Three red carnations are tied to a lamppost on the square next to the central market in Gelendzhik, a popular resort on the Black Sea coast to the north of Sochi, host to the 2014 Winter Olympics. A few years ago the pop group Leningrad had a big hit with a song named after the town, and an accompanying promo video featuring guitar-strumming and dancing chickens. The birds looked far more ecstatic with their holiday than human visitors tend to be, and although the name was probably only chosen because it provided a good rhyme for the chorus, the song was a great advert for the town.
In any case, no one was prepared for the event that brought Gelendzhik into the headlines for a very different reason. On 7th July 2012, the equivalent of five months of rain fell overnight, causing flash floods that claimed the lives of around 200 people in the region - 153 of them in the small town of Krymsk, which has since lost its collective will to live. But it all started in Gelendzhik, where twelve people died - five in one horrifying incident.
The floods of 2012 devastated Krymsk, robbing the town of 153 residents and its will to live.
It was Mikhail Pimkin’s 23rd birthday. He was on holiday in Gelendzhik with his nineteen year old fiancée Tatyana and her friend Olga, just before his wedding, when a sudden downpour made them run from the beach to find shelter. On the way they saw someone lying on the flooded square beside an advertising panel, apparently drowning or drowned. They tried, one after the other – Olga, Tatyana, Mikhail, a friend of theirs and a passer-by – to save first the man on the ground and then one another, but all died.
The darkening of the sky caused by the storm triggered the automatic lighting sensor, resulting in a short circuit that electrified the water around the panel.
It was only a few days later that their parents discovered what had happened: the man they attempted to save hadn’t drowned, but had had a fatal electric shock. The advertising panel was wired to the street lighting circuit, and the floodwater should have shut the electricity down, but instead the darkening of the sky caused by the storm triggered the automatic lighting sensor, resulting in a short circuit that electrified the water around the panel.
Insult added to injury
Afterwards, things went from bad to worse. According to Yevgeny Pimkin, a veterinary specialist who rushed to Gelendzhik as soon as he heard of his son’s death, the staff at the morgue demanded a large amount of cash from him to put some clothing on the bodies. ‘”We’re snowed under here” - they told me - hinting that a bribe was in order. How could I refuse to pay?’
A public trial is the last thing authorities want for Gelendzhik, a town which is working hard to project an image of itself as a glamorous paradise
It is Yevgeny who ties three red carnations to the lamppost beside the central market in Gelendzhik: a lamppost on the spot where the fateful advertising panel stood last year. Not only is there no longer a panel: there is no memorial plaque either. Nothing should be allowed to remind this wonderful town, this glamorous resort, this neighbour of Sochi about the tragedy that took place here. So within an hour the carnations disappear, removed by street cleaners or even the police - says Pimkin - who believes they do it on orders from above.
No one in Gelendzhik has been called to account for the deaths of five people.
In Krymsk, officials were arrested, and after a high profile trial the former district chief received a six year sentence for forgery and dereliction of duty leading to two or more fatalities. Meanwhile, the mayor got three and a half years and the chief executive of the village of Nizhebakansk - which suffered almost as much damage - was given a suspended sentence, also of three and a half years. In addition, the former district head of the Ministry for Emergencies was convicted of both dereliction of duty and fraud and sentenced to four and a half years.
By contrast, no one in Gelendzhik has been called to account for the deaths of five people – Yevgeny Pimkin’s son, his fiancé, their two friends and the passer-by who tried to save them. ‘But aside from the number of deaths’ - Pimkin’s lawyer Sergei Gagaus asks me - ‘how was the situation any different here?’ Pimkin himself has been following the trials with interest, and believes the answer is simple: a trial is the last thing Gelendzhik - Sochi’s neighbor - needs just now. The estate agent who put up the calamitous advertising panel hasn’t been questioned for a year, and the courts are refusing to reclassify the charge from death by misadventure to dereliction of duty leading to two or more fatalities.
Gelendzhik is full of small hotels whose owners worked miracles on the day of the flood to disconnect anything that might cause a short circuit and kill someone. However they ignored the unattended advertising panel, but Pimkin doesn’t blame them for that: the renter - a private individual - and the local authority, which leased it to him, should have ensured that it was safe. Instead, investigators discovered that the electrical wiring connecting the panel to the street lighting system was faulty, and the automatic emergency cut out didn’t work, whereas the sensor that triggered the lighting did - and switched the current on.
Appeals to the president
Officials are dragging the investigation out and trying to hush the whole thing up.
Yevgeny Pimkin has lost count of the letters he has sent to Vladimir Putin, asking him to look into this tragedy for which no one has been called to account. He has also written to Russia’s Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General’s office, as well as the country’s Ombudsman, but all to no avail. All his correspondence has been passed back to the regional authorities, where - he believes - officials are dragging the investigation out and trying to hush the whole thing up.
All this only goes to show how the average Russian is losing faith in the supposedly all-powerful and just government they see when they switch on the TV. Pimkin, like many elites outside of Moscow, still believes in the president’s omnipotence and incorruptibility - that if Putin only knew what was going on, he could and would fix things. With each letter his faith is diminishing.
As for the mayor’s office, they, not surprisingly, simply reject all his claims: ‘After the emergency situation was declared’ - they say – ‘the relevant agencies took all necessary measures to inform and evacuate people.’ They refuse to go any further into this individual case.
A memorial to Mikhail
Yevgeny did receive compensation for his son’s death; the money covered his funeral expenses. He had lots of dreams for Mikhail’s future, but now he has only three left. The first is to see the people responsible brought to justice, if only to the extent that it happened in Krymsk. Admittedly, many there believe the people in the dock were just the fall guys who had inadequate funding from the governor to keep the rivers clear, just as the governor had inadequate funding from the president. But neither the governor nor the president was in the dock. Yet Pimkin would even be happy with a flawed trial like that. Any trial would be something, though he is convinced that the blame lies entirely with the estate agent and his faulty wiring.
Pimkin’s second dream is to have the bravery of his son and the other victims publicly recognised. As he says, they could have just got drunk and gone surfing on the waves, but instead they tried to save someone’s life.
Gelendzhik’s mayor promised to pay part of the cost of a memorial, but Pimkin is still waiting for the cash.
His last dream is to erect a memorial to his son Miklhail and Mikhail’s fiancée Tatyana in their home town of Kalach-on-Don. He doesn’t have enough money yet, although Gelendzhik’s mayor Viktor Khrestin (who since 2005 has combined this role with that of local secretary of the ruling United Russia party) promised to pay part of the cost. But Pimkin is still waiting for the cash, and the street sweepers continue to remove his red carnations.
Other people who were affected by the terrible floods are quietly following Pimkin’s story: his unanswered letters to Putin; his trips to Gelendzhik and the regional capital Krasnodar to talk to investigators; his requests for help from local politicians (the only response to these came from the liberal ‘Yabloko’ party, which has very little local support, and even they just raised his problem at a press conference).
Meanwhile, other flood victims have had mixed experiences with compensation. According to Larisa Sofronova, editor of Elektron-TV, the only independent newspaper in the region, half of the most affected people in Krymsk have been so well compensated for the damage to their homes that their living standards have noticeably risen, while the other half are still waiting for proper compensation. Neither group is doing anything to correct the situation: the first are doing very well, the rest are powerless to do anything. But they are all rooting for Pimkin; they believe in him and they no longer believe in Putin.
Yevgeny Pimkin lost his son on his 23rd birthday, when he was about to marry and become a father. What more must a man lose to make him engage in a lonely battle with a system that allows stupid deaths for which no one is ever brought to justice?