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Moscow (AFP) July 9, 2012
The flash Russian flood that killed at least 171 in their sleep has sparked a slew of rumours that the authorities were playing down its scale in a new sign of a breakdown of trust with the public.
Russians have become grimly accustomed to their summers being shadowed by disasters under the rule of Vladimir Putin -- including the horrific summer 2010 forest fires and or Kursk nuclear submarine sinking of August 2000.
The catastrophic flooding came just days ahead of the first anniversary of the sinking of the Russian cruise ship Bulgaria on the Volga River that claimed 122 lives.
All these disasters were characterised by an extreme initial unwillingness by officials to part with information in the initial stages of the crisis. This usually sparked seemingly inevitable rumours of an even greater crisis.
"The problem is that the authorities have never properly informed the public about catastrophes and always issue information in small doses," Russia Journal editor Alexander Morozov said in reference to a Soviet-era practice to keep the public safe from bad news.
The tradition goes back to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986. It then took the Soviet Union three days to publish a report on its official news agency TASS that any accident had even taken place.
Wild rumours have accompanied torrential downpours in southern Krymsk of a much higher death toll and even a decision to flood the village to spare a much bigger population centre further down the dangerously swollen Neberdzhai River.
None of the deadly tragedies in Putin's 12 years as both president and prime minister saw him stumble as badly as when the heavily-armed Kursk submarine went down in 2000 with 118 seamen on board.
Putin stayed on vacation while the tragedy unfolded and refused early offers of foreign help. The nation's first glimpse of Putin -- tanned and sporting a summer shirt -- came three days later when all the lives seemed clearly lost.
"It sank," the KGB-spy famously deadpanned when pressed about sinking by CNN's Larry King that October.
Putin has since been at pains to respond more fittingly to the many emergencies and disasters that followed.
But mistrust still crept into state claims of being caught unawares by a Siberian dam collapse that killed 75 in August 2009. Some local media said officials knew the hydroelectric plant was in trouble for a least a decade.
The summer 2010 drought and flash fires saw entire populations of central Russia scramble for any news about what may be burning where and why.
And the floods in the little village of Krymsk and surrounding locales this weekend sparked immediate rumours of the authorities forcefully pumping water out of a reservoir to keep the strategic port city of Novorossiysk safe.
That concern was eventually channelled into general discontent about a lack of early warnings for the mostly elderly population that suffered and reliance on technology the authorities should have known would not work in a storm.
Officials sent out warnings on television after the region had lost electricity. Many of their mobile phone messages also could not be delivered either properly or in full -- a fact that left some officials red-faced Monday.
"Some initial information suggest that our warning system did not work at the required level," Investigative Committee deputy Yelena Leonenko was quoted as saying by the state's RIA Novosti news agency.
"But this is only our initial information. We cannot be sure yet."
Amid the recriminations, the head of the Krymsk district and local mayor were sacked by the regional governor on Monday.
Even media with longstanding Kremlin connections have been unusually scathing.
"The tragedy of Krymsk was a perfect demonstration of what slovenliness and hoping against hope brings about," the Izvestia daily remarked Monday.
Some analysts said this may come as a warning to Putin -- already bruised by protests that greeted his plans to return to the Kremlin this winter.
"The authorities had enough money to build themselves mansions but not the resources to lead water away flooding Krymsk," said sociologist and opposition movement supporter Dmitry Oreshkin.
"Now, even when Putin says the truth, the people doubt him."
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