WASHINGTON – Almost every August in Russia has a repeatable diagnosis: cataclysm.
August 1991 – the crackdown of the USSR. August 1998 – the financial crisis. August 2000 – the atomic submarine Kursk sank,killing the entire crew. And,finally,August 2005 – seven people trapped in a mini-submarine on the Pacific floor. But their August cataclysm had a happy ending. They were rescued Sunday.
The Russian Embassy here hasn't answered the phone for more than a week. Maybe August 2005 is coming into its own? Or maybe it's time to raise concerns about whether the current August in Russia is going to be different from past ones,remembered for their tragic events,upheavals and catastrophes.
“Russia's top people are away,and the state is functioning badly. If you want to rob the state,August is a wonderful time,” said Andres Aslund,director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin started his summer vacation Wednesday,the present August in Russia didn't have a promising beginning.
The seven men who were rescued Sunday from the Pacific floor spent three days in total darkness and absolute coldness. It was a different story five years ago when the atomic submarine Kursk,after several blasts on board,sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea,killing more than 100 seamen aboard.
This time,the Russian government asked for international support in the rescue operation. But in 2000,Putin drew criticism for failing to interrupt his vacation during the Kursk crisis.
When Larry King asked Putin on his CNN show what happened to the Kursk,Putin,replied,“It sunk,” according to the CNN transcript of the Sept. 8,2000,interview.
“Thanks God,this time Putin has hit upon an idea of asking for international assistance,” said Father Igor of St. John's Russian Orthodox Church here.
That very August 2000 is also remembered for a fire that overtook one of the highest freestanding constructions in Eurasia,the Ostankino television and radio tower in Moscow. Three people died,and there was serious structural damage.
“Physical infrastructure is very worn out. Electrical facilities are all in poor shape,” said Ariel Cohen,a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“There's a general atmosphere of negligence and less discipline,because most of the senior government administration is on vacation,” Cohen added.
A chain of tragic Augusts started in 1991,when the Soviet republics attempted to sign a new union treaty that would make them independent in a federation controlled by a common president. More radical reformers,however,seized a chance to depose President Mikhail Gorbachev,who was vacationing in Crimea. They organized coup d’état,which lead to the final disintegration of the Soviet republics.
Nikolas Gvosdev,a senior fellow in strategic studies at the Nixon Center,said there is a tendency for crisis in August,because it is a month when a lot of people,including state leaders,are on vacation.
“Leaders are on vacations,and if you are going to do something,you can do it in August,” Gvosdev said,“Putin was on vacation in August. Gorbachev was on vacation as well.”
In August 1998 a financial crisis struck. The government devalued the ruble,defaulting on some debts,and introduced a 90-day moratorium on foreign debt payments.
Earlier that year,in the wake of the financial downturn,the government's reserves were virtually empty. There was no money to pay back the loans that had been taken to meet basic state obligations,nor was there enough money to pay wages and pensions to the impoverished population.
“In August,somebody might try to do a trick,typically in audit transitions,because Central Bank's credit control is eased,” Aslund said.
As the question of simple August coincidences arose,David Holloway,the Raymond A. Spruance Professor in International History at Stanford University,said that Russia's August disasters are mainly a coincidence.
“There are,after all,other major cataclysms that happened during other months,” he said,citing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in April 1986 and the deadly Moscow theater siege in October and November 2002.
“I don’t see a single pattern here motivated by political considerations,” Holloway said,“But there might be some link to the time of year for different events – naval exercises in August,or the August 1991 putsch undertaken when Gorbachev was out of Moscow.”
The church,however,rejects such coincidences,Father Igor said,explaining that everything that happens in a state has a concrete political motivation.
Peter Baker,a Washington Post reporter who recently left a Moscow bureau posting,said in an e-mail interview that he always knew not to take vacation in August,“because you never knew what would happen.”
“In the West,that may seem like superstition,but in Russia it seemed all too real,” said Baker,the co-author of a new book on Russia called “Kremlin Rising.”
Referring to Sunday's mini-submarine rescue,Baker said,“It is still the beginning of the month,and there’s still a lot of August to go yet.”