At 8:19 am EST on Sunday, July 10, 2011, the Washington Post published a wire story on its website from the Associated Press about the sinking of the Bulgaria (shown above in happier times), a fifty-year-old tourist vessel plying the Volga River in Russia more than a mile off shore and near the village of Syukeyevo in the Kansko-Ustinovsky district of the Republic of Tatarstan. Two minutes later the New York Times published a wire story from Reuters about the same event. The reports followed the event by about three hours. Since then, the two papers have altered the reports substantially because the information they reported was totally false.
The AP story, relying on a male spokesperson for the Russian Emergencies Ministry, said that 61 of the 173 people who were on the vessel (140 passengers and 33 crew) were missing. The Reuters story, relying on a female spokesperson for the same ministry, said the number missing was 96 of 173.
Various Kremlin spokespeople then began claiming that the vast majority of the passengers had been rescued. Acting as if the Russian government were a responsible, intelligent organization that could be trusted, innumerable Western news outlets began reporting these claims.
Then all hell broke loose.
The Kremlin’s own newswire service, RIA Novosti, got into the game. First it reported that “at least two” passengers had died, and acknowledged that the Kremlin’s first statement had indicated only 22 people were on the ship and was totally false. Then it changed the story to only one killed, but claimed that there had been 188 people on board, not 173. Later, the number rose above 200. Then it said an “overcharge” was responsible for the sinking, gibberish that implied it had been caused by high prices but perhaps implying that too many passengers had been on the vessel. Then, in bizarre fashion even by Russian standards, it said “salvage divers” would “work at night to save people from the sunken ship.” Later, we saw that it was their work to pull out corpses. Then it said a criminal case had been opened against the cruise line, a sure sign that the number of fatalities was far higher than one or two.
Soon it was being widely reported that more than 100 people were still missing and feared dead despite rescue efforts. Russian families were consumed with grief. By the next morning, it was clear that the sunken boat was full of corpses and had left port listing badly with one engine out of service, and at least 128 people, one third more than the highest estimate given by the ministry as merely missing, were known dead – nearly half of the fatalities being children.
Russians seem to think they don’t need quality, reliable journalism, that it’s OK for the state to dominate news reporting. Maybe now, at last, they will begin to think differently.
Of course, one can’t entirely blame Russian journalists for this fiasco, since one can only do so much to report the facts when one’s own government is a pathological liar and engaged in virulent neo-Soviet repression (days ago, a prominent orchestra conductor was fired for criticizing Putin and a former first deputy prime minster was banned from international travel).
In this truly pathetic and outrageous story, we see Russia in microcosm.
Victims reported that not one but two ships passed by the drowning victims, who were rescued only by a third. Passengers on the first two ships filmed the drowning victims on cell phones but offered no assistance. The government lied shamelessly about the number of potential victims and the possible extent of the disaster, and the boat was an ancient, creaking unlicensed relic of the Soviet past with insufficiently trained crew and inadequate safety measures and far too many passengers on board. The risk was well known to the Kremlin, yet nothing was done despite an allegedly recovering Russian economy. In the wake of the disaster, there will be no real inquiry and no genuine reform, because Russians have vested a clan of KGB spies with power, spies who have no more respect or concern for individual Russian lives than they do for the basic values of democracy.
And the government could not even get its lie straight. Instead, it babbled a stream of gibberish for hours that made Russia look like exactly what it is: A backwards, corrupt third-world nation incapable of behaving in a civilized manner.
And most of all, the people of Russia at best stood mute. At worst, they snapped photos of their fellow countrymen as they slid beneath the waves, then went off drinking and partying. None rose up to demand justice, just as none step forward to challenge the outrageous, barbaric rule by the KGB over Russia so soon after the organization brought Russia to her knees. Just as in the time of Stalin, Russians watched as their fellow citizens met their doom, and waited for their own turn like brainless chickens before the slaughterhouse.
Russians have allowed their government ignore boat after boat sinking, plane after plane dropping from the sky as it focused instead on rebuilding the Soviet dictatorship and empire. They’ve watched it brutally murder journalists like Anna Politkovskaya who try to tell the truth about this outrageous misconduct, watched it wipe out political dissent that might have challenged it. Now, they see the consequences of this reckless behavior once again.
How many rooms full of dead children must be found before Russians will demand that their government stop wasting their precious income on insane folly like the Sochi Olympics and the invasion of Georgia and begin investing in things that really matter to Russian people and their children and their future?
If Russians do not demand better, they do not deserve better. They will not receive it, and Russia once again will collapse into rubble.