The fearless and heroic Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:
In an authoritarian society, public opinion surveys are meaningless. The problem isn’t so much that survey data are falsified. It’s that the results themselves do not provide an accurate reflection of reality — just as a thermometer placed outside the kitchen window cannot give you the temperature indoors.
As soon as word of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant accident became known to residents who lived downriver from the dam, most relocated immediately to higher ground. If you were to ask those people in a poll if they have faith in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they would surely answer positively. They are convinced that Putin brought stability to Russia, restored the power vertical and saved our citizens in South Ossetia from Georgian genocide.
It is not that respondents lie when surveys ask for their opinions. But consciously they believe one thing, and subconsciously quite another. Consciously, they love Putin, but subconsciously they know that if the dam had burst and the Yenisei River had swept them all away, Putin, if asked by the media what had happened to the victims, would not hesitate to quip, “They sank” — just as he did in 2000 when U.S. television journalist Larry King asked Putin what happened to the Kursk submarine.
The Sayano-Shushenskaya tragedy showed how a myth can eclipse reality. Although Spanish lord Cesare Borgia probably never slept with his sister, he did commit many other heinous offenses, so it was natural that the Italians of the 16th century tacked the incest charges onto all the other ones. After former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London, the British press started pointing their fingers at the Kremlin for virtually anyone who turned up dead on London streets.
On Jan. 9, a helicopter crashed during an illegal hunt for endangered sheep in the Altai mountains. The president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin died in the crash. Local residents’ outrage at similar hunting expeditions involving drunk public figures shooting rare animals from helicopters reached a boiling point. As a result, they developed a myth around the January accident. That version of the story holds that the hunters killed 28 endangered argali sheep and that two prostitutes were among those killed when the helicopter went down, but that their bodies where quickly shuttled away to hush up the incident. The people living in the nearby town of Kosh-Agach not only believe it, but each claims that a brother, friend or other close acquaintance witnessed the events with his own eyes.
Something similar happened following the recent accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya plant. On Aug. 17, rescue workers displayed superhuman effort in risking their lives to save two workers who had survived in an air pocket amid the submerged rubble and alerted searchers by banging a wrench against a pipe. But by Aug. 19, nobody was talking about the brave exploits of the rescue workers. Instead, rumors were circulating that workers were still trapped in the air pockets but the authorities had called off the search.
Myths always eclipse reality. Napoleon will often be remembered for his visit to plague-stricken troops at their barracks in Jaffa — even though it never happened. Our authorities are accused of turning their backs on men trapped in underwater air pockets, and even the brave, selfless feats of the rescuers cannot change that perception.