Monday, August 9, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Fires Producing Chernobyl-Type Panic in Russia, Moscow Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 9 – The impact of smoke from Russia’s fires on the physically weakest members of society, the inability of the powers that be to deal with this consequence, and the efforts of some officials to impose “an information blockade” on what is going on is generating a Chernobyl-type panic in many parts of the Russian Federation.
Even more than the fires, Anton Razmakhnin writes in today’s “Svobodnaya pressa,” the way smoke is affecting people and official efforts to deny or play down the problem – the site of a blogger doctor who talked about it was shut down, for example, have left people with the sense that they are “waiting for the apocalypse” (
The current situation and especially the panic among Russians resembles “in many ways” the situation in the Soviet Union after the Chernobyl atomic power station accident in April 1986,” Razmakhnin says, citing a member of the faculty of military training at Moscow State University who in making that point insisted on anonymity.
And that comparison seems especially apt given the quotation from I.G. Gavrilets’ study of what happened 24 years ago not so much at the station itself but rather the way in which information about that event reached the Soviet population and the impact of that information, “The Psycho-Physiology of Man in Extreme Situations” (in Russian; Kyiv, 2006).
Gavrilets wrote that in 1986, “the information which began to be disseminated in the West contained warnings about the dangers [arising from the accident]. But this reached only a few and as a rule in a distorted fashion.” As a result, it “became an additional source of powerful psychological stress on people.”
“Incomplete and distorted information and disinformation had their effect: they produced the fear which is always a major cause of panic.” That is what happened in Kyiv May 4-5, 1986, he continued. “Under the impact of the most improbable rumors ... and as a result of concrete official information, people did whatever they could to save themselves and their families.”
They filled all transportation channels leaving the Ukrainian capital, sometimes waiting all night to purchase tickets and often boarding without them so as to escape what they viewed as a direct threat to their existences. The situation would have been even worse, Gavrilets concluded, except for two things.
On the one hand, there was no obvious “visible danger” that people could see and thus react to; and on the other, Ukrainian officials did everything they could to keep things quiet and to “maintain order at enterprises and at other institutions” lest the panic of the few spread to the many.
In contrast to the situation in Kyiv in 1986, the situation in Moscow today as far as the appearance of panic is concerned is much worse. On the one hand, the threat to people’s lives is all too visible; and on the other, the often clumsy efforts of both city and federal officials to play down or suppress information are proving especially counterproductive in the age of the Internet.
Consequently, Razmakhnin suggests, there is a danger that the current crisis could generate an even greater sense of panic among Russians than the Chernobyl accident did among Ukrainians, a projection that if true would pose a serious challenge to Moscow’s ability not only to maintain order but also to retain the level of authority in the population it now has.
Indeed, an increasing number of commentaries over the weekend and today suggest the latter is fraying. Three of them are especially intriguing in this regard. First, in an essay on, Tatyana Stanovaya argues that the current system of power is failing a basic test of its ability to administer the country (
Indeed, she writes, the situation now shows that “the government was not ready for such an extent of misfortune in either a political or an administrative sense.” Moscow’s efforts to blame local officials for the problems have backfired when “the guilty,” without any acknowledgement of guilt, have turned to the media to criticize “the power vertical.”
And she concludes, on the basis of an extensive review of the activities of Medvedev and Putin over the last two weeks that “it has become clear that the mechanisms of administration, infrastructure, and institutions providing security simply are not up to dealing with the situation: Soviet practices have been destroyed, and new ones have not been created.”
Second, Sergey Chernyakhovsky in an essay in “Russky zhurnal” agrees, but he goes further arguing that the problem is not the result of the personalities of the leaders but rather of the system of which they are a part, a system he suggests that “minimizes expenditures on everything if it does not bring a profit” (
When the country appeared to be doing well because of high oil prices and the absence of any shock to the system, Russians could ignore this lack of investment in infrastructure that has been a hallmark of the Putin-Medvedev regime. But now they feel the results of that, something especially hard to take because of the growing gap in income between the rich and the rest.
And third, an article in “Svobodnaya pressa” quotes a group of Russian academic specialists who say that the recovery from the impact of the fires will take “at a minimum” 30 to 40 years, yet another indication of just how difficult it is going to be for Russia to overcome the consequences of Moscow’s recent failures (

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