Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Silence Is Criminal

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

When 24 people die in a fire that was the result of arson, is this an event of national significance?

This may seem like a cynical question. It would not need to be asked at all if the answer were obvious in today's Russia. But it isn't. The authorities and society as a whole seem to have no idea whether the death of 24 people, many of whom were women and children, in a fire in the northern city of Ukhta is a major event. More precisely and horribly, they do not seem to find this tragedy awful enough to be worthy of a reaction.

The cliched condolences and sympathies offered by the Komi region administration to the relatives and loved ones of those who died, along with the promises of a few crumbs of assistance -- help that, as always in Russia, is absolutely miserly compared to the lifetime earning potential of the deceased -- seemed to underscore the soullessness of the authorities, rather than touch the heart with generosity.

Sure, the fire didn't happen in Moscow or St. Petersburg, which apparently makes it a second-class, or perhaps even third-class, tragedy. The current cynical attitude in Russian society and government means that we are used to reacting to this kind of event the same way we react to tragedies in "uncivilized" corners of the world. When, say, a million Rwandans die, it's horrible, of course, but not the end of the world. But when a few dozen people die in a Western country, it's a national catastrophe. In this case, Ukhta might as well be our Rwanda. We should have the same reaction to this tragedy as the people in Ukhta, but alas, we don't.

That the fire was caused by arson only makes things worse. One group of Russian citizens burned another group of Russian citizens alive. Even if you are waging a petty trade war, you have to sink pretty low to burn a competitor's store and a couple dozen of his customers at the same time. Only Columbian drug lords and Islamic insurgents in Algeria, for example, fight their fights with this kind of brutality and "collateral damage."

But the fire happened in Russia, and not even in some hot spot in the Caucasus, but in the relatively calm north.

But the most disturbing aspect of the tragedy was the possible role of ethnic tensions . One preliminary version put forth by investigators was that a group of ethnic Russian former convicts was trying to put entrepreneurs originally from the Caucasus out of business by attacking them.

Several days before the fire, bombs went off in London. They sparked worldwide debates about how to avoid the bloody consequences of what one contemporary philosopher has called the "clash of civilizations." Politicians and human rights advocates continue to argue over to what extent immigrants from the East should be integrated into Western society. The much-lauded multiculturalism and political correctness seem to be coming apart at the seams. Immigrants themselves are torn between the globalizing West and the rise of Islamic ideologues who are successfully recruiting more and more fighters for jihad, even among the relatively affluent.

In Russia, though, the situation is developing in a unique and far harsher way.

No one in Russia is talking about that multiculturalism mumbo-jumbo or debating whether it is appropriate for Muslim girls to attend public schools in headscarves or for Muslim boys and girls to swim in the public pool together. But these aren't the only issues that aren't being talked about publicly here. In fact, the public is not discussing much of anything at all.

Society isn't trying to address the difficult question of to what extent Islamic culture should be integrated into ... well, into what, exactly?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been nothing out there that even remotely resembles a national ideology. A vacuum continues to yawn where this ideology should be. Many are trying to fill this gaping hole with quasi-Soviet gelatin that never quite seems to jell. The invariable ingredient in this quasi-Soviet jello mold is the myth of the undying friendship of the peoples.

Yet recent opinion polls, such as one conducted by the Levada Center this month, make this tattered idea seem quite awkward and clumsy indeed. They paint a picture that has shifted from merely disturbing to outright terrifying: The proportion of the population that now agrees with the slogan "Russia for Russians" has risen to more than 50 percent.

This slogan can become the spark that sets off fires like the one in Ukhta. Twenty-four people burned, sacrificed in a criminal battle for commercial dominance with a possibly racist undercurrent.

On the day of the bombings in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the nation three times. He addressed the public directly, not by making a few offhand comments to his Cabinet members while hurrying from one meeting to another.

In Russia, not a single major politician bothered to say a thing about the death of 24 people. Perhaps they thought that a banal tragedy in some store did not merit any grand comments. Even though the fire was reportedly perpetrated by very young men, if not teenagers, and even though innocent people died, likely due in part to ethnic hatred. It makes you wonder what disasters would have to ensue to elicit a reaction from those who are supposedly representing the people.

It is an illusion that keeping silent prevents unnecessary tensions from flaring up. They will flare up anyway, literally. Silence sooner or later becomes criminal.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil.