Magnitogorsk Explosion Touches Russia’s Raw Spots (Op-ed)

The mood in Russia seems to be turning inward toward domestic issues. The way many Russians see it, Russia has been helping other countries a lot—and that includes helping Ukraine fight “fascists.” This conviction, partly shaped by propaganda, partly genuine, is now waning. As the economy has stagnated and incomes have been in decline for at least four years, people are now saying, “Let’s stop helping everyone else. Let’s help ourselves.”

News about bombings ignited patriotic zeal twenty years ago, but a similar news item these days would only elicit a tired reaction. One has to be realistic: it is the Kremlin’s political decision that will define the cause of the tragedy for the public, not an independent and transparent investigation. Whether the authorities attribute the tragedy to an explosion caused by a gas leak or an act of terrorism will reflect the Kremlin’s reading of the mood of the population.

Precious Square Meters

People seem to expect the government to take better care of the population, its housing and infrastructure needs, not to launch into another war of revenge against an enemy, whoever it might be this time.

The building affected by the explosion in Magnitogorsk is a ten-story prefab concrete structure built in the early 1970s. It is hard to believe, but a government commission that inspected the building has decided that the remaining parts are still fit for occupation. The ruined section will be dismantled, and people will have to return to their apartments.

The city of Magnitogorsk, located about 1,700 km (1,000 miles) east of Moscow, is a company town famous for its iron and steel works, MMK. Built in haste on a mineral-rich greenfield in the 1930s, MMK was a prominent part of Joseph Stalin’s massive industrialization effort. The story of Magnitogorsk is the typical story of a Soviet town, with the construction of housing for workers given short shrift in the industrialization drive.

Today, MMK is majority owned by its former CEO, Viktor Rashnikov, who, according to Forbes, was worth $8.2 billion in 2018. The average wage in Magnitogorsk is less than $600 a month (a bit less than 40,000 rubles), which is not bad by Russian standards.

Yet many of the housing blocks, like the building that partly collapsed, are approaching the end of their life span, which for similar structures is often put at fifty years. Can these housing blocks survive into the 2020s and the 2030s? Yes, but they will need a lot of maintenance work. It doesn’t take terrorism to render these buildings dangerous. Gas-related emergencies, though normally resulting in fewer victims, happen every year by the dozen.

The real challenge to anyone who governs or will be governing Russia is the state of the housing stock. In 2012 the Higher School of Economics estimated that an investment of more than 20 trillion rubles would be needed to keep the existing housing in habitable shape. At this stage it is difficult to see where the funds would come from.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow with the Kennan Institute, where this article was originally published. The views and opinions expressed in opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moscow Times.