This month's flooding in the southern Russian town of Krymsk, which left 172 dead, have illustrated two important new realities of Russian politics. First of all, public trust in the government has reached the point of no return as, by and large, statements issued by government officials are now seen as lies by many in Russia. Secondly, due to the ineffectiveness of government measures, growing numbers of citizens’ groups have appeared in order to fill the gap, effectively creating alternative agencies of self-government.

 

 

"Should we have knocked on every door?"

 

In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, American political theorist Thomas Paine wrote that, “Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”

This proved very true following the tragic events in Krasnodarsky region that in their article on the subject Kommersant journalists aptly dubbed “The Krasnodar Collapse.”

On July 6th, 2012, the amount of rainfall in the vicinities of Krymsk, Gelendzhik and Novorossiysk, located in the south of Russia, surpassed levels normally expected for periods of three months. Heavy water currents rushed from the mountains to the towns at the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountain range, sweeping away everything in their path. As the witnesses later said, the water level in the city of Krymsk rose several meters in a matter of hours. Waves reached 7 meters high. Two thirds of the city was left in ruins. Over 40 thousand people were affected by the flooding, and 172 died, according to official figures.

On the following day, Russian cyberspace filled with heated discussions about the tragic events in Krymsk. Exasperated locals accused authorities of having released the floodwaters from the Neberdzhaevskoye reservoir sluices directly onto Krymsk in order to prevent the much larger city of Novorossiysk from flooding, which would have caused much more damage. Later, authorities and scientific experts claimed that the reservoir design made this claim impossible, but hardly anyone believed them.

Krymsk had previously suffered a disastrous flood in 2002, which had left over 60 dead. Following the tragedy, specialists from the Ministry of Emergency Situations developed recommendations for the prevention of such incidents in the future. One of the key points was that a public alert system needed to be created in the city (by 2002, the old system was no longer working). It goes without saying that nothing has been done in response to these now ten-year-old recommendations.

As Novaya Gazeta reported from Krymsk (here and here), no one in the city believed that it was the rain that had caused the flooding. Instead, citizens were convinced that it was water released from the reservoir and that people had been “drowned like kittens.” No one believed the official body count, either; there were rumors of thousands of freshly dug graves at the city cemetery. Social networking sites overflowed with posts all saying the same thing: “Please speak honestly about Krymsk.”

 

The aftermath of the 6th / 7th July floods in the town Krymsk, Krasnodar region. Photographs by Valentin Mischenko and Mikhail Mordasov.

 

Another contributing factor to the critical levels of public mistrust surrounding the tragedy is that on the day following the flood, a propaganda campaign was launched on all state-controlled television networks intended to absolve local authorities of any responsibility. In one report, Alexander Tkachev, Governor of the Krasnodarsky region tells President Putin, who had flown in to Krymsk, that natural disasters are hard to predict: “We had six months’ worth of rainfall in a single day,” the Governor stammered excitedly. In response bloggers sarcastically remarked that soon the reported rainfall would rise to a year’s worth. “At 11 PM local time, television stations put up a crawler displaying storm alerts,” the Governor kept justifying himself. The problem with this is that by 11 PM, most of the city had already lost power.

In another report, a young correspondent from government-controlled Channel 1 walked around Neberdzhaevskoye Reservoir, showing that there were indeed no sluices that could have been used to release the water onto Krymsk. Similar reports appeared on other national television networks. Governor Tkachev went so far as  to arrange helicopter tours to prove that no one released anything from the reservoir.

But all the media reports and the Governor's clumsy attempts to justify the authorities’ actions created the opposite effect. Public mistrust only grew stronger, along with their irritation and despair. The climax this information war came with the controversial statement from Governor Tkachev that slipped out during meeting with a group of Krymsk citizens. When they accused him of failing to alert the people, he blurted out  “Should we have knocked on every door?”

These words caused an instant uproar on social networking sites. The infamous phrase is likely to appear in a future textbook on Russian political history of our times, next to Vladimir Putin’s answer to Larry King’s question about the Kursk submarine disaster, “It sank.”  Tkachev's words are the paragon of the  government's attitude toward citizens. Human life has no value for authorities. In today's political system, the average Russian is a pawn in a game, a token, an electoral entity. Anything but a person, citizen, or human being, whose life should be priceless.

The Law of Opposite Reaction

 

Newton's third law of motion says that when two bodies interact by exerting force on each other, these forces are equal in magnitude, but opposite in direction. In a political context, this formula might be rephrased to say that the more authorities tighten the screws and pressure the public, the greater the possibility of the public rebelling. The uglier the revolution is, the uglier is the reactionary phase following in its wake. The more authorities ignore their own citizens, the faster the citizens find ways to self-organize in aims of solving their own problems.

The Krymsk tragedy has once again highlighted the opposing interests of the Russian authorities and public. The former are getting rich, the latter, fighting for survival. When the news of the flood was broadcast on television, groups of volunteers descended on the city of Krymsk. They set up stations to collect and distribute humanitarian aid, drinking water, medical supplies, and other essentials. Volunteers transported and donated these supplies and helped clean debris.

Many donated money. The Krasnodar branch of the Red Cross opened an official account to accept donations. According to a recent report, as of July 19th, more than 424 million rubles (about $12.8 million USD) were donated in a single week. A group created on the Russian social networking site VKontakte managed to raise approximately 4 million rubles (about $120,000 USD). Donations averaged between 500 and 2000 rubles ($15 to $60.) The group currently has over 15 thousand members exchanging information, organizing grass roots humanitarian trips to the flooded region, and arranging searches for those still missing.

In the face of the tragedy, many political opponents presented a united front, namely members of the United Russia, Just Russia, and Yabloko parties as well as various other political organizations. United Russia stood out by putting stickers with the party logo on humanitarian aid packages.

Naturally, the aftermath of the Krymsk floods is not the only example of people banding together to solve their own problems when faced with gross government neglect. In the summer of 2010, during the forest fires in the Moscow region, many bought fire extinguishers, formed their own fire brigades, drove to the burning areas, or helped find alternative shelters for those who had nowhere to go.

Nonetheless, Krymsk is different. Russia’s social and political climate has changed drastically since 2010.  Russia has witnessed the insulting “political swap” of September 2011, which incted the mass protest movement and essentially delegitimized the Putin regime. The sacred nature of the state was violated, and every future disaster will deal another blow to the reputation of the authorities. If Thomas Paine was right, sooner or later, the critical mass of civil activities will be reached, and it will create a sense of self-sufficiency in the public mind, which, in turn, might create conditions for building the new Russian political system.

 

Head of Krymsk region Vassily Krutko (left) and Mayor of Krymsk, Vladimir Ulanovsky (right) were both fired for negligence and on June 22 were detained as part of the criminal investigation into the flood causes.

 

For now, everything in Russia continues in the same, old vicious cycle. People die, political mechanisms do not work, officials responsible for the disasters do not resign. Officials justify themselves, blaming their subordinates or anyone else they can think of, including “foreign enemies.” The Krasnodar tragedy is no exception. The unsinkable Tkachev, Putin's ally, remains in the governor's chair, having found scapegoats to take the blame. Tkachev simply fired head of Krymsk region Vassily Krutko and Mayor of Krymsk, Vladimir Ulanovsky for negligence. And on July 22nd, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor General's Office announced that Krutko and Ulanovsky had been detained as part of their criminal investigation into the flood causes. Things couldn't have been any different: in the nearby city of Sochi, Governor Tkachev is supervising the construction of the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, a strategic project for the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin personally. Putin is known for protecting his friends and allies, even at the expense of 172 lives. They sank, that's all.

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