balance from the moment it was reinstalled. The question was not if it would explode but when”), a mine explosion (“Miners laid a wet cloth over sensors, hampering their ability to monitor the level of explosive methane gas”), a Boeing 737 crash (“drunk pilots pushed every button they could lay their fingers on. The Boeing could only take so much of this abuse before it went into a tailspin . . .”), and a fire in a Perm night club that killed 160 people (“the walls and ceiling were covered with highly toxic polystyrene paneling that gave off deadly fumes when it burned”).

What, then, is to be done? Add more inspectors and safety officials? According to Latynina, “there is a disturbing and dangerous correlation: The more bureaucrats and inspectors Russia adds to its ranks of government employees, the higher the number of fatalities from man-made disasters.” Her suggestion: “fire them all and toughen the punishment for criminal negligence.”

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Not all news in Russia is depressing. reported on some puzzling, campy billboards popping up in central Moscow this week. They depict a grim President Dmitry Medvedev in comic-superhero garb (and, strangely, gripping an Ipad2) entitled "Captain Russia: The First Ruler" -- a riff, apparently, on posters advertising the Marvel Studios’ blockbuster "Captain America: The First Avenger." The film’s distributor professes to know nothing about the ads. Accompanying the caption in small print is a cryptic annotation (“From”) that hints at the pictures’ origins. was, earlier this year, linked to posters (also anonymously composed) that turned up in downtown Moscow showing the ruling diarchy in spiffy tennis attire.

The posters' artist, whom quoted anonymously, disavows political motivations: “You really shouldn’t interpret my work as a having a subtle political message or as a way of getting a message through to the public. It’s just a joke.” He also denied any connection to similar posters for the faux-film "VV Will Cover Your Back," which represented Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as Agent 007, packing a rod.

The authorities are not amused. Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, told that the posters were illegal. “We certainly will find out from Moscow authorities how such placards appear. The Committee [for Advertising] should be paying attention to this, but so far it isn’t.” Peskov warned the mischievous artist that his or her work “verges on hooliganism.”

Also appearing on are, from the same nameless artist, billboards with images of President Obama, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (captioned “Looking for an apartment to rent”), and a poster entitled “Let’s cross the border!” showing a border guard in lipstick and eye shadow inviting viewers to join a Gay Pride parade.

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The sight of young teens walking about outside, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, turns few heads in Russia. “Beer and . . . alcoholic cocktails . . . enjoy immense popularity with teenagers thanks to low prices and ready availability in the country's ubiquitous kiosks and convenience stores,” observed Alexander Bratersky of The Moscow Times. Russia’s total population is 139 million. Bratersky continued: “Of the 2 million of the country's officially registered alcoholics, some 60,000 are under 14, the Health and Social Development Ministry has said.”

This may be about to change. Legislation signed by President Medvedev will now heavily penalize unscrupulous vendors who sell booze to minors. Bratersky again: “Individuals will be fined 3,000 to 5,000 rubles ($100 to $170) and companies 80,000 to 100,000 rubles for selling alcohol to customers under 18. . . . Repeating the offense within six months of the fine would land the person in prison for up to one year.” Advertising alcohol “to minors will result in fines ranging from 2,000 to 50,000 rubles, and companies may have their activities suspended.”

Will keeping alcohol away from minors lead to less alcoholism, and, by extension, fewer disasters of human provenance? That is the question, and, to be sure, the fervent hope of many.

(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.)

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-0- Jul/28/2011 19:31 GMT