Thursday, March 29, 2018

Kemerovo and the Circles of Ugliness

You may have heard of the tragic event I am about to describe, or not. If you have heard about it in English, then, chances are, what you have heard is part of a programmatic anti-Russian hatchet job. Normally, I would be reluctant to write about it; it is generally best to make celebrations public and tragedies private. But in this case a great number of people, at different levels, have attempted to profit and to extract benefits from this tragedy, generating a gigantic cloud of black smoke far greater than that generated by the event itself.

This truly ghastly tragedy unfolded last Sunday, March 25, in Kemerovo (stress is on the first syllable), Kuzbass Region, Siberia. A fire at the Winter Cherry shopping and recreation center claimed the lives of 64 people, including 41 children. Only 27 bodies have been identified; others await genetic analysis. The injured number 79, 12 of whom remain hospitalized; 67 have been discharged and will be treated as outpatients. Victims’ families and each of the injured have been given 1 million rubles by the regional government (17350 USD). In addition, the major owner of the center, the entrepreneur Denis Shtengelov, has promised to pay out 3 million rubles for each deceased. All victims have also been assigned a doctor and a psychologist to follow their case to rehabilitation.

Russians are inured to tragedy. The harsh climate and the long winters, accompanied by snowed-in, icy roads, frequent whiteout conditions and the like cause a lot of transportation accidents. Terrorist attacks have claimed their share of victims. But this incident really shook people to the core, and the outpouring of grief has spanned the entire country; first, because its cause wasn’t nature or war—it was a man-made disaster—and second, because so many victims were children, who simply showed up on Sunday for a day of fun. Spontaneous memorials went up all across the country, from Vladivostok in the east (5400km from Kemerovo) to St. Petersburg in the west (4100km), and across the world. Along with the outpouring of grief and support, respect was been paid to the heroes of this tragedy, both dead and living. Tatiana Darsalia, an English teacher, led her own daughter out of the burning building, then ran back in to save other children; she did not survive. Dmitry Polukhin, a cadet in the Emergencies Ministry, managed to grab a hold of and carry outside three children at once—a boy and two girls; he survived.

This, then, is the core of the tragedy—all perfectly human and understandable. After a great deal of grief, and much support from the outside, Kemerovo will eventually heal. But around this tragedy, as soon as it occurred, was set in orbit a veritable asteroid cloud of human ugliness: beastly soulless predatory humanity attempting to derive some scant personal or group benefit from the deaths of children. English lacks good words to describe such people; all it has is vulgar Anglo-Saxon expletives and mealy-mouthed imitations of long-dead Latin. Just labeling such people won’t work; instead, I will sort these orbiting human flaming turds into orbits—Circles of Ugliness, I will call them—the way Dante Alighieri famously assigned sinners to circles of Hell—and perhaps I will even bestow upon them some some suitably medieval eternal torments.

At the very center of this set of Circles of Ugliness may lie a black hole: the fire may have been arson. (It may also have resulted from an accidental short circuit; the investigation is not complete). But if it was arson, a leading theory is that it started in a play pit in a children’s playroom. The pit was filled with styrofoam blocks, and someone (no suspects yet) may have set one of them on fire. The fire then quickly spread to the entire pit, the synthetic ropes that hung over it, the burning ropes spread it to the walls and the rest of the space, and from there throughout the structure.

But it could have been just a stupid little pyromaniac playing with a cigarette lighter he (most likely a boy) picked up somewhere. Lots of young boys are pyromaniacs; they usually get over it if given the chore of burning brushwood. When I was around six and doing dishes, my attention became drawn to a ventilation grille above the kitchen sink. And so I placed a chair on the kitchen counter, climbed up on it, took out the grille and looked inside. It was dark inside the ventilation shaft, so I found a box of matches. Then, when the dust lining the ventilation shaft burst into flame, I got to watch a beautiful orange towering inferno going all the way up the tower block while reflecting that the good life may have ended before it even started. And then the fire burned itself out. But if this turns out to have been a premeditated act of arson, then the perpetrator deserves no less than to be stuck inside a black hole for all of eternity.

The First Circle of Ugliness we encounter is peopled with all those responsible for the deplorable state of fire safety at the Winter Cherry. The automatic fire alarm system was deactivated, and had been for days. It was shut down because of false alarms, and no attempt was made to repair it. When, after the fire started, an attempt was made to activate it manually, nothing useful happened. The forced air ventilation system was not shut down and circulated toxic smoke throughout the building. Emergency exits were locked; evacuation corridors were paneled with flammable materials. Stairwells were not sealed off against smoke ingress and were insufficient for evacuating the building without the use of elevators and escalators, which failed when the electricity shorted out. According to some reports, security personnel were either less than helpful or actually counterproductive.

Who exactly is guilty of this, and to what extent, will be the result of one of the most thorough criminal investigations in Russian history. Lots of people are sure to get jail time; fire regulations will be redrafted; not just in Kemerovo, but throughout the country, fire regulations and inspection procedures will be tightened. Numerous officials at the municipal level (one of the largest remaining pockets of corruption in Russia) will either get jail time, get axed, or get the shakes at the very thought of taking a bribe instead going through with the official inspection and licensing process. The investigation will take at least five months to complete; the trials will take even longer. But we can be quite sure that it will be thorough, complete and exemplary because the person who ordered it and will oversee it is Putin himself. At one of the televised meetings he referred to the fire safety inspection report for the burned-down building, which was approved “without comments.” Outraged, he turned to the head of the investigative committee, and said, “Find out who signed this, and report to me.” “Yes, sir!”

Those who populate this Circle of Ugliness do not deserve any eternal torments: the full weight of administrative and criminal law, brought to bear upon them by a suitably incensed and wrathful Putin, will be quite enough, I am sure! And here, if I may be so bold, is a bit of a silver lining to this black cloud: there is a good chance that these 41 children will not have died for nothing. Their loss will provide the impetus of a thorough overhaul of public safety and municipal governance, making a repetition of such an incident far less likely.

The next Circle of Ugliness is occupied by a giant gas planet—a sort of Uranus of Ugliness—along with a large set of turd-like satellites. This giant stinking ball of swamp gas is a Ukrainian goes by the name of Yevgeny Volnov (real name Nikita Kuvikov), and he is most likely in the employ of the Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy. Shortly after the fire was first reported, Volnov started placing calls to morgues in Kemerovo. Impersonating an officer of the Russian Emergencies Ministry, he started asking morgue officials how many corpses they can accept, and ordering them to prepare to accept large numbers of them—hundreds. Of course, the fake news that hundreds of corpses may be on the way quickly leaked out of the morgues. Within hours, the people on the street were questioning public officials and claiming that they were lying to them about the number of people killed. The officials responded by forming groups of citizen volunteers and dispatching them directly to the morgues to conduct an audit. The numbers matched the official reports, and this Ukrainian attempt to foment public unrest on top of a tragedy was quelled.

But this did not end the matter, because now social media activists took over. Various celebrities, some with many thousands of followers, took to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platform, and spread these lies far and wide. Quite a lot of these people did this more or less unthinkingly; others were simply seeking to boost their popularity on social media at the expense of the victims of this tragedy; yet others, who consider themselves members of the opposition, tried to exploit it to undermine public trust in the authorities. But while the truth may set you free, lies can easily become a self-made prison, and those who spread these lies, whether unwittingly or with an intent to harm, soon found themselves in the middle of a public relations fiasco. It was then pointed out that some of them, celebrities especially, had such a large number of social media followers that legally they could be considered mass media organizations, which are responsible for fact checking and can be held criminally liable for spreading false information, especially in a time of crisis, where it can cause a panic or social unrest. Notably, it was only then that many of them chose to issue public retractions and to apologize.

I have a truly medieval eternal torment for the miscreant Volnov and for all those who echoed his fake news: I consign them to an eternity in the Ukraine.

As a side-note, this experience demonstrates something peculiar about social media. Consider new hospitality platforms such as AirBNB, or the various car-sharing schemes, or even trading sites such as Ebay. They are all based on the principle that public trust is based on public reputation. Tear away the veil of anonymity, make everyone’s reputation public, make everyone trivial to instantaneously locate and identify, and suddenly much risk goes away and cooperation becomes less expensive. Nobody ever flags down a taxi any more, and is never heard from again; now you use a smartphone app, and it tells you who the driver is, the driver who you are, and the dispatch service about both of you, your location and your destination. This automatically puts everyone on best behavior.

Social media is the exact opposite. There are no criteria for establishing a reputation except notoriety, and any method to increase that notoriety (that doesn’t run afoul of some rudimentary guidelines against “hate speech” or “incitement to violence” and the like) is perfectly suitable. What’s more, there is no reason to think that social media platforms are the least bit interested in building social capital or anything of the sort; all they are interested in is selling your data (and maybe some ads). And some, such as Facebook, deserve a Circle of Ugliness all of their own. What should we do with it? In this, I echo Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme!” (Crush the loathsome thing!)

The last Circle of Ugliness is peopled by Western media mouthpieces, such as Leonid Bershidsky, who took this opportunity to bang out a particularly vile piece of trash for Bloomberg. Apparently, their motto is “make hay while the sun is shining,” and it’s a sunny day for them any time there are a lot of dead Russian children. His logic is beyond reproach: See, dead Russian children; ergo, Putin is a vile dictator. What eternal torment would you suggest for people who use a tragedy involving dead children to fill your eyes and ears with garbage and your head with faulty ideas—all for a chance to lick the hand of their corporate master? I am sure you can think up something perfectly medieval if you put your mind to it. Go ahead and give it a try, then! Or we can just condemn them all to an eternity in the Ukraine. Your choice.


Jayhawk said...

So, if this fire was Vladimir Putin's fault, was the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland caused by Barack Obama?

Des Carne said...

There's an element of building design regulation gone astray here. Any use of styrofoam, other than for packaging, is suicidal, especially in buildings, where it's lightness and thermal properties make it attractive and cheap for insulation. I see it everywhere in Chile. Any rental cabin or cheap accommodation of any kind other than in ponderous ancient colonial buildings is almost certainly cobbled together with styrofoam in the ceilings and wall cavities. Missing nails or completion by use of offcuts reveals it. I sleep as close as I can to a door or window and light no candles, for a hasty exit. I once bought a trailer-mounted demountable office unit fitted out as a dwelling, which later had to demolish - it was full of highly flammable styrofoam and light timber, as well as light laminated walls - my time in that was short because of the varnishes and odor of paint thinners.

You once said that Russians over-engineer, and building in cold climates have walls several feet thick. With the hasty spread of consumerism in recent decades in Russia is this value being eroded? Public spaces/buildings is where one would expect to see it most meticulously applied, as structural integrity of multi-storey buildings now is in earthquake-prone Chile.

Peter VE said...

15 years ago, the Station Nightclub in West Warwick, RI caught fire, killing 100 people and maiming many more.

The proximate cause was the fireworks set off by the band playing that night, which lit the foam applied to the walls and ceiling to damp down the sound. The foam used was standard EPS, instead of Class A Fire rated, which costs 4 times as much. The band had checked with the nightclub owner if they could set off the fireworks. More tickets to the show were sold than the legal capacity of the club, not counting the band, employees & others, so the building was about 20% over legal capacity.
The owners claimed that they had not known that the foam they installed was incorrect. The fire inspector never noticed the foam, but cited the owners for one egress door which swung inward.

The original sin for the disaster was several years before, when the owners went to the city council for a change in license from a restaurant to a nightclub. The city building inspector testified against the license change, unless the owners made changes to the building to conform to the stricter rules for a nightclub. The city council approved the license change without conditions. For that and similar reasons, the building inspector resigned about six months later (years before the fire).

The manager of the band, who lit the fireworks, pled guilty and went to prison for 4 years. The brothers who owned the club and installed the foam, spent years fighting before pleading guilty just before trial and being sentenced, one to community service and one to 4 years. By pleading guilty, there was no trial, and no testimony about the original license change was entered into the public record. The RI State Attorney General denied knowing about this deal which his office had negotiated, and was re-elected 9 months later.

This is a perfect example of no one having responsibility for anything, (except the band manager). It typifies the US at the end of Empire. I hope we will see a different outcome in Russia.

Chris said...

I'm sure Jim Kunstler would have something to say on this. Personally I loathe all these modern boxes that barely qualify as buildings and are made of cheap, throwaway material. In my hometown, there are buildings from the 13th century doing just fine (and Roman walls that are much older, still standing) and then you have these "plazas" as we call them, built by an Israeli company 25 years ago, looking like they could fall apart any moment. The big box retail stores, such as Tesco and Aldi are even worse, they look like a building site with a couple of giant metal containers temporarily plucked down. I hope once the long emergency has run its course, these ghastly "buildings" can be recycled into something more worthwhile, such as aluminium buckets, pots and cutlery. As for the concrete buildings, since 9/11 we know that all you have to do to demolish a concrete tower block is to light a couple of office fires here and there and the whole thing will just pulverise and magically collapse into its own footprint. That oughta do it.

Rob Rhodes said...

While this tragedy invites many comparisons and contrasts with reactions to such events in the West, the one that struck me immediately is the officials being doubted about morgue numbers. Rather than insisting "We are the authorities, you must believe us" they said "Go look". This seems both confident and confidence inspiring. Is this typical of officials at that level in Russia or were they exceptional ?

the blame-e said...

I am thankful for hearing another version of the story about this tragedy. Perception is a tricky thing, even when used by responsible adults (so-called).

About your thoughts, and permit me to quote you:

"English lacks good words to describe such people; all it has is vulgar Anglo-Saxon expletives and mealy-mouthed imitations of long-dead Latin. Just labeling such people won’t work; instead, I will sort these orbiting human flaming turds into orbits—Circles of Ugliness, I will call them—the way Dante Alighieri famously assigned sinners to circles of Hell—and perhaps I will even bestow upon them some suitably medieval eternal torments."

A few thoughts on this paragraph.

English is primarily an invention of the West. English (and most of the West), is an amalgamation of the conquering armies from other lands, barbarians mainly. Marauding hordes. Try reading Middle English. It is very much like taking on various marauding hordes all at once, where the issue is very much undecided.

Dante Alighieri, besides being a major Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages/Early Renaissance was a Westerner, and not even an early one. His Divine Comedy, originally called "Comedìa" is based upon Roman Catholicism, a Western version of Christianity. Hell itself is primarily a Western invention, whether described in one, in seven, or in many circles; even in as many circles as you like.

Currently, the world suffers from too many; not too few circles.

I am a little tired of the West being blamed for everything that is wrong with this sweet cesspool of a world we live in. Greed. Avarice. Evil. Modern design and construction practices. Disregard for human life, whether it be the lives of children, or all human life, can be found everywhere. Whether these traits represent the path of a true human being should not have to be negotiable anywhere any longer. It's the 21ST Century for crying out loud. Hasn't the species seen enough of pain, and suffering, cruelty, and mankind's inhumanity to man and children? Apparently not.

The West has a culture. We just don't use it. That is why it is collapsing. The situation is very much like the Catholic Church itself. The Pope wants its follows to believe there is no Hell, just as a whole culture is pushing the belief that there are no consequences. Russia's symbiotic relationship with the West goes back a long, long time. Russia is in on this collapse, too. They may just be ahead of the curve.

The species has the tools to live justly and righteously (I use the word secularly here, to be as inclusive as possible). So, what's the problem? Perhaps there is just no profit in it.


My real question about this article and circles of Hell was this: Is the Ukraine really that bad?

Edward said...

These offenders could be exiled to the coldest part of Siberia. Alternatively, they could be required to take care of anyone disabled by the fire, or forced to spend the rest of their lives working in a burn unit for children.

Peter said...

Jeff Lovejoy, you said it well and with brio, as you beat me to it. It's not a Westeen problem we face, but a human problem. The failures of the West would be but a late example of something started some 10 to 20 thousand years ago for our species. (I'm not advocating anarcho-primitivism, here, in saying this, simply pointing out that which becomes apparent to any student of archeology and history.) I would have us move beyond a fake choice mere corruption as our form of governance, or reliance upon a Great Leader. Not that I remain overly hopeful, though...

Unknown said...

@Jeff Lovejoy.

'Is the Ukraine really that bad?'

I suspect it's worse than Dimitri implied, much worse. A really scary flavour below - if you're short of time watch from 1min to about 8 mins. Just look at the guys marching. What could possibly go wrong?

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of both the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and The Station nightclub fire. If anything good can come out of this tragedy, it will be improved fire regulations, and better adherence to them.

As someone who was in a few sketchy art and performance places "back in the day," The Station fire really woke everyone up. As crazy as parties and events might have been, many in the community all got religion on fire extinguishers, keeping pathways and firelanes clear, not having flammable stuff around, etc. From my perspective, there seemed to be a sea change in the way all spaces were run, even the really underground ones. Safety, in many areas of life, can feel 'boring', until something dangerous starts to spin out of control. The Ghost Ship fire, however, made me realize that some people won't learn.

How people can find profit in the death of children anywhere is beyond me. Then again, when someone asked Madeline Albright about thousands of dead Iraqi children as 'worth it,' it goes to show you how some people have had a good deal of humanity leached from their souls.

Peter VE, you bring up a key point - consequences and responsibility. When those things are lost, a society is done for. Not only do the folks who have done the irresponsible things go free, other people ask themselves, "why should I care, why should I do the right thing?"

onething said...


Having read carefully your article a few weeks back about the state of the military in Russia I thought that the west would cool its jets. But what I see is if anything increased belligerence, and the Saker thinks we are close to war. This makes me suspect that the US or the west have something up their sleeve, some hidden weapon such that they are not impressed with Russia's recent achievements. What do you make of this?