“I Felt Like Going Up to Him and Spitting in His Face”
July 2, 2019
Torrential rains began falling in the western part of the Irkutsk Region early last week. When they were over, there was no doubt the bad weather had caused local rivers to rise, producing a major flood involving human casualties and large-scale damage.
The flood, which affected over ninety towns and destroyed at least a thousand homes, has been declared the most powerful in the region in the one hundred some years since the weather there has been systematically observed and recorded.
The flood put a crimp in President Putin’s schedule, probably even as he was attending the G20 summit in Japan, which wrapped up on Saturday.
He visited the flooded region the same day, but he had no intention of staying there for long. He never left the airport in Bratsk, a city that had also suffered from the flood, but which had not been inundated as disastrously as other cities and towns.
Putin’s visit to Bratsk on his way home to Moscow from Osaka was a logistical opportunity he could not pass up, of course. The Russian regime’s personification has long ago reached the point the populace regards the president as morally responsible for any high-profile disaster anywhere in the country.
Going where disaster has struck is thus a matter of political instinct. The president last showed his trust in it only six months ago in Magnitogorsk. The critics can accuse Putin of arriving at the sites of tragedies after they are over and visiting fake patients with arms demonstratively in slings, but he knows what he is doing.
He still finds the strength to board a plane so that, a few hours later, he can appear, stern-faced, before the cameras and issue orders at emergency meetings of local and federal officials. This is exactly what the president did late at night in Bratsk.
The speed with which Putin arrives at the epicenter of events, like the amount of time he spends there, matches the alacrity with which Russia’s press reports the news.
“Putin instructed the head of the Emergencies Ministry to fly immediately to Kemerovo.”
“Putin was informed about the tragedy in Magnitogorsk immediately.”
“Putin demanded that immediately, as of today, compensation be paid to the victims [i.e., the residents of the affected districts in the Irkutsk Region] and that an action plan for rebuilding housing and doing it as quickly as possible be outlined without delay.”
All the fuss testifies not to the might of the so-called power vertical Putin has fashioned but, on the contrary, to its weakness. It produces nothing remotely resembling independence, flexibility, and responsibility on the part of local authorities, especially when it comes to the safety of ordinary Russians. Putin continues to run our vast country manually, but the outcome of his administration is quite deplorable, as we can see.
A satellite image, provided by Roskosmos, shows the parts of the Irkutsk Region affected by the flooding. Courtesy of Republic
It does not matter a whit where and when the president arrives, and how long he stays there because it happens after the fact. Russian authorities usually do nothing at the most crucial moments. In a country run by the security services [siloviki], a country where there are more experts in security than anywhere else, a country with a whole emergencies ministry, it can easily happen that you would not be warned of impending disaster.
According to the Emergencies Ministry, four out of ten Russians are still not covered by the early warning system. Its absence goes a long way toward explaining the disaster in Krymsk in July 2012 in which entire houses and their sleeping owners were swept away by flood waters in the middle of the night. While Moscow was fiddling around with modernization and digitalization, towns in Krasnodar Territory did not have radio transmitters at their disposal to sound warning signals and inform residents of the approaching flood.
Seven years have passed since the disaster in Krymsk, and what happened there has happened again in Eastern Siberia. Residents of the town of Tulun, in the Irkutsk Region, have claimed they were not warned about the impending flood, and so they did not have time to gather their belongings and flee their homes. Local officials, however, assured Putin everyone had been warned.
“I watched our mayor giving his report to Putin and I felt like going up to him and spitting in his face,” a local woman who could not contain her emotions told journalists.
Officials now say they knew nothing. Irkutsk Region Governor Sergei Levchenko said regional authorities were not informed of the dangerous rise in the levels of water in local rivers, while the Emergencies Ministry has claimed the opposite.
Officials argue nature is capable of catching anyone by surprise, including the Russian state. At Irkutsk State University, scientists said global climate change had caused the flooding. Arctic and subtropical air masses had mixed with humid air from the Pacific Ocean, something quite rare for the region, to produce the atmospheric anomaly that led to the disaster.
In fact, all that is required in such circumstances is that officials pretend they sympathize with the populace in its plight and are ready to help. But the authorities, disinclined by habit from bowing to public pressure, could not make such a sacrifice.
“What do you want me to say? Do you want me to complain? I can complain to you, too,” Alexander Uss, head of Krasnoyarsk Territory, retorted to local residents upset by their governor’s passivity.
Krasnoyarsk Territory was next in the flood’s path after the Irkutsk Region, but the floodwaters have begun to subside.
You can relax. Putin will not be paying you a visit.
Translated by the Russian Reader