Fifty-seven years ago, 106 children died in a fire at a village school. The Soviet public didn't know about it until the 1990s.
According to preliminary figures, at least 40 children died in the March 25 fire at the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo. There are few disasters in Russian history that claimed so many young lives. In recent history, only the Beslan hostage crisis comes to mind. When the Soviet Union still existed, however, there was a fire that killed more than 100 children — and nobody apart from the victims’ relatives and neighbors knew about it until the 1990s. Meduza looks at how tragedy struck the Chuvash village of Elbarusovo in 1961.
The Chuvash village of Elbarusovo got its small wooden schoolhouse in 1914. Built by local businessmen who owned the local sawmill, the school had two classrooms separated by a partition that was sometimes removed for public events.
There was such an event on November 5, 1961, when the village assembled at the school for a concert devoted to the anniversary of the October Revolution. The desks had been pushed against the windows and stacked on top of each other. The reception was packed with teachers and students from grades one through six — roughly 200 children in all (many from neighboring villages).
While a group of boys performed a sailors’ dance on the stage, the physics teacher and several seniors started up an electrical generator in the adjoining room. They were cold, so they threw a few logs onto the stove in the same room (apparently some kind of cast-iron stove). The wood was damp, and the teacher decided to add a bit of gasoline, so it would catch fire — but he used too much. Flames shot up, and the teacher fell to the ground in surprise, stumbling over the gas cans and causing the fuel to spill. The fire spread to the desks and the floor, and almost immediately to the main hall (where the concert was taking place). The teacher jumped out the window.
The hall was instantly shrouded in smoke. There was zero visibility, and people couldn’t breathe. The walls and ceilings were on fire. The crowd rushed toward the two windows. The emergency exit was locked and obstructed by boxes. The windows, which opened inwards, were blocked by the desks that had been stacked and put aside to clear space for the festivities. Only two windows by the stage were open.
“Instantly, there was heat and darkness,” recalls Tamara Mikhaylova, who was in sixth grade at the time. “There was a terrible shriek and everyone rushed toward the window. I was standing in the choir right there. A young guy from our village had accompanied the choir and he immediately smashed the window with his accordion. From behind, the pressure of the crowd pushed me toward the window, and in a second they let me go, and I tumbled out. Almost as soon as I was outside, flames shot out of the windows, the fire began to crackle and howl, and it engulfed the whole school.”
Once she was outside, Mikhaylova realized a pain in her left shoulder and ran home. Her parents decided not to take her to the hospital. The next summer, she and other children who had survived the fire were sent to a “pioneer” youth camp.
“A wall of flame and billowing black smoke was coming in through the door at the back,” says Arkady Ivanov, who was seven at the time. “There was instant darkness because of the smoke. The first wave of fire passed over our heads and singed my hair.” He says he climbed onto the desks and began crawling past the windows to the only one that was open. He was able to get out, but he lost his boots. He remembers worrying that his father would be angry with him about this. Two seniors helped him down from the window.
Other people who were still in the hall crawled over each other in an effort to get out. Many children began to suffocate and lose consciousness.
“Black smoke was rising from the floor right up to the ceiling, and hot flames engulfed the hall,” says Arkady Gavrilov, who was in sixth grade. “My little brother and I were badly burned, but we escaped. My little sister, Raisa, died — like half the kids in my class.”
Vladimir Andreyev, who lived just a few hundred feet from the school, says he remembers hearing “a loud crackle, like explosions.” “The whole school was ablaze. Our first response, on orders from the local administration, was to rescue the school archives,” he recalls. “I heard women screaming: ‘There are kids in there!’” Together with the other men, Andreyev entered the school building. They tried to crawl toward the hall, but had to retreat. Fire blocked their way. Before long, the school’s roof collapsed. By the time firefighters arrived, the school was a smoldering ruin. Andreyev and the others recovered the bodies of the children and laid them in rows on the sports field by the school. The next morning, he found his own sister among the victims.
“First, I identified Lyusya from a surviving scrap of her dress. Then I identified Kolya from a scrap of his underpants. I'd made them for him myself. I couldn't find Tolik and Yurik,” recalls the mother of four children who died in the fire. In total, 106 children had perished — almost half of them under the age of seven. The village of Elbarusovo lost only slightly more people (140) in the entire Second World War.
The day after the fire, the local authorities decided to bury the victims in a communal grave. They brought caskets from Cheboksary and excavated a long pit. The funeral was cordoned off by police officers, and many locals were not allowed into the cemetery. Only immediate relatives were permitted to attend the ceremony. Polina Ivanova, a Chuvash local historian and teacher, recounted that the authorities “were in a hurry because of the impending [October Revolution] holiday.” “The children's coffins were laid in two rows. A bulldozer filled in the enormous grave by the light of car headlights. Every time the vehicle reversed, sobbing mothers would run up and plant stakes in the earth to mark the graves,” Ivanova says. Some of the burn victims were sent to Cheboksary for treatment, and the most severely injured were helicoptered to Moscow.
The school’s director and the physics teacher who spilled the gasoline were sentenced to 8 years and 10 years in prison, respectively, and they were expelled from the Communist Party “for their criminal attitude toward leading the school.” They did not return to the village when they were released, fearing they would be lynched.
About a year after the fire, Elbarusovo got a new schoolhouse made of bricks. Locals immediately noticed the building's narrow entrance, which opens directly into a staircase leading up to the second floor. If there were ever another fire, a stampeding crowd would likely form a bottleneck here. Elbarusovo's school still uses this building today.
When it happened, the Elbarusovo tragedy wasn’t national news, and until the early 1990s most people in the Soviet Union knew nothing of how more than 100 children had burned alive in Chuvashia. The first public commemoration of the victims wasn’t held until 1991, and the victims didn’t get a memorial until 1994: a sculpture of a child surrounded by flames, with birds flying overhead. Every November 5, schoolchildren read out the names of the dead at the memorial. “It chills your blood when you think about how suffocating children were left to die in that bitter smoke,” the head of the Chuvash Emergencies Ministry said at the 2014 commemoration.
There is also a memorial to the victims of the fire on the school website. Titled “Dark Page in the School's History,” it features a list of the dead, several of their photographs, and the recollections of some survivors and witnesses.
“There are few days without some kind of a reminder [of the fire],” says Arkady Gavrilov, who suffered burns on more than half his body in the disaster. “Skin conditions flared up after the burns. Other people have problems with their hands.”