There are many criticisms which could be made of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, but not doing enough to relieve motorists caught in a provincial blizzard isn’t one of them:
A blizzard survivor has addressed an angry video message to Russian President Vladimir Putin after about 80 people waited 15 hours for rescuers in the Orenburg region of Russia.
A driver froze to death and many others suffered frostbite when their vehicles were trapped on a main road in the region, in the southern Ural mountains.
Russia sends aid abroad but “we cannot save our own people”, Pavel Gusev said.
Prosecutors in Russia’s Investigative Committee (SK) are now examining the emergency response on the night of 3 January, when cars were buried in snow on the Orenburg-Orsk road.
Survivors say the blizzard was so bad there was virtually no visibility.
The fact is that it is extremely difficult to do much about motorists stranded in a blizzard, not least because it is almost impossible to plan for. Around Christmas 2014 severe snowstorms left 15,000 people stranded in the French Alps. Every country – whether used to snow or not – suffers the problem of stranded motorists when an unusually severe blizzard hits, and the emergency services and other authorities are usually powerless to do anything until the conditions improve. It is not practical or feasible to have hundreds of specialist snow-rescue vehicles scattered around a country, let alone one the size of Russia, in the event motorists get trapped. And the poor conditions, particularly visibility, prevent would-be rescuers reaching those trapped in any case. A solution, one which I’m sure the Savoy police would agree with, was ventured by the admittedly rather unhelpful Russian authorities:
Some calls for help got the reply from rescue service staff: “You should have stayed at home, you had no business going out.”
Firstly, you watch the weather when you live in places prone to snowstorms. If a particularly nasty front is coming in, stay at home. Secondly, if you live in such an area you are supposed to carry a winter kit with you in the back of the car: snow chains, shovel, tow-rope, gloves, warm boots, de-icer, torch, etc. I made sure I had all this kit in the boot of my car whenever I drove around Sakhalin in winter, and I do the same when I drive in the Alps now. If I’m going far, I make sure I have a bottle of water and a down jacket with me, and sometimes throw a sleeping bag on the back seat just in case I have to spend the night in the car. And the car is always, always, as full with diesel as possible: you don’t venture far from home in harsh winter weather on an empty tank. That said, it is still possible to take all the right measures and still end up trapped and freezing in a blizzard, sometimes you just get unlucky and if you have kids in the car it’ll be pretty miserable. But this isn’t something you can really blame the emergency services for, and certainly not the president. 15 hours isn’t an unusually long time to wait for help, and unless you are really badly prepared, or very young, old, or sick you ought to be able to survive that easily.
However, that is not to say the complaint isn’t important. I once went on a training course with a large psychological element which gave us an exercise concerning a theoretical employee who has just burst into a manager’s office with a specific complaint. We – being engineers – fell over ourselves to solve the immediate problem he was complaining about before being gently informed, by the instructor who was not an engineer, that the actual problem was irrelevant and could have been anything: the complaint was merely the employee’s vehicle of choice to indicate a much deeper dissatisfaction. It was the role of a good manager to recognise this and solve the underlying issues and not immediately rush to address the immediate problem he walked in with.
I suspect what we’re seeing here with this video to Putin is the frustrations stemming from more deep-rooted issues coming to the fore: a contracting economy, stagnating quality of life, inflation, the effect of sanctions, corruption, gangsterism, and a whole host of other things which blight the lives of ordinary Russians. Russians aren’t the kind of people who are unduly troubled by things like snowstorms and standing around freezing for 15 hours, nor do they have high performance expectations of the authorities. Somebody is letting off some steam here.
This sort of thing bears watching because Russia’s government is brittle. As Streetwise Professor helpfully explains, brittle does not mean weak: it means collapse, when it happens, occurs suddenly and unpredictably. When brittle regimes collapse the catalyst is often something relatively small and unnoticed by most at the time. The protests which led to the Iranian Revolution were triggered by the death of Mostafa Khomeini followed by an ill-advised article in a government newspaper denouncing him. The ongoing situation in Syria transformed from protests to all-out civil war when authorities in the southern city of Daraa arrested and imprisoned 15 children for painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school. When they were released they showed physical signs of having been tortured, and the subsequent outrage turned protesters into armed opponents of the Assad government. The Arab spring itself grew from protests over the prices of staple foods, particularly wheat in Egypt. The Berlin Wall came down, taking East Germany with it, largely due to a mistake made by a government spokesman on TV.
It’s not that these events meant much in isolation, it is that they were the catalysts which triggered huge change in an already volatile situation. The video sent to Putin by the trapped motorist is not such a catalyst, but it does strongly suggest that dissent is starting to appear in the massed ranks of ordinary Russians and that the underlying situation is more volatile than people think. This video won’t change anything, but in the future a similar video might change everything overnight. That is why I thought it worth mentioning.