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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Protecting and Serving Through Open Doors

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Nobody should be surprised by the recent fire in Vladivostok. Are there any Russian buildings that do not violate at least one fire code provision? The top floor of the unfortunate office building here was by all reports a permanent code violation: The stairway was locked at all hours -- including the stairway to the roof -- making a quick or emergency exit impossible under any circumstances. There wasn't even a fire extinguisher on the premises. Cars parked all around the building blocked fire trucks from getting close enough to save more lives.

If Vladivostok residents are angry -- which they have every right to be -- they should be directing their anger at various people, starting with those who show a maddening determination to control things such as the flow of human traffic. The senior fire inspector of the city's Pervorechensky district has been brought up on charges, as has an official of one company in the building; there may well be more charges against others. But blaming functionaries for what is essentially an institutional problem will not lead to real reform. There are buildings all over Vladivostok that are in exactly the same "control condition" as this one.

In the university building where I teach, a stone's throw from the site of the fire, there are only two direct exits to the outside, at opposite ends of a rather elongated edifice. Imagine a fire. Hundreds, if not thousands, of panic-stricken people would try to cram their way through one door-- assuming they could even make it to the door through the narrow stairwell.

Beyond a limited number of exits, many buildings in Russia keep only one door unlocked out of several available; the "extra" doors remain entirely unused for reasons unknown. At our university, one of the two exits is sometimes closed. For shame. Where are the emergency exit doors? They don't exist. Fire alarms? They don't exist either.

The root problem, it seems to me, is the strong desire in Russia to control people's lives. This control mentality is pernicious; and it was controls that trapped the nine fire victims.

Those in power ought to think more about protecting citizens than controlling them. Give people more freedom, not less; let them govern their own lives and protect themselves -- and get the bureaucrats, hallway monitors and armed thugs out of the way. This tragic fire is an example of much that is wrong with Russia. Strict controls and a stubborn resistance to change are precisely what prevent Russia from developing -- and developing to a point, I hope soon, where people can walk safely away from a simple fire that should have been contained easily.

Open your doors, Russia.

Mark Grueter is a teacher at Vladivostok State University.