The deadly fires have exposed a key problem in today's Russia: No one knows what's going on.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 10 2010 10:49 AM

Moscow in a Haze

The deadly fires have exposed a key problem in today's Russia: No one knows what's going on.

Russian wildfire. Click image to expand.
Wildfires in the Ryazan region of Russia

People are quiet in Moscow these days. First, because the one thing on everyone's mind—this summer's unremitting heat wave—has generally been deemed an impolite topic of conversation. If one does broach the topic, one must first make excuses: "I am sorry, but this is going to be about the weather." Second, because it is plain boring: Even the newspapers and radio stations have stopped reporting the all-time heat records, to which the city's thermometers attest daily. In a city where 90-degree days used to be rare—not even annual—occurrences, 100 degrees has become the new normal. Third, it is plainly difficult to talk: The air is thick with smoke from wildfires and peat fires burning in and just outside the city, and breathing this air tends to make one's throat dry and scratchy.

There is no relief in sight. Few Muscovites' apartments are equipped with air conditioning, and the stores ran out of electrical fans in the middle of last month. Most pedestrians still in the streets have donned surgical masks, even though doctors warn that they do nothing to keep out the tiny particles that fill the air; nor, for that matter, do air conditioners. For weeks, the weather forecasters have promised that the heat will let up in about 10 days' time—but as the days march on, the amount of time separating us from that illusory cold front refuses to shrink. Some days, it rains violently and briefly, for just a few minutes, and I swear many of the raindrops evaporate before reaching the ground. The rains are too brief to beat down the thick layer of dry dust that blends into the gray blanket of smoke. One day last week, the smoke suddenly cleared up, chased away by winds as strong as they were fleeting, allowing the city's residents to see the sun for the first time in days. "The suddenness with which it disappears scared me," a colleague confessed, apologizing for bringing up the weather. "It's like Hitchcock's The Birds: You know the horror will return just as suddenly."

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The fear is palpable. People joke morbidly about the end of the world. Dozens of people have died as wildfires, burning all over the European part of Russia, spread to villages and towns. In the early days of August, the fires came close to the city of Sarov, one of Russia's main nuclear centers. The Kremlin reassured the population by saying the nuclear reactor was in no danger of catching fire and that all potentially explosive material had been moved out of the reactor. This reassured no one: How can you move the nuclear material out of a reactor? Where would you store it? No one had an answer, but the head of the nuclear ministry flew to Sarov.

It was not a political move. The minister held no press conference in Sarov, made no public statements, and staged no heroic photo-ops. I am sure he traveled there to find out what was happening. For the disastrous Russian heat wave has exposed a key failing of Russian society: The flow of information has stopped. There is not a single newspaper that even strives to be national in its coverage. The television is not only controlled by the Kremlin; it is made by the Kremlin for the Kremlin, and it is entirely unsuited to gathering or conveying actual information. Even the Russian blogosphere is bizarrely fragmented: Researchers who "mapped" it discovered that, unlike any other blogosphere in the world, it consists of many non-overlapping circles. People in different walks of life, different professions, and different parts of the country simply do not talk to one another. The same is true of political institutions: Since the Russian government effectively abolished representative democracy, canceling direct elections, there is no reason—and no real mechanism—for Moscow politicians to know what is going on in the vast country. Nor do governors need concern themselves with the lives and the disasters in their regions—they, too, are no longer elected but are appointed by the Kremlin.

As a result, no one knows where the fires are burning—unless they are burning right next to you. There is no map that would tell you whether your loved ones are safe or whether there is a fire along your planned travel route. Often, there is also no way to call for help. In a telling exchange, a blogger wrote to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complaining that his village, close to the epicenter of one of the fires, no longer had even the ship's bell residents had once used to call for help. In a bizarre move, Putin responded by ordering that the ship's bell be restored to the village.

I suspect that the prime minister could not have said anything more informative or reassuring even if he had wanted to. He is as much a victim of the information drought as its cause. The government, too, lacks the information that would be required to evacuate vulnerable towns and villages, to mobilize the resources necessary to fight the fires, or even to know exactly where they are burning.

A New York journalist friend often drills me on the state of Russia. As I find myself saying, "I don't know" more frequently, I think he has begun to suspect me of being evasive. The truth is, no one, inside or outside the country, knows what is going on in Russia—unless something catches fire or blows up. Until then, we are in a haze, in silence.

AP Video: Wildfires Blanket Moscow in Hazardous Smog

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.