Ever since the global financial crisis hit the front pages last fall, a delicious sub-genre has evolved in the media: tales of tone-deaf elites continuing to wallow in their riches while seeking handouts from taxpayers. Some of these stories have been blood-boilingly outrageous.
Despite the Russian government's stranglehold on the media, there have been some similar "insensitive-elite" stories there as well. Earlier this month, for instance, someone paid 37 million rubles ($1.14 million) for a childish painting by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The money supposedly went to a children's charity.
And the lavish obsequiousness didn't end with Putin. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko pulled in $360,000 for her rendition of a snowstorm. One gets the impression that if oil revenues continue to tank, the elite can sustain the country purely on revenues from sycophancy.
But, so far, the story that is most galling and probably holds the most symbolism emerged on January 9 from the snow-covered mountains of Russia's Altai region. On that day, a helicopter with three crew and eight passengers crashed on a mountainside, setting off an intense, two-day search-and-rescue operation.
Only four people survived the incident, and among the dead were President Dmitry Medvedev's representative to the State Duma, Aleksandr Kosopkin; the deputy head of the presidential-administration department on domestic affairs, Sergei Livshin; and Viktor Kaimin, chairman of the Altai Republic's Committee on the Preservation and Exploitation of Natural Resources. The helicopter was operated by Gazpromavia, one tentacle of the state-controlled natural-gas conglomerate that Medvedev headed before becoming president.
Over the next few weeks, details of the incident began to trickle out. First, it was revealed that the men died while engaged in the "sport" of shooting at game animals with powerful rifles from the side of the helicopter. A few media outlets published stories about how popular this "sport" is among Russia's ruthless rich and how organizing such junkets is one way Altai and other regions keep their budgetary needs near the top of the Kremlin's agenda. Altai's representative in Moscow, Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannikh, was among the survivors of the crash, and media noted that he survived several days out in the taiga after a similar helicopter crash in 2005.
Hunting from helicopters is, technically, illegal in Russia, but the rich evidently prefer to bag their mountain goats without getting their loafers wet.
The party reportedly had hunting licenses for mountain goats (how many?), and this comes as no surprise since the head of the regional natural-resources committee was among the victims. But journalists in Altai took photographs from the site of the local Emergency Situations Ministry and enlarged them to reveal a mountainside littered with carcasses, including at least one argali mountain sheep. Argali are among Russia's most endangered and protected species, with only some 200 believed left in the wild (er, 199). Killing one is punishable by up to two years in prison.
After the photos were released, Greenpeace and other environmental groups called for an investigation into whether the hunters were targeting argali sheep. Of course, the presence of the region's top environmental-protection official onboard the ill-fated helicopter makes the story even more outrageous. The government's response to the outcry was to seal the investigation from the public.
The photos of the sheep carcasses, though, brought to mind a sickening incident in December when pro-Kremlin political provocateurs dumped a load of injured and dead sheep at the site of an opposition political meeting. State television didn't pick up that gruesome story, but oppositionists posted video online.
On January 20, "Moskovskaya pravda" published an article speculating that the low-flying helicopter had been shot down by local hunters, who have been known to take potshots at poachers. The paper noted that helicopters were brought down by rifle fire under similar circumstances during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The official version of the cause of the accident so far is "pilot error."