Moscow is an enormous city, and in any enormous city human tragedies happen daily. But when a drunk driver doing nearly 200 km per hour ploughs into a group of teenagers on the sidewalk – people are shocked.
In a shop yesterday, buying yoghurt for my toddler in the children’s section, I struck up a conversation with two other women who were also shopping. The incident on Minskaya Ulitsa was all they could talk about.
“It’s like you shouldn’t even have children!” One said. “What’s the point? You let them out of the house - and some drunk bastard goes and does something like that!”
The other woman pointed out that these children lived in state care facilities, and were returning from an arts competition, where they had won first prize.
“That makes it even worse!” The first woman said. “First these kids are abandoned, then they work to make something of their lives, and someone comes along and ends it all.These damn drunks are everywhere.”
I was particularly struck by the story of these kids’ teacher, Olga Shirshova. Popular, and known for her dedication to her pupils’ success, she died alongside five of her pupils and her husband, who had accompanied the group to the competition. All because someone decided to drink for two days straight, and then get behind the wheel.
“I hope you do the human thing and kill yourself in prison!” Was one of the tamest online comments that I have seen directed at the driver since the tragedy occurred on Saturday September 22.
Some Facebook users, including my friends, have pointed out that the maximum sentence for what this driver did is nine years - “less than what Khodorkovsky got!” It does seem bizarre that snuffing out seven lives after behaving in a deliberately dangerous manner will get you less time behind bars, say, than the maximum sentence for a single count of embezzlement. To put this in perspective, opposition leader Alexei Navalny faces a maximum of ten years in the slammer after being charged with embezzlement.
It may be that the case against this driver will be perceived as yet another stain on the reputation of Russia’s increasingly beleaguered court system. The less trust the general public has in the courts, the more likely it is that drivers like this one will simply be “beaten to a pulp on the spot,” as another Facebook user put it. This is a terrifying scenario for a nation working to move beyond its chaotic past - but legal nihilism helps sustain an outlaw culture.
Legal issues aside, it remains to be seen whether this tragedy will do anything to influence drunk driving rates across the country. I do not know anyone who drinks and drives in Moscow. The rules are strict: just one drink puts you over the limit. Yet stories of drunk driving deaths - particularly at weekends - abound in the news.
“Let’s face it, if he had killed one or two people, we wouldn’t even care,” said one friend who volunteers in state care facilities, and who was particularly upset by accounts of this latest tragedy. “We’re used to it. Even priests get behind the wheel under the influence - nothing shocks people anymore.”
For her part, my friend links this reliance on alcohol to a “culture of desperation,” as she calls it. “Take the children I work with. Most of their parents are still alive, they just happen to be addicted to alcohol or something else, and are not able to look after their own kids.”
“You see them every once in a while - some really do miss their children,” she added. “But when you look in their eyes, all you see is desperation.”
“I wouldn’t say they’re desperate for a better life. They’re desperate for things to be over.”
Sometimes it seems no accident that despair is often referred to as “the unforgivable sin.” There is something particularly destructive about it - it leaves behind a gaping nothingness, an abyss.
But I do not want to wax poetic in the wake of this particular incident: the drunk driver was far from being a Byronic figure worthy of eloquent musings. To me, he is just a loser with a history of misconduct behind the wheel - someone who should have lost his license a long, long time ago.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was borxn in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.