Russia’s deadly mall fire deepens divide between citizens and politicians

As Russia mourns victims killed in a deadly shopping mall blaze in Siberia’s Kemerovo, many citizens have been voicing their mistrust of authorities. Politicians and locals appear to be talking past one another.

These are dark days in Russia. And the sheer scale of the blaze that engulfed a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo and killed more than 60 people – many of them children – is a source of grief but also of anger.

Flags were lowered and entertainment events canceled for three days across the country, as Russia held a national day of mourning on Wednesday, and the first victims were buried.

The deadly blaze that raged on Sunday and Monday was neither the first nor the largest tragedy of this kind in Russia. Nevertheless, public outrage in this instance has been unusually vehement, and the way in which authorities and state-run media have been dealing with the catastrophe and victims has only made things worse.

On Sunday night, when fire broke out in the fourth floor of the shopping center and the first deaths were being reported, major state-run television channels devoted very little broadcast time to the events unfolding in Kemerovo. It was not until the following day that broader coverage was given to the tragic events.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kemerovo on Tuesday was widely covered by state media. Yet media outlets made no mention of the 5,000 citizens who gathered for a large demonstration in the city’s main square. Moreover, state-run media did not bother to interview eyewitnesses nor citizens who lost loved ones in the blaze.

Read also: Is it time for Germany to revisit its Russia relationship?

Emergency exits locked

Investigators have identified a short circuit as a possible cause for the blaze and said the emergency exits were locked shut, making evacuation efforts very difficult.

A court in Kemerovo is expected to rule later on Wednesday on the arrests of one of the mall’s tenants, the mall’s technical director, two employees of a company maintaining the fire alarm system and a security guard who investigators said turned off the fire alarm.

Speaking in court on Wednesday, the security guard Sergei Antyushin said in remarks carried by the Dozhd television station that the mall’s fire alarm had gone off and that he called emergency services when it did.

But Antyushin told the court that the mall’s public announcement system had not been operational for two weeks.

Governor angers citizens

Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev further fueled the outrage after he refused to visit the site of the catastrophe and meet with victims’ families in the aftermath. Tuleyev has been governor of the region for 20 years and has consistently delivered Vladimir Putin the most favorable electoral results in the country.

He caused even more outrage by apologizing to President Putin for the fire during his quickly scheduled visit Tuesday but not to the people: “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], you called me personally. My greatest thanks for that. I ask you personally for forgiveness for that which happened upon our territory.”

Yet the governor did not apologize to victims’ relatives. In fact, he denounced the thousands of protesters demonstrating in Kemerovo’s main square and calling for his resignation as “hooligans” and “vultures.”

Tuleyev made time to meet Putin but didn’t bother to meet with the people standing in freezing temperatures for 10 hours in the main square. Instead, he sent Deputy Governor Sergey Tsivilyev.

On Monday, Tsivilyev accused one demonstrator of trying to profit from the pain of others. The man, whose name is Igor Vostrikov, told Tsivilyev that he lost his sister, his wife and his three small children – aged two, five and seven – in the fire.

On Tuesday, in the face of growing protests, the deputy governor finally decided to make a gesture: He knelt in front of demonstrators and asked them for forgiveness. He received applause for the move, while many also booed him.

Mistrust and fear

Many people in Kemerovo no longer trust information provided by authorities. Theories are feverishly circulating on social media sites claiming that Tuesday’s official death toll of 67 – including 41 children – is nothing more than an attempted cover-up and that the actual number is much higher.

Such theories cite “hundreds” of victims, though the claims are not backed up by any facts, just anonymous sources. Still, a local activist group has been created and has put together its own list. It claims 85 people are missing, 70 of them children.

Demonstrators angrily jeered when Deputy Governor Sergey Tsivilyev read out the official death toll at Kemerovo’s main square. Many locals who spoke to DW voiced concern about the ongoing official investigation. They were critical of how authorities had acted during and after the fire.

Yet many also seem to fear the authorities. On his Facebook page, Vladimir Varfolomeyev, from the influential radio station Echo Moskvy, wrote that more than half of those whom he talked to asked him not to use their names, and some even asked him to distort their voices so they would be unrecognizable.

“And we are not talking about an act of terrorism, no political conspiracy, no military aggression. What kind of fear must the people of Kuzbass [the Russian name for the region] feel if they are too scared to even talk about what happened,” wrote Varfolomeyev.

Another thing that has made people suspicious is the fact that relatives must sign non-disclosure agreements when they identify victims’ remains. Russian authorities say the measure was taken to protect relatives. Nonetheless, the move has also given mourners the impression that the government is trying to cover up the true scope of the tragedy.

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