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Between Color Revolution and Social Accountability: Eduard Popov on the Kemerovo Tragedy

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March 30, 2018 – Fort Russ –

By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –

In lieu of an introduction: a question of morality 

The tragedy that gripped Kemerovo on March 25th, which claimed the lives of numerous children in the most terrible way, was heartbreaking for all of Russia. Like any major tragic event, the incident in this Ural town highlighted both the good and dark sides in human souls and society. On the one hand, this heartbreak was tended to by many people across the world, who laid flowers and toys before Russia’s diplomatic missions, including in Ukraine. We in Russia very much appreciate this sympathy showed by ordinary humans which completely contradicts the behavior of Western politicians and their clientele in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, who continue to turn the gears of an anti-Russian war.  Russians are not afraid of war with the West if it is forced upon us, but we would like to hear words of human support and even a temporary truce until the pain of such a tragedy subsides.

Let us recall that Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first to show solidarity with the people of America following the horrific terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001. We have not received anything of the sort. It has become clear that for the Western establishment, the world is divided into two unequal categories: the “civilized world”, and barbarism. They are seemingly unembarrassed by the fact that their supposed “center of civilization”, the USA, is not even 250 years old, whereas Russian civilization has more than 1,100 years under its belt, and Chinese civilization no less than 3,000.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt support to all of those who lost their loved ones in the terrible fire in Kemerovo. Yesterday it was also announced that a fire has claimed 68 lives in Venezuela. I express heartfelt condolences to the fraternal Venezuelan people whose victims will also probably not be “noticed” by the “civilized world.”

Social responses to the Kemerovo tragedy

Now let us turn to more pragmatic questions.

First of all,  I am not an expert on the Kemerovo region nor a specialist in fire safety. I will try to reach my friends in Kemerovo whom I met thanks to their support for the people of Donbass – from this distant region I received aid for transport to Donbass on more than a few occasions. I hope to receive news from the scene for Fort Russ from these informed colleagues. But here I will allow myself to express my views as an historian who has studied the revolutions in Russia in 1917 and the revolutions in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014.

In the public response to the fire in the mall in Kemerovo, a revolutionary element and false goals have reared their head. The bureaucracy in Russia wields very little social authority, so any cataclysm as a rule leads to a new wave of criticism against lower officialdom. Allegations against these authorities have been loudly heard at numerous rallies in Kemerovo, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. Without a doubt, some individual officials and even aspects of the system of regional and municipal authorities is guilty. The tragedy in Kemerovo, one hopes, will lead to revisions of security systems and accountability on the part of local officials for events on their grounds.

But for some reason, the outrage against officials has overshadowed another, by no means less important aspect of the problem: the lack of social responsibility of businesses. Publicly available documents show that the root cause of the tragedy was the unrestrained race of capitalists, including a notorious oligarch, for profit. Those who read the documents on the state of the building and its functioning will, I think, agree with me.

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Wholly justifiable accusations against authorities have for some reason not been paired or followed by demands to punish those businesses who are also to blame. Today a representative of the liberal clan, the official lawyer of Russian business, and recent presidential candidate, Boris Titov, hastened to withdraw allegations pressed by the business community against the bureaucracy. In my opinion, this is an attempt to wash their hands and avoid accountability.

Part of Russian society is also lacking in social responsibility. Whole groups of bloggers and a number of media figures hurried to impose their visions of the causes of the tragedy on society. One famous actor, whom I will not name, stated that they know the exact number of those killed – how, from where, while they are sitting in Moscow?! Some bloggers rapidly spread unverified and even outright false information alleging hundreds of people killed. I will not rush to blame these people, for perhaps such was done out of mistake or even inexperience, which I as an analyst can admit is far from rare, but I hope that this bitter lesson will teach these people to be more responsible in their approach to the use of information, which is in our day and age a weapon.

Now back to the first part of my question, concerning the radicalization of public sentiment over the tragedy. I have closely studied the Russian February Revolution of 1917, and one obvious parallel with the events in Kemerovo has struck me. Then and now, number of slogans were thrown at society by people with ulterior motives and happened to fall on fertile soil. These included chants of “the government is to blame” (for everything) and “the government is covering up the truth.” As logically follows, the next slogans in line concern demands for public control. 101 years ago, this resulted in the demand for a government of popular trust. Now – forgive me for the involuntary cynicism of this comparison – such demands resemble calls for the establishment of a committee for checking morgues. Then and now, “revolutionary” leaders with low approval ratings and low authority among society, who have been defeated in political battles, exploit any opportunity to discredit the government in non-political matters. In February 1917, such an issue was the question of bread, which was supposedly lacking in Petrograd, and before the issue for exploitation was treason in the ruling elite (such as  Empress Alexandra passing on Russian military secrets to her German relatives, which every street journalist and liberal deputy in the State Duma knew of). Crowds are very easy to fool and provoke into radical actions if there are professional groups (revolutionaries or provocateurs, as you prefer) and psychological primers ready.

It is no coincidence that liberal leaders in the likes of Navalny, the Yabloko party, and others rushed to dance on the bones of dead children in Kemerovo. They have been repeatedly defeated in elections, and are now seeking revenge on Putin and the people who elected him by any means necessary. 

What’s more, the resonance of the Kemerovo fire among society was also stoked by a foreign trace, specifically a Ukrainian one. Jafe Arnold’s article cogently analyzed the morally disgusting, cynical, but successful act by the Ukrainian blogger Volnov, who, according to informed sources, is an officer of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ secret information service. Volnov essentially repeated the mockery of fire victims which has been a habitual part of the Ukrainian blogosphere…since 2014, when on May 2nd the Odessa House of Trade Union was burned down. According to official sources, 48 people were killed then, but Odessans who subsequently joined the Donbass militia and other witnesses of the tragedy claim 300 or 400 dead. Is it a coincidence that Ukrainian bloggers (and the intelligence services possibly behind them) have appropriated these numbers for Kemerovo?

In the future I do not rule out even the direct participation of Ukrainian special forces in the organization of tragedies similar to the Kemerovo horror on Russian territory. I have been predicting this since 2014. In fact, Ukrainians have already been caught organizing such attempts, primarily in Crimea. In my Rostov region, one Ukrainian has been arrested for preparing a terrorist attack on a railway on the orders of Ukrainian military intelligence (the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense).

One of the most important components of revolutionary agitation is “bombarding the headquarters”, i.e., attacking concrete representatives of state power. Without a doubt, Governor Tuleyev is not the most popular or sympathetic figure. Starting out as a representative of the miners’ movement, he quickly lost touch with the people and became a “governor-for-life”. Rumors of his imminent retirement have been around for a long time, but I believe that dismissing him today would be unfair since the investigation of the Kemerovo tragedy has just begun, and because Russia’s Investigative Committee has integrity – it does not adhere to the principles of Theresa May, who determines guilt on the basis of intuition or antipathy. Moreover, immediately dismissing Tuleyev would be a manifestation of weakness on the part of the central government which Vladimir Putin would never allow. While preparing this article, reports appeared citing anonymous sources in the Kremlin saying precisely this.

Like them, I believe that Tuleyev’s resignation or dismissal will come a little later, perhaps after two or three months. Unfortunately, his departure will not bring back the dead children. But this might force other governors and municipal leaders to be extremely attentive and cautious in ensuring the security of Russian citizens. Unfortunately, today neither the government, especially regional authorities, nor parts of Russian society realize that we are on the brink of war with the collective West, and that Russia should remember the experience of 1941-1945 and transition to military tracks.

Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation. 

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