Living and Dying with Russia's Soviet Legacy: Sinking Ships and Falling Planes

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Roman Kruchinin / AP

Relatives embraces survivors of the shipwreck on the Volga River in Kazan, Russia, on July 10, 2011

Russians have started calling the incident the "Titanic of the Volga."

On Sunday afternoon, during a cruise in a reservoir adjoining the Volga River, a ship called the Bulgaria capsized and sank, killing more than 125 people, including dozens of children who got trapped below deck in a playroom. As passing ships picked up survivors in the water and news of the disaster spread, the nation fell into mourning, and some observers brought up the sinking of the Titanic in an effort to express the scale of Russia's grief. But the comparison fails for one important reason. The Bulgaria was not a masterpiece of engineering on its maiden voyage, as the Titanic had been in 1912. The cruise ship was 56 years old when it sank on Sunday, becoming another example of the rotting Soviet-era equipment and infrastructure — barely kept up yet still in use — that have made such disasters so familiar in Russia today.

It did not take long for another catastrophe to drive that point home. On Monday, while bodies were still being pulled out of the ship 20 m (65 ft.) below the surface, an old Antonov plane crashed in a river in Siberia after one of its engines caught fire midflight, killing at least six passengers. That accident drew immediate comparisons with the crash of another old Soviet plane, a Tupolev, which fell in northwestern Russia less than three weeks ago, killing 44 people. That brings the death toll for the string of tragedies to at least 175 in the past month. During a meeting at the Kremlin on Monday, President Dmitri Medvedev seemed to realize that this was not just a series of freak accidents.

"The number of old heaps we've got floating around is too high," he told his ministers. "Just because they've held up this long doesn't mean such things can't happen." He then ordered all private ships either to undergo necessary renovations or to be taken out of service. All Antonovs of the kind that crashed on Monday are to be grounded pending an investigation of the latest crash, he said. "The fleets are too old."

But these still seem like superficial remedies. What Medvedev failed to mention was the scope of Russia's broader infrastructural decay, an issue that arises after every major industrial catastrophe, but quickly tends to fade again. In the past two years alone, Russia has seen a huge methane blast at a coal mine (about 90 dead), a turbine explosion at its largest hydro-electric dam (75 dead), another Antonov plane crash in Siberia (11 dead), as well as a handful of major blackouts, gas blowups and the countless deaths caused every year by the dire state of Russia's roads.

All these accidents are normally blamed on human error or misconduct, which allows the government to save face by firing or jailing the guilty parties. But many businessmen have started lobbying for the government to pay attention to the country's deeper infrastructural needs (instead of splurging on vanity projects like the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi). One of them is Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire who owns a fifth of Aeroflot, Russia's national airline. The sinking of the Bulgaria, he says, is just the latest symptom of Russia's skewed priorities. "The industrial base of the country is still mostly a product of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev," the three longest-serving leaders of the Soviet Union, "and that was not such high quality in the first place," Lebedev tells TIME. "If you scratch the surface of the city of Moscow for example ... everything is very old."

And outside of Moscow, the problems are far worse. In 2007, an extensive study by the investment bank Renaissance Capital found that more than 40% of all airport runways in Russia were unpaved, while more than half did not have runway lights. Despite Russia's size, the study found that the network of paved roads is one-tenth the size of that in the U.S., and there is still no major highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg, which would be like having no highway between New York City and Washington, D.C.

In 2007, at the height of an economic boom, the government did announce a program to spend $1 trillion in the course of a decade to fix the nuts and bolts of the economy, and the following year, infrastructure spending reached a post-Soviet peak of 4.7% of GDP, which is roughly the West European average, according to a study released last year by Russia's largest lender, Sberbank. But in 2009, when the global financial crisis diverted most of the state's cash to bailouts and other stopgap measures, Russia cut that spending in half, and the national revamp was largely put on hold till better days, Sberbank found. (The one project left mostly in tact was the Sochi Olympics.)

"So we've reached the point where the lifespan of the industrial and technological base has passed," says Andrew Somers, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. "That is a huge drag on the economy." But probably more troubling for the Russian public, it is also getting very dangerous. Most of the country's domestic carriers still use Antonov and Tupolev planes, which creak and groan like so many Russian fleets of old Soviet machines. "Personally I don't even ride the elevators in the old buildings in Moscow," says Lebedev. "It would just seem like such a senseless way to go." Certainly, though, it would be no more senseless than the deaths in Russia's latest series of calamities.