Russia’s Perfect Storm…of Human Error

Posted July 16th, 2011 at 8:25 am (UTC+0)

Relatives of Faina Valiullina, a victim of cruise ship sinking, cry during her funeral outside Kazan, on the Volga River, in central Russia, Tuesday, July 12, 2011. Russia is observing a day of mourning for victims of a cruise vessel that sank while crowded with holiday-makers on July 10. Divers are still searching for 15 missing bodies. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

The rain was light. The winds were moderate, And the waves were only one meter high.

Russia’s shipping tragedy last week was a perfect storm — of human error.

The Volga riverboat ‘Bulgaria’ was designed to carry 140 people, but it was loaded with 208. Most of the 59 children seem to have been waved on board without tickets. Almost two thirds had the same birth date: Dec. 30, 1999.

Launched shortly after Stalin died and last overhauled in 1980, the 56-year-old ‘Bulgaria’ was no longer licensed to carry passengers.

But, oddly, on June 15, a Russian river inspector signed off on its seaworthiness.

One of its two engines, on the port side, was broken. The ship listed to starboard, possibly because all the diesel fuel had been pumped into starboard tanks. At the dock Sunday morning, some passengers and crew told the captain, Alexander Ostrovsky, that the ‘Bulgaria’ should not sail.

Out on the Volga, it was a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon for passengers in a vessel constructed before air conditioning. To cool off, passengers and crew opened all the portholes in the low slung river boat.

Once in the middle of the Volga, Europe’s largest river, the captain decided to turn his listing boat. A wave caught it broadside.

With party music still blasting from loudspeakers, the ‘Bulgaria’ sank in three minutes. For the next 90 minutes, dozens of survivors floundered in a diesel slick, three kilometers from shore.

Although there were cases of heroism, the captains of two passing cargo boats are now under investigation for not stopping to rescue drowning passengers. Of the passengers, 80 percent of the men, 32 percent of the children, and 26 percent of the women survived. The captain, his wife, and their children drowned.

This weekend, cranes are to start lifting the cruise ship off the river bottom.

The dark tragedy of the ‘Bulgaria,’ with 129 dead or missing, evokes the kind of tale I would hear from the upper reaches of the Congo when I worked in Africa in the 1980s, or of the Amazon when I worked in South America in the 1990s.

Unfortunately, it is now emblematic of transport in post-Soviet Russia.

Twenty years ago, when communism collapsed, state owned planes and boats were up for grabs. Their new owners used them, until they sank or crashed.

Of the 120 cruise ships now plying the rivers of European Russia, none was launched after 1985, the twilight years of the Soviet Union. The majority, 70 ships, were launched over 40 years ago.

Last year, ‘Novaya Gazeta’ newspaper reported that 2,300 sunken boats and barges now dot the bottom of the Volga. About half were scuttled by their owners since 2007.

When Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev demanded that “old rust tubs” no longer ply the nation’s waters, Vladimir Varfolomeyev, an editor at Ekho Moskvy radio station, retorted in his blog: “The old tub is our entire state.”

“Poorly controlled, despite the notorious power vertical, it’s thoroughly rotten and therefore allows for operation of these leaky washtubs,” he wrote.

Leaky washtubs on the waters. Flying coffins in the skies.

An AN-24 passenger plane, owned by the Angara Airlines, floats after a hard landing on Siberia's Ob river on July 11, 2011. The aging Antonov had 37 people onboard. Seven were killed, and 31 survived. REUTERS/

On Monday, while divers were fishing bodies out of the ‘Bulgaria,’, an aging Soviet plane flying over Siberia developed engine trouble. At 6,000 meters altitude, the left engine of an Antonov-24 operated by Angara Airlines, burst into flames. The pilot managed to bring it down for a hard belly landing on the Ob River. Seven people died, but 31 survived.

Indeed, Russians now live in a state of aviation segregation.

American Boeings or European Airbuses ply most of Russia’s international routes, or routes within European Russia.

But most flights in Siberia and the Far East are handled with old Soviet-made Antonovs, Yaks and some Tupolevs. For these far flung communities, the alternative can literally be: paddle your canoe.

Air company managers seem to fly the planes until they crash – and then blame pilot error for crashes. It is simplest and cheapest to blame the dead.

So far about 10 percent of the Antonov 24s have been lost in crashes since production stopped in 1979.

Rotting planes and sinking boats are part of a wider collapse of manufacturing that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, Russia, the world’s largest country, no longer makes the river boats or passenger jets needed to span its vast distances.

Follow James Brooke on Twitter: @VOA_Moscow

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

18 responses to “Russia’s Perfect Storm…of Human Error”

  1. Gennady says:

    Excellent file of tragedies happened due to mismanagement of those who are up in the top of the ”vertical”.
    The Kremlin keeps on playing its “political” games deciding who will be the next president … of the empty country. While the President is busy with his Twitter account, Russians under the “tandem” are simply dying out.
    Perhaps, somebody will look around in what mess the “duet” have turned the country. Tragically, but maybe the worst the better.
    Neither President nor PM never ever have admitted their personal responsibilities in any tragedies, their inaptitude to govern economic and social development.
    With depopulation of the country going on, infrastructure falling apart
    they are even prepared for many more new tragedies to come with ready-made words of “condolences” and days of national mourning being announced, with denouncing somebody’s greed,
    but their own inaptitude to govern, but the environment they have created.
    The “visionaries” judge what has already happened, but have no mental picture of what might have happen in the nearest future.
    All technical tragedies are easily preventable in a country with competent, professional leadership. In countries where ministers and prime ministers are people of honor, they as a rule usually resign. But not in the land. Oh, no.

  2. Sergey says:

    Thank you for the next helping of the criticism.
    You read the russian newspapers @ watch the russian TV + Internet very attentively.

    We were not able to save the poor people.
    Just as you are not in a hurry to save your own country.

    The world biggest rotting plane and the world biggest sinking boat now is the US economics with its debts and deficits and the threat of hyperinflation.
    Instead of that: Stalin, communism… Why nothing about Ivan the Terrible?

    Remember 02.08.11.

    • free bird says:

      It seems some are not happy Russia is the largest country in the world with lots of natural resources that make it the target for greedy companies to scrutinize Russia’s everyday life so attentively.
      Recommended reading – ‘The Big Brown Bear’ …

      • sinelga says:

        it’s being scrutinized what HAS to be scrutinized, no one attacks Russian people, culture or you personally

    • Gennady says:

      you should be honest with your employer,
      for your latest nonsensical post (s)he shouldn’t pay you full price.
      You had nothing to say on the subject.
      Your reference to Ivan the Terrible is absolutely fabulous.
      – it’s a cock and bull tale,
      – it’s clotted nonsense,
      – it’s neither where the elder is, nor in Kiev where uncle lives.
      It is wise to threaten somebody over the Internet with the date.
      Then I have enough time to say goodbye.
      One more kidnapped, shot dead or throat cut with broken bottle in lobby of house.
      Maybe for a change – my house will go off, or bones smashed.
      This is the attitude to any critic in Putin’s perfect “democratic” Russia.

  3. John Newcomb says:

    Some Russians complained when Transparency International put Russia near the globally-worst in corruption, but seeing these boat and plane tragedies seems to lend support to the TI finding. Then when we hear about massive police corruption, well, it seems that Russians have a big job to do to try to reduce corrupt practices. Many Russians might feel it is an impossible task, but even if Russia could climb towards the bottom of the countries of Europe – going from its present TI index of 2.1/10, up to Italy’s 3.9/10, that would suggest that corruption is at least being taken seriously.

  4. Konstantin says:

    Cause Ivan the Terrible took Kazan, took Novgorod, some people say he even took the Shpak, but he didn’t wreck the boat. Sorry. And why the American author, living in Russia, must constantly write about the debt crisis in America? Oh, I got it, it’s our new version of famous old response to America: “But you hang down your black”.

    And I don’t know what happens with our country. But I shouldn’t, our government should. But they’re incompetent, the only say about the “vertical”. Let me see this “vertical”, it’s just a porridge, not “vertical”.

    Our country had about 200 mln people not a long before the I world war. We’ve been dying out so long… and it proceeds. Who can stop the extinction?

  5. sarath says:


  6. Stanley says:

    Hmm, and what kind of response critics of US democracy get? Would you Gennady, like to enlighten us? Start with spa treatments at secret CIA prisons and Guantanomo 5 star extended stay.
    What happen on Volga River is a tragedy. There is no need to blame executive power at highest level for it. A shabby two bit vessel operator/owner and corrupt inspector should answer and face the repercussions for their dealings. However, if you so inclined on blaming Presidents for catastrophes and negligence, Gennady, you can start with Bush Sr. and Katrina, as well as M. Gorbachev, a real perpetrator for this Volga disaster.

  7. […] above: Tourist boat “Bulgaria” floats along the Volga river outside Russian city of Samara in this August 24, 2010 file photo. Built in Czechoslovakia in 1955, the Bulgaria is one of about 100 Russian riverboats with more than 55 years of service. REUTERS/Andrey Kuzmichev – (source) […]

  8. Pyotr says:

    When a sheep falls from a cliff into the river the flock moves on happy it’s happened with somebody else, dogs bark, the master mourns losing his profit; when the master is cutting a sheep’s neck the flock is staring at the scene in a state of denial, the dogs wagging their tales to earn a part. 80% of Russians are cattle, 15% are dogs. There is an owner and a handful of his frieds. And woe to those 5% who happened to be born human in the land of byped cattle.

  9. Say what? says:

    If there were 37 people on board the airplane and 7 were killed(says in caption under picture), then why did it say that 31 people survived? 31+7= 38.

  10. Brian says:

    Sad but True. Keep inspiring change, learning and evolution. Things just may get better people.

  11. Jimbo says:

    It seems that some body blaimed Mr.Putin and Mr.Medvedeb for the dead of people from the ill fated Bulgaria on the Volga and the criple Antonov 24 on the Ob river. Yes, it must be heartbreaking for those whose the love one has gone for ever and never comeback. But who to blaime for the dead of thousands or even milions during the Indochina war, as well as in the current war in Iraq and Afganistan? Who must be punished for making the life of the poor rural farmers in Indochina under the daily threats from the unexploded bombs?

  12. Phil O'Brien says:

    Why did two thirds of them have the same birth date (Dec. 30 1999) were they illegal immigrants or something ? Or am I missing something?

  13. I remember Jimmy Carter and STAGFLATION very, very well. This time around is gonna’ be way, way worse. All the morons who voted for Zero because they wanted something for nothing are going to wind up with even less than before. I hope they all starve to death. Get rid of the “money for nothings” and maybe the rest of us will be able to eek out a marginal subsistance living on whatever scraps of the economy remain.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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