Sarah Hurst: Russia's collapsing infrastructure - new Chernobyl next?

posted 1 Mar 2016, 07:21 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Mar 2016, 11:28 ]
1 March 2016

By Sarah Hurst

First published on X-Soviet; reprinted by kind permission

Russia’s economy is collapsing, and with it the country’s infrastructure. Low oil prices, Western sanctions, rampant corruption and two wars of aggression against Ukraine and Syria are taking an enormous toll. There have been countless disasters in Russia since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and the situation will only worsen while he remains in power, pursuing suicidal policies.

Moscow metro
On July 15, 2014, a Moscow metro train derailed, killing 24 people and injuring 160. This catastrophe might have caused more public outrage were it not for the fact that on July 17 flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine by a Buk missile system supplied by Putin, making everyone forget about the metro crash. As is normal in Russia, criminal cases were immediately opened and arrests were made. There is never any real investigation into the causes of such tragedies, only instant blame. A senior track master was accused of incorrectly installing a new switch using a 3 mm wire that could have failed.

Four people were found guilty in November 2015. Track master assistant Yuri Gordov was sentenced to six years in prison, and three other workers were sentenced to five years and six months in prison. Six more defendants are still under investigation. The head of the Moscow metro, Ivan Besedin, was fired by Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin on July 22, a few days after the disaster, but went on to head a logistics department at Russian Railways.

Collapsing buildings
A year after the metro disaster, on July 12, 2015, 23 young soldiers were killed and 19 injured when the roof and walls of their barracks building in Omsk collapsed. The event was captured on video from the inside of the barracks. The building had been renovated shortly before the collapse, and poor workmanship was blamed for the disaster. The roof of the building was covered with a layer of foam concrete that soaked up water, and eventually collapsed under the weight of it.

Families of the dead soldiers were promised about $7,000 each in compensation, although it is never possible to confirm whether anyone receives these funds. A few days after the disaster the head of the soldiers’ training centre, Col. Oleg Ponomarev, was arrested. Vladimir Markin of the Russian Investigations Committee said that Ponomarev “partly admitted his guilt – he said he had allowed the servicemen to be placed in the barracks.”

Interestingly, Ponomarev received support from Omsk residents: hundreds demonstrated on July 28, saying that the authorities were using him as a scapegoat. On September 9 he was released from house arrest, but remained under investigation.

Many residential buildings in Russia also collapse due to their age and lack of maintenance or gas leaks. In the evening of Saturday, July 11, 2015, a section of a five-story building in Perm collapsed, killing two people in their 70s and injuring four other residents. Renovations of an office on one of the lower floors were reported as a possible cause of the collapse, and a criminal case opened. The director of the organisation responsible for maintaining the building was arrested.

On the morning of Sunday, December 20, 2015, an explosion brought down three floors of a residential building in Volgograd (incidentally a city where 34 people were killed in suicide bombings two years earlier, and seven others in a bus bombing two months before that). At least five people were killed in the building collapse, although Russian reporting went suspiciously vague soon after it was announced that 10-12 more people might still be under the rubble. Whether the explosion was caused by a resident or a gas leak was unclear.

In the early hours of February 16, 2016, a gas leak caused an explosion in a five-storey residential building in Yaroslavl. Seven people were reported killed and nine injured. In a commentary on the tragedy, Anna Koroleva writing for, said: “The reasons for what happened are the extremely low investment in infrastructure, corruption and lack of transparency in the work of officials in this sector, and the very slow distribution of successful business models of work in housing and utilities, which runs into obstacles. We can also mention the absence of interest in change on the part of the big oligopoly suppliers of heating, electricity and gas. The increase in fees for utilities and extortionate takings for repairs have not produced the necessary effect.”

On the morning of February 27, 2015, a 12-year-old girl was killed in her flat in Altai Krai when the ceiling collapsed on her. She lived in a two-storey building in the village of Yasnaya Polyana. A criminal case was immediately opened, of course, for “Causing death by neglect”. Searches were conducted in the offices of the building’s maintenance company, and documents were confiscated.

Fires are another scourge in Russia (not to mention floods, often exacerbated by reckless construction, as in Sochi). There is no space here to document the devastation and aftermath of the Khakassia wildfires of April 2015 that killed an estimated 29 people and left 6,000 homeless. Wildfires are a regular occurrence that the Russian authorities completely fail to deal with. But many other fires are caused by human incompetence.

On the evening of December 10, 2015, Moscow’s biggest fire in 25 years broke out at the Tushinsky machinery factory. The fire spread over an area of 15,000 square metres and took five hours to extinguish. It started at a warehouse where barrels of diesel fuel were stored. No casualties were reported.

Two days later, 23 people were killed in a fire at a mental health clinic in Voronezh that started at night, completely destroying the building. As the BBC reported, this was the latest in a series of fires at Russia’s state institutions. 37 people were killed in a fire at a psychiatric hospital in Novgorod Region in September 2013. Several months earlier a fire at another psychiatric hospital near Moscow killed 38 people. 23 people died in a fire at an old people’s home in Komi Region in 2009, while 63 were killed in a fire at a home in Krasnodar in 2007. In 2006 a fire at a Moscow drug rehabilitation clinic killed 45 women.

As has become routine, Vladimir Putin “expressed his deep condolences” to the families of the Voronezh victims, and Dmitri Medvedev demanded an inquiry into the safety of psychiatric institutions.

In the evening of January 31, 2016, a fire at a textile factory in Moscow killed 12 migrants from Central Asia who were living and working in the building, including a baby. Authorities said they might open a criminal case on organising illegal migration.

Coal mine disaster
In late February 2016 there was a disaster at a coal mine in Vorkuta, in the depths of Siberia. Initially four miners were said to have been killed by methane explosions, but later another 26 trapped miners were assumed to be dead, and six rescuers were killed in a subsequent explosion on February 28.

A criminal case was opened, but authorities were keen to relieve themselves and the mine operator of any blame. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said that monitoring systems could not have prevented the sudden surge of methane. Mine operator Vorkutaugol, a unit of steelmaker Severstal, which is headed by billionaire Alexei Mordashov, acted “according to the rules”, Dvorkovich added. A local official called the tragedy “a natural disaster.”

Nuclear power plants
What might concern the outside world more than any of these disasters is the possibility of an accident like the one at Chernobyl happening in Russia. Russia currently has 10 active nuclear power plants, two closed plants and several more under construction. Eleven are of the RBMK 1000 type, similar to Chernobyl, including the one at Sosnovy Bor outside St. Petersburg. On December 18, 2015, residents of the town panicked when the power station emitted vapour. They rushed to buy iodine and to leave the area. Tellingly, few believed official assurances that they were not in danger.

If a nuclear disaster does occur in Putin’s Russia, we can expect the same kind of cover-up that was produced by Soviet authorities in response to Chernobyl, when the accident was briefly announced two days after the explosion. Putinism is built on lies, and so is most of Russia’s infrastructure.