The title of this article might be a little misleading, but not without reason is such a question posed. The fire that killed 64 people, including 41 children, in the Winter Cherry mall in Russia’s Kemerovo on March 25th was absolutely, undoubtedly a tragedy. What is provocative, however, are the implications of the political and disinformation campaigns which have made the Kemerovo tragedy even more tragic.
In Kemerovo on March 25th, just before 16:00 local time, approximately thirty minutes after crowds of children were bussed in for a movie showing, a fire broke out somewhere towards the top of the four-story Winter Cherry complex. There was no fire alarm and the public intercom system was never turned on. Thus, the first warning for many of those inside was the sight of others running for their lives and even jumping out of upper-floor windows. Numerous fire exits were found to be locked. The roof of the cinema was engulfed and collapsed in. While firefighters arrived and started trying to control the blaze by approximately 16:30, the fire would not be successfully extinguished until the next day. Several dozen people are presumed still missing.
Sometime later that day, the Ukrainian prankster Evgeniy Volnov, impersonating an employee of Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations, called Kemerovo morgues and claimed that around 300 people had died and urged to prepare for their bodies. Volnov subsequently posted the recording of the call on YouTube as “evidence” that the Russian government was covering up the death toll:
One morgue doctor – who was not at work at the time – repeated to subsequently gathering crowds this fake death count of 300, which he admitted on March 28th that he himself had derived from social media.
Subsequently, Russian non-parliamentary opposition activists in the likes of Navalny and co. bombarded social media with claims of 300 or even 400+ killed and accusations to the effect that not only was the Russian government, especially President Putin, directly to blame, but that state services deployed to check shopping centers around the country would, in Navalny’s Tweet’s words, busy themselves with extortion.
Then fake pictures started circulating around social media, some from the “Lame Horse fire” from Perm in 2009, others from the May 2014 Odessa massacre, when Ukrainian “nationalists” and neo-Nazi groups chased and cornered anti-Maidan protesters in the Odessa House of Trade Unions building, setting it alight and shooting at those trying to flee, killing nearly 50 and injuring more than 200. The following gruesome pictures from the Odessa Massacre were floated around as if they were from Kemerevo:
When, on March 26th and 27th, the families of survivors and shocked citizens gathered in cities across Russia to demand answers from authorities and mourn the dead, Navalny and his opposition cohorts tried to hijack the rallies, particularly in Moscow, and turn them into opposition protests. Even though those originally gathered in Kemerovo had focused on criticizing the governor, Aman Tuleyev – who did not even visit the scene – with the arrival of opposition activists shouts of “Putin resign” were suddenly heard, and crowds of underage middle-class-looking youth – whom Navalny and co. are notorious for mobilizing and getting arrested – were rapidly conjured in Kemerovo and Moscow.
Then pro-opposition media circulated “recruitment profiles” showcasing young adults who “never went to protests” but whose “patience had finished” over “media lies.”
All of this comes on the heels of a particularly suspicious Tweet by Navalny from March 21st, who shared an article suggesting that all eyes should be on Kemerovo as the center of potential post-election “drama.”
Western media, of course, joined the fray with ulterior motives. A Bloomberg editorial from March 26th wrote “human lives aren’t worth much to the Putin system”, and claimed that “Putin isn’t even planning to travel to Kemerovo”, even though President Putin flew in that night and held meetings with authorities and laid flowers the next day. After Putin did visit, the same author then changed his focus to ranting about “the chasm between the system he [Putin] built and the people it governs”, concluded that “Putin’s fourth term in power is already looking like a joyless slog” and lamented: “Had it not been for the Kremlin’s skill at suppressing dissent, this gap would be a major opportunity for his political opponents.”
On March 27th, The New York Times ran a piece characteristically titled “Putin’s Grim Reality” and employing typically transparent semantics, such as: “Instead of fuming at the United States and its allies, Mr. Putin, during his Siberia trip, used another tool in his repertoire…He set the security apparatus to work.” As if those deemed suspect should not be detained and an investigation and emergency measures should not be taken? The hackneyed claim of Putin’s “increasingly tight control of the news media” was also regurgitated and blamed for “aggravating” public “distrust.” Later along the chain of unsubstantiated implications, the article mocked Putin as demonstrating “puzzled outrage” despite the fact that, according to the Times, everyone knows Russia’s “draconian fire regulations…[and] lamentable and well-known fire safety record.”
The New York Times’ lingo was topped by the UK The Sun, which ran the title “FIRE AND FURY: Russians slam Putin over horrifying Kemerovo mall fire in huge nationwide protests – as locals claim ‘cover up’ of real death toll.”
On March 28th, which was declared a National Day of Mourning, Putin officially decried media disinformation surrounding the incident: “We see that, unfortunately, fakes are going around through social media, including from abroad, in order to sow panic and sow distrust, to make people clash with one another. This, of course, cannot be allowed under any circumstances.”
In response, United Russia deputy Yevgeny Fedorov has announced that he intends to draft legislation that would propose establishing self-regulating committees of experts to develop a new national ethical code for media outlets and monitor the spread of fake news and such “dances on graves.”
As of this evening, five people have been temporarily detained in Kemerovo: the technical director of the company which owns the Winter Cherry building, the tenant of the space in which the fire is believed to have broken out, one employee and the head of the organization responsible for servicing the fire alarm system, and the private security employee who might have disconnected the fire alarm system. In addition, the deputy governor of the Kemerovo region has been dismissed. Russian media are forecasting the dismissal of Governor Tuleyev himself.
The official, ongoing investigation has not declared a final ruling on the tragedy. President Putin, meanwhile, has explicitly blamed “criminal negligence.” As facts concerning incomplete or altogether foregone safety checks on the Winter Cherry building come to light, it is more than likely that criminal negligence and corruption played a role in the fire. This would not be a surprise, since President Putin’s has emphasized in his pre- and post-election statements that corruption is one of the main problems with which Russia must and with which he intends to deal.
But something just doesn’t feel right here. There are suspicious signs suggesting that this tragedy was more than just an instance of criminal corruption and negligence. In the fire incident itself, there were so many variables at play – the timing of the fire right after the arrival of crowds of children who in demographically-challenged Russia made up a significant portion of the adolescent population of nearby towns (whole school classes are now deceased), a disconnected fire alarm, an absent warning from security, locked fire escapes, a rapid, rather successful intervention by an infamous Ukrainian, widespread disinformation bombardments, an instant opposition mobilization by Navalny and co, and, as usual, relentless Western media assaults on Putin himself. Looking at the circumstances of the incident and the ensuing political events, how does such not resemble a contrived act?
We also have the extremely suspicious testimony of the arrested Winter Cherry director.
What’s more, the Kemerovo fire was only one of four fires across Russia over the past four days. On March 26th, a 12-story apartment complex in Grozny caught fire due, according to the Ministry of Emergency Situations “the ignition of flammable materials by an unidentified source.” On the same day, the Sputnik Dom mall in Belgorod caught fire. Today, a St. Petersburg car dealership set alight. No victims have been reported, but neither have the reasons for the fire. At the risk of being conspiratorial, it is fair to ask, as Adam Garrie of Eurasia Future news has: “Is there calculated foul play at hand?…One cannot help but question if something more sinister might be behind the series of fires.”
All of this is happening one week after President Putin’s re-election, amidst an extreme heightening of tensions between Russia and the West, specifically on the heels of the diplomatic row initiated by the United Kingdom over the beyond dubious “Skripal affair,” over which the UK has announced a new, aggressive “Fusion Doctrine” which, in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s words, will mobilize “every capability at our disposal to defeat them.” CNN’s reporting, interestingly enough, has repeatedly emphasized this coincidence.
In big geopolitics, we may never know what exact covert operations are conspiring. But we can draw attention to disturbing coincidences. And that is what we might have before us now. While Western and Russian opposition media continue to turn the Kemerovo tragedy (or operation?) into a provocation for their political ends, there is a much more important question which needs to be asked: Did the US’ October 2015 threat – that Russia will “feel real pain” and that Russians will “come home in body bags” if Russia refuses to back down in its anti-terrorist operations – ever expire?
In the absolute least, we are witnessing a gross exploitation of Russians’ tragedy, which speaks volumes as to the character of Western media and the Russian “opposition.”