Text by John Harrison,
illustration by Julia Nozdracheva
For those returning or having just returned from holidays abroad, reports about the smog in which Moscow was shrouded for a couple of weeks may seem exaggerated. But for those in Moscow the opposite seemed true, and the way it was handled by the authorities reminded me of a tragi-comedy. I was unfortunate enough to return to Russia from holiday on the 29th of July, just before the worst of the smog hit Moscow. The following are a few notes and impressions of the couple of weeks that followed.
Monday 26th of July
Newspaper reports of peat fires in the Moscow region started to appear in the Russian press from about the 14th of July onwards. It wasn’t until about the 26th of July when smog covered most of the city, and pollution levels started to go off the scale of acceptability that we finally realised that something was seriously wrong.
To ward off the heat—it was 35C, making it impossible to sleep at night — we tried in vain to buy a ventilation fan, and eventually had to pay 6,000 roubles for a fan that would normally have cost 3,000 roubles, and that through a friend as there were none in the shops. Most people carried on working normal hours. Despite what they say on TV, the economic crisis has not ended in Moscow, and most are still terrified of losing their jobs, but more importantly: there are air-conditioners at work, well at most places. Official news channels said the weather will cool down in a few days.
Tuesday 27th July
I begin to dig in the internet and find reports, to my horror, from Mosekomonitoring, that the amount of harmful substances in Moscow’s air exceeds the norm by many times. What the norm is and what all this means in respect to the future of our physical bodies, and how to protect ourselves is not very clear, but it is now crystal clear that this is a very serious situation and we have been fooled into thinking that it is a just a normal summer forest fire situation.
Thursday 29th July
Yesterday, Russia’s chief lung doctor, Alexndera Chuchalin, warned that walking the streets of Moscow is like smoking two packets of cigarettes every few hours because of large concentrations of toxins in the air. Mosekomonitoring says that pollution levels of carbon monoxide and micro-suspended particles in the air have reached 10 times the norm, but again, no detailed explanation has been given of the permanent damage the particles can cause to your health. A doctor friend has told me that these particles are so small they never leave the body. Other toxins, whose names are too complex for me even to transliterate and which we have been breathing for the past few days, cause cancer. Why aren’t we being told this? Respirators capable of blocking the gasses should be being given out.
Monday 2nd August
Temperatures yesterday hit an all-time high of 37.7 C according to the Forbos weather forecasting centre. Today is even hotter. With 2,000 made homeless from forest fires across Russia, a state of emergency has been declared in seven regions across Russia, including the Moscow region. Pedestrians walk slowly as their city turns into a grey abstract painting of shapes which are buildings. Moving quickly causes the eyes to sting. Cars have their headlights on as visibility is down to 100 metres in places. The official death toll from the fires in Russia is 34. Fire-fighters have been sent to Sarov to guard a nuclear power station from the fires. Where is Sarov?
People start wearing masks today. Days later did we find out that only 8-ply masks would be thick enough to keep out the micro-particles. Vladimir Gaidalenok of the Lor-Asthma clinic told Interfax today that ideally it would be better to leave the city altogether. If Muscovites should fall ill, they were advised to go into hospital, advice which few of our friends took, as few Moscow general hospitals have air conditioning. Official advice is to sit at home with closed windows, which is hard to do if you don’t have air-conditioning and it is 40C. We decide to send our daughter to the seaside for a week.
Tuesday 3rd of August
My anger and distrust in the powers-that-be heightens. I find out at work that Alexei Yaroshenko, a forestry representative at Greenpeace Russia, mentioned that the 2007 Forest Code, signed by the then president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, resulted in the dismissal of 75% of the foresters and other personnel involved in monitoring and protecting the forests. Fire-fighting efforts have now been privatised. It is impossible to verify all the information I am reading. Commercial fire-fighting organisations have been hired according to their price, not their abilities. Blogs are full of speculation about the real reason behind the Forest Code, which made it easier for local administrations to sell forests for development. There is no official reaction at all to these kind of allegations. Instead, Putin today orders more money to be poured into the firefighting program, and calls on all forces, including volunteers to “extinguish everything” (including life?!). Meanwhile, fires rage across at least 120,000 hectares of Russia.
The government has pledged to pay 3 million roubles ($100,000) to people whose houses have burned down in the wildfires, and said it would pay up to 200,000 roubles ($3,600) as compensation for those who lost any other property. Echo Moskvy reported that some rural visitors in Voronezh and Vladimir regions let their houses burn down in the hope of getting the compensation. Over 1,800 houses have burned down by August 3rd, according to regional development minister Viktor Basargin. www.lifenews.ru reported a shortage of fuel for fire-fighting helicopters and the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch, Kirill, said Russians should seek to stop sinning in order to end a record drought that has stoked the fires, the Moscow Times reported. Vladimir Putin said he would watch the houses being rebuilt himself via the internet! Wow!
Thursday August 5th
GZT.RU report that not one of the 270 forestry areas around Moscow was prepared for the fires, and had not been following obligatory anti-fire fighting regulations. As the temperature hit 38C, President Dmitry Medvedev, who only returned from holiday on the 4th of August, made himself busy by sacking officials. What about sacking Yury Luzhkov, still on holiday, for failing to save my lungs, I ask my friends. They shake their heads and smirk at me wondering how many more decades I do I need to live in Russia to understand. About 667,460 hectares of forest have been ravaged since April 1st, the Emergency Situations Ministry reported. The smog is everywhere. We wake up in the middle of the night with stomach pains. The bathroom is like a banya, as hot water pipes can’t be turned off. The smoke has begun to pong badly.
Friday August 6th
As temperatures rise to 40C in some parts of the city, news begins to come in of the possibility of fires in the Chernobyl accident fallout-area lifting up radiated particles into the atmosphere. This was quickly denounced by the authorities. Things must be getting bad, the History Museum on Red Square as well as the Lenin Library have been temporarily closed. TV news has enjoyed a tremendous come-back throughout the country—even I watch it! But a feel of disillusionment soon sets in. It is most disconcerting. Russian victories in the European track and field championships are more important, as are the floods in Pakistan.
Saturday 8th August
I was happy to hear that our mayor has returned from holiday in the Tyrolean Alps where the air was considerably better than that in Moscow, and where his wife’s company Inteko has opened a luxury 5-star Grand Tyrolia Gold & Ski resort. For the second day the blogosphere is full of complaints that Luzhkov’s press secretary, Sergei Tsoi, commented that the situation in Moscow is not critical enough for the Mayor to shorten his holiday. “What problems?, what, we have a crisis situation in Moscow? No, other regions have a critical situation on their hands, not Moscow.”
Nikolai Svanidze, a journalist at Kommersant FM, made the point that as governors and the Moscow Mayor are no longer elected, they are not so worried about their popularity.
Meanwhile, ordinary Muscovites wondered why the magic rain-man couldn’t make it rain. “At least he could supply us all with free respirators and shorten the working day,” my work colleagues grumble.
Sunday 9th August
Muscovites, me included, are experiencing real fear regarding our safety; especially when reports began to filter in, again via internet publications about the rise of the average daily death toll from 380 per day to over 700 per day in Moscow. Over 5,000 people have died in Moscow alone so far as direct result of the smog and heat-wave. This has not been corroborated by the authorities. Corpses, according to one report in www.gzt.ru are being piled up in the cellars of hospitals, because all the fridges are full.
In response to earlier criticism, civic authorities have opened 123 air-conditioned “smog centres” in government buildings. Airconditioning isn’t working in the one on Tverskaya.
Monday August 9th
Andrei Setsovsky, head of the city’s health department conceded that the daily death rate has doubled, but that statement was not endorsed by Tatiana Golikova, Russia’s health minister, the Guardian reported. Activity on the Russian stock exchange is way down, and a top Russian doctor implored foreigners not to be scared off by the thick fog, even as embassies evacuate some of their staff.
Masks are being rationed to no more than 10 per person @ 5- 8 roubles per item, to put a halt to stockpiling and re-selling for 50 roubles per piece. Portable air-conditioners, reports Obskaya Gazeta, are retailing for 30-35,000 roubles, up from 15-20,000 in the winter. However finding a fan or air-conditioner in Moscow has become completely impossible.
Sorry about not being very green, but I was truly joyous to get my car back from the garage so I can drive to work, avoiding the 2 kilometre walk from the Metro which has been killing me, literally. I was able to de-frost my fridge in record time this evening.
www.GZT.RU reports that the smoke cloud over Russia has attained the size of France.
Tusday August 10th
Today my facebook page is full of other faces saying that it is raining, and yet others asking: “where?” In fact it rained for 15-20 minutes on the west side of the city, then stopped. The smog seems to be easing due to the wind direction slightly changing rather than a major reduction in the number of wildfires still burning. The Kremlin (Medvedev) accuses the Mayor of returning from his holiday too late, while Putin congratulates him on his timely return. The grapevine has it that ambulances are working round the clock, but crews have been briefed only to pick up the most serious cases, as there are not nearly enough vehicles to cover all call-outs.
Today the awful news circulates that meteorologists consider it possible that the anti-cyclone which has held temperatures at their unnaturally high level will not shift from its holding pattern until the middle of September.
Wednesday 11th August
The smog continues to ease slightly today. Despite President Medvedev’s warning against engaging in political PR yesterday, Putin earler today took the co-pilot’s seat of a Russian- built Be-200 amphibious aircraft, although he has no known pilot training. He held the throttle, as carefully placed cameras showed, and dumped 24 tons of water on forest fires about 200 southeast of Moscow. Channel One showed a clip of him asking: “Did I hit the target?” to which the pilot answered: “A direct hit”. Both Medvedev’s and Putin’s ratings are apparently dropping quite seriously, but this is now irrelevant. Meanwhile, Muscovites were given free admission to select cinemas, where free water is provided!
Thursday 12th August
Moscow’s skies are relatively smog free, and temperatures have dropped as the anticyclone seems to be budging. Cost so far, according to Business FM on the 16th of July is about $30 billion. It would have been cheaper to keep the original forest service intact.
I have had the impression throughout this period that the government was only able to react to situations as they occurred. It had no strategy. The internet made many of us feel like we have been treated like idiots, because it showed the shallowness of the official news channels. Parallels were drawn to the way that the Chernobyl disaster was reported on, or not reported on in 1986.