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Sunday, July 15, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.
Internet inspires activism, cleanup aid after Russian flood
By ELLEN BARRY
The New York Times
KRYMSK, Russia — The catastrophic flooding of the city of Krymsk, Russia, has unfolded in an unusually public way over the past week, largely thanks to the power of the Internet. One result has been widespread questioning of the state's response. Another was a motley stream of young volunteers — officials say more than 2,000 — who have arrived along with trucks full of private donations in a city that was not expecting them.
This activism heralds a jarring change in a country that, throughout the Soviet period, approached disaster response as a military matter and was able to insist on secrecy.
When a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl in 1986, for instance, Soviet citizens heard nothing at all about it for three days, and foreign governments did not know until a radioactive cloud was detected over Sweden.
Activists began arriving in Krymsk a day after a wave more than 20 feet high engulfed low-lying neighborhoods and left 172 people dead, according to the official count. Bloggers and Web-based news services broadcast the fury of local people, who learned that the regional authorities had at least three hours' warning but made no effort to wake them.
They also published anti-government rumors circulating in the public — that the wave had been intentionally released from nearby reservoirs, for instance, or that compensation was being paid only to those who signed a form saying they had received a warning. Officials fell back on a classic Soviet tactic, accusing shadowy outsiders of coming into Krymsk to "destabilize the situation."
"Those who are spreading provocative rumors around the city — they are real enemies," said the region's governor, Alexander Tkachev.
Still, the volunteers from Moscow and other large cities, some in dreadlocks and yoga pants, have been allowed to stay. One reason may be an unusual pact they made, to refrain from political messages for the length of the cleanup.
Opposition activists took off their white ribbons, and — aside from one shipment of aid that came plastered with United Russia stickers — pro-Kremlin groups are not displaying flags or logos.
"Either you are here to work or not," said Robert Shlegel, 27, a United Russia deputy and former leader of Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group. "I don't see what political questions there can be if a woman needs help drying out a bed or unloading a truck."
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