Friday, July 29, 2016


Russia

Bad News Trumps Glad Tidings During Russia's Long Vacation

Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a candle as he attends the Orthodox Christmas service at a local church in the settlement of Turginovo in the Tver region on January 6.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lights a candle as he attends the Orthodox Christmas service at a local church in the settlement of Turginovo in the Tver region on January 6.
By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- A lot can happen in 10 days, and during Russia's long winter holiday, it usually does.

From bizarre, bloody attacks to lethal combinations of bad weather and alleged government negligence, the long Russian New Year and Orthodox Christmas break has brought plenty of grim news -- along with a few rays of sunshine.

Much of the mayhem reported by Russian media since the start of 2016 has been fueled by alcohol.

In a village in the Chelyabinsk region, prosecutors say a conflict that erupted when a drunken woman barged in on neighbors and refused to leave ended with four men lying dead in the snow -- shot by the host after they showed up and started throwing punches, investigators say.

In the same region, authorities said that "drunken hooligans" opened fire on several minibuses as passengers were getting off, shattering windows but causing no injuries.

There was also physical harm done when a sailor who had "clearly overdone it with alcohol" threatened fellow passengers and crew on a flight from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Kamchatka and said he would blow up the plane, the daily Izvestia reported.

The "drunken sailor" was arrested after the plane landed safely at its destination. 

Critics of the long vacation say it leaves people with too much time on their hands and too little to do.
Critics of the long vacation say it leaves people with too much time on their hands and too little to do.

In Moscow, a man died of alcohol poisoning in an ambulance, and police said they found eight empty vodka bottles in his apartment. In Novosibirsk, five homeless people were found dead after consuming a 3-liter bottle of brown liquid they had found on a trash heap, local media reported.

In Kerch, on the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, two boys aged 13 and 15 were hospitalized after they got drunk in a sewer and fell while climbing out, authorities said.

Before the long holiday, in December, media reports said three women in a village in the northwestern Arkhangelsk region tried to burn down a neighbor's house -- while she was inside -- after accusing her of being a witch. Or, at least, of "bewitching" men.

Harrowing Holiday

Few countries have official holidays that are as long as Russia's January vacation.

For the last few years, it has stretched from New Year's Day until a few days after Christmas, which falls on January 7 under the calendar used by the Russian Orthodox Church. This year, many Russians don't return to work until January 11.

Critics of the long vacation say it leaves people with too much time on their hands and too little to do -- a problem that is aggravated by Russia's economic troubles and tense foreign ties, which make travel abroad more complicated and costly.

One harrowing ordeal this holiday season showed that travel inside the country can turn deadly.

On January 2, just 100 kilometers outside Orenburg, a city near the Kazakh border, more than 80 people were stranded on a snowbound highway for 16 hours before help finally arrived. One man died, his body found near the road a day after the rescue, and dozens suffered frostbite.

Pavel Gusev, 25, who was caught in the storm with his pregnant wife, made a YouTube appeal to President Vladimir Putin on January 4 in which he lambasted the emergency services for failing to come to their aid sooner.

On Orthodox Christmas Eve, as the mercury sank to minus 30 degrees Celsius in the Arctic region of Murmansk, there were disruptions to gas supplies, reportedly because the frost -- most probably the reason residents needed heating -- had caused a build-up of condensation in the pipes.

In St. Petersburg, the Emergency Situations Ministry had some advice for people hoping to stay safe and healthy as the temperature fell below minus 20 degrees Celsius: stay inside.

Falling icicles have been known to kill people in St. Petersburg, but the ministry's warning prompted residents to joke that this winter, the danger is from the falling Russian currency. "Petersburg residents have been advised to remain indoors because of the ruble falling from the roofs," one quipped on Twitter.

The ruble hit its lowest level in a year on December 31, falling to about 73. 4 per U.S. dollar, and has slid further during the holiday. Russia's economy has been hit hard by low prices for oil, its key export, and Western sanctions imposed to punish Putin and the Kremlin for Moscow's interference in Ukraine.

Not All Doom, Gloom

One reason for the seeming surge of bad news may be that Russian media have fewer official events to cover over the holiday, prompting them to pay closer attention to police blotters and seek out strange stories.

One that occurred days before the New Year but was not reported until later was caught on camera: A doctor in the city of Belgorod attacked and killed a patient after accusing him of hitting or kicking a nurse.

In footage on YouTube, the burly doctor knocks the man down with a punch in the face; the victim falls to the floor and does not move again.

This season, there were tales that had all the trappings of tragedy -- but somehow clawed back, as if from the dead, to end happily.

On December 30, before the holiday even began, a man was reportedly pronounced dead from alcohol poisoning and taken to a morgue in the Russian Far East -- only to wake up hours later and rejoin his drinking partners.

Since few newspapers are published during the holiday, Russians can avoid the grim tidings by changing the channel on the TV or refraining from clicking on Internet headlines that promise gruesome information.

Also, as in other countries, there is plenty of upbeat information out there.

Gargantuan Christmas cakes have been baked at locations across the country, including one unveiled on Soviet Square in the Siberian city of Kemerovo that weighed 68 kilograms. 

This winter's feel-good animal story: Amur and Timur
This winter's feel-good animal story: Amur and Timur

And this year, it looked like Russians could turn to the surprising saga playing out a national park in the Primorye region, home of a tiger named Amur and a goat named Timur. Initial reports suggested that last year, park conservationists brought the live goat to the tiger as a meal but instead of eating Timur, Amur befriended him, starting a blossoming bromance that has become the subject of a webcast and received close coverage in the state media. 

The tiger-goat friendship was later revealed to have been a carefully orchestrated PR stunt, however.


Tom Balmforth

Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics.

 

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