There are some images that stay with you. Among the ones that will, unfortunately, always stay with me are pictures of the bodies of the people who perished in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster being pulled from the river. The plane had been carrying the entire main roster of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team, one of the top teams in the Kontinental Hockey League, as well as four members of its youth team. On 7 September 2011, shortly after take-off, it collided with a tower and crashed in a nearby river.
I was going through agency photos on an internal server, looking for an appropriate one to go with a story immediately after the crash, and there they were – the dead. One young man’s remains with seemingly no external injuries, just telltale bluish skin, being lifted out of the water on a kind of plank, or raft. I remember noticing how fit the corpse had looked, how strong, even in that terrible moment, and how the corpse’s hands were tied behind his back. There was a metaphor to it, but my weary brain refused to connect the dots. All I wanted was to put my head down on my desk and cry.
An abysmal record
Air disasters are always a tragedy and a waste, but there is something particularly tragic and wasteful about Russia’s abhorrent air safety record.
There is something particularly tragic and wasteful about Russia’s abhorrent air safety record.
I was reminded of it last month, when the Swedish authorities said that a Russian military aircraft with a turned off transponder had a near miss with a passenger plane over Sweden. For its part, Russia admitted that its plane was in the area, but denied there had been any danger of collision. Scandinavian Airlines, which was operating the passenger flight, took Russia’s side.
Considering ongoing tensions between Russia and the West, the incident with the passenger plane may well have been blown out of proportion. But following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July of last year – a tragedy in which Russia-backed separatists swiftly emerged as the most likely culprits – can one blame Europe for being jittery?
While MH17 may represent the ultimate in the banality of the Donbas conflict’s particular brand of evil (particularly due to the fact that it was most likely mistaken for a military plane before it was shot down), it is also useful to look at its aftermath through a Russian lens.
Why was the Russian public not more outraged? Why were wild conspiracy theories allowed to flourish on TV? Obviously, the domestic propaganda machine was to blame – but why was it so particularly effective in this context?
In the immediate aftermath of the downing of MH17, I had taken to the streets and shops of Moscow, to try to suss out what ordinary people were thinking. This was before Russian TV channels seemed to figure out how to best spin the story as to not displease or offend their government overlords.
What I noticed in that first day was a lot of fear and dismay and confusion. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and it suddenly seemed as though the general public had figured it out. There was a terrible conspiracy afoot! Someone else had most likely shot down the plane – to frame both Russia and its pet separatists.
Propaganda works – it works particularly well in a country with a not-so-distant totalitarian past. But in the case of MH17, I also could not ignore how Russia’s own issues with aviation safety had aided the narrative that dictated how Russia could not possibly be to blame and that, in general, ‘shit happens’, so why freak out about it?
Privilege and status won’t save you
It’s important to understand just how egregious Russia’s air safety record truly is. According to the most current International Air Transport Association report, flying a commercial airline in Russia is about four times as dangerous as the world average (the average that, of course, includes Africa, which is constantly competing with the former Soviet states for worst regional air safety). Between 2005-2014, at least 766 people were killed in airplane disasters in Russia.
Flying a commercial airline in Russia is about four times as dangerous as the world average
Today, the problems in Russian aviation largely stem from smaller airlines, which have trouble attracting qualified, reliable pilots. An investigation into the Yaroslavl crash, for example, determined that the pilots had obtained permission to fly using falsified paperwork, and that the co-pilot had a banned substance (phenobarbital) in his system.
Yet the writing off of aviation safety problems as a problem exclusive to small carriers misses the point, witness the fatal 2014 Vnukovo Airport crash, when a private jet collided with a snowplough.
Everything was shocking about Vnukovo. It happened at the airport used by the Russian president. It killed, beside three others, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, the French oil company, and a prominent Western ally of Russian business. It had nothing to do with technical failure or pilot error; it happened because a plane had collided with a snowplough, whose driver was, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee, ‘in a condition of alcoholic intoxication.’
However, I also remember the mood of Russians, on the internet immediately after the crash. No one seemed particularly shocked by it. If anything, people were already grimly resigned to the fact that such a tragedy would inevitably repeat itself.
Privilege does not shield one from catastrophe in Russia
‘See,’ people seemed to be saying, ‘you can be a powerful foreign CEO, an important ally of the president, flying in a private jet – and it won’t keep you safe. A stupid mistake in an airport will still happen. This is Russia. This is just how the country works.’
The fact that privilege does not shield one from catastrophe in Russia was a lesson that the nation had learned even before the Vnukovo tragedy.
On 17 November 2013, a little less than a year before the accident that killed de Margerie, Tatarstan Airlines Flight 363 went down in Kazan with the loss of all 44 passengers and 6 crew. On board was Irek Minnikhanov, son of the president of the Tatarstan Republic, and local FSB head Aleksander Antonov, arguably the most powerful security service official in Tatarstan.
Tartarstan Boeing 737-500. Image: Kutsov via Wikipedia. Some rights reserved
Flight 363 went down after the pilots initiated a go-around (an aborted landing on final approach) to Kazan International Airport. While the investigation into the Kazan crash has not yet been concluded, there has been speculation that the pilots possibly did not have enough experience in performing go-around manoeuvres. Perhaps compounding matters, the Boeing 737-500 used by Tatarstan Airlines on that particular flight was an old one – in service for more than 23 years, had been involved in a 2001 crash that damaged its landing gear; and a 2012 emergency landing due to cabin depressurisation.
All of this revealed a consistent pattern of lax safety standards from Tatarstan Airlines, which was shut down later that year. A month after the crash, the online journal Slon published a detailed look into what it referred to as Tatarstan Airlines’ ‘long journey to catastrophe.’
The author of the piece, Natalia Telegina, wrote that Tatarstan Airlines had had numerous problems with its Bulgarian investors, was hit hard by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and had racked up an enormous amount of debt prior to the November 2013 crash.
Tatarstan President Rustem Minnikhanov had admitted in 2012 that the local authorities ‘had failed to make the airline an effective company.’ He would lose his own son to such ‘ineffectiveness’ a year-and-a-half later.
This is why, by the time the Vnukovo crash happened, it was painfully obvious to the general public that not even money and power were a reliable enough antidote to systemic problems and the absence of a safety culture.
I used to frequently write about air safety in Russia – the horror of Yaroslavl made me want to know more – and I frequently had experts, including former pilots, tell me that one of the major and most obvious problems was a breakdown in the chain of accountability.
Everybody agrees that there are problems with aviation safety in Russia – with a lack of safety culture being an important factor – but nobody is quite sure as to who should be responsible for fixing the issue. What we get, instead of an effective response to incompetence, is a circle of bureaucratic finger-pointing.
Air safety emerges as the classic problem of a top-down system.
Authority in Russia usually acts as a top-down system that nevertheless somehow implements decisions in a chaotic and incomplete manner. In that sense, air safety emerges as the classic problem of such a system: on the one hand, a strict chain of command means that nothing happens until the big boss stamps his foot. On the other hand, that chain of command isn’t nearly strict enough or proactive enough to implement change or challenge bad decisions effectively. In Russia, this combines with a Soviet legacy of a lack of respect for individual life, always creating a recipe for potential disaster.
‘You have to understand. The bureaucrats don’t care.’
I’ll never forget the day that I finally met the recently retired pilot that had described to me many of the industry’s problems over the phone, and how he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You have to understand. The bureaucrats don’t care. They don’t care that a bunch of young, wonderful hockey players died in that plane crash that haunts you. They don’t think life is precious. You have to understand that, or else you’ll never understand Russian aviation problems. Or Russia.’
A culture of life
I would argue that there are plenty of people in Russia, bureaucrats included, who are aware of how enormous the problem with local air safety is – and how needless, and hence even more horrifying, the constant deaths are. But such people often feel dejected and disempowered (and loath to go on record, as I discovered over and over again).
Today, when people ask me how on earth Russian officials can sleep at night in the wake of MH17, I reply that the majority probably sleep just fine. After all, if the Russian authorities still cannot provide their own citizens with safety in the skies above Russia, they are likely to care even less about a plane full of foreigners, shot down in a neighbouring country.
The fact that it was most likely shot down with Russia-supplied weaponry, by Russia-backed rebels, if not by regular Russian armed forces, as one new report alleges, probably doesn’t give them much pause. Russian military officialdom, in particular, has a high tolerance level when it comes to cruel, unnecessary death.
Keeping that in mind, I have begun to wonder if instilling a culture of safety in Russia is beside the point. Perhaps what is needed is a culture of life. ‘Culture of life’ is, of course, a phrase that has been hijacked in recent years by anti-abortion groups in the US. Still, it is hard for me to find a better term. The truth is, until Russian officialdom values life, discussions on safety can only go so far.
Standfirst image: Dmitry Medvedev laying flowers at the site of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl aeroplane crash. Kremlin.ru via Wikipedia. Some rights reserved