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The Week In Russia: New Year, Old Problems

Russia President Vladimir Putin -- perhaps having learned his lesson from past tragedies -- didn't waste any time traveling to the scene of the collapse of an apartment building in Magnitogorsk on December 31.
Russia President Vladimir Putin -- perhaps having learned his lesson from past tragedies -- didn't waste any time traveling to the scene of the collapse of an apartment building in Magnitogorsk on December 31.

An apartment-building collapse killed 39 people on New Year's Eve in Magnitogorsk, and 13 revelers ringing in 2019 were injured when a bridge broke beneath their feet as the national anthem played in Moscow. Meanwhile, the new year brought a new wrinkle in relations with the West: The jailing of a dual U.S.-British citizen Russian authorities claim was caught spying.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Out With A Bang

The first year of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new term has been bookended by disaster.

A week after he secured six more years in the Kremlin with a landslide victory that seemed assured before the first ballot was cast, a fire at a shopping mall in Siberia killed 64 people.

The raw numbers failed to describe the extent of the tragedy: That unspooled in the harrowing, heartbreaking stories that swiftly emerged, like that of 12-year-old Vika Pochankina -- trapped in a movie theater – asking her aunt by phone to “tell everyone that I loved them.”

“We’re burning. I love you. All,” 13-year-old Maria Moroz, who would die a day later in the hospital, wrote in a succession of posts from the theater.

With the Internet as a conduit of near-live accounts from desperate victims, the fire that swept through the Zimnyaya Vishnya (Winter Cherry) mall on March 25 stood out. But it was just the last in a long series of disasters – in the Putin era and before – caused or exacerbated by the corrosively deadly effects of negligence, carelessness, corruption, corner-cutting, and crumbling infrastructure.

Tragedy struck again on New Year’s Eve, when a whole section of a 10-story apartment building in the industrial Ural Mountains city of Magnitogorsk came crashing to the ground following a blast before dawn, trapping dozens of residents – some still living, some dead – in the ruins of their apartments.

Grim Search

Declaring that they had found all the victims, rescuers ended their search on January 3 with the death toll at 39 and the cause of the explosion still not certain.

Officials quickly said the likely cause of the blast was a gas leak -- as has often been the case in similar disasters in Russia in the past. Like deadly fires, apartment-block collapses have been a kind of grim signature of post-Soviet Russia: The deep pile of rubble, the fully intact apartments adjacent to the empty space where the neighbors used to live, the occasional piece of furniture or bathroom fitting hanging from a sheer wall high in the air.

And the meaning of “likely gas blast” is clear to all: “Not terrorism.” Because every time an explosion destroys an apartment block in Russia, the question is immediately: gas blast or terrorist bombing?

And that’s because of the bombings that ripped through four buildings in September 1999, killing about 300 people and helping usher in the second war against rebels in Chechnya.

Suspicious Minds?

The war helped Putin – the once-obscure official who was just weeks into his job as prime minister and still little-known after eight months as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) – gain recognition and popularity on his rise to the top. Government critics accused the security services of staging the blasts as part of a plot to put Putin in the Kremlin.

Putin won his first presidential election the following March, after being abruptly handed Russia’s reins by Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999 – exactly 19 years before the blast in Magnitogorsk.

And nearly two decades later, there are still suspicions.

On January 1, two regional Russian media outlets cited unnamed sources as saying that the explosion might have been terrorism and that a van that caught fire nearby the next day, killing three people, was shot up by security forces seeking the suspects.

Bangs that sound like gunshots are heard on Internet-posted videos from the scene, but police said the van fire was caused by gas canisters. The Investigative Committee, meanwhile, responded to the reports with a statement late on January 1 saying that no traces of explosives had been found in the building fragments specialists had examined, but that authorities were looking into all possible causes.

'A Possible Scenario'

The committee released a similar statement on January 4, again making no mention of gas or any other likely cause. A day earlier,, one of the media outlets that ran the initial reports pointing to a possible attack -- issued a second report claiming that unnamed sources at the FSB in Moscow “confirm the theory of a terrorist act.”

The report could not be independently verified and included an unusual disclaimer saying that while the outlet trusts its sources, the information should “for now” be treated as “one of the possible scenarios” of the events in Magnitogorsk.

Among other things, the report cited sources as saying that a man who left the building shortly before the predawn blast "might be involved in extremist activity" -- an assertion that local police denied. It also said that there was a major manhunt in Novosibirsk overnight on January 1-2 and that a fourth person who had been in the van was killed in a rented apartment later on January 2.

Gorky Park

In some ways, little has changed in nearly 20 years: Some of the hallmarks of the early Putin era are hallmarks of what may or may not be the late Putin era.

In a less disastrous but even more symbolic incident, part of a pedestrian bridge in Moscow’s Gorky Park collapsed under the weight of a crowd at a New Year’s celebration. The accident – which occurred at almost exactly midnight, when the national anthem was playing – injured 13 people.

It was the latest in a series of bridge collapses in Russia – at least 20 since October 4, according to a list posted on Facebook.

For some, tragedies like Magnitogorsk are a big indictment of Putin, regardless of the cause – evidence that he has failed to eliminate, or even address, some of Russia’s most pressing problems.

The Kursk Disaster

But Putin does appear to have learned at least one lesson, if not after the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000 then after the Kemerovo shopping mall fire: When tragedy strikes, show up early.

It’s a lesson he didn’t learn after the Kursk went down after its own torpedoes exploded, killing all 118 seamen aboard while the navy searched for the stricken sub for hours and Putin turned a cold shoulder to Western offers of help for two days.

Like in Kemerovo but more slowly, devastating stories emerged from the deep – like that of an officer, huddled in a cramped compartment with 22 others who survived the blasts, scrawling a note and slipping it in his pocket: “None of us can get out.”

The botched rescue stoked anger among relatives of the victims as well as other Russians.

By contrast, Putin flew to Magnitogorsk a few hours after the predawn blast, visiting the site and speaking to injured victims in the hospital.

'The Lesson Of Kemerovo'

“Putin has learned the lesson of Kemerovo. That’s good,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Putin foe and former oil tycoon who spent 10 years in prison on charges he says were trumped up by the Kremlin and now lives in Europe, wrote on Twitter.

Even better, he added, would be for Putin “to understand that aging [housing] should be more important for the budget than ‘main Defense Ministry cathedrals’ and ‘biggest mosques in Europe’ – a reference to two costly, high-profile projects.

Meanwhile, some questioned Putin’s motives in making the trip to Magnitogorsk.

Paul Whelan: Russia says he was caught "red-handed."
Paul Whelan: Russia says he was caught "red-handed."

Alfred Kokh, a former deputy prime minister and privatization chief who also lives in Europe and is a vocal Kremlin critic, said that Putin’s swift arrival was one of the factors making him suspicious about the authorities’ accounts of the building collapse and the van fire.

More than 18 years after the sinking of the Kursk, and less than a year after the Kemerovo mall fire, there’s another potential motive for Putin’s change in approach.

In March, he was riding high, having just won a new term with nearly 77 percent of the vote. But polls conducted in the fall showed his approval rating and electability had declined, in part due to an unpopular pension reform that is raising the retirement age for Russians.

Putin does not have to worry about electability at the moment, if ever: He’s still in the first year of a six-year term and is barred by the constitution from seeking reelection in 2024, when he will turn 72.

But that uncertain future may be all the more reason to court the support of the public now.

Espionage Allegation

Another old problem that persists in the New Year is Russia’s deeply troubled relations with the West – the United States in particular.

Those ties were strained yet again with the arrest of Paul Whelan, a 48-year-old former U.S. Marine who Russian authorities say was caught “red-handed” on a spy mission.

His family says he was in Moscow for a wedding on December 28 – but he never made it, because he was detained earlier that day and later jailed at Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo detention center, where the Federal Security Service (FSB) keeps detainees.

Some observers say Russia probably arrested Whelan – a dual U.S. and British citizen -- in the hope of swapping him for Maria Butina, a Russian who pleaded guilty in a Washington, D.C., court in December to a charge of conspiring to act as a foreign agent.

Others disagreed – citing, among other things, the likelihood that Butina will be released within months and deported to Russia -- or said that while a swap is not likely, the arrest looked like retribution.

With the long Russian New Year’s and Orthodox Christmas holiday now in full swing, there has been very little official comment on Whelan’s case, and the FSB has given no detail at all about his alleged espionage.

So the public and the press must rely on a single Russian news agency citing a single unnamed source as saying that Whelan was detained in his room at the Metropol, a major hotel steps from the Kremlin, after receiving a USB stick containing a classified list of employees of an unspecified security agency.

Hostage Situation?

Whelan’s Russian lawyer has told media outlets that the Russian authorities have not shown him evidence of espionage on the part of his client, and U.S. intelligence experts have voiced doubt that he is a spy.

“In fact, his résumé suggests he’s perhaps the last person that the U.S. government would use to collect intelligence,” was how The Washington Post put it in a January 3 article, citing former intelligence officers.

Steven Hall, a retired former chief of Russia operations at the CIA, tweeted that “it’s most accurate to think of Whelan as a hostage.”

While he is reportedly in solitary confinement, he’s not alone in that sense: Most or all of the 24 Ukrainian sailors Russia arrested after firing on and seizing their naval craft near the Kerch Strait in late November are also jailed at Lefortovo.

NOTE: The Week in Russia will not be published on January 11. The next edition will appear on January 18.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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