“Fire and arson,” writes Cathy Frierson in All Russia is Burning!: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia, “carried intense symbolic and material meaning as part of Russia’s search for a modern identity. When Russia joined the European experience of “high modernism,” uncontained fire in the hands of recently emancipated peasants came into view for educated Russians and became an object of the campaign against Russia’s developmental delay behind the West.”
Whether the campaign against “uncontained fire” that Frierson speaks of continues to exist is unlikely, the idea that fire represents Russia’s “developmental delay behind the West” continues to occupy some minds. Take for example, C. J. Chivers’ article “Deadly Fires Expose Disorder in Putin’s Russia.” Ravaging fires, engulfing flames, and thick smoke more than just kill people and damage property. They, according to Chivers’, are symbols of Russia’s backwardness in general, and the chimera of its prosperity in particular. He writes:
Eight years into the administration of President Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian government has filled its coffers with cash and its ministries with swagger, allowing the Kremlin to reclaim a place on the world’s stage. But the fast-moving fire on Oct. 2, and the grotesque panorama of desperation, injury and death that accompanied it, underscored the enduring disorder beneath Russia’s partial revival.
Respect for law, safety and public health, and the Russian government’s ability to govern, still lag far behind the Kremlin’s restored sense of self, as evidenced by the scale at which Russia’s population suffers from fires.
True, fire is a major killer in Russia. More than 17,000 Russians died in fires in 2006, about 13 for every 100,000 people. This is a staggering statistic. That’s about 40 people a day. Just to give a comparison, 3,245 people died from fire in the United States in 2006. And sure wildfires have their own designated season here in Southern California, of which the recent blazes are of an example. (For an analysis of fire in SoCal I highly recommend Mike Davis’ “Who Really Set the California Fires?“) But casualties are low. About 7.1 people per million die of fire in California. Property destruction, however, is high, about $11.3 billion in 2006.
Not so in Russia. All one has to do is take a look at some recent stories. The 4 November nursing home fire in Tula took 31 lives. In December 2006, a fire in a Moscow drug rehabilitation clinic took 46 lives. In November 2003, a dorm fire at the Lumumba Friendship of People’s University scorched the lives of 36 students and injured 200. Even Putin himself lost a dacha to an inferno in 1996. I won’t even belabor my experience with fire in Moscow. I was at Cafe Bilingua when it went up in flames in July 2005. Arson, old or faulty electrical wiring, the lack of fire alarms, escapes, and other safety measures account for the high number of casualties. According to the Geneva Association, which monitors fires worldwide, Russia’s fire related deaths have been rising since the collapse of Communism.
Fire is not simply a force of destruction in Russia. It’s also a weapon of resistance. Currently in Nizhny Novgorod, 29 members of a religious sect called the True Russian Orthodox Church have locked themselves in a shelter, threatening to immolate themselves if removed by force. The members’ self cloistering was in response to an investigation of their leader Father Petr Kuznetsov. Fire as religious resistance in Russia is probably as old as fire itself. As Georg Michels shows in his At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth-Century Russia self-immolation was a tactic utilized by peasant sectarians in the 17th century. In one chilling incident in 1690, a letter from voevode Iurii Romanovich Selivanov to the Boyar Duma reported that hundreds of peasant sectarians locked themselves in barns and threatened to immolate themselves to facilitate their passage into the “Kingdom of Heaven.” As military attachments approached the barricaded peasants, the barns went up in flames. When the smoke cleared, 200 men, women, and children were charred to death.
Fire as resistance or accident is a crude form of death no matter how you cut it. But is it a sign of Russia’s backwardness as Chivers and others claim? Is it really a rock to throw at the shiny veneer of Putin’s Russia? This seems far fetched at least, and an utterly strange assertion at most. Between 1991-2001, Estonia and Latvia averaged 14 and 12 fire related deaths per 100,000, yet I don’t recall any articles declaring that these were signs of “enduring disorder.”