Friday, January 4, 2019

Magnitogorsk Disaster Highlights Three Problems in Russia Far Larger than Terrorism

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 4 – Many commentators are focusing on widespread speculation among Russians that the deadly explosion in Magnitogorsk was the work of terrorists or a provocation by the siloviki to justify a further tightening of the screws in Vladimir Putn’ss Russian Federation.

            There is as yet no clear evidence that either of these is likely, but the failure of the Russian authorities to keep the population informed and to comment on all aspects of the situation rather than just issuing a blanket denial of the possibility that terrorism was involved helps to explain why such rumors are spreading.

            But the disaster itself, ever more Russians recognize, reflects three problems in their country that are in fact far greater immediate threats than terrorism: decaying infrastructure and especially housing, the gap between per capita government spending on Moscow and the regions, and the Russian government’s lack of credibility.

            First, as Mikhail Pozharsky and other commentators say, the probability that the disaster at Magnitogorsk was caused by a gas explosion means that it could be repeated almost anywhere in Russia. Indeed, Russians may want to talk about terrorism as a cause in order to reassure themselves that it won’t (

            In fact, they say, Russian infrastructure and especially housing has deteriorated so much in the last two decades that such explosions are not only common but likely to become more so, the result of the government’s failure to invest some of its enormous income from oil and gas sales in housing and other communal services.

            Sergey Yenikoloopov, a psychologist at the Russian Academy of Medical Scientists., says that Russians don’t want to face up to this problem because this makes them feel insecure. Instead, they are prepared to come up with other explanations instead of recognizing that the very same thing could happen to them.

            Second, official government statistics show that when the government does invest in the population, it spends far more per capita on residents in Moscow than anywhere else.  For example, in 2017, the Russian government spend 166,000 rubles per person in the capital but only 31,200 in Magnitogorsk (

            Many regions are receiving far less per person than the people of Magnitogorsk are, but people in the regions can now see clear evidence that the preference the Kremlin gives to Muscovites as opposed to them is not only unfair but can be deadly – and this may help power more anti-Moscow attitudes in the country’s regions and republics.

            As one Russian commentator puts it, “the enormous stratification in Russia is not only between the one percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population but also between Moscow and the rest of the territories” of the Russian Federation.

            And third, as Ekho Moskvy and Deutsche Welle commentator Aleksandr Plyushev points out, Magnitogorsk shows that the powers that be cannot count on the trust of the population “simply because” the authorities lie and have been seen to do so often (комментарий-взрыв-в-магнитогорске-или-трудности-эпохи-тотального-вранья/a-46941591).

            “Long years of official lying have accustomed [Russians] to easily believing anything at all except what is said in press releases,” Plyushev says.  The reaction of Russians to such government statements is incredulity and dismissiveness: “’They lie all the time,’” Russians say.  And “total lying inevitably leads to total disbelief.”

            The situation is made even worse, he says, because the Kremlin has destroyed almost all the institutions that could conduct honest and authoritative investigations. Consequently, Russians are left to engage in conspiracy thinking, something that may get the regime off the hook sometimes but that leaves the powers that be without a reliable base far more often. 

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