Fires ravage Russian lives and economy


Russian firefighters prepare to extinguish a fire at a forest near the village of Tokhushevo, some 50 km outside Sarov on August 11, 2010. A new wildfire broke out Wednesday near a major nuclear research center in the Russian town of Sarov, causing the plant's management to ask firefighters and troops to reverse their withdrawal.


Viktor Drachev

Top News: The unusual heat wave that has irritated Russians since the start of summer turned deadly this month, sparking raging wildfires that have killed at least 54 people and left thousands homeless. The Kremlin’s reaction to the crisis was nothing short of disastrous. Authorities failed to warn of the possibilities of fire or draw up any sort of evacuation plan. Russia’s firefighting equipment is insufficient and outdated (at least Moscow accepted help from a dozen countries, including the U.S. – something it has failed to do during crises in the past, lest it look weak).

Information put out by the Kremlin in the wake of the fires was designed not to inform a worried populace, but to further the government’s efforts to appear in control. The government denied warnings by environmental agencies that the fires had reached an area polluted with radioactive particles from the Chernobyl disaster and subsequently shut down the website for a state agency that had first sounded the alarm.

The cover-up was even worse inside Moscow, which was blanketed for days in a thick, rancid smoke from the fires raging just outside the capital. The city’s longtime mayor, Yury Luzhkov, didn’t come back from a supposed vacation (rumor says he is in fact being treated for cancer) for days (now that things are looking better, he’s back on “vacation”). The head of the Moscow forestry service was on vacation when the crisis started, remained on vacation throughout it and remains on vacation to this day (though some reports say he’s been fired).

As the heat soared above 100F, health officials advised Moscow residents to stay inside and close their windows to keep out the smoke (forgetting, perhaps, that a very small minority keeps air conditioners?). People literally baked, with the old in particular succumbing in droves to heart and lung ailments. Officials finally admitted that around 700 people were dying a day in Moscow, about twice the average (though, later, the health minister would challenge that too, saying the death rate was actually falling).

As the heat and smoke abates, health experts are now saying that nearly 6,000 people died from the effects of the fires, and warn that people are now at higher risk of drinking and suicides.

In four years of covering Russia and its numerous tragedies, I can think of no other story that has so clearly illustrated the government’s disregard for its own people and so vividly illustrated its top priority – appearing in control, at the price of actually doing so.

Briefly in other news, Russia kicked off a budding spy scandal as it kicked out an alleged Romanian agent. It also geared up to launch the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran. Moscow was put on high alert after two suicide bombings in its troubled south killed one person and injured dozens.

Money: The fires not only wrecked lives, but severely damaged Russia’s economy. According to some estimates, it will cost the state $15 billion in total, shaving one percent off GDP this year. That’s in part because economists are predicting lower industrial output and higher inflation as a result of the fires.

The fires and drought have also destroyed around a quarter of Russia’s wheat crop this year, prompting a total export ban. That will be bad for Russian farmers and for top importers like Egypt, but a boon for producers in the U.S., who are largely expected to make up for the Russian shortfall.

Former BP CEO Tony Hayward flew to Russia with his replacement, Bob Dudley, and met with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, one of the country’s most powerful politicians and the man tasked with overseeing the energy sector. Dudley’s appointment as CEO is bound to cause trouble inside Russia. Dudley used to head TNK-BP, a 50-50 joint venture between BP and a group of Russian oligarchs, which accounts for one-fourth of BP’s production. Two years ago, he was forced to flee his post – and the country – after the oligarchs mounted a sustained campaign against him (mustering the full services of the Russian state, including the feared FSB) in order to win more strategic control over the company. Dudley’s appointment as CEO could point to the possibility of BP selling some of its Russia assets. Meanwhile, Hayward has already taken a post on the board of directors of Rosneft, the state-run oil giant (BP holds a small stake in Rosneft following its 2006 IPO).

Elsewhere: The US has Anna Wintour, Russia has Alyona Doletskaya. The sultry and charming chain-smoking fashionista, once floated to be first in line to replace Wintour as editor-in-chief of Vogue, left her post as editor of Vogue Russia in late July. The move came as a surprise, and now speculation is running wild as to where she’ll go next.

Russia is the world’s largest country, famous most recently for insane tales of corruption and the fact that its western region was either on fire or covered in poisonous smoke. Moscow turned into a deadly sauna during the heat wave and its hotels, on average, are the most expensive in the world, while it is the fourth most expensive city for expats. Keep that in mind when you decide whether to support Russia’s bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. If FIFA approves the move, it will say more about that organization’s corruptibility than Russia’s readiness to host the world’s largest sporting event (witness the fiasco in Sochi as the southern city gets ready to host the next Winter Olympics). At least Russia has said it will drop its pesky visa regime if it wins hosting rights.