The massive wildfires currently consuming much of Russia's European forests have exposed a critical vulnerability in the country's disaster preparedness, according to a Russian magazine editor: the society's utter lack of trustworthy news and information.
Writing in Slate, Masha Gessen, editor of Snob and its Web site, writes:
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.
Jesse Walker, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, argues Russia's poor response to the wildfires shows "how poorly equipped an authoritarian society can be when it's time to deal with a disaster."
For Walker, this is a teachable moment: "During a disaster, information needs to be free."
(In the June 2009 issue of Security Management, William Lokey, a program director for James Lee Witt Associates, outlined the most effective disaster response practices companies have developed to get through a crisis.)
Currently, the official death toll from the fires is 52, according to The Telegraph, although experts say the heat and the smog may have killed an additional 15,000.
♦ Photo of atmospheric smoke above Russia by NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr