‘Children die every day. Many have AIDS.’ How Russian officials responded to the deadly fire at a shopping mall in Kemerovo
Kemerovo officials: “Why the calls for immediate resignations?”
On March 27, locals and many relatives of those killed in Sunday’s tragic fire rallied in Kemerovo's central square. When one of the demonstrators, a man named Igor Vostrikov, accused the authorities of treating their constituents like animals, Lieutenant Governor Sergey Tsivilev answered, “Young man, what do you mean? Do you want to exploit this grief for PR purposes?” Vostrikov then explained that his entire family died in the fire: his wife, his sister, and his three children.
A woman from the Kemerovo administrative office tried to shout down the protesters’ calls for government accountability, telling the crowd: “Why the panic? Why the calls for immediate resignations? Children die every day. Many have AIDS.”
Vladimir Chernov, the region's first deputy governor, was upbraided for wearing a white shirt to the event. “Do you really think people shouldn't wear a white shirt if children have died?” he asked people.
After a few hours of such bumbling comments, one official did finally apologize to the victims on behalf of the local authorities: Lieutenant Governor Sergey Tsivilev — the same man who accused Igor Vostrikov of trying to score “PR points” using his dead family. Literally falling to his knees, Tsivilev told the crowd: “Since ancient times, people in Russia have kneeled to beg forgiveness.” Tsivilev's apology got a mixed reaction from the demonstrators: Some applauded, while others shouted, "Shame!"
Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev: “I beg Putin's forgiveness”
In his first response to the deadly fire, Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev thanked President Putin, rather than addressing his constituents. “The head of state's role is great, of course. Apparently, despite this superhuman workload, [Putin] personally called, determined what measures to take, and asked me to convey his respects to all families of the victims. Personally. This deserves special gratitude, of course," Tuleyev declared on Monday, March 26, when commenting on the destruction caused by Sunday’s fire.
The next day, when Putin came to Kemerovo, Tuleyev thanked the president again. “Mr. Putin, you called me personally. Once again, many thanks. I beg your personal forgiveness for what has happened in our region,” the governor said at a conference with the president on Tuesday.
Tuleyev promised personally to resolve all the problems facing the relatives of the victims. “I will personally receive every family, but for the present I will receive those who are capable [of coming], as you have done…. Questions relating to debts and loans are already being resolved. These are the everyday problems they are putting forward,” the governor said, adding that his administration will utilize the experience it gained when responding to the “Raspadskaya” mine accident.
Meeting with Putin on Tuesday, Tuleyev complained about opposition “troublemakers” who supposedly came to town to use the tragedy “for PR purposes.” “Exploiting people's grief, the whole opposition force instantly arrived. They are going to apartment buildings, nearby enterprises, and residential areas. There were around 200 of them today. These people aren’t relatives of the dead. It’s mainly just people who are always causing trouble. We’re working with them and telling them: ‘You can’t do this — it’s sacrilege when you try to use grief to solve your own problems.’” In an apparent effort to save face, the Kremlin’s official transcript of this meeting redacted the governor’s comments about “trouble makers,” though you can see hear it in the video footage posted on the website.
Governor Tuleyev did not attend the rally in front of the regional administration building. He also stayed away from the “Winter Cherry” shopping center on Sunday, saying his motorcade would have hampered rescue operations.
Vladimir Putin: “We talk about demography and we yet lose so many people”
Putin arrived in Kemerovo on March 27. Unaccompanied, he visited the city’s makeshift memorial near the burned-down shopping mall and paid his respects, before meeting with regional officials. “When you hear about the number of dead and the dead children, the first thing you feel like doing is howling, not weeping. But you when listen to what’s been said here, you feel something very different, to be honest,” Putin told the officials. “We talk about demography and we yet lose so many people. Why? Because of criminal negligence and mismanagement.”
Later, the president visited a local hospital, speaking reservedly with some of the fire’s survivors. Afterwards, Putin had an “unscheduled meeting” with a civic group of victims’ relatives who are trying to calculate the fire’s death toll. He urged them to trust the reports by officials and dismiss higher figures now circulating on social media. The president then repeated his point about demography, saying, “We call on people to have children, yet we have lost so many children as a result of such things.”
Asked if he plans to fire any state officials in Kemerovo, Putin said, “First, you don't do this in front of the cameras, just to look good against the backdrop of a tragedy. And, second, we have to determine precisely who was at fault. Once we have done this — and we certainly will do it — the appropriate decisions will be made. Status is bside the point, when people have died. When children have died.”
The president's “unscheduled meeting” with Kemerovo residents was far calmer than the rally in the city's main square, where locals demanded Putin’s attendance, chanting, “Why is the king keeping cozy? We didn’t elect him!”