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'Vultures' And 'Self-Hype': Russian Officials See Ulterior Motives In Public Outrage Over Deadly Fire

People gather to pay tribute to the victims of a fire at a shopping center in Kemerovo on March 27.

Russian officials faced fierce criticism over what many saw as a cynical and tone-deaf response to a fire at a Siberian shopping center that killed dozens, many of them children.

As thousands of people protested in the central Siberian city of Kemerovo on March 27 following the deadly fire there a day earlier, the region's governor accused "opposition forces" of stoking tensions for political gain and estimated the demonstration at around 200 people.

The region's deputy governor, meanwhile, told the crowd of his service in the Soviet Navy and his business accomplishments, while suggesting a man who lost his wife and three children in the fire of using the tragedy to "hype" himself.

Dozens Dead In Siberian Shopping Center Fire
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In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 27, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev said that the protesters in the city center "are not relatives of the dead, but constant troublemakers."

"We are working with them and saying: 'You can't do that. It's blasphemy. It's a time of sorrow, and you're trying to use it to solve some of your problems," said Tuleyev, who has served as governor of the coal-mining region since 1997.

Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev (file photo)
Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev (file photo)

Tuleyev's remarks sparked indignation both on social media and at the scene of the demonstration, where Kemerovo resident Igor Vostrikov took the microphone and asked a senior regional official if he agreed with the governor's characterization of the crowd.

"In principle we don't have any opposition activists in Kemerovo," Vostrikov -- whose wife, three young children, and sister died in the fire at the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) mall -- told the crowd.

"And Tuleyev says 200 opposition activists came out, people who are constantly protesting. And there are no injured or victims here," Vostrikov added.

Heated Words

Vostrikov traded heated words at the scene with Kemerovo Deputy Governor Sergei Tsivilyov, who suggested the local resident was engaging in self-promotion.

"Young man, are you trying to use this tragedy to hype yourself?" Tsivilyov said, to which Vostrikov replied: "My entire family died."

The remarks by Tuleyev and Tsivilyov triggered condemnation across social media.

Konstantin Rykov, a Kremlin-loyal media figure and former federal lawmaker, called Tsivilyov a "beast." Photographer and blogger Rustam Adagamov, a well-known Putin critic, sarcastically said the official's comment demonstrates "the general sympathetic position of Kemerovo authorities toward the victims."

Tsivilyov is the owner of a coal company in which an investment vehicle of Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko -- a prominent associate of Putin -- holds a 30-percent stake.

Putin appointed Tsivilyov deputy governor earlier this month, and Russian media reports suggested he could replace Tuleyev as the governor of Kemerovo.

Addressing demonstrators in Kemerovo on March 27, Tsivilyov sounded at times like he was delivering a campaign speech. He noted that he had served in the Soviet Navy and was proud to have "protected our government."

He also told the crowd that he built a mining business from scratch and wanted the region to flourish. He urged the crowd to "create our own plans ourselves" or risk having "someone else create our plans for us."

Putin, meanwhile, faced criticism for invoking "demography" when discussing the tragedy -- something he did twice on March 27.

Father Recounts Daughter's Last Words During Kemerovo Fire
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Meeting with senior regional officials and emergency chiefs, Putin said "we are losing so many people due to "criminal negligence." At a later meeting with a small group of victims’ relatives, Putin said: "We talk about demography, ask people to have children, and as a result of such things [like the fire] we lost so many children."

Liberal opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wrote on Twitter: "Putin couldn't find any other words about the tragedy. Demography and statistics."

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote on his website that Tuleyev's response demonstrated "the complete degradation of our pencil-pushers sitting in their armchairs for 20-25 years."

Making 'Political Capital'

Writing on her Instagram account, Kremlin human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova did not name Navalny but accused "non-systemic opposition" activists of trying to "squeeze any bit of political capital out of a tragedy" in order to "rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of ‘sponsors.'"

Moskalkova did not elaborate on what "sponsors" she was talking about, but the term is often used by officials and Kremlin loyalists to portray political opponents as Western puppets.

Tuleyev added in his meeting with Putin that it was his "task" to prevent "these vultures from exploiting other people's misery and achieve some murky goals."

He also asked expressed "great thanks" to Putin and asked the Russian president "personally for forgiveness for what happened on our territory."

That remark drew angry accusations of cowardice against Tuleyev for not seeking forgiveness from the victims and their relatives.

For his part, Tsivilyov, the deputy governor of Kemerovo, ultimately did ask for forgiveness from those "who have ended up in this difficult situation."

He drew a smattering of applause as he kneeled down before the crowd in a sign of contrition.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.