Deeper Than Oil: All quiet on the August Front

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
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It’s halfway through August, a month notorious in Russia for disaster and devastation and all is (at least at the time of writing) quiet and calm. Well, as calm as things get in Russia anyway.

It’s halfway through August, a month notorious in Russia for disaster and devastation and all is (at least at the time of writing) quiet and calm. Well, as calm as things get in Russia anyway.

Amid all the expectations of another crisis or catastrophe, I found myself looking back at the ghosts of Augusts past and marking the passage of my time in Russia by each round of woe.

My first experience with Russia’s Black August Syndrome came – oddly enough – in Kiev in 1998. I had left Moscow in early August for a trip to the Ukrainian capital, and just before my return journey, I heard the news that Russia’s financial system had melted down and the country had been forced to default.

My Russian wasn’t so great back then, but even I could follow the subsequent speech by a catatonic President Boris Yeltsin with ease. In fact, Yeltsin’s attempts at reassuring his fellow countrymen were so slow and ponderous that CNN’s translator actually ran ahead of what the Russian leader was saying – so telegraphed were his thoughts.

I spent the journey back to Moscow expecting to discover anarchy and post-apocalyptic scenes, but the truth I found was rather more prosaic. While the default had been a calamity for many individuals and businesses, on the streets there wasn’t much going on. A few more desperate faces than usual and a lot more rubles to the dollar was about all the visible evidence that the economy of the largest country on Earth had taken a nosedive.

Two Augusts later, I almost had a very close-up encounter with the misery the eighth month of the year frequently brings to Russia. I had just eaten in a newly-opened Indian restaurant in the center and decided to take a taxi home, rather than the subway as usual. I was feeling full and didn’t fancy walking more than was necessary. But if I hadn’t had those extra poppadoms, I may well have been strolling through the underpass to the underground station at Tverskaya, Moscow’s central street, when a bomb exploded.

Thirteen people were killed in the blast that tore through the underpass. The attack came a year and a day after the start of the Second Chechen War and then-Mayor Yury Luzhkov had no hesitation about saying the explosion had a “Chechen trail.”

The year 2000 was a bumper year for misery, and four days later the Kursk nuclear submarine went down with all hands on board in the Barents Sea. The total death toll was 118, despite the efforts of a British rescue team to save the doomed sailors. I didn’t really have any personal connection to this tragedy, unless you count the drunken guy who thanked me profusely and tearfully for the “efforts of your guys to save our guys.”

The next few years saw August’s traditional misery spread itself around Russia, but in 2004 it was close to home again as first two passenger planes were blown up en route to Volgograd and the Black Sea resort of Sochi and then a suicide bomber attacked passers-by outside a subway station in northern Moscow.

I heard about the news of the plane bombings while on holiday in Istanbul. Needless to say, the flight back to Moscow a few days later was nerve-racking – especially when the stewardesses handed out papers full of the details of the attacks. The terrorists, the paper informed us, had got up from their seats shortly after take-off and detonated their devices in the planes’ toilets. Anyone who got up to relieve themselves on the flight was the subject of some very suspicious and worried looks.

The August of 2008 saw Georgian forces attack the breakaway republic of South Ossetia in an attempt to bring it back under central control, killing a number of peacekeepers as it did so. August had finally seen Russia plunged into war, albeit with a tiny Caucasus neighbor that it didn’t have too much trouble defeating. The conflict was also a Black August for most Western media outlets, who allowed anti-Russian bias to influence their reports of the war. Indeed, for most people in the West, it was hard not to come to the conclusion that the hostilities had been kicked off by Russia attacking Georgia.

Last August saw a thick cloud of smog cover Moscow for days on end. You can read more about my attempts to avoid breathing in the contaminated air here.

Sixteen days to go until September. Will this be a rare White August for Russia? Or does the month still have a nasty surprise in store?

 

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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