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Russia's 'Black August' The Ostankino tower had never been renovated August 30, 2000 Web posted at: 3:59 AM EDT (0759 GMT)

MOSCOW -- The fatal fire in the huge Ostankino television tower is the third catastrophe in what sections of the Russian media are calling the country's "Black August."

The blaze, which killed at least three people, followed the deaths of 118 sailors on board the sunken Kursk submarine and an explosion in the heart of Moscow that claimed 12 victims.

"Recent Russian history has never known such a tragic month," said the weekly Moscow News.

The Ostankino tower -- Europe's tallest structure at 540 metres (1,771 feet) -- was built in 1967 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and to show the world the Soviet Union's technological might.

Officials fear, however, that the fire, thought to have been sparked by an electrical short-circuit, may have left the symbol of Russian pride beyond repair.

"It wasn't simply a tower," the Vreyma MN daily commented on Tuesday. "It was the symbol of an epoch that now, it seems, has passed for good."

Three weeks ago the Kursk nuclear submarine was seen as a measure of Russia's military prowess. But the sinking on August 12, and failed attempt to rescue those on board, exposed decay in the country's once-mighty navy.

Putin has come under unprecedented attack in the press President Vladimir Putin and his government suffered unprecedented domestic and international criticism over the disaster in the Barents Sea and he was quick to react to the fire in the TV tower, using it as a metaphor for the state of the nation.

"This emergency highlights what condition vital facilities, as well as the entire nation, are in," Putin said on Monday at a government meeting called to discuss the blaze. "Only economic development will allow us to avoid such calamities in the future."

From gas explosions in crumbling apartment buildings to plane crashes, disaster has become commonplace in Russia, making the one-time superpower and technological leader seem like a perpetual calamity zone.

Prolonged economic decline has brought decay, with the nation unable to replace or maintain its Soviet-era machinery.

Last week Izvestiya newspaper reported that more than 1,000 servicemen die every year in peacetime accidents, including exploding ordnance, vehicle crashes and training mishaps.

Wear-and-tear on Russia's aging infrastructure has been exacerbated by sloppiness, lack of training and theft.

Officials acknowledged that the Ostankino tower had never been renovated and its safety system was clearly not working.

The government has warned that Russians face disaster everywhere, from planes to coal mines, because the country cannot afford to keep dilapidated facilities running safely.

The Emergency Situations Ministry issued an apocalyptic forecast this year that said the nation was vulnerable to myriad technological disasters, including fires, collapsing buildings, pipeline ruptures, radiation leaks and toxic spills.

Much of Russia's industrial equipment could come to a virtual standstill by 2005-2007, ministry experts warned.

In Soviet times, safety rules were followed because of discipline and the fear of punishment. Now there is an alarming tendency to neglect safety rules and minimise or dismiss danger.

Safety concerns neglected Planes frequently crash because pilots overload them with extra cargo for bribes. Natural gas blasts rip through apartment buildings because of poor maintenance. Fires or explosions rock rural areas because people hack holes into oil pipelines to siphon fuel.

Other areas are left without electricity after power lines are looted by thieves. Hundreds are electrocuted every year while trying to pilfer communication wires, electric cables and train and plane parts to sell as scrap.

"I am sorry for the president," one old man told The Moscow Times, after the tower fire. "He's a young man and had such bad luck. The submarine sank and now this. I feel sorry for him."

But with infrastructural decay threatening to create a daily litany of disaster, many fellow Russians may find their sympathy running out

-- Martin Thompson (, August 30, 2000

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