MOSCOW - In the wake of a devastating fire that killed 113 people at the Lame Horse nightclub in the Russian city of Perm, some here are pointing to a culture of corruption, indifference, and fatalism – often aggravated by alcohol – that allows such accidents to reoccur in Russia.
According to official statistics, 18,000 Russians die each year in fires, several times the rate in most developed countries. The US, which has twice the population of Russia, has 3,500 fire fatalities in 2008.
The Lame Horse tragedy, which included 130 injured, came in a panic-stricken stampede after a ceiling made of flammable plastic and dried branches exploded in flames during an illegal indoor fireworks display late Friday night.
"These people have neither brains nor conscience," said President Dmitry Medvedev, a judgment on the nightclub owners that was echoed by many average people interviewed by Russian media over the weekend. "We will need to punish them as harshly as possible."
To be sure, it's just not Russians who make these mistakes. In 2003, 100 people were killed in fire set started by indoor pyrotechnics at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island. In the US, innovative steps have been taken to improve nightclub safety since.
Day of mourning
Russians were burying the dead and searching their souls during an official day of mourning ordered by the Kremlin Monday. Flags flew at half mast around the country, official events were canceled and Russia's top TV network dropped all advertising for the day.
Some commentators are praising Russia's leadership, which reacted swiftly and severely to the tragedy. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately dispatched a special investigation team, which has since arrested five people, including the nightclub's owners, and charged them with "reckless negligence." They face up to seven years in prison if convicted.
The Lame Horse had operated in much the same way for eight years, amid obvious fire-trap conditions, as a photo gallery on the club's own still-operating Website illustrates. Russian authorities say the tinderkeg-dry wooden ceiling, the single narrow exit for a space capable of holding more than 400 people and the indoor use of fireworks, were all strictly against local fire codes and other laws that should have been enforced.
"There is a criminal levity toward life, one's own and the lives of others, that prevails in this country," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "There is a Russian attitude which we call 'avos' (roughly meaning 'que sera, sera') that led them to think, 'hey, we've been doing this for eight years and it's always been OK. So why worry?'," he says.
Bribes vs. fire code enforcment
Some Russians say that while it's hard to argue with the Kremlin's tough response, it may amount to little more than an energetic burst of political theater unless something is done to address the deeper culture of corruption that enables unsafe enterprises of all kinds to routinely escape regulation by paying off inspectors when they come around.
Alexander Fridman, a local entertainment producer in Perm, says he has little doubt that corruption has to be factored into any explanation for the Lame Horse tragedy.
"Fire inspectors found violations of the regulations a year ago, yet they didn't come back to check whether corrections were made. Why was that?," he asks. "There were hundreds of people gathering at that club every night, yet they never closed it down. The basic lesson is that fire inspectors should not take bribes."
Amid Russia's decaying infrastructure and often jury-rigged new construction, the potential for such accidents abound because laws are not enforced, experts say.
"I see this danger everywhere I go, especially places like supermarkets," says Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor at Moscow's official Institute of Architecture. "As long as we have this practice of paying bribes rather than making the needed improvements, nothing will change."
Mr. Medvedev pledged that change will occur. "We need to think about the laws for such events," he said. "They need to be much stricter. Failure to abide by them, including breaches of fire safety regulations, should be much more severely punished."
But Viktor Ilyukhin, a member of the State Duma's security committee, says that just tinkering with the laws won't work.
This tragedy "shows that the whole system is in an unbalanced state," he says. "It can't be repaired. It has to be changed."