MOSCOW — Managers of the Zenit Arena, a giant half-built stadium in St. Petersburg, received an official letter from the Ministry of Emergency Situations last week demanding that they immediately create shelter facilities for wartime. The stadium, under construction for the upcoming World Cup 2018, is located outside the city boundaries, the letter said, but in case of nuclear attack it is in the potential “zone of war destruction and radiation fallout.”
The last time Russians heard authorities talk like this about a potential mobilization for a nuclear strike was 20 years ago, and it all seemed highly improbable. Now, it appears, the Kremlin is not joking. Up to 40 million people participated in recent civil-defense exercises all across the country, learning about how to hide and where exactly to run to in case of a nuclear war.
But whether the motive behind this is self-defense, an implied threat to the West, a means to mobilize and control public opinion, or all of the above, is not entirely clear.
“These are the most serious tensions between Moscow and Washington in decades, said Sergei Markov, a member of the Civic Chamber, a Moscow-based state institution. “The war might begin even before the November elections in the U.S.”
“I personally plan to stock 200 cans of pork to be ready for a potential war crisis,” Markov told The Daily Beast in an interview, “and I advise everybody to do the same.”
State Duma Deputy Vadim Dengin said he hoped that there would be no war with United States. “I cannot understand why the West cannot just leave us in peace, let us be,“ the official said. “Americans should realize that it will be their children looking for shelters, too, if they are serious about attacking Russia.“
On Thursday, Vladimir Gladkov, a 19-year-old student, said he heard from a neighbor that the closest bomb shelter to his apartment building was Kitai Gorod metro station.
A thermonuclear bomb on Moscow?
Gladkov, who was born years after the Soviet Cold War with the United States was over, sounded frustrated: “Americans are not crazy to bomb us, I am not sure why our authorities want people to experience hysterical panic attacks. Maybe somebody feels annoyed that we feel too free and happy,” he suggested.
In Russia, where generations have suffered from wars or economic crises, panic takes over quickly as a kind of contagious epidemic and some respond with millennial obsessions.
During the impoverished years of the early 1990s, thousands of Russians moved to settlements in the Taiga seeking mystical salvation. Over 3,000 believers in Christ Vissarion still live in the Siberian woods waiting for the End of Light.
In 2012 many in Russia waited in fear for the Mayan Doomsday. People bought bottles of vodka, matches, and candles to survive the dark times.
There is an expression that every Russian knows well: “To save for a black day.” And there are so many black days in Russian history—not just days, but years of devastation.
“My life is just one everlasting black day,” says Baba Zoya, an old woman living alone in the village of Bezvodnoye in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The 82-year-old pensioner finds winters especially hard to survive.
“On some cold winter days when every joint, every bone hurts, I have no energy to go out and buy a piece of bread,” she told The Daily Beast. Her only comforts are her old dog and a falling-apart armchair outside of her old dark wood isba, a Russian traditional log house. She remembers World War II only too well—dozens of Bezvodnoye men left one day and never came back. “I wish, my dear, that you live your life without such awful memories,” she said.
Last week Perm, a city of more than 1 million people in the Ural region, prepared shelters “for the employees who would continue to work during wartime,” the state Russia channel reported.
Experts from the Ministry of Emergency Situations inspected one of the shelters to make sure there is enough space, medicine, and minimal provision; the daily norm of water was three liters per person, the channel reported.
Television shows devoted to the civil-defense drills explained to Russians that there was no reason to panic, that during wartime authorities would make sure that there was no radiation on public transport, that every person would have at least 300 grams of bread per day.
From early morning on Thursday, activists received boxes with baby food, plastic bags full of diapers and used warm clothes at Russia Behind Bars NGO, which had been supporting Russian convicts for the last eight years. Were there bomb shelters for the population of Russia’s prisons?
“No chance to survive in prison,” the head of the NGO, Olga Romanova, told The Daily Beast. “Russian prisoners will be doomed, everybody in jail realizes that.”
For her part, Romanova said she knew exactly where she would go and how many minutes it would take for NATO missiles to reach Moscow.
“If they bomb Moscow, I might make it to Taganka metro station, it takes me about 5 minutes to run from my house,” Romanova told The Daily Beast. “My husband and I have already discussed and decided that we would only bring a couple of water bottles and our passports.”