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FOOLS AND BAD ROADS Economist Mar 22nd 2007

Why are so many Russians meeting terrible deaths?

MORE than 100 people perished this week after an explosion at a
Siberian mine. Thousands of kilometers away more than 60 died in a fire
at a retirement home on the Sea of Azov. A few days earlier a plane
crash killed six Russians in the southern city of Samara. Caucasian
shoot-outs accounted for several more.

Russia is a paradoxical place. On many measures life is improving. Yet,
as this week's run of catastrophes shows, there is an undercurrent of
appalling violence. Russia's death rate from industrial accidents is
four times America's. A Russian official recently said that the country
accounted for two-thirds of all fatalities on Europe's roads; relative
to the number of cars on them, Russia's are the world's deadliest.
Contract killings and racist murders are only the most visible
contributors to a homicide rate that is 20 times Western Europe's.
Suicide is five times more popular than in Britain. Russia's cumulative
rate of violent death is unprecedented; with AIDS, tuberculosis and
other scourges, it is driving a unique demographic collapse.

Why? Part of the problem is clapped-out infrastructure. Soviet roads
and buildings were not designed for human comfort or safety, and
Russia's new wealth has scarcely touched them. The emergency services

have also missed out: the fire engines took almost an hour to get to the retirement-home fire. Unusually, President Vladimir Putin this week
offered public condolences, but the Kremlin's attitude to disasters is
usually a mixture of callousness and timidity. Problems are avoided or
denied for as long as possible, witch-hunts preferred to real change.
Unpopular reforms that might help are shirked.

Part of the Soviet Union's human legacy is low regard for any rules not
enforced with maximum prejudice--and a cadre of officials happy not to
enforce them, for the right price. New plans for higher fines for
motoring offences, such as driving on the pavement, are seen as a
chance for higher bribes for the traffic police, rather than for saner
driving. Corruption contributes to mortality more directly. A bunch of
ex-officers were this week sentenced for forging special Kremlin
licence plates, sold as a package with flashing blue lights that let
drivers flout traffic rules. Trade in old and counterfeit aircraft
parts is said to be rife.

Alcohol, often in the form of cleaning fluids and the like, lubricates
the carnage. It also poisons more than 30,000 Russians each year,
compared with a few hundred Americans. But behind the booze, and the
uncertainty and despair of post-Soviet life, lies something deeper and
older.

Although they seem a godless lot, many Russians subscribe to an old
religious fatalism. How else--in this well-educated nation--to explain
the universal scorn for seatbelts, the epidemic of poisonings during
every mushroom-picking season or the amazing number of winter fishermen
who die each year after falling through the ice? (More than 400, some
drunk, were rescued from a floating slab off Sakhalin last month; some
refused to go.) There is little pressure for better safety standards.
"Life is dangerous," a Siberian tour guide said recently, when asked if
the extreme sports he recommended were risky. "No one has survived it
yet."

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