Masha Karp: “The Truth! The Truth!”

posted 8 Apr 2018, 09:15 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 8 Apr 2018, 09:20 ]
8 April 2018

On 25th March fire ravaged the “Winter Cherry,” a shopping and entertainment centre in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. It was the beginning of school holidays and the leisure complex was full of children, who became the main victims of the fire. Masha Karp reflects on the ability of state propaganda to stifle the truth. 

“Prav-du! Prav-du!” (The Truth! The Truth!) – this was the word the citizens of Kemerovo chanted at the start of the 7-hour long rally that took place early in the morning on 27th March at one of the city’s largest squares near the offices of the regional government. At first, however, the protesters were not allowed into the square – it was closed off by barriers. But as the crowd increased – there were 2000-4000 people by the most modest estimates – the square was opened, and the city’s Mayor Ilya Seredyuk and the deputy governor Sergei Tsivilev came out to speak to those gathered there. The truth was, indeed, necessary: how could it have happened that the alarm system in the leisure complex did not work, that fire-fighters arrived on the scene only 40 minutes after the start of the blaze and even then did not really try to rescue people from the four-storey building, that all the fire-exits in the buildings were blocked and, most perplexingly, that two out of three cinemas on the top floor packed with children had their doors locked. Those inside the smoke-filled cinemas had about 10 minutes to phone their families to explain that they could not get out and to say their final good-byes and words of love. Then they suffocated. 

The truth that was most urgently demanded by those in the city square was the death toll. The figure that the authorities presented originally was 64 dead, 9 of them children. The people of Kemerovo feared that there must have been many more: two classes from a nearby village school had come in buses to watch cartoons - these alone would have meant at least 40 children, but there were many, many others. Later the official figure remained 64, only the number of children grew – they now said there were 41 of them. The figure that the victims’ relatives came up with was closer to 350. 

The clash between the authorities and those on the square became immediately apparent. People demanded that the governor Aman Tuleev, who had been their governor for over 20 years, should talk to them, but he refused to come for fear, he explained, that his cortege would block the road. He did, however, go to talk with President Putin who, after a day and a half’s hesitation, flew into Kemerovo. Tuleev explained to the President that the disaster had been hi-jacked by the “opposition” – “There are just 200 troublemakers at the rally, they are not even relatives of the dead!” The same line was originally taken by the deputy governor Tsivilev. This video link shows him asking a man in a blue jacket, who had been addressing the rally: “Are you trying to promote yourself using this tragedy?” – “No”, -- the 31-year- old man, who called himself Igor Vostrikov, replied: “My whole family – my wife, my younger sister, my children aged seven, five and two – all died in the fire”. This made even the official attempt to embrace him. But Vostrikov carried on his speech: “This is your iron heel! I know that if I make a bit of a move, if I utter a bit of a squeak, my job is gone. And that is why everybody is silent! You suppress everybody!” 

Later, Igor Vostrikov explained his outspokenness: “I have nothing to lose now." And indeed, on that day he wrote on the Russian social network “V Kontakte”: 

"I no longer have any family. The ruling regime of my country is to blame. Every official just dreams of stealing as much as Putin does. Every civil servant treats people like scum (in the same way his bosses treat him and everybody below him). 

“They will find a scapegoat – and close off the story, and all the bad things - negligence, total corruption, encouraging people to drink, the people’s degradation -- will stay.” 

Readers’ and viewers’ hearts went out to Vostrikov, especially when he talked to the media about his children. People admired his courage and fortitude. And then everything changed. 

The next day after the rally Igor Vostrikov appeared on the First Channel (the main official channel) of Russian television accompanied by two well-known doctors (one of them was Zurab Kekelidze, “the main Russian psychiatrist”, head of Serbsky Centre, who, according to independent sources, tried to justify the repressive psychiatry of Soviet times, the other was Elena Malysheva, presenter of TV programmes on healthcare). They were asked by the First Channel presenter “to keep an eye on Igor.” Vostrikov, who was then invited to speak, mentioned that there had been provocateurs at the rally, who stoked the public anger and tried to instigate the protest, and assured the audience that he and his friends were not planning any “regime change.” He expressed his gratitude to Tsivilev, who was a newcomer to the regional government and capable of sorting things out, but, to the dismay of Elena Malysheva, he added that he was disgusted with the work of the Investigative Committee – and here the live broadcast from Kemerovo abruptly ended. This was on 28th March. 

On 29th, Igor Vostrikov gave a press conference at which he charged the “Maidanshchiks” (the word means “protesters” and comes from “Maidan” – the square in Kiev where the revolutions of 2004 and 2013 started) that they had diverted everybody’s attention from the most important thing -- the work of the emergency services. “It is they who should have been taken to task, not the local government!” he said. “What does the local government have to do with it?” 

On 29th and over the following couple of days Vostrikov published several video messages (he explained that he had opened an Instagram account just for that). He reported that he had now seen previously unavailable CCTV footage and stated that he was now sure the doors of the cinemas had not been originally locked! It was just that some individual had locked them as he had thought it would be safer for women and children inside to wait for their rescuers… Igor also announced that the number of the dead was exactly as the official figure said it was – 64… 

Naturally, this transformation caused an immediate reaction on social networks: people suspected that Vostrikov had been threatened, drugged or bought… That he was an FSB agent from the start. Others were saying: leave him alone, he is grieving, he is under sedatives. Whatever the reason, it was obvious that he was no longer fighting the authorities: “he loved Big Brother”. And the search for truth, of which Vostrikov so nearly became a symbol, stalled. A week later the official death toll still remained at 64, notwithstanding the number of missing or those, who still remained in the hospital. 

Information about the hundreds of bodies was deleted from on-line outlets, resolutely dismissed by the media and explained by the conscious falsifying of facts by a certain “prankster,” Evgeny Volnov, who, conveniently, “turned out” to be Ukrainian! 

It was reported that he had been calling Kemerovo’s morgues and telling them to prepare places for over 300 bodies. A criminal case against Volnov (his real name is Nikita Kuvikov) was launched while the Russian media started publishing stories about Ukrainian interference, Ukrainian joy at seeing the suffering of Russians, and even about underhand American plotting. 

“The first casualty of war is truth”. This phrase, coined during the First World War, comes to mind when one thinks about the constant war that the Russian regime wages against its own people. Truth is a casualty every day, but inevitably so at time of tragedy - from Chernobyl to Beslan and now Kemerovo. An incredible amount of effort on the part of official propaganda is put into making people think what the government wants them to think, or at least instilling in them a certainty that the real truth will never be learnt. 

Russian propaganda tries to influence the West in the same way. That is why it issues statements about the inability of the British government to protect Russian citizens like Litvinenko and Skripal, that is why for more than four years it has been telling lies about the situation in Ukraine. It is only recently that, thanks to Russia’s brazen aggression, this now seems to be better understood, at least in the UK. 

The extent to which Russians themselves believe it is questionable. On the one hand, cynicism is rife. On the other, propagandists can certainly boast of some success. But in any case, as far as protests against this propaganda are concerned – things do not look too good. The state has a huge arsenal of tools at its disposal, starting with putting pressure on individuals, like Igor Vostrikov, and ending with all the usual repressive methods - beatings, detentions, imprisonment, torture, assassinations. And yet, truth will out – if only many years later. The Soviet Union was a much more closed country than today’s Russia, and yet the 1961 shooting of workers in Novocherkassk who protested against harsh economic conditions has remained in people’s memory despite the fact it was followed by 30 years of silence. The rally of those who lost their children in the Kemerovo fire will not be completely forgotten. 

PS By the time this article was published the authorities had decided it might be wiser to remove the 73-year-old Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleev from office. His resignation had been discussed previously, but the fire – and the protest - seem to have triggered it.