Getting a Russian bureaucrat to do what you want can be about as easy as budging a mountain — a surly, misanthropic mountain. So some Russians, in their quest for basic social services, have threatened the ultimate desperate measure: self-immolation.
On Oct. 16, a man in his early 40s walked into the local government headquarters in the industrial town of Pervouralsk and demanded officials turn on the central heating in his apartment block, where he has been freezing along with his wife and daughter since fall turned to winter weeks ago. When he received blank stares and brush-offs in return, according to a statement from the local police department, he poured lacquer thinner all over his clothes and lit himself on fire. The flames were quickly extinguished, while the man, whom police identified as a local entrepreneur, was detained for questioning at the police station, after which an ambulance was called to treat his burns.
Two weeks earlier, on Oct. 1, virtually the same thing happened on the Kamchatka Peninsula, one of the most remote parts of the Russian Far East. That morning, an elderly woman went into the government headquarters in the settlement of Novoavachinsk and demanded officials restore the water supply to her apartment block, which has been breaking down for a year and a half. According to a statement from the local police, the unidentified woman’s clothes were already soaked in kerosene when she arrived, so officials could not ignore her threats to light herself on fire. After the local bureaucrats promised to start fixing the water pipes immediately, a police officer talked her into putting her lighter away. “The pensioner’s numerous requests for help had gone unanswered, forcing her into this act of desperation,” the police statement said.
Perhaps she had taken inspiration from a similar incident that took place last month. In the south-central region of Khakasia, a group of 14 retired coal miners went on a hunger strike on Sept. 3, demanding that the state pay out wages owed to them since 2001. When their strike was ignored, one of the retired miners, Gennady Romanenko, announced to the local media that he would set himself on fire in the town square of Chernogorsk at noon on Oct. 15. The authorities then decided to negotiate, and the miners called off their strike.
Each of these incidents managed to spur some action, or at least the promise of action, from the local officials, who otherwise have little incentive to listen to citizens’ demands. The administrators of Russia’s far-flung regions are very seldom elected; instead they are appointed by their superiors, fitting them into the enormous chain of command known in Russia as “the vertical of power,” which has President Vladimir Putin sitting at the apex. Each functionary in this pyramid has only his bosses to fear, not his constituents, who have no means of punishing their public servants through the ballot box or otherwise.
The best way for a workaday Russian to kick this system into action is by attracting the attention of the higher-ups, who could then pass commands down the hierarchy. One opportunity — perhaps the most effective one — is Putin’s yearly call-in show, when a few lucky Russians get to ask for help directly from the President. Even if the complaint has to do with building-code violations or traffic accidents, Putin listens, chastises the lazy apparatchiks and then orders the local governor to fix the problem. But when the line to Putin is busy, citizens often turn to other means of forcing the state to fulfill even its most basic functions. As a last resort, self-immolation may be catching on.