When Robert Shlegel, a twenty-six-year-old member of the Russian Duma, the parliament, saw the news of an explosion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, he heard some other reports as well. “Tomorrow, I am going to introduce legislation cracking down on illegal taxis,” he told me, standing in the middle of the airport in a trim tweed overcoat, an iPad under his arm. “There were rumors going around on Twitter that taxis were charging twenty thousand rubles”—six hundred and sixty-nine dollars—“to take people from the airport.” (It’s about an hour to the center of town.) This kind of profiteering was especially galling to Shlegel because the same kind of racket goes down every time there’s a tragedy in Moscow, and no one seems to learn from it: “It happened in December”—when an apocalyptic layer of ice covered the capital and halted air travel at peak holiday time—“it happened in March”—when two young women detonated themselves in the Moscow metro, killing forty people—“it happens all the time, and no one does anything about it. In every civilized country, there are official airport taxis and they have official rates,” Shlegel said.
It soon became clear, however, that gypsy cabs were the least of Shlegel’s, or anyone’s, worries. Thirty-five bodies still lay in the greeting area outside the international arrivals gate, now festooned with hanging debris and police tape. The injured, a hundred and eighty of them, were on their way to various Moscow hospitals, some with shrapnel wounds, others with traumatic amputations. Worried parents stood waiting to meet their children, returning—they hoped—from trips abroad, as bands of camera crews and journalists roved the scene. One illegal taxi driver, a stunned thirty-year-old named Artem Zhilenkov, became their main catch. Dressed in a Russian Olympic-team track suit flecked with blood, hair, and unidentifiable bits of human flesh, he recounted to a pushy press scrum how he saw a man walk into the center of the crowd and explode.
And yet the airport was kept open and operating, even though the acrid smoke had barely dissipated. (Not to mention that terrorist attacks in Moscow tend to happen in pairs.) Planes kept landing, planes kept taking off, and people kept arriving to get on those planes. By 8:30 that evening—just four hours after the blast—the police decided to screen every single person entering the airport, and that’s when all those people discovered that Domodedovo really is Russia’s biggest and busiest airport: there was only one revolving door, and one metal detector for all of them.
Shlegel, the young Duma deputy, watched the resultant bottleneck, as it swayed and pushed and spilled back out onto the curb, his face registering utter disbelief. People shoved in twos and threes through the metal detector as the narrow plastic rectangle flashed an error message and beeped in uninterrupted desperation. A cop tried to send one man back through, but there was already a throng behind him, pushing him into the departure hall. A plaid suitcase crowdsurfed toward the baggage scanner. A large lady in a large fur coat exploded through the clog, wondering aloud if there was really a god. The metal detector, which was not attached to the floor, began to wobble and dance. A fistfight broke out.
Shlegel took some videos with his iPhone:
Domodedovo security line
Then Shlegel grabbed a policeman—an officer of decent rank —and asked him to set up a new entrance. The policeman escorted Shlegel to Entrance No. 1 to show him that it was already working. There was only a thin stream of people here, so Shlegel asked the cop to go and tell all those people cramming themselves through Entrance No. 2 to come to Entrance No. 1 instead. The cop ducked away, slipping his arm out of Shlegel’s grasp.
Shelgel spun around, his fair face reddening. “This horrible,” he said. “I mean, this is just fucking—Oh, sorry! I mean, this is outrageous! Why isn’t there anyone handling this? Where are the police? Where is the airport administration? Why isn’t there any announcement about the other door?” An idea came to him: maybe he could have someone make an announcement. But how? “I don’t even know whom to call,” he wondered out loud, striding quickly, somewhere, all the while. (It was then he reconsidered his legislative project: “The airport’s entire staff should be fired,” he said. “Maybe I should propose that instead.”)
“Where is Information?” he asked two cops who seemed to just be standing around. They smirked and pointed past Shlegel: it was right behind him.
Shlegel nearly ran up to the Information booth, and pleaded with a heavyset woman behind the counter to make an announcement that there was another entrance open.
“That entrance is open,” she said, peering at him skeptically over her glasses and pointing to Entrance No. 1.
“Yes, I know, I used it myself,” Shlegel said, attempting to explain that he wanted an announcement that Entrance No. 1 was open in order to alleviate the congestion at Entrance No. 2.
“I can’t make an announcement!” the woman said. “The announcer has to make the announcement. See, she’s making an announcement now and I can’t interrupt her.”
Shlegel would run into this problem again when he encountered the only megaphone in the airport. The megaphone was attached to a cop, and the cop told Shlegel he could not leave his post, which was in a deserted wing of the airport. Behind him, in the corner, stood a metal detector, complete with an operator, lonely and useless.
“Look! That’s a working metal detector! Why is it just standing there? It’s on wheels—why can’t they move it over to the other entrance?” Shlegel asked. The cop shrugged.
Shlegel speed walked back to Entrance No. 2, where things were not looking any better. The metal detector was still wobbling under the weight of the crowd. Now desperate, he tried to tell people himself. “There’s another entrance,” he said approaching the crush of passengers, laughing uncomfortably. “It’s open.”
“This is useless, I think,” he said after a minute of blank stares.
Nearby, a group of young men and women held up pieces of printer paper with the words “I’ll give you a free ride to the Metro” scrawled on them in ballpoint pen. They were activists from Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, whom Shlegel had mobilized—along with the group’s “Gazelle” vans. (Shlegel is himself a Nashi commissar, and it was his activism in the group that catapulted him into the Duma.) No one seemed to be taking them up on their offer.
Shlegel called a few people to complain, but he seemed defeated and frustrated in his unexpressive way. “I’ll tell you a funny story,” he said. To get to Domodedovo that evening, Shlegel decided to take the Aeroexpress, the express train running from the city center. Aeroexpress had announced that it would be running for free for the rest of the evening. And yet people stood there buying tickets. The command had simply not trickled down. “So I went up to the cashier, and told her what had been announced and showed her my Duma card,” Shlegel said. “She took my card, went with it somewhere, and all of a sudden I hear an announcement that the train is free.”
Shlegel laughed, and I laughed, too, but he quickly cut me off. “It’s not funny,” he said, suddenly self-conscious. For him, an official from the ruling party, a very visible member of the Nashi movement and the Russian blogosphere, to be suddenly useless in a moment of chaos and national need—I could see why the moment would lack the tragicomic luster of so many things in Russia. Trained as an activist, a doer, Shlegel stood face to face with a stupid, inefficient, dangerous situation: the airport was still running when it should have been shut down; the one metal detector to screen the incoming crowd was clearly useless and was rarely used in normal circumstances; the authorities, now highly competent at clearing and cordoning off scenes of a terrorist attack, were still bad at directing the rest and worse at prevention. Shlegel, like all other Russians—officials or civilians—operate in a vertical in an easily paralyzed system where everyone is waiting for a command from the next level up. But, as WikiLeaks showed, a good half of even the all-powerful Vladmir Putin’s commands went unimplemented. If that was the case, what could a twenty-six-year-old member of a rubber-stamp parliament do but let the situation spin itself out?
A Bombing at the Airport [TNY]