My new eXile article, “Russian Academia Under Fire,” is now online. Here is an excerpt:
On any given day, the Russian media is filled with reports of restaurants, clubs, factories, hospitals, schools, and apartments succumbing to the searing flames of Vulcan. Casualties are common. Fire is often the result of teenage pyromaniacs, defective wiring, discarded lit cigarettes, industrial accidents, and just plain stupidity. 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. Not to mention one I take to heart. Several friends and I almost became part of those stats in the summer of 2005 when the kitchen in Moscow’s Kafe Bilingua went up in flames.
Russia’s fire epidemic is not just a threat to public safety, a taker of lives, or a destroyer of property. The threat of fire also gives the lowly Russian bureaucrat a measure of political and administrative power. There is no better example of how the chinovnik brandishes his fire code weapon than the recent closing of European University in St. Petersburg (EUSP). No one knows why agents from the Russian Ministry of Disaster Emergency (MChS) conducted a surprise fire inspection on 18 January which led to the University’s closure. Was it a Kremlin sponsored attack on the liberal, Western orientated university? Was it punishment for accepting a grant from the European Union to monitor elections? I happen to think that European University’s fate is not the result of some directive from above. Rather it is yet another example of the capricious nature of the Russian bureaucrat and the lengths he will go to prove his political loyalty to his bosses.
Historically, the Russian bureaucrat has always been in a perilous position. Sandwiched between leaders who demand obedience and a public eager to lynch him, the successful Russian chinovnik survives by manipulation, intrigue, guile, and corruption. He’s a contortionist of the law; a practitioner of sly servility. When he receives a signal from his masters of an imminent threat, the chinovnik unleashes the little power he has at his disposal. These powers include bureaucratic foot dragging, a sudden concern for administrative order, and a selective devotion to the letter of the law. These methods allow him to show that “his house is in order” and cleansed of “spies,” “liberals,” and other political troublemakers. At the same time, if his actions are deemed excessive, he can claim that he was simply following the rules. In this sense, the fire code is perfect political weapon shrouded in the cloth of legality. Selectively wielding the fire code has a perfect Orwellian ring to it. “Hard” forms of political repression are attenuated with the “soft” language of the “law” and “public safety.”