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What happened

This week Russia almost forgot about its conflict with the West, “Novichok” poison and Vladimir Putin receiving 77% of the vote in the presidential election. Last Sunday in Kemerovo, the Siberian coal mining capital, 64 people, of which 41 were children, died in a fire in a shopping mall. Catastrophes and terrorist attacks with human fatalities aren’t a rarity in Russia, but this tragedy was the biggest shock for the country in the last 14 years.

1. The fire

The fire began on the top (4th) floor of a shopping mall. In Russia, the upper floors of shopping malls are almost always used to house movie theaters and children’s entertainment — this is why so many children were among the fatalities. The cause of the fire has not yet been fully established, but it is clear why so many people died — as almost everywhere in Russia, the shopping mall ignored and didn’t adhere to basic fire safety regulations.

Emergency exits were closed, the fire alarm system was either turned off or didn’t work, and the doors to the movie theaters, behind which people were trapped, were locked from the outside — so that no one could enter without a ticket.

There isn’t anything surprising in all of this. Any inspections in Russia are undertaken so that the owner of a property pays a bribe to the inspector, who in turn closes his eyes to any violations. Different inspectors might have different requirements. The FSB (Federal Security Service) might demand that emergency exits be closed — otherwise they could be used by terrorists. In the event of a real fire, security guards — normally unemployed men who just returned from serving in the army — aren’t sure of their instructions in the event of an emergency and of course, aren’t able to rescue anyone.

2. The authorities’ reaction

When the initial shock passes, it will become clear: the tragedy in Kemerovo will remain the most important event of the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s fourth term, just as the Kursk submarine catastrophe in August 2000 was the most important event of his first term as president. Only one week passed since the presidential election, and Vladimir Putin’s victory was the first and longest piece on all Sunday television weekly roundup programs on the state TV channels. At that time, it was already known that dozens of children perished in the fire in Kemerovo, but television programming was not interrupted for an urgent news update. The Kremlin later explained this by stating that television channels couldn’t estimate the size of the tragedy.

Putin himself, who in 2000 during the Kursk accident didn’t interrupt his own holiday, has learned a lot since then — he flew to Kemerovo already on Tuesday morning and looked not so bad in comparison with the local administration’s bureaucrats. But everything else about the authorities’ reaction to the tragedy turned was wholly inadequate.

  • The governor of the Kemerovo region (who has held his post for more than 20 years) didn’t go to the scene of the fire on Sunday.
  • On Tuesday morning, relatives of those who died and local citizens gathered in front of the regional administration building demanding to find those responsible for the tragedy and calling for the governor’s resignation. The governor himself did not step out to meet the crowds. During his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Kemerovo, the governor apologized to the president for the tragedy, but not to the relatives of those who died. The governor specifically stated that the protests in front of the administration building were organized by the “opposition” which is “using someone else’s loss to try to solve its own problems”.
  • The deputy governor emerged to meet the crowds. In response to a question about the Kemerovo authorities’ inaction asked by a Kemerovo resident who lost his wife, sister and three children in the fire, the deputy governor accused the man of “using the tragedy for PR purposes”. When the deputy governor learned that the man in front of him had lost his entire family, he returned and apologized, and got down on his knees in front of the crowd. But this didn’t resolve the situation.
  • One of the main themes in the commentary from bureaucrats and on state television channels was messages spreading on social media claiming that the authorities are hiding the real number of fatalities. Ukraine and Western intelligence services were accused of this provocation.

The authorities’ reaction to the fire in Kemerovo is indicative of the mentality of the Russian government. Just as Vladimir Putin is convinced that elections in democratic countries are simply manipulations “for show”, low level Russian bureaucrats don’t believe that people who have lost their children, relatives or friends in the fire could gather publicly on their own accord, not for money, to demand the governor’s resignation.

3. Owners and management

The owner of the Kemerovo shopping mall was, according to Bloomberg, billionaire Denis Shtengelov, the founder of Russia’s second largest snack food producer after Frito Lay — a subsidiary of Pepsico.

  • Shtengelov, who holds an economics degree, made his first money in the mid-1990s with wholesale sales of sunflower seeds — the favorite snack of the Russian regions. With the money he earned, Shtengelov bought confectionary factories in the region, and during the 2008 crisis he was able to buy and merge with his major competitors.
  • Since 2009, Shtengelov’s wife and three children have lived in Australia. He splits his time between the two countries. The businessman also has a business in Australia; he invested $20 million in the construction of a sport center featuring a tennis academy and a golf club on the Gold Coast. His children are professional tennis players, and the Australian business is managed by his sister, Yulia Shtengelova.
  • “I invested in the tennis academy in Australia because opening a similar academy in Siberia would be the same as trying to grow watermelons. What is a tennis academy there? It’s an open space, courts, and 330 days of the year people can play tennis. Where in Russia would that be possible?” the business man explained his decision.
  • After the fire, Shtengelov transferred RUB 192 million (approximately $3.5 million) to the families of the victims. Now he plans to return to Russia.
  • The managers of the shopping mall have been arrested, and most likely, will receive prison sentences. The owner of the shopping mall, as past experience has shown (Russian), will likely avoid liability.

Why the world should care

In the first days after the disaster, Russia was petrified. While the authorities, including the triumphally elected president Vladimir Putin, were silent, the people demanded to announce an official mourning. Thousands came out on the streets to express their pain and support to the relatives of the deceased and their families. In the social networks people started to discuss how to prevent further tragedies and how should the society try to change. The confrontation with the outer world, forced by the TV channels, moved away for a time. The people have demanded answers from the authorities. It is scary that it has taken this terrible price to do it, and it is discouraging that this trend won’t last long.
Peter Mironenko