MOKHOVOYE, Russia — As wafts of black smoke crept towards this small village outside Moscow, Anna Ivleva grabbed her favorite Orthodox icon and ventured outside.
The fires that have engulfed thousands of acres of Russian land were moving closer. Ivleva joined 20 other older women for a solemn two hour-long procession up and down the village’s single street. All they could do was pray.
“In all my life, I’ve never seen such a hell,” Ivleva, 71, said on Wednesday, one week after Mokhovoye, a village of 360 people, burned to the ground. “There was wind, fire, people running everywhere. We could see nothing.”
Nearly one month into a record-breaking heat wave, western Russia is burning. The official death toll from the flames — both forest fires and steaming peat bogs that lie underground — stands at 50. Thousands have been left homeless. The toll is probably much higher, but officials have not released statistics on the number who have suffered health damage from the debilitating smog that now covers Moscow and its environs.
Ivleva was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape as Mokhovoye, 85 miles southeast of Moscow, burned. She and her husband, 73-year-old Vladimir, hopped on his motorbike and sped away. “The asphalt was burning on either side of us,” Ivleva said. The tails of her housecoat went up in flames.
Nine people died in the fire and its aftermath, and five others are presumed dead. Two apartment buildings survived the flames, while its more popular wooden houses burned. All that remains now is charred land, car carcasses and the stench of burning trees and metal.
Amidst the tears and sadness, there is also intense anger.
“It’s a mess,” said Vladimir Ivlev, sitting in a small dirty room inside a dormitory for deaf children in the nearby town of Beloomut, where Mokhovoye’s villagers have been temporarily resettled. “At 10 a.m. we could see the smoke and asked the mayor to call for air support. Instead, Moscow gave us shit.”
The government insists it is pouring all its resources into fighting the fires. Sergei Shoigu, the popular emergencies minister, said this week that 155,000 people — including firefighters, troops and volunteers — had been marshaled to battle the flames.
Yet during a 12-hour trip to visit some of the worst affected regions, this reporter saw no federal presence. In Beloomut, tired local firefighters lounged alongside dilapidated trucks, looking overwhelmed.
“It was scary,” said Nikolai, 39, who declined to give his last name, describing Saturday’s flames. “We could do nothing. The wind was so strong.”
The anger is going right to the top.
During a visit last week to Verkhnyaya Vereya, in another badly hit region, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was accosted by a crowd of angry villagers who lost their homes to the flames. It’s a rare scene in Russia, where the myth of an all-powerful Putin holds strong.
“You’re doing nothing! Everything is burning! You shouldn’t make promises,” shouts one angry woman as several others wave fingers in his face. “Your administration works very badly — it should be tried in a court,” yells another.
Putin is leading the country’s public campaign to appear on top of the matter, but so far it’s a losing battle. None of the country’s major polling agencies, which consistently report overwhelmingly positive feelings towards the country’s leadership, has released analyses of Russians’ reaction to the government response. Even the country’s normally complacent media is up in arms. On Wednesday, a presenter for radio station Citi-FM said: “They say we have one of the biggest and best armies in the world. Where are they now?”
“Such an administration should be hanged,” Ivlev said. “They’re lying. They say they’ll help but they don’t. We all could have lived.”
The government has promised to hand out thousands of dollars in compensation to each victim, and to build them new homes by November. The residents of Mokhovoye have so far received 10,000 rubles ($335) each.
Few at the dormitory in Beloomut believe the rest will come through. “We don’t believe it,” Ivlev said. “Putin said it but we don’t believe it.”
Lidia Luchkina, 60, spoke through tears.
“Everything burned down, everything we had. This is all I managed to take,” she said, holding up a purse. “Putin said he would give every family a house, that he would personally take care of it. We hope he won’t cheat us.”
Luchkina, like many of Mokhovoye’s residents, had lived in the village for nearly her entire life. Just a three-hour drive from traffic-filled, neon-lit Moscow, the region looks like another world. Cows wade in the river, while goats and chickens waddle on the streets.
Ivlev’s eyes shine for a brief moment as he tells how the village came together to mark his 50th anniversary of moving there. “They gave us 4,000 rubles ($135), 100 grams of Champagne and chocolate.”
Now everything is gone. People here tend to be deeply religious, and on Wednesday afternoon an Orthodox priest visited the dormitory in Beloomut to provide comfort.
“Of course, [the fire] happened because of our sins,” Father Vladimir said. “We have people who don’t go to church, who don’t treat the forests with respect. This is the punishment. God sees everything.”
In Mokhovoye, an eerie silence covered the village’s charred grounds. There were no signs of life, aside from one man who had come to recover some possessions from one of the buildings that remained standing. When asked if he felt lucky to have survived, he said: “Yes. As lucky as a dead man.”