Page last updated at 22:35 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008

Moscow Diary: Echo of disaster

The BBC's James Rodgers tells two different stories of planes and newspapers that bring memories of the wild Russia in the 1990s. His diary is published fortnightly.


The phone rang at 0500 that Sunday in September. I knew it would not be good news.

Wreckage of the Boeing 737-500 that crashed near Perm on 14 September 2008
Aeroflot-Nord's plane crashed near Perm with the loss of 88 lives

A flight from Moscow had crashed as it was preparing to land in Perm, in the Ural Mountains region. It sounded as though everyone on board had been killed.

Sometimes these first pieces of information in a breaking news story turn out to be wrong. Not this time.

I was in the BBC office a short time later watching pictures from the crash scene. No-one could have emerged alive from the jagged scraps of fuselage that had been a plane.

Travel around Russia is a real privilege of my job. The vast open spaces and big skies of the Urals and Siberia are unforgettable. But air and road trips do sometimes feel less than safe.

The crash in Perm had a special, unpleasant, resonance for me. I was there earlier this year, waiting for an evening flight back to Moscow. I had been working on a report ahead of March's presidential elections.

The afternoon I was due to leave, the snow started to fall. It continued. The wind grew stronger. The aircraft which was due to make the flight back to the capital just sat on the ground as the weather continued to worsen.

All I lost that morning was a couple of hours sleep. Others' lives would be darkened forever

This particular airline had been involved in one of the three air disasters which shocked Russia in the summer of 2006.

After waiting for some three hours, my colleague and I cashed in our tickets and rebooked for the next morning.

Nothing happened to that flight - nothing more than a serious delay. But it was hard not to suspect that the hold-up continued while the pilots decided whether or not they could risk it.

A few months later, that early morning in September, I sat in the office preparing my report. There was a glimpse of how families are destroyed by disasters.

Russian TV broadcast the names and dates of birth of every passenger. One of the dead shared the unusual surname of someone I had met earlier in the year. The victim was almost certainly a relative.

All I lost that morning was a couple of hours sleep. Others' lives would be darkened forever.

So I felt less than enthusiastic as I boarded a plane to Perm on Monday morning. I was going to the Urals for a story on oil. I hope to write more about that for the site later.

Of course, the flight was fine. The sadness and soul searching which had followed September's crash presumably led to a strict enforcement of safety rules.

It also suggested one unpleasant truth: the chaotic 1990s led to a lapse in those standards, and pilot training. Sometimes, the effects are still very strongly felt.


Two stories in Moscow this week remind me that we foreign correspondents based here have little to complain about.

Anna Politkovskaya (file image)
Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in Moscow in 2006

Yes, the bureaucracy can be stifling, but we are generally shielded from the risks which our Russian colleagues often so bravely run.

The trial of three men accused of involvement in the death of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya continues. Her supporters still despair of learning the real truth.

And the editor of Khimki Pravda - Khimki is a town on the outskirts of Moscow - remains in intensive care. Mikhail Beketov was beaten and left for dead by unknown assailants.

His colleagues are convinced he was attacked because of his work. His reporting had clearly upset some ruthless, and extremely violent, people.

If any Russian journalists are reading this, it would be interesting to hear their views on the two cases.

The people of Russia and their rulers may be at pains to point out that the 1990s was an exceptional period in this country's history - one which is long finished.

But look at these two different stories of planes and newspapers and you see something else, too: that wild decade continues to dominate Russia's new century in the way that no era has since the 1917 revolution which turned the country red.

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James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

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