The disastrous Russian heat wave has exposed a key failing of Russian society: The flow of information has stopped.
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.
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. 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.