Perm blaze sets Russia alight

The recent catastrophic fire at the Lame Horse nightclub in Perm grabbed national headlines. Local authorities all over Russia are suddenly having to get their act together, says Elena Strelnikova
Elena Strelnikova
21 December 2009

My husband and I were planning to go to a restaurant for the first time in ages. We had a serious reason for this – 10 years of lawful sex life. A major family event.  So we decided to celebrate it not at home, but at a beautiful table with music and waiters, just like respectable people. This is something we can’t do all that often. What I mean by this is that the average wage in Orenburg is officially 15,400 rubles (500 US dollars). The average pension has been increased (officials proudly report how happy the elderly are about this) to 5,252 rubles, while the minimum subsistence level per head of population for the city is 4,490 rubles.

Let’s say we leave pensioners and the poor out of this, as they obviously have trouble making ends meet. But we – the middle class – can be included in the calculations. So, the average monthly income for a family of four, where both parents work, is 30,000 rubles. Minus 3,000 for the rent on the flat, 2,500 for school and kindergarten, minus 700 for telephone and internet. Almost every family has taken out a loan of up to around 5-7,000 rubles. We won’t count mortgages, otherwise one salary disappears completely and takes some of the second salary with it. There’s also petrol… food… food, food and more food (where does it all go?)… my elder daughter needs boots… my younger daughter needs a jacket… we won’t buy anything for my husband this time, he bought a new drill with his last wages… what about me, what should I buy for myself? I want to go to a restaurant! Yes! I’d forgotten that we have a good reason. It’s not just going and eating, it’s the chance to sit together with the whole family, or as we say, to appear in society.

We planned the trip to the restaurant in advance. But we still went there at the wrong time. The “Khromaya Loshchad” (Lame Horse) club in Perm had just burned down. I have great sympathy for the families of the people who died. It really is a catastrophe, and no words can help here, all you can do is take off your hat and pray. But after the psalms of mourning… The people of Perm have temporarily become stars. They’ve made the headline news. They are on all the TV channels, people write articles about them, interview them, quote them, Medvedev and Putin talk about them, they have become a recognizable feature. What, for instance, did you know about Perm before this? My associations are forests, snow, the State Currency printing house, Diaghilev and bears (there’s even a bear on the city crest of arms). Now the “Lame Horse” and the irresponsible firemen have joined the list. Firemen, not businessmen. Thanks to the firefighters, everyone knows about Perm, but they’ve forgotten about us…

The Orenburg Oblast made the news last year, when there was a tragedy here. A wall collapsed at the Belyaevka school, and five girls in the 11th class died. A year ago, irresponsible officials were added to the list of Orenburg associations – woollen shawls, the steppe, oil, gas and bears (the bears are only strays, but many people still consider Orenburg to be on the edge of geography). Officials, not builders. After the Belyaevka school incident, a thorough inspection of all schools began. They even closed a few for a while. They started mending holes and repairing roofs. Incidentally, another school has been closed now in Orsk. The porch and the supporting wall next to it were in bad condition. Many children went in through the side entrance. Everyone could see that things were in a run-down state, but there was no money for repairs in the budget. Before New Year, 1.5 million was found. Evidently, officials were afraid that the Belyaevka tragedy might repeat itself. Then Orenburg would make the headlines again, and the eyes of Russia would be on it.

The new school at Belyaevka was opened with much fanfare. A school built on children’s bones. If the five girls had not died, but were even now in their first year in university, to the delight of their families and friends, there would be no computer class in the regional centre, no modernized cafeteria and gymnasium, staff room with internet connection and so on. The district chief executive resigned immediately after the tragedy and the education minister was dismissed. A court found the headmaster and head of the local education authority were to blame for the tragedy.

In spring this year, everyone was talking about the republic of Komi. It made headlines when there was a fire at an old people’s home. 25 people died. This tragedy was followed by inspections of old people’s homes, boarding schools and hostels. They were closed down, fined, and the people in them were evicted.

Incidentally, if you want to see something interesting in Orenburg, then go to the Saraktash district. There are several sights there: firstly, it’s the home of the best Orenburg shawls, secondly, Pugachev’s battlefields have been preserved on Krasnaya hill, and thirdly, there is the Holy Trinity Monastery of Mercy.

The monastery is just 20 years old, and it’s appeared in the Pokrovsky parish, an ordinary, unremarkable parish that was revived after long years of atheist rule. The priest Nikolai Stremsky has created a magnificent complex almost from scratch. I don’t know how many donations were required to create such magnificence, but you get a feeling of both luxury and power. Today there is a sisterhood here, a community of nuns, a sewing workshop, a bakery, a small farm, and there are 70 children being brought up and educated in Priest Nikolai Stremsky’s extended family. There is also an Orthodox school here, a religious academy, a Sunday school and an old people’s home.

This home and the fire inspection service have almost become “brothers”. Bailiffs came here on the first day of Lent with orders from the fire service to close it down and seal up the doors.  40 novices refused to leave. The centre was closed and sealed, along with the people in it. Elderly people fainted, blood pressures rose and there were heart attacks. One old woman died, although she was apparently already seriously ill. Perhaps it was a simple coincidence, or perhaps the eviction was a negative stimulus. God will judge. But the home needs a new building to satisfy the demands of the fire inspection service. As (bad) luck would have it, we are living in times of crisis and charitable donors have no time for the elderly. In the end, the Father Superior took on the responsibility, and the monastery was left in peace. They all live there in peace and harmony. God forbid that a fire ever breaks out there.

But it was not only the elderly that were evicted at that time. A hostel in Chebenki which took people in for no payment was closed down.  84 students, some 50 of whom were orphans, were taken in by teachers and fellow students. In Gai, the boarding school for children with learning difficulties was closed, as was the youth centre for children and teenagers in Pervolotsk. Some of the children were sent to other special institutions and others were returned to the problem parents from whom they had only recently been literally saved. The only place where everything is fine is the Tashlin district. There are no orphanages or boarding schools there. But these are all institutions in the public sector with barely enough money to get by. OK, they’ve patched up the holes, put down a cement floor instead of the linoleum and returned the plastic walls to their former state i.e. just painted them. It looks terrible, of course, it’s not a good quality European-style refurbishment, but it meets the requirements of the fire safety inspection service. We’ll survive. But now the “Lame Horse” has got in the way.

Like everyone else, Orenburg residents heard about the Perm tragedy on the morning news. I can just imagine the businessmen (owners of clubs, bars and restaurants) passing out at what they heard.  “The tax people are coming to get us.  No money will save us,” they think. And they’re absolutely right.  It was early on Saturday morning and the governor was on his way to the easternmost region of the Oblast.  He was going to a celebration of a special anniversary, but he immediately forgot all about the festivities and issued an urgent decree to the heads of the internal affairs department and the Emergency Ministry to organize immediate inspections of Orenburg clubs.  The inspections began in earnest. Some clubs were inspected several times. What were they looking for? Did they think that the picture in Orenburg was better than in Perm or other Russian cities? Or did they think they could fix everything in an hour? Were they trying to come up with startling new discoveries? Or was this the first time they had made inspections free of charge, honest ones with no payoff? They looked as carefully as if it concerned their own families. The results were incredible! Out of 100 establishments, serious fire safety flaws were found in 88.  The supervisory bodies decided to shut down 8 establishments with court orders. There are no “horses” among them, just words like “Orange”, “Night”, “Chicago” and “Cart”.

The problem they all have in common is a lack of evacuation routes. If there is an emergency exit, it is usually either locked or blocked up. The second problem is that there is no fire alarm, or it doesn’t work. There are also other minor shortcomings, which can be rectified literally in two to three hours, but the more serious problems require additional expenditure. 

Another problem is that employees are given no instruction as to how they should behave in an emergency.  They already know one thing, though, which is that if they run in the opposite direction from the crowd, they will certainly find an exit. Fines for not observing fire safety are low, as it happens. 10,000 rubles means nothing to a businessman: a restaurant can make this money back in an hour. But you can sympathise with them. During the crisis, fewer and fewer people eat out, so the owners have to try all kinds of tricks, think up fire displays and set off fireworks inside. “No one comes anyway. We’ve already lowered the prices, set up special offers and developed the best entertainment in town. But the people of Orenburg are in no hurry to spend money. I hope I can get through the New Year without going bust,” one Orenburg businessman complained to me.

Incidentally, local entertainment establishments have burned down in the Orenburg region twice in the last few years. Arson both times.  The first time was a drunken quarrel (10 people died, the emergency exit was blocked), and the second time was a case of professional rivalry (without any casualties, as there was an exit). But after the Perm tragedy our governor decided that it was time to “put the frighteners on local business”, or it would start slipping. A scapegoat was found. Quite right! Small businesses in Orenburg are already barely getting by, and if there are any more frights, they’ll collapse completely. But then, if there’s no business – there’s no problem. And we’ll ban all firecrackers, sparklers etc too.

In Karelia, the authorities were quicker off the mark:  they have already banned candles on tables, which are so popular in bars and restaurants. Incidentally, this ban applies not only to owners and employees of entertainment establishments, but also to private individuals. In other words, lighting sparklers and other such things is not even allowed in your own home. Of course, fire inspection service officers are hardly going to come round checking that people are observing these rules. But if there’s a fire, and it’s established that it was caused by fireworks, then the residents will have to pay a fine of 2,000 rubles.

But I really like a romantic candlelit dinner… There’s a good reason for it, so I’ll probably risk going to some Orenburg restaurant.  I won’t forget to make sure that I know where the emergency exit is beforehand, though.

Editor’s note:  The city of Orenburg lies on the River Ural, 1500 kilometres southeast of Moscow, close to the Russia’s border with Kazakhstan.  Capital of the Orenburg Oblast, one of Russia’s largest regions, it has population of around 600 000. Historically, Orenburg was an important military outpost on the frontier with the nomadic Kazakhs. It became the centre for the Orenburg Cossacks. Today, Orenburg is an important industrial centre. Natural gas and energy generation are among the most important local industries. Orenburg is famous for its gossamer-thin woollen scarves. 

Elena Strelnikova is Orenburg based radio and television journalist

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