You have to hand it to the Russian government. For all its corruption and mind-melting bureaucratic labyrinths, it knows how to act swiftly and decisively when trouble hits. Usually, this means firing people or kabashing things, quickly and without too much time wasted on finding what the actual cause of the trouble was. Purge first, the thinking — if there is any thinking — goes; ask questions later.
To wit: on December 5, the Lame Horse — a nightclub in the Ural Mountain city of Perm — went up in flames when the pyrotechnics got a little screwy and the emergency exits were a little blocked. As a result, over the course of the last two weeks, 148 people have slowly slipped out of this life as nearly 100 more cling to it precariously. The country was in shock and the government had to act. “They had neither brains nor a conscience,” Medvedev said, and into action his government sprung. But did it re-examine fire codes? Look for corrupt inspectors paid to look the other way on its violations? Try to figure out why, exactly, there are an unreal number of deadly blazes lighting up Russia day in, day out?
Kind of. Mostly the Kremlin did what it has always done exceptionally well: arrest people. Within days, at least half a dozen people found themselves under arrest. The owner, the co-owner, executive director, and a handful of others. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s fire the guy in charge of the entire city.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s night clubs — many of them fun little death traps themselves — are under attack. Every day brings news of another one shuttered for fire code violations. (The toll is currently at eight.)
And there’s another sweep going on. On Friday, Medvedev fired 20 officials from Russia’s state penal agency, probably because his government has taken a tremendous amount of international heat for the mysterious death of a young lawyer in the state’s custody just two weeks before the Lame Horse fire.
Thirty-seven year-old Sergey Magnitsky had been representing Hermitage Capital, once Russia’s largest foreign investor, which was raided and gutted by mysterious forces in Russian law enforcement in 2007-2008. Magnitsky was imprisoned for 11 months as he waited to testify — let’s not even go there — and, after complaining for months of stomach problems, died on November 16 of “cardiac insufficiency.” (His family’s request for an independent autopsy was denied.) Outrage ensued and, just after an internal probe found Magnitsky’s rights had been violated, so did the arrests. (The Kremlin, oddly, can’t seem to get its own story straight. One prison service official comes out and says the dismissals were retribution for Magnitsky; another one comes out and says they weren’t.)
At first blush, it all looks so very good: the Kremlin acting boldly to address the safety of its subjects. It even looks like a strike in favor of centralized, authoritarian government: there are no sluggish congressional committees holding up the matter for years and years as all those dangerous conditions go unchanged.
But sometimes those slow, deliberative investigations can be useful. They can point out the real causes of a disaster like the Lame Horse or Magnitsky’s death, and propose targeted, practical solutions. Firing and arresting people or, in Magnitsky’s case, indicting them in criminal cases where the maximum sentence is three years, doesn’t improve Russia’s notoriously horrifying prison system. Nor does closing night clubs and arresting their owners address the underlying issues that got us here to begin with. It sure looks good and feels reassuring, but hundreds of people in state custody continue to die or kill themselves, tens of thousands of Russians continue to die in fires (over 15,000 this year alone) and those nightclubs can reopen in 90 days without addressing a single one of their fire-code violations.
It is, quite simply, a useless, punitive purge.