The deaths at the Ulyanovskaya mine explosion in Kemerovo region continue to mount as time passes. As of publication, Kommersant reported a tally of 75 deaths with 33 miners missing. The most recent report from Interfax says that the toll is now up to 106 according to the Emergency Situations’ Ministry. Putin has delcared March 21 a national day of mourning for the 106 miners, the nursing home fire that killed 62 people in the Krasnodar region, and the airliner that killed seven in Samara on Saturday.
As for the events and possible cause of the mine blast, Kommersant reports,
According to the deputy head of the division, the tragedy was precipitated by the collapse of the roof over the coal face in the 11th tunnel: “Over the spot of the collapse there was obviously an underground cavity, a so-called pocket, that accumulated methane. After the roof collapsed, the methane instantaneously spread throughout the mine and exploded.”
When asked whether there is any hope that any of the miners who were at the coal face will be found alive, Alexander Gennadyevich replied, “a methane explosion in a mine is like a massive cannon shot. Imagine that there were people in the cannon’s barrel at the time. How would you rate their chances for survival?”
The explosion took place at a depth of 270 meters, yet the resulting shockwave was powerful enough to blast coal dust several meters into the air out of all of the mine’s entrances.
The same version of events was repeated that evening by Governor Tuleev, who confirmed that a methane explosion in the mine had destroyed the underground infrastructure and that the resulting debris will seriously hinder rescue efforts. “Our task is to find as many people as possible and to prevent a fire,” he added. Fortunately, no fires broke out, but in order to prevent the possibility of a spark igniting any remaining gas, the mine’s ventilation system had to be turned off. According to the miners at the scene, the situation is a double-edged sword: their fellow miners trapped underground will not burn to death, but they may suffocate.
Anyone at the coal face at the time of the blast was likely killed instantly, however, and even the few who were near the exits from the mine when the explosion took place suffered severe trauma.
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—This item is from two weeks ago and slipped under my radar. The League of United Youth, or LOM has become reality. The September 27 edition of the Moscow Times reported that the coalition, which includes the youth organization Rodina; the Communist Youth League, Red Youth Vanguard; National Bolshevik Party; and the Yabloko youth group Oborona, or Defense, announced its formation.
—This week the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court nullified its overturning of a lower court’s ban of the National Bolshevik Party, ordering a retrial. NPB spokesman Alexander Averin charged that “the decision was made under pressure from the Kremlin.”
—It sounds like a chill is developing with another of America’s allies on the “war on terror. Mosnews is reporting that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled her stop to Uzbekistan as she visits Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan on October 10 – 13. Mosnews writes:
“The reason of this cancellation was that the United States is concerned over clashes in the Uzbek city of Andijan in May and over the current policy of the Uzbek authorities. [Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, Daniel] Fried said. “We are very concerned over Andijan, not only the very incident but the reaction as well,” he added. Fried said the U.S. administration is worried over other aspects of Uzbek activities, such as “pressure on non-governmental organizations, reduction of exchange programs, the entire atmosphere of fear in the country.”
This still surprises me because it seems that the Uzbek government is doing everything right by U.S. standards. It was reported this week that a Muslim imam, Shavkat Madumarov, died of torture in an Uzbek prison. Madumarov was serving a seven year sentence for ties to Wahhabis. The Uzbek government of course claims that he died of “an HIV infection and anemia.” Um, yeah, right.
—The drama in the Beslan Mothers and Grigorii Grabovoi controversy continues. Lisa Vronskaya provides an interesting analysis of why some of the mothers had gravitated to the cult leader. It seems that the devotion of some of its members is causing a lot of tension within the Mother’s group, causing increased speculation that Grabovoi is really an agent of the Kremlin. I seriously doubt this and just speaks to the tendency to see conspiracy emanating from above to squash the legitimate concerns and complaints from those below.
Vronskaya adds that there is a deep cultural reason why many are willing to accept Grabovoi’s claims:
“Russia has an ancient tradition of belief in the supernatural. Despite the country’s early Christianization, Russians continued to worship pagan gods for centuries. The Soviet regime proclaimed Russia a secular state where all religions were all but outlawed, and ordinary people again turned to mystic and supernatural cults. In the 1990s, ’healers’, albeit widely condemned as charlatans, were allowed to cast their spells on nationwide television.”
It is true that you can open any Russian tabloid and see all sorts of classified ads for a variety of kolduny and koldun’i, znakhari, mystics, soothsayers, palm readers, and “authentic” peasant women who can apply herbs and read chicken bones. Not to mention the popularity of astrological and other supernatural books. And it is also the case that there is a long history of religious sects in Russia. The strangest being the secretive Skoptsy, an odd group that split from the Old Believers and practiced castration as well as other extreme dietary and bodily regulations, about which Professor Laura Engelstein of Yale has written. But to take this particular case to the universal seems a bit much. I maintain that while strange and tragic, it is not hard to see why some of the Beslan Mothers have embraced Grabovoi. He offers them the impossible at a time when they are obviously still in shock.
—The Moscow News is celebrating its 75th Anniversary with an interview with the paper’s former editor, Yakov Lomko. The paper began in 1930, was haulted in 1949 after its editor, Mikhail Borodin was shot, but revived again in 1956. The Moscow News served as only foreign language newspaper published in the Soviet Union. When asked about pressure from the KGB, Lomko has this to say:
“Unlike editors of Russian-language Soviet papers I had a convenient excuse: “The foreign reader will not understand this.” After that they would leave me alone. We had an opportunity to speak about our problems more frankly and openly than Russian-language papers. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Central Committee dictated us what to write or censored us. We did not get instructions from the KGB, and had no contacts with them. Everything related to the publishing process was discussed by our editorial board.
The paper never was a “troubadour of ideas of Marxism-Leninism.” In the supplement intended for speeches of party leaders we published Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s story One Day of Ivan Denisovich. All this was “swallowed” by the upper echelons, the main thing was to persuade them. But, of course, to go against the “general line” was impossible. We worked for the interests of our country, trying to get close to common human values, believing this the only way to win the trust of the readers.”
—Probably one of the most important news items of the week is that 13 years ago Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks to break opposition led by Chairman of the Supreme Council Ruslan Khasbulatov and Vice-president Alexander Rutskoi to his dissolving of Parliament and the Russian Constitution. I already pointed out how at the time the NY Times and the Washington Post lauded Yeltsin’s use of the military as progress for Russian “democracy” and “reform.” That being said, I find Nikolay Troitsky’s reflection on the event interesting:
“Early in the morning October 4, 1993 the White House was encircled. What happened next some people still call “execution of the parliament”. It was much talked right after the event, and the talks still continue today, that there was some armed resistance, that “defenders” of the House of the Government allegedly seized too much weapons. There probably were weapons but many witnesses of the events did not see them at all. There was General Makashov (he is now representing the Communist Party in the Parliament) with a Kalashnikov gun and three cartridge belts, but the general never shot.
On the day when the House of the Government was stormed, about one hundred of strange men wearing Cossack caps settled in the windows of the building with double-barreled guns or hunting rifles. The men incurred the inimical fire and spoiled the whole of the interior. At that those who fired the House of the Government did not look better than the “defenders”. Among them there were strong athletic men who jumped out of armored troop-carriers with better weapons and fired the building. Nobody knew where the people came from. It was suggested that they were probably engaged by Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, young Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other bankers who afterwards financed the Yeltsin Family. It is astonishing that 12 years after the events, Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself arrived at the parliamentary republic ideas that pushed Khasbulatov and Co.
The storm of the White House was in fact the mixture of senseless outrage and obvious sloppiness. Majority of people sitting in the building – clerks, cleaners, barkeepers – were rather peaceful and did not want to fight the regime. But none of them was allowed to leave the building. Instead, firing of the building began without warning.”
Troitsky ends hid discussion with this lesson of the 1993 “civil war”: “that it is dangerous in Russia to take armed people out in the streets to fight the regime.”
On that note, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin turned 53 on Friday.
After a five month trial, the Moscow courts finally made a ruling in the case of the 39 National Bolshevik activists who took over a government building on December 14, 2004. 31 activists received suspended sentences of 18 months to 3 ? years and were freed on Friday. Eight others are looking at 18 months to 3 ? prison sentences. Most of the eight are regional leaders. Nine of the 39 were under the age of 18 when arrested. One, aged 15 was released after spending two months in custody.
Prison forges revolutionaries as much as it does criminals. One need only look at the prison experience of many Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century. Many Bolsheviks looked back on their time in Tsarist prisons as a mark of distinction. Many went in ideologically committed many more came out willing to sacrifice their body. After all, short of death, the system showed them the worse it could do: imprison them under horrible conditions, interrogate them using various methods of torture, and subject them to torments of the prison’s purely criminal population.
All of this was not lost on many of the 39 Natsbols, or so demonstrates Nabi Abdullaev’s article in the Moscow Times. According to Natsbol member Alexei Kolunov, 22, his time in prison only made him more committed to the cause, “We are no longer afraid of anything — of prison, of beatings, of threats. If the authorities want to stop the National Bolsheviks, they will have to kill us.” For Kolunov prison showed him the important work he was doing for the Party. Such views were only reinforced by many of the activists’ parents’ support and maintenance that the authorities’ treatment of their children was overly harsh and unwarranted. When asked whether she would continue to allow her son to participate in the Natsbols, Irina Baganova replied, “Do you really think that it is possible to stop these young men? After all, he and his friends have not done anything bad. They haven’t laid a finger on anyone.” According to the Times, parents collected almost $5000 to pay for the property their sons and daughters destroyed during their raid.
So while Eduard Limonov refuses to call the verdict a victory because several of his minions remain in prison, the whole affair is far from a loss for his movement. First the incident catapulted the National Bolshevik Party onto not only the Russian political stage, but gained them international attention. His Natsbols were consistently portrayed as the victims to the state’s heavy-handedness. The Natsbols’ commitment to suffer in prison has transformed them from a band of political pranksters and hooligans to a force to be taken seriously. Second, the action made them even more appealing to working class youths who see the other available political options as having no punch. Through their non-violent direct action, the Natsbols have shown that they are serious about their fight against the Putin government. Third, their actions have undoubtedly influenced how other youth organizations operate in Russia. Coupled with the successes in Ukraine and elsewhere, the National Bolsheviks show that one can fight the Russian state and survive to see the light. More and more Russian youth groups, both pro and anti-Putin are starting to utilize direct action methods as a way to harness youth political energy. Lastly, Limonov now has, if Kolunov’s statements are any indication, a core of seasoned activists, tempered by prison and willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause. And such a victory makes their recent ban by the Russian Supreme Court potentially superfluous.
There isn’t too much to add by way of news on the militant attack in Nachlik, the provincial capital of Kabardino-Balkariya republic. Other obligations kept me from writing about it as things were unfolding. I can, however, point readers to a few places that give links to news stories as well as some analysis. Andy from Siberianlight.net has a good rundown of events as well as his take on the incident here and here. My friend and colleague Dave a.k.a. “Johnnie B. Baker” also has some thoughts on the subject. For up to date news on the incident I highly recommend periodic checks of the Interfax News Agency. Finally, as always David Johnson’s Russia list is an invaluable place for a collection of latest news and analysis.
In fact, there are a few articles worth commenting from today’s JRL #9267. The first is from The Economist on the expansion of the conflict into neighboring regions. The article points out the obvious—the conflict is and has been spreading for a while now, threatening to engulf the entire North Caucasus region. However, I think the article makes an excellent point in this passage:
“Mr. Putin runs the risk that more and more of the north Caucasus may slip into lawlessness and out of Moscow’s sphere of influence. This and signs of discontent in other of Russia’s far-flung regions will heighten fears that Russia may disintegrate just as the Soviet Union did. Soon after the tragedy in Beslan, Mr. Putin attempted to reassert a measure of control. He sent Dmitry Kozak, a trusted aide, to be his representative in the region and to foster economic development. And he announced that regional governors would be appointed by him, rather than through direct elections, in an attempt to wrest back powers ceded by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Given the corruption and unfitness of many of the elected governors, it seemed a reasonable move, though his dubious choices of replacements offer little by way of reassurance.”
As anyone who’s spent time in Russia knows, corruption is a systematic problem. But the corruption is facilitated by some deep structural problems in Russia’s economy. The problem stems from the fact that economic development is highly centralized in Russia. Moscow is the heart of the beast, but the blood flow of capital thins as it reaches Russia’s outer regions. Thus, for local governors and other politicians, aid from Moscow comes at a trickle. The result is similar to how things were in Soviet times, regional leaders either horde resources from the center or plunder them from their localities. The result has been the continued underdevelopment of its periphery. This chronic centralization is bound to lead to the very break down The Economist is predicting.
Another article worth noting is an interview with political analyst Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Center of Political Technologies, in Gazeta. Makarkin basically reiterates The Economist when it comes to local governors. When asked if appointees from Moscow could have prevented the attack, he said this:
“[W]e can install a Russian general in every region of the Caucasus that depends on federal subsidies. Install and wait to see what will follow. There are only two scenarios really. Either the appointee finds himself in isolation soon, without any power levers to wield or he joins the local elite and stops taking orders from Moscow. We already saw it in Chechnya when prime ministers appointed by Moscow were forced to leave the region soon.”
When asked if the clan system of Russian politics is to blame, he responded further:
“The clan system and poverty, this latter is a fertile soil for Islamic radicalism. Federal subsidies make up 72% of the Kabardino-Balkarian regional budget’s revenue. The officially-admitted unemployment rate is 2.5 times the national average, but the actual rate is much higher. According to official statistics, one in 20 residents of Kabardino-Balkaria have TB, which claims 10 lives a week.” [Translated by A. Ignatkin]
In addition, Makarkin argues that this attack was more about regional political clans fighting rather than “Wahhabis”, though the latter are a real danger and will always be blamed.
Maxim Shevchenko, from the Center for the Strategic Studies of Modern Religion and Policy, echos Makarkin’s argument adding,
“I am 120% sure that it was not a revolt by extremists but an attempt by a group of local elites dissatisfied with the recent appointments in Kabarda (Kabardino-Balkaria( to destabilize the situation in a bid to regain some of their lost powers or get new ones.”
Whether Makarkin’s or Shevchenko view is correct is hard to say. All accounts point to the involvement of militants either based in Kabardino-Balkariya, or from Dagestan or Chechnya. Rumors abound of Shamil Basayev’s presence and even death. News reports have denied the latter. Whatever the circumstances or whoever the perpetrators and their demands or origins, the whole incident points to the further destabilization of Russia’s south. Which, of course, raises many questions about the political fallout of the attack. According to RIA Novosti, Russian politicals are suggesting the incident demands further measures to strengthen vertical flows of power. All of which adds only to an already flood of speculation about who, if anyone, will succeed Putin in 2008.