On Tuesday, thousands of people gathered in front of the regional administration building in the Siberian city of Kemerovo amid heavy police presence. The angry crowd demanded answers about what led to the fire and deaths of many, including more than 40 children, when Zimnyaya Vishnya shopping centre burned down on March 25.
“Resignation!” “Tell us the truth!” “Corruption!” the crowd chanted.
A video of the demonstration, which had more than a million views on YouTube, showed Kemerovo region deputy governor Vladimir Chernov standing in front of a crowd shouting insults at him.
“I’m appointed, not elected. I can tell you, up to now, how many victims there are: 64,” he said. The crowd booed in response.
According to Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, local people reject the official number that has been announced. They believe that the number of victims could be anywhere between 150 and 400 and that the authorities are hiding bodies. An email address they set up for reports of dead or missing people received information about 85 victims, the newspaper reported.
“Her last words were: ‘Mum, I love you, I’m dying,'” said a woman in the same video who told the crowd she lost her daughter, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in the fire. She said she begged firemen and police to open the door to a cinema hall where her family was stuck, but they didn’t do anything.
“Murderers!” the crowd chanted as she finished her story.
Local media reported that during film screenings, the cinema employees would lock doors from the outside to prevent people without a ticket from sneaking in. On that Sunday afternoon, when the fire broke out, the cinema was full of parents and children who had come to see children’s films. According to the official numbers, at least 41 children died.
The governor of Kemerovskaya region, Aman Tuleyev, who has occupied the position since 1997 and has been perceived to rule the region with a heavy hand, did not show up at the square.
Tuleyev, instead, attended a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Kemerovo on Tuesday. After apologising to the president for what happened, Tuleyev said that there were only 200 people at the square who were an “opposition force” and who were not relatives of the victims.
In a horribly servile speech, Kemerovo governor Tuleyev lies to Putin that there are only 200 people at the central square protest and says that his task now is to prevent the opposition from capitalizing on the tragedy.https://t.co/mNPbpdUmk6 via @youtube
— Leonid Ragozin (@leonidragozin) March 27, 2018
His statements caused a stir on social media, with many comments pointing out that Tuleyev did not apologise to the people of Kemerovo.
In extensive reports broadcast on state TV channels, the Russian president appeared to be scolding city and regional officials who nervously scrambled to give explanations to him about what had happened. Putin later declared March 28 an official national day of mourning. Talk shows on state TV also accused protesters of politicising the tragedy and trying to use it for political gains.
Kemerovo vice governor Aleksey Tsivilev was seen in another video telling a man in the crowd, “You are doing PR for yourself!” The man responded that he had lost his whole family in the fire.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, Russians across the country lay flowers at improvised memorials for the fire victims. In Moscow, a few thousand people gathered at Pushkinskaya Square, some chanting against the government and demanding Putin’s resignation.
“This [tragedy] is a usual story. Nothing surprising for Russia, for countries on such level,” 38-year-old Dennis Korotkov, told Al Jazeera at the square. “Things in Kemerovo region […] are a bit worse. If a governor [in any region] stays 15-20 years, then it means all is bad there.”
There were quite a few young people among those who had gathered. A group of four university students said that they had come to honour the memory of the victims and to demand resignations and a fair investigation.
“Emotion and sadness should be used to [encourage effort] to fix this situation,” said 21-year-old Vanya who did not give his family name. “We can do something so that this doesn’t just go by, as it happened with Hronnaya Loshad or even the Kursk submarine, where those who were responsible were not punished.”
In 2000 – just months after Putin started his first term as president – an explosion on a submarine, the Kursk, killed 118 crew in the Barents Sea. In 2009, a fire broke out in Hronnaya Loshad nightclub in the city of Perm (1,400km east of Moscow) killing more than 150 people. In 2010, an explosion in a mine in Kemerovo region took the lives of 91 miners.
The Russian president promised Kemerovo people that there will be a thorough investigation and those responsible for the tragedy will be held accountable.