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Russia's Burning Problem

This story was written by CBS News' Alexsei Kuznetsov in Moscow.

Unable to move unaided, 23 people died in a devastating fire that completely destroyed a government nursing home in the northern Russian town of Podyelsk.
(AP Photo/KomiOnline)
The single-storey wooden building, constructed in 1964, was already engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. By then, there was no one left to be rescued — only 4 people managed to escape from the burning building.

The exact cause of the blaze in Podyelsk hasn't yet been announced, but it's clear already that at least some of the blame lies with the local authorities who ran the facility.

According to Russia's Emergency Situations ministry, the nursing home's manager had been fined a number of times in the past for neglecting fire safety rules, and nurses would go home for the night, leaving the elderly patients unattended.

(AP Photo/KomiOnline)
They were repeatedly told to install smoke detectors, but didn't.

So as the official investigation continues, experts are already pointing fingers at the two most probable causes; an outrageous neglect of fire safety rules, and Russia's decrepit infrastructure.

"Facilities like the nursing home in Podyelsk have been burning in Russia on a regular basis," said Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and now a member of the political opposition.

(AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)
"Elderly people also have been dying in these fires on a regular basis," Nemtsov (at left) told CBS News.

Indeed, fires have been killing Russians with alarming frequency. In 2008, more than 15,000 people died in fires — about five times more than in the U.S. — even though Russia's population is less than half. Since the beginning of 2009, fires have already claimed close to 2,000 lives here.

These hair-raising statistics are an indicator of the daunting state of affairs inside Russia. The Kremlin may pretend to be regaining superpower status internationally, but domestically the situation remains grim. And one of the biggest problems is the country's aging infrastructure — substandard buildings, dilapidated electrical and heating systems in public housing and rural homes, old and often dysfunctional fire-fighting equipment, lack of finance, and widespread disregard for safety codes.

Social factors such as high rates of smoking and alcohol abuse add insult to injury. Intoxicated people are often unable to escape fires they inadvertently start themselves.

Over the past two years alone, fires swept through at least half a dozen social institutions; including orphanages, nursing homes and schools, claiming more than 100 lives. Many of these victims were either bedridden elderly people or disabled patients of medical institutions.

The bigger underlying problem, Mr. Nemtsov believes, is the government's indifference to its own people.

"Ordinary people mean nothing to the current cynical and corrupt regime — nothing at all. Especially the elderly — they are unable to work, they do not pay taxes, they are politically innocuous, they only require to be looked after – so the regime may not even bother to spend any money on these helpless old people. They have no one left to stand up for them."

The opposition politician says that as long as defense spending, security services and showy displays of the country's military might remain the government's priority, Russia does not have much of a future.

"If the current Russian government continues with its present-day course, Russia will soon see a degradation of all its systems — from the infrastructure to the social sphere — and a final utter bankruptcy of its statehood."

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