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Retirement-Home Fire Underscores Plight Of Russia's Elderly

The burning retirement home in Podyelsk where 23 people died
The burning retirement home in Podyelsk where 23 people died
Fires in Russian retirement homes and other similar institutions have become a depressingly frequent phenomenon.

The most recent blaze came on January 31, in the northern Komi Republic. A fire destroyed a single-story log building serving as a retirement home in the village of Podyelsk, some 100 kilometers from the Komi capital, Syktyvkar.

Twenty-three people -- nearly everyone inside -- were killed. Preliminary investigations suggested the fire began in the building's smoking room.

Nikolai Izyuzev, RFE/RL's correspondent in Syktyvkar, said the location of the retirement home was so remote that it made a quick rescue operation almost impossible.

"The nearest fire station is based more than 20 kilometers from Podyelsk, so when they arrived everything had already burned to the ground," Izyuzev says.

Izyuzev notes that the building was built in the early 1960s and was once a school.

"The majority of people were women who were sick and elderly. The eldest of them was 90 years old," he adds. "Probably, it was too difficult for them to break the windows and escape."

Rising Death Toll

The Komi fire is just the latest in a string of deadly fires across the country.

Care homes have been particularly vulnerable: 62 patients and staff died in a March 2007 fire in an old people's home in southern Krasnodar, and 32 died in November 2007 near the city of Tula, 200 kilometers south of Moscow.

Similar fires have been caused dozens of deaths in hospitals and psychiatric institutions throughout Russia. All are institutions where safety standards have been allowed to lag as social funding dwindled in the years following the Soviet collapse.

The wooden building was built in the 1960s.
A total of 15,000 people died as the result of fires in Russia in 2008 -- a figure that is five times higher than that in the United States. A spokeswoman for Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry, Irina Adryanova, says the problem is especially dire in public institutions like retirement homes, which frequently have faulty alarm systems and are located far from fire-fighting units.

The problem has come under government scrutiny, and has underscored the growing rift between federal and regional authorities.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called on February 5 for a full investigation into the blaze, and said it was impossible for Moscow to ensure safety standards throughout the expanse of Russia.

Regional and municipal officials, he said, needed to either "wake up or resign."

"No such tragedies would ever happen if there wasn't such infinitely cynical and simply immoral attitude to the lives of those who live in homes for the elderly," Medvedev said. "We know that it's not the first such tragedy. How long can we put up with this?"

Oleg Smolin, the deputy chairman of the State Duma's Education Committee, said the government has repeatedly failed to act despite a string of fires -- and despite years of abundant, energy-fed budget revenues.

"Unfortunately, despite living through several years of 'golden rain' caused by petrodollars, every year, when the state budget was discussed, I and other parliament members always suggested that the financing of village schools, boarding houses, retirement homes, and homes for handicapped people be increased," Smolin said.

"But all those suggestions were inevitably rejected."

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