UARU
Kemerovo Tragedy Exposes Corruption in Russia's Construction Field
1 April, 2018

More than 60 people, mostly children, were killed last Sunday when a blaze engulfed the Winter Cherry shopping complex in the industrial city of Kemerovo in Russia’s Siberian region.

Alice Bota, a journalist with German weekly newspaper Die Zeit who has recently returned from Kemerovo, says with the death toll now established, the city is now in mourning.

In the days following the tragedy, thousands of residents descended on the regional government headquarters calling for answers and demanding the resignation of regional authorities.

As investigators uncovered disturbing circumstances behind the tragedy – locked doors, blocked fire-exits and switched off fire alarms, grieving families became proactive in seeking answers.

“Local authorities were reluctant to understand the gravity of the situation. They didn’t provide any information, they didn’t provide any answers and that helped in spread the rumors about the death toll,” Bota said.

Photo credit: Alice Bota

“So immediately a local initiative was created by normal citizens and they tried to establish the death toll by themselves... Once they started the research, city authorities did cooperate with them and when they had the impression that their numbers matched with the official numbers that were provided, the atmosphere calmed down.”

A week following the tragedy, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev, resigned in response to demands of grieving families.

Photo credit: Alice Bota

But Bota believes that nor Tuleev’s resignation, which had already been planned prior to the fire, nor the tragedy is likely to bring any real change in Russia unless the authorities start addressing the problem of corruption.

“Seven people are suspected to bare some kind of responsibility for the events. However, I believe that those seven people are just a tiny part of a bigger picture. It's all about the system,” she said.  

Photo credit: Alice Bota

“The corruption is endemic especially in the construction business and unless the authorities decide to struggle with that, to fight that, nothing will change.”

Hromadske spoke to Bota about the aftermath of the tragedy and what kind of impact it is having across the country.

You’ve just come back from Kemerovo. Can you tell us what is going in the town and how significant is this event?

The city is still in shock. People are coming to the mourning site, which is right next to the shopping mall called Winter Cherry. It has burned down completely. They are laying down flowers, children’s toys because many children are among the victims. I saw a man walking down the street sobbing. You feel the despair, but it’s not so much a feeling of anger in the air, rather a feeling of numbness.

Can you tell us about the response from local and federal authorities and how are people treating this response and how is the Russian media covering this event?

We had a demonstration on Tuesday. I think it was the first demonstration in the history of Kemerovo. It’s not a city that is known for political activity. It is rather a passive, coal mining city. Over 3000 people came out to the streets and demanded answers and local authorities were reluctant to understand the gravity of the situation. They didn’t provide any information, they didn’t provide any answers and that helped spread the rumors about the death toll. People were thinking that up to 600, maybe 700 people died in this fire that started last Sunday. They didn’t know what was going on. They weren’t informed and the level of mistrust was intense. Also as you know a Ukrainian prankster did a prank call, pretending that he’s in Kemerovo and witnessing how dozens of bodies are being taken away. We know this is fake news but this kind of false information helped fuel an atmosphere of mistrust and despair. So immediately a local initiative was created by normal citizens and they tried to establish the death toll by themselves. They had basic demands to get answers to what had happened. Once they started the research, city authorities did cooperate with them and whenever they had the impression that their numbers matched with the official numbers that were provided, the atmosphere calmed down.

Photo credit: Alice Bota

Out of the 60 people, the majority have still not been identified and the process of identification is a challenging one because in this shopping mall there was a petting zoo, so you have the DNA of animals and the DNA of human beings and the investigators are taking care of it, which can take up to three weeks. My feeling is that the ones that are left behind just want to bury their loved ones and to mourn at the moment. There is no interest in political activities. There was the need for answers, there was the need for explanations and the city authorities were very reluctant to understand this need. Today the governor resigned and I think this will calm down any kind of political desire to change something.

Can you tell us what has been the response to the resignation of Aman Tuleev, the governor of Russia's Kemerovo region, today?

I can’t really comment on that, i left this morning and I didn’t have a feeling that it plays a major role, people were rather expecting it and it was planned anyway, even before the catastrophe. Tuleev is in his 70s, he’s really sick, he’s been governor since the 90s and he’s been managing this catastrophe in an awful way. He called the protesters that came out to the streets and demanded answers, he called them provocateurs, to be some kind of political forces that are using this situation, that are manipulating people’s feelings. This was not fact. These were normal residents that were asking for information to understand what had happened that Sunday in Kemerovo.

Photo credit: Alice Bota

As you mentioned the governor had plans to resign today. Do you think his resignation comes are a timely opportunity to calm the people or do you feel that there is a sense that the government is taking responsibility? 

My feeling is that Tuleev was supposed to leave office right after the presidential election and the Kremlin seemed to hold on to him so nobody would get the impression that they are giving into people's demands. But eventually, they understood that there is no way to continue like nothing has happened and that led to the resignation of Tuleev. I do not believe that this will change the political situation in Kemerovo in general.

What kind of impact do you think this tragedy will have across the nation?

There is a shock you can feel all over Russia and it's really interesting to see how Russian journalists that have been in Kemerovo had actually a hard time covering the events. We had all kinds of empathy in Moscow all over Russian cities. In many Russian cities, the cinemas remained empty because in this shopping mall that burnt down. On the fourth floor was the cinema and many children were trapped inside the cinema and they burnt down because somebody locked the door. They couldn't come out. The emergency exits were locked. The sprinklers didn't work, the alarm signal didn't work. This tragedy, it's made by humans and it's made thanks to corruption system we have in Russia. I think that everybody understands that this kind of catastrophe could happen at any time, at any place in Russia again. They do link it to their own situation. However, I doubt that something will actually really change unless the authorities start to fight the corrupt system and I don't see so far any will to do so.

There is an investigation into this matter. Can you tell us about this investigation? Who has been arrested and do we know who is responsible for this tragedy yet?

Seven people have been arrested over the last days. The director, people that worked for companies that are dealing with the security system. The owner of the shopping mall is still in Australia and I doubt that he will come back. However, I believe, that those seven people are just a tiny part of a bigger picture. It's all about the system. The corruption is endemic especially in the construction business and unless the authorities decide to struggle with that, to fight that, nothing will change. Russia is the country in Europe with the biggest death toll when it comes to fire. It's almost one the level with Zimbabwe. You won't change that unless you fight corruption.

/Interview and text by Natalie Vikhrov