Residents of Comrat, Gagauzia gathered on the evening of March 28 to honor the families who perished last week in Russia’s shopping center fire.
Russia has had a hard year. Though Putin’s presidential victory may have been cause for celebration, other scandals – including ongoing investigations of interference in the US elections; claims of massive internet trolling; diplomat expulsion over the poisoning of an intelligence agent in London; and, most recently, the deaths of many families trapped in a shopping center inferno – bode poorly for the country’s international image.
Comrat – the capital of Moldova’s autonomous territorial unit of Gagauzia – has historically close ties, plus a shared language, with the old Soviet monolith. Having lived in the city now for almost two years, I have met many residents whose extended families reside in Russia. Many immigrate there for work. And Gagauzia’s language and culture ensure a political marriage with Russia: The Gagauz elected their pro-Russian Governor Irina Vlakh, who won with 51% of the votes; approximately 91% of the Gagauz population that voted in Moldova’s last presidential election voted for a pro-Russian candidate; and other locals would be quite pleased to reunify.
This viscerally connected region has great reason, then, to mourn the fatal blaze in Kemerovo, Russia.
At least 64 people perished at the Winter Cherry shopping mall on Sunday, March 25. Investigators reported that emergency exits and other doors were blocked, windows were sealed, and the building’s fire alarm failed to sound. Many of the victims were children, who were watching animated films with family.
On Wednesday, March 28, I left my house with my host mother Anna to attend an event in the central square of Comrat. Anna had told me that we would be gathering to express solidarity with those who suffered the Kemerovo tragedy – and, in general, with Russia. She cited the recent diplomat expulsions.
We arrived at 6:07 pm, and the group had already gathered, white balloons in hand. Residents would release the balloons as mourners in Keremovo had done the day before.
Anna went to seek balloons while I photographed the crowd from above.
By the time I got back to the ground, the white spheres had been freed.
I looked around for Anna, and only spotted her after the crowd was dispersing – it happened quickly. When I approached her, she reproached the event’s organizers. The balloons were on sale for 15 lei (only cents less than 1 USD). Why, she grumbled, would an event to demonstrate solidarity require a sale?
Some of the local leaders, including the mayor Sergei Anastasov and the region’s governor Irina Vlakh, attended the event. Following the release of balloons, the governor addressed the questions of the local television station.
The previous day, my Gagauz friend and I had discussed the media coverage of the events. I followed the news on BBC, but she had been taking note of Russian conversations on social media. Many Russians, it seemed, were convinced that the death toll was far higher – between 300 and 400, rather than the 64 named so far in official government reports.
According to my friend, some Russians believe that this distortion of the death toll is related to Putin’s recent victory. Some have used social media to assert that the government ordered the cover-up so the president’s image would not be damaged so soon after his reelection. Vocal segments of the population are even publicly speaking out against the government and its corruption.
My friend ran me through some of the theories about the body count:
- The space inside the cinema where many of the victims burned was large enough to seat over 300 people, and it was a free event. That theater must have been packed.
- Many of the attendees were children from an orphanage, and no one would affirm their deaths.
- Allegedly, the Russian government required families to fill out non-disclosure agreements to collect their dead. This would legally prevent them from reporting their deceased loved ones to the media.
- A Kemerovo morgue had room for only a few hundred bodies. The day before the tragedy, there were perhaps 20 or 30 people interned there; the day after the fire, the morgue was full.
According to information on the site Meduza, much of this social media storm has no verifiable source, and some of these claims can be debunked. For instance, regarding the reports of the number of bodies at the morgue, investigators uncovered that a prankster called the city’s morgues, intimating the need to make room for 300 bodies. Another Russian source investigated ticket sales of the building’s three theaters with 542 total seats. While this does not account for the claim that the film showing was free, the number of tickets sold reflects the number of deaths that have been reported so far. Other Russian investigations have discredited the claim that any of the children present were orphans.
Now, as Putin himself claimed when referring to Russian social media cries of corruption, social media can be a “murky source.”
As my friend posited when I mentioned the death toll reports in the BBC stories I had been following (I was questioning why this news source mentioned nothing over the social media outrage), accurate reporting must restrict itself to reliable information. At this point, few investigations into the rumors had gone forward.
But it can be just as important for the public to know what ideas are spreading. These theories demonstrate not only outrage, but deep-seated mistrust – the mistrust of a public burdened by a cultural memory of cover-ups and disillusioned with its leaders.