Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Russia's deadly heatwave

E!Sharp, 1st September 2010 07:39

By Andrew Osborn

The riverboat my Russian friend hired for his wedding reception left from a striking Stalin-era river terminal in northern Moscow. Needless to say there was plenty of alcohol.

As Russia weathered its fiercest heat wave since records began 130 years ago, it was a sight to behold. The banks of the Moskva River were jammed with people desperate to cool down. It made, at times, for a peculiar and disturbing spectacle.

At one point, we passed a riverside beach that would have definitely been blacklisted in the EU. Dotted with huge piles of rubbish, beachgoers appeared to be unaware of what surrounded them. Giant industrial pipes pumping goodness-knows-what into the river zigzagged the “beach” and bathers swigged cans of beer while wallowing in the decidedly murky waters.

It was a worrying and far from isolated incident. The number of people who died while relaxing in a similar fashion this summer was startling and unfortunately broke all previous records. More than 1,200 people drowned in June and a similar number in July. Depressingly, 90 percent of the dead were inebriated males. Bereft of air conditioning, ordinary Russians dashed for rivers, lakes and reservoirs regardless of whether they were deemed safe to swim. They then consumed huge quantities of alcohol, and then, many of them died.

It was a wholly unavoidable and tragic state of affairs. It should have come as no surprise then when one of the wedding guests cut his chest open when swimming.

A stray and doubtless broken industrial pipe concealed beneath the river’s opaque waters was responsible. He was lucky. A few stitches and he was fine. But many other Russians this summer were less fortunate.

The wedding guests were, for the most part, very successful middle-class Russians who worked for big Western companies or had good jobs in the media. But what struck me about them, like many of the younger Russians I meet, is how disenchanted they were with their own country.

Several I met said they wanted to emigrate at an early opportunity. The United States was a popular destination.

It was the same story with a group of students I spoke with recently. The countries they said they dreamed of were the United States, Spain and France. One young student named the UK as the place he would like to build a new life but said his friends were not interested in emigrating there because of the climate. That made me laugh but there was of course little to laugh about overall. Western diplomats are often heard to laud the benefits of young Russians travelling to the West, arguing that they will return to the motherland afterwards with an enlarged worldview and more progressive thinking. But the reality I have encountered is rather different.

In my experience, these young people travel to the West to study and then stay there. Or, if they must return, they do so reluctantly resigned to the reality that they are powerless to change a political system which they now understand leaves a lot to be desired. There are of course exceptions.

But the phenomenon does not bode well for Russia’s future. For if it is really to modernise, Russia surely needs its brightest and youngest people to want to build their futures at home.

The summer US-Russia spy scandal exposed how the Kremlin really thinks it can catch up with the West: by systematically spying on it and stealing its political and industrial secrets.

No matter that the outed Russian spies appeared to have been singularly unsuccessful. Of course, on one level there was nothing shocking about this flap. Many countries spy on one another in order to keep tabs on their economic and political rivals. The fact that Russia still spies on the world’s most powerful country was therefore hardly surprising. But the long-term nature of the mission – some of the spies had assumed false identities ten years ago – and the low-level information gathering they conducted, spoke volumes.

The Kremlin continues to believe that, like China, it can have economic liberalisation without political liberalisation. It is therefore anxious to steal what it believes are the economic and industrial secrets that allow the West to continue – with some pretty huge setbacks here and there admittedly – to be successful.

Russia is not China though. It badly needs to allow its own people to be freer before it can truly flourish without relying on oil and gas. But the Kremlin – educated Russians will tell you – is not even close to trusting its own people. In fact, it despises and fears them. In such circumstances, no wonder it needs its spies to steal important industrial secrets from people who are actually allowed to be free. People living in figurative cages tend to be less creative.