It’s getting hot in Moscow and while most people are enjoying the heatwave, there’s real concern that the city could see another bout of choking smog like the one that gripped the capital last year.
When I first moved here, I reasoned that I would eventually have to face some hard times in the city. I was thinking of things like bitter winters, unpleasant encounters with minor mafiosi types, and maybe even picking up a drinking problem. It would be fair to say that a thick toxic cloud of deadly smog amid an unprecedented heatwave was not among my major concerns.
Last year, as a sweltering July crept to an end, smoke from nearby peat bog and forest fires began to make dawn raids upon Moscow, the clouds retreating as the morning went on. At first, Muscovites barely noticed - after all, the blazes are an annual event and a certain amount of smoke was to be expected.
And then, with the arrival of August, on what would come to be known as Toxic Wednesday, thick clouds of choking smog swept over the city, penetrating homes, offices, and the subway system and refusing to make a polite departure come noon. As familiar landmarks disappeared behind an acrid haze, health experts warned of rocketing carbon monoxide levels, with overall pollution estimated at 16 times greater than usual. This was a smog the like of which the city had never seen.
As the smog took hold, people coped in different ways. Some fled the city, some stayed put. I was among the latter group – with a family holiday booked in Turkey, it didn’t seem logical to leave Moscow for a few days. Where would we have gone? After all, it wasn’t just Moscow that was affected; large parts of the country were burning…
But like most Moscow apartments, my home has no air conditioning (at least, it didn’t then), and a run on stocks had left it also impossible to purchase a system. As the mercury approached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), it became impossible to follow the authorities’ advice to keep all windows tightly shut. We tried it for an hour or so, before realizing that if the smog didn’t get us, then the heat would.
Drastic events demanded drastic actions and I took my wife and then one-year-old daughter to a nearby hotel with air conditioning. It was just a five minute walk away, but we called a taxi and drove through the smog-masked streets to take shelter. The scenes around us were like clips from a horror film. Predictably, The Mist came to mind. (There were no monsters emerging from the gloom though – unless you count a couple of skinhead drunks we saw.)
Carbon monoxide poisoning has been linked to delirium and hallucinations, and it was not long before a series of bizarre announcements and horrific crimes began to make the news. (There were two cases of fathers killing their children during this period in Moscow alone.)Granted, Russia has its fair share of violent crime, but it seemed as if the smog had unleashed an anger directed against a random assortment of enemies - some real, some imagined. Holed up in our near empty hotel, we watched as Russia's long hot summer of smog and rage unfolded.
There was also other weirdness, with the smog giving rise to talk of an apocalyptic nature, with a leading psychiatrist claiming some 10% of Russians believed the events indicated doomsday was not far off. On top of this, certain church figures claimed the smog was divine "punishment" for rising abortion rates.
The abnormal heat and wildfires, which would eventually kill 50 people and leave some 2,000 homeless across the central part of European Russia, also saw widespread speculation that the country was under attack by new sophisticated climate weapons. It was the Americans who were to blame, of course.
So far there has been no sign of smog. But it’s still early. Last year’s disaster came in August, a much feared month in modern Russia. The eighth month of the year has seen, over the years, a coup, financial collapse, large-scale terrorist attacks, the sinking of the Kursk submarine and war with Georgia, to name but a few misfortunes.
Will smog misery hit the Russian capital again this year? Reports suggest the authorities haven’t done much to prevent a repeat. And it’s not long before August. I wonder what Greece is like at this time of year?
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).