The smoke is gone for now, but the peat bogs are still boiling, and the forests are burning. As of Thursday morning, 484,000 acres of forest were burning, 17,000 more than the day before. Fifty people have reportedly died in the fires—this on top of the unknown number of deaths from temperatures higher than anything ever recorded in Western Russia. More than two thousand homes have been destroyed. All around the capital, twelve thousand peat bogs are slowly simmering, sending toxic clouds of carbon-rich smoke into the city. Alexander Chuchalin, the chief pulmonologist of Russia (who knew they had such a thing?), said that the air in the capital has gotten so bad that it was like all Muscovites had become chain smokers overnight. Current levels of carbon monoxide, he said, “damage an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body, which equals to the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours,” he told a news conference.
Dr. Chuchalin made this statement last Wednesday, a day that smelled vaguely of barbecue. This week, just after midnight Tuesday, the mesquite smell returned. By 4 A.M., Moscow was enveloped in a heavy fog, one that didn’t lift. By Wednesday afternoon, visibility had dropped to a hundred yards. The smoke had penetrated the city’s deepest Metro stations, which had been used as bomb shelters during the Second World War. A fine grit coated parked cars. Chests rasped, eyes watered. But Muscovites who ventured out into the thick pewter cloud soldiered on without masks. “No, we are Russians,” a nurse told my friend Miriam Elder, reporting for GlobalPost. “We believe in luck.”
Elder travelled to one of the worst-hit areas, eighty-some miles southeast of Moscow, near Ryazan. “With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle.” (Elder could have used help herself; she sank into a boiling sandpit, getting second-degree burns on the soles of her feet.)
This scene is playing out all over the Russian countryside, which, as always, is suffering far more than Moscow. Villagers received no fire warnings. When the fires started approaching, some had trouble reaching the local authorities. Others begged for buses to help evacuate their villages, were told to fend for themselves. Fire trucks didn’t come, either, and then their homes, made of wood, were gone in minutes. The forestry minister, meanwhile, is on his August vacation, and has no plans to cut it short.
The government’s response has been a disaster, and the people are blaming their local officials—but not the very top. When a mob of irate women descended on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they weren’t mad at him; they were demanding that he, as one woman put it, “string [local officials] up by the balls.”
A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out. The organization charged with extinguishing fires was the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which responded speedily and capably to the Moscow Metro bombings in March, but a 2005 reform instituted by Putin left regional emergency outfits severely underfunded.
Except for the minority who read news in papers or online, Russians would never know that shoddy, nonsensical, industry-friendly deregulation was responsible for this natural disaster as much as the weather. Instead, the vast majority get their news from television, which has been broadcasting pictures of Putin, sleeves rolled up, touring the destruction. In a particularly fine touch, the main Russian television channel broadcast a “phone call” from Putin, ostensibly on his cell phone in the middle of a pristine birch grove, to President Dmitry Medvedev, back in his ornate Kremlin office. The message was clear: Putin was in charge, and this reassured the people who had lost homes to the fires he helped cause. “Putin said they’ll build us all new houses, so it will probably happen,” one villager told the Independent.
Putin, of course, is invoking the old archetype of the Tsar-Batyushka: the benevolent King and Father, who can magically help his subjects. It is the same role Putin plays once a year on a carefully scripted call-in television show, when supplicants call in and ask for apartments or better pensions. It is also a moment in which the Janus-faced tsar’s cruelty and greed, his indifference to his subjects, are forgotten, mostly because there is no other option. There were no other emergency valves en route to this fiery disaster—no forest rangers, fire trucks, and, of course, no insurance—and a tidy, if tiny, cash payout from Putin ex machina must still come with a huge surge of relief, gratitude, and, worse, fealty.
When the debate about places like Russia touches on democracy and the free press, one side of the conversation tends to stress a culture’s own rules: Who are we to tell them how to live? That is a fair point, and maybe democracy is not the answer here. But the unaccountable, reckless, and deeply rooted political system in Russia today—a system that can trace itself back past the days of the tsars, to the tatars, to the Mongols—is not a good one, especially not for subjects who console themselves with conspiracy theories, or the hope of a benevolent whim, or, as the nurse said, luck.
In the meantime, the fires continue to burn and, as I write this, the smell of burning wood drifts slowly back into the city.
Russia on Fire [The New Yorker]