Andrew Osborn








Moscow has been engulfed by an apocalyptic fog. Could this have been prevented?, 4th August 2010 12:23

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

Tourists strolling across Moscow’s Red Square today could be forgiven for thinking they were on the set of the Hollywood film The Fog. The onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral’s were a ghostly apparition, and the tops of the Kremlin’s terracotta-coloured towers were wreathed in thick grey smog.

With the temperature pushing thirty-nine degrees Celsius and more than 500 smog-emitting forest fires raging across Russia, it was hot and smoky. Yet the sun was absent. It had been blotted out, lending the Russian capital an apocalyptic feel. Like an unwanted guest, the fog crept into people’s apartments overnight, seeping under door frames and through poorly insulated windows. It wrapped itself around the Russian capital’s major landmarks, and forced cars to slow down, causing traffic jams. The smog stung the eyes, made breathing difficult, and prompted some to don surgical masks. But it did not, I noticed, stop many of the city’s heavy smokers noisily sucking on their cigarettes as they made their way to work.

Doctors have advised people to stay indoors and close their windows. Better to boil in the comfort of your apartment, they say, than to inhale the smog which contains a cocktail of potentially harmful gases and chemicals. Outside the city limits, the situation is more serious. The forest and peat bog fires have claimed forty-eight lives, made more than 2,000 people homeless, and destroyed dozens of towns and villages.

The images are arresting. Entire settlements look like they have been bombed rather than attacked by Mother Nature. The blackened husks of what were once houses smoulder in the summer heat, the twisted wreckage of cars litter the landscape, and the newly dispossessed root in the rubble in the hope of salvaging something precious. Fields of wheat have shrivelled up in the heat wave, the hottest since records began 130 years ago. Small wonder then that the Kremlin has called the heat wave and the ensuing fires a national tragedy. To make matters worse, many ordinary Russians have been less than sensible when it comes to their health. More than two thousand people have drowned in the last two months alone. Most of them were inebriated males who had opted to booze and then swim in places where bathing was prohibited.

But it is the fires that have captured the headlines. President Dmitry Medvedev has cut short his holiday to return to Moscow to manage the crisis. Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, is out and about in the regions trying to coordinate a response, and the Russian army has been brought in to help douse the flames. Difficult questions are beginning to be asked. Why were local authorities so woefully unprepared despite obvious danger signs? Did the government’s de facto privatisation of forest management leave the forests unprotected? And why were the notoriously flammable peat bogs that ring the Russian capital not made safe long ago?