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RUSSIA"S ability to deal with its legendarily severe winters is a source of national pride. But now Russia"s survival skills have been tested by the hottest summer since records began, 130 years ago. In the country"s central region temperatures have not dropped below 30°C since mid-June; in recent days the mercury has risen as high as 37°C.


A haze from forest and peat-bog fires around Moscow has enveloped the city, turning the multicoloured domes of St Basil’s Cathedral into ghostly apparitions. Moscow"s air is polluted at the best of times, but this smog, heavy with carbon monoxide, makes breathing difficult. Outside the city a swathe of farmland the size of Portugal has been destroyed.


Forest and peat-bog fires are normal summer events in the European part of Russia. But this year the heatwave has lent them greater ferocity, giving the capital an apocalyptic feel. In a country that is not equipped for heat, this is an emergency. The number of corpses being brought into Moscow morgues has more than doubled, to around 25 a day. Most, though not all, are elderly.


Yet it is Russia’s self-destructive streak that has turned testing weather into a tragedy. In the past two months over 2,000 people have drowned trying to escape the heat by dunking themselves in lakes and rivers. (For comparison, 13,000 Soviet soldiers died during the ten-year Afghan campaign.) Fully 90% of them were drunken men, say officials.


Such booze-induced accidents are typical in Russia, where, according to some estimates, alcohol is responsible for over 400,000 deaths a year—whether through heart disease, accidents, suicides or murders. This deepens Russia’s demographic decline, in which the population of 142m has been shrinking by up to 700,000 a year. Corruption and regulatory failures, including low excise duties on spirits, add to the blight.


Similar forces are at play with Russia"s environment. Even as people gasp for air in Moscow, Russia"s authorities have begun to cut down the forests that surround the city, ostensibly to make space for a badly needed road from Moscow to St Petersburg. Given the apparently excessive size of the clearance and the eccentric choice of route, some detect a stink of corruption in the smoky air. But instead of fighting graft, the authorities have been battling environmentalists and concerned residents. As for the bureaucrats, few will breathe in the pollution. Many will take the new fast road to Moscow’s international airport to find respite in more pleasant corners of Europe.



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