Rumors blame Ukrainian saboteurs for setting wildfires in Russia

Screenshot of video from Meduza's YouTube channel, of a fire in Sosva village, Sverdlovsk region, Russia

In the past several years, Russia and Canada have experienced an escalation of wildfires before summer begins.  Among other reasons, scientists attribute these devastating fires to anthropogenic climate change caused by human activities.  However, propaganda and the lack of information surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to moral panic that seeks to blame “enemies” for the devastating consequences of wildfires in Russian regions. 

Over the years, various groups such as the “opposition,” Navalny‘s movement, anarchists, and London-based politician in exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky, have been accused of starting these fires, but no evidence has ever been found to support these allegations. The latest scapegoat to emerge is “Ukrainian saboteurs.” Journalist Marina-Maya Govzman, writing for Spektr and the Novaya Vkladka [online independent Russian language media], explains why this phenomenon occurs. Global Voices translated and published the article, shortened for clarity, with permission from Spektr and Novaya Vkladka

On May 25, 2023, images circulated on social media depicting a man wearing khaki trousers and a thick jacket. He was seen kneeling with his hands tightly bound and secured to a tree with a belt. The caption accompanying the photo read: “Organized saboteur brigades travel through the forests, preparing and igniting piles of brushwood before quickly departing. The individual captured in this photo is one of the apprehended saboteurs.” It soon became evident that the person detained by volunteers, instantly labeled as a Ukrainian saboteur on social media, was merely a traveler on a journey from Yekaterinburg to Khabarovsk.  The government information center of the Tyumen region published the man's photo and confirmed that he had not started any fires.

Initial reports of wildfires emerged in late April 2023, with regions such as Sverdlovsk, Tyumen, Omsk, Kurgan [in the Urals and Siberia regions of Russia], and the far east being affected. Hundreds of people lost their homes, and some villages were nearly obliterated. As of May 2023, a special fire protection regime had been established in 57 regions of the Russian Federation. Rumors began circulating on social media platforms and messaging apps, attributing the fires to “Ukrainian involvement,” prompting residents to take matters into their own hands in search of supposed saboteurs.

In one chat, a frequently forwarded message read: “Sabotage activities are taking place all over the Tyumen, Sverdlovsk, and Kurgan regions. Forests, fields, and houses are being set on fire. Volunteers are working tirelessly to dismantle campfires and extinguish the flames. The situation is dire.”

The village of Yuldus in the Kurgan region, inhabited by the Tatar ethnic minority, suffered the most severe consequences this spring. On May 7, approximately 300 out of 400 houses were consumed by the flames, although these figures are still being verified. The final death toll has yet to be announced by the authorities, but it currently stands at 21 people. Local residents filmed videos where they pleaded for assistance amidst the ruins.

“Our entire village has been reduced to ashes. We have been left homeless and without means of sustenance. We are now out on the streets. There are no words to describe it. Please, we need your help,” implored a woman, surrounded by her grandchildren. 

The village of Sosva in the Sverdlovsk region suffered severe devastation as well. Within a short period, the fire ravaged 124 residential buildings, claimed the lives of two people, and engulfed a local correctional colony with a hospital that treated prisoners with active tuberculosis. On May 7, the governor of the region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, declared the situation “critical” and requested federal assistance.

“In my memory spanning over forty years, there have been fires, but never on this scale,” remarks Andrey, one of the local volunteers.  “We're experiencing a drought. If the wind picks up, sparks will fly, reigniting the fire elsewhere. What can I say? We need to work and extinguish. There was a lot of talk about arsonists, but we haven't seen any evidence.”

Alyona, a volunteer coordinating efforts across Russia, mentioned the possibility of sabotage. “Information is coming in various forms, often contradictory. Speaking for myself, I believe there is a chance of arson. Both we and other volunteers witnessed flares on May 6, but we didn't manage to capture any photographs.”

Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist and folklorist,  argues that the belief in “Ukrainian saboteurs” is a classic example of a social phenomenon known as “moral panic.”

Fires in the Urals and Siberia occur every spring, yet every year it becomes evident that the regions are ill-prepared for them, and unfortunately, lives are lost. When there is societal tension surrounding a problem, and the real underlying cause is not revealed due to various reasons, people begin to construct a specific character — an enemy and deviant — who is held responsible for these troubles. They are perceived as different, dangerous, and must be found, identified, marginalized, and even eliminated. People unite in the pursuit of these perceived dangerous enemies, and in the process, moral norms are reevaluated. That's why such panics are termed “moral.”

This is not the first instance in Russia where arsonists are sought and labeled as “saboteurs.” For instance, in 2015, Nikolai Rogozhkin, the presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District, suggested that forest fires could be the work of “specially trained opposition.”

In May 2022, Galina Kudryavtseva, a member of the Voronezh Public Chamber, claimed that the fires in the Trans-Urals were orchestrated by supporters of Navalny and Khodorkovsky.

Anthropologists emphasize the importance of how societal norms undergo reconfiguration during a “moral panic.” According to Arkhipova, during times of war, vigilance intensifies, justifying any actions, as people must constantly anticipate betrayal and remain prepared for it. “Our brains are wired to search for an external cause of problems. Some people are unwilling to hold their own authorities accountable, while others refuse to acknowledge that fires are a result of human negligence. It is far simpler to attribute them to Ukrainian arsonists. Given the recent panic surrounding Ukrainian terrorists, this explanation easily fits.”

To be frank, the situation at the front is not reassuring, and the belief in saboteurs provides answers to several questions: why the fires occur, why the war started, why it must be continued, and why it is essential to emerge victorious. We have declared war, but there is no clear ideology beneath it. It's unclear who the enemy is, why we must fight them, and what is truly happening. Society is divided into distinct groups with different opinions. On one hand, Ukrainians are considered a fraternal people, while on the other hand, we are at war with them. We find ourselves in a situation of mild schizophrenia, as the grassroots image of the enemy begins to take shape within society. Xenophobia, as part of the state ideology, fuels these sentiments.

Forest fires have plagued Russia since long before 2023, and every year, residents implore authorities to take more decisive action to combat fires. 

According to the Global Forest Watch organization, Russia has lost more trees to forest fires over the past two decades than any other country, amounting to 53 million hectares. In 2021, Russia accounted for over half of the world's burned forests. Globally, 9.3 million hectares of forest were destroyed that year (equivalent to the area of Portugal), with 58 percent of that destruction occurring in Russia, amounting to 5.4 million hectares.

In addition to climate change, the shortage of specialists and financial resources exacerbates the situation.

Alexey Yaroshenko, head of the forest department at Greenpeace Russia, believes that human activities are primarily responsible for landscape fires.

The main causes are fire-prone economic practices and general carelessness within the population. These issues are exacerbated by legislative provisions that compel business leaders to resort to burning. For instance, increased fines for non-compliance with fire safety requirements, including failure to clear land plots of dry grass, inadvertently encourage secret burning… It is impossible to protect settlements from fires without ensuring fire safety in the surrounding natural areas. Unfortunately, most regions lack the funds to establish firebreaks and mineralized strips around every rural settlement, let alone maintain them adequately.

Alexander Kryshen, the director of the Forest Institute at the Karelian Scientific Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences, highlighted the lack of infrastructure and immediate response capabilities in Russia. He compared Russia to neighboring Scandinavian countries, where forest fires are largely under control due to a dense road network and well-developed infrastructure that enables swift response.

Roman Kotelnikov, director of the Krasnoyarsk Center of Forest Pyrology, emphasized that it is the responsibility of foresters to combat fires, but there is currently a severe shortage of personnel in the industry. According to him, implementing social security measures and providing forestry workers with a decent salary would have a significant positive impact on forest protection.

The process of rebuilding the forestry sector in Russia began in the early 2000s. Initially, on May 17, 2000, the Federal Forestry Service was dissolved, and its responsibilities were transferred to the Ministry of Natural Resources. Then, in 2007, the new Forest Code eliminated the concept of forestry enterprises in Russia and abolished the position of foresters. As a result of substantial workforce reductions, the number of forestry workers decreased fivefold, from 160,000 to 32,000. The responsibility for forest protection was delegated to the regions, which often struggle with insufficient funding. Many experts believe that personnel shortages are contributing to the devastating yearly forest fires in the country.

“The negative trend in climate will continue at least until the 2060s, independent of our success in climate mitigation,” warned Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Metrological Organization. Climate change, and not arsonists imagined during the moral panic, in combination with the lack of resources, chaotic infrastructure, and individual negligence, adds to the severity and continuity of wildfires in Russia.

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