I know I’m late getting to this, but I, like many others, have been haunted by some accounts I’ve read of the sinking of the cruise ship on the Volga river two weeks ago. The bullet points – neglected maintenance, inaccurate records, overcrowding – will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the slew of fatal accidents in transport and public places in Russia, from the December 2009 nightclub fire to recent plane crashes, to the tragedy of the Bulgaria.

But a New York Times article that begins with children in the ship’s playroom (“When the cruise boat lurched to one side and then slowly capsized, the room became a sealed container. “) is almost impossible to read. It took me right back to something I had read eight years ago.

In January of last year, Taras Shugayev, a young Moscow resident, left a pool hall drunk and awoke to find himself inside a moving garbage truck, dodging massive blades that were slowly grinding collected refuse into pulp. For 23 minutes, according to a transcript of a series of calls made on his cell phone to Moscow’s rescue service operators, he pleaded and cried, saying he was being squeezed and begging for help. The operators, however, only advised him to alert the driver by banging from inside the truck. No discernible action was taken by Moscow’s various police forces that, according to one rescue service spokesman, dismissed the report as a prank. “Are you in a joking mood to be calling us like this at 6 o’clock in the morning?” a police dispatcher reportedly said.

By Shugayev’s fourth call, during which the rescue service was mainly concerned with trying to learn who might have put him in the truck, Shugayev was desperate. His last recorded words were, “This is it, I think I am suffocating. This is it.” The police only responded 24 hours later after Shugayev’s family reported him missing. They then pieced together what had happened with the help of phone records. By that time, however, there was nothing to do but sift through a suburban dump, looking for possible remains.

That passage is from A Low, Dishonest Decadence, written by David Satter, a Russia scholar and former Moscow correspondent, in the June 2003 issue of The National Interest (subscription). Satter’s critique of contemporary Russian life is dated only in that it sets out to counter what was then the image of a wealthy, resilient, and resolute nation. An image that doesn’t really apply anymore.

“Russia faces underlying problems-criminalization, lawlessness, disregard for human life and a deep spiritual malaise-that threaten the country’s long-term survival,” Satter wrote.

However much ink is spilled about the country’s rampant corruption or official disregard for the lives of citizens, the most forceful argument, all too often, comes when we try to sketch the last moments of someone who pays the ultimate price for that corruption. A lawyer lying on the floor of a jail cell, suffering from untreated pancreatitis while prison guards beat him. A theater-goer gassed to death by security officials who refuse to conduct talks with the terrorists who have taken him hostage. Children clawing to escape a flooding room in a cruise ship that was listing to one side and had not been overhauled in 30 years.

After visiting the site of the sinking, Vladimir Putin put the tragedy down to “irresponsibility, complacency and greed.” You can count on Putin and Dmitry Medvedev to talk tough after a catastrophe like this – as Putin did, for instance, after the Beslan massacre, condemning not only terrorists but also the corruption that had invaded the “law-enforcement sphere” and left Russia unprotected.

But you can’t count on him to draw a line between the large-scale perversion of and disregard for the law that has been allowed to flourish during his time in power and the corner-cutting, casual negligence, and petty bribe-taking that lead to tragedies like the sinking of the Bulgaria.

The headlines, in their grisly way, have moved on to the horror unfolding in Norway, and the difference between these tragedies is instructive. While intelligence agencies can always do a better job, it’s always going to be easy in a free society for a lone, deranged gunman to inflict outsize suffering. But it shouldn’t have been easy for a disaster-in-waiting, like the Bulgaria, to leave port. Wasn’t this the definition of a preventable tragedy?

Image from a video by ITN News.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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