A Glimpse Of Future Now

On Sunday afternoon, during a cruise in a reservoir adjoining the Volga River, a ship called the Bulgaria capsized and sank, killing more than 125 people, including dozens of children who got trapped below deck in a playroom. As passing ships picked up survivors in the water and news of the disaster spread, the nation fell into mourning, and some observers brought up the sinking of the Titanic in an effort to express the scale of Russia’s grief. But the comparison fails for one important reason. The Bulgaria was not a masterpiece of engineering on its maiden voyage, as the Titanic had been in 1912. The cruise ship was 56 years old when it sank on Sunday, becoming another example of the rotting Soviet-era equipment and infrastructure — barely kept up yet still in use — that have made such disasters so familiar in Russia today.

Wait, there’s more.

What Medvedev failed to mention was the scope of Russia’s broader infrastructural decay, an issue that arises after every major industrial catastrophe, but quickly tends to fade again. In the past two years alone, Russia has seen a huge methane blast at a coal mine (about 90 dead), a turbine explosion at its largest hydro-electric dam (75 dead), another Antonov plane crash in Siberia (11 dead), as well as a handful of major blackouts, gas blowups and the countless deaths caused every year by the dire state of Russia’s roads.
All these accidents are normally blamed on human error or misconduct, which allows the government to save face by firing or jailing the guilty parties. But many businessmen have started lobbying for the government to pay attention to the country’s deeper infrastructural needs (instead of splurging on vanity projects like the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi). One of them is Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire who owns a fifth of Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline. The sinking of the Bulgaria, he says, is just the latest symptom of Russia’s skewed priorities. “The industrial base of the country is still mostly a product of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev,” the three longest-serving leaders of the Soviet Union, “and that was not such high quality in the first place,” Lebedev tells TIME. “If you scratch the surface of the city of Moscow for example … everything is very old.”

Ok Stiftung, bringing late news to the show, again — we can hear it now. Would you be surprised if we mentioned to you that the Washington Metro is already collapsing and failing? That if a foreign power imposed this technological terror subway on any American city it would be an act of war? Difficult to gauge the full magnitude of suckage. Suffice to say, some paunchy wonks in wrinkled khakis were sighing very loudly while ostentatiously looking at their watches. So you see the danger.

How nice to know then that the D.C. Metro’s “plan” is to pay almost a billion dollars to a Japanese company for new subway cars (from ‘Unsuckdcmetro’ site). Metro’s following tradition. The original 1977 cars were from Italy. Still, in time of near economic paralysis one would think somewhere, somehow an American company could be found to build subway cars. Maybe the next set will be from Russia.

When the Metro first opened it was like going to EPCOT Center. Bechtel made these amazing tunnels. No coins, using futuristic farecards. Carpeted cars. Blinking lights signaling an arriving train. Sure, the Peanut Farmer was around but Metro proved America built the future. The debut system covered a few stations only. It’s still comparatively tiny in terms of overall track mileage. The City’s might be grittier but it can take you almost anywhere. (WASP Georgetown, for example, refused a station, afraid ‘undesirable elements’ might emerge like a CoD re-spawn point from Hell. And how well-heeled McLean, VA howled in protest a new extension might disturb their outsourced-wealth).

Sad to see the system literally fall apart before our eyes. It’s not uncommon for breakdowns to strand commuters for 40 minutes. Americans also apparently can’t keep an escalator in operation. A couple of stations are deep. The Vladgrad subway is even deeper than the Metro because of the water table. Somehow, the above reports notwithstanding, that subway in our memory is more reliable than 21st century American.