Russian Sets Himself on Fire in Arab Spring-Style Protest

Desperate act follows two other self-immolation threats in echoes of Arab Spring

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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.

9 comments
raji.alrazi
raji.alrazi

This burning your own-self business is getting boring! Russia is no Tunisia.

Beersheva
Beersheva

Self immolation is catching fire in Russia.

vetramon
vetramon

Oh please, mr shuster, is this how journalism works in America? You started the article with an assertion, '' Russians set themselves on fire...", and then when you expanded your news and after I read the whole article, this bitter sensation stayed in my mind and thought to myself, Is this the way how these journalists handle the public opinion to take one side of the truth? You, see, mr shuster, I was expecting a continuous immolation of the Russian people according to your article. You give 3 examples, where the first one was someone that set himself on fire, but he didn't immolate himself, since the authorities saved him and he lived. The other two were just threats to immolate themselves in front of the authorities to bribe to do something with their pledges. They got it. But, mr shuster, where are the immolations that you promised at the start of your article? Is this the truth of JOURNALISTS OF YOUR CALIBER?  YOU ARE PATHETIC AND A LIAR. 

Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

I thought the Snowden groupies were saying that Russia was such a better place than America

FrankBlank
FrankBlank

@vetramon My TV said Zanax makes you feel better.  I'm not a doctor, I only play one on the keyboard. 

vetramon
vetramon

@Realworldnonfantasyland Wow, did you read about the American that went up in flames to week ago? For the Russian people, Russia is better than the USA. It all depends on what you mean to be a better place. For Snowden, any place in the world was a better and safer place than in the USA. And you know why, mr real...................., because he tried to show you and the rest of the American jingoists that their government was spying on them. For this, mr real..........., to use the freedom of speech he could have faced life in prison in his free country. So sometimes mr. real..........., you'd better keep it quiet.

   Mr real............, I am going to tell my case, today in this magazine, Time Mag, in one of the articles I commented with proof against the Zionists, inside and outside this magnificent country. I posted about four comments, and you know what happened, mr real..........,?  They were published but 10 minutes later they disappeared.  Can you give an explanation?  Is this to be better?  Now, if you tell me that in Russia is worse, well, according how they have portrayed Russia in the USA, then your opinion is what can be expected from the Russians. No novelty in that, but in the USA.....

AlishaGraves13
AlishaGraves13

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