- - Thursday, August 23, 2012

Moscow — With the end of August looming, Russians are counting down the days to what has been, so far, a rare exception to the unwritten rule that the eighth month of the year invariably brings tragedy and upheaval to the largest country on Earth.

“This month is nicknamed ‘Black August’ for a good reason,” said Tatiana Loskova, a lawyer in Moscow. “We’ve come to expect anything at this time of year, from terrorist attacks to political crisis.”

A string of August turmoil first struck Russia in 1991, when an attempted coup by communist hard-liners opposed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the loss of Moscow’s superpower status.

In the subsequent years, August has brought disaster on a regular basis, including the sudden collapse of a Ponzi investment scheme in 1994 that cost many Russians their life savings and the government’s 1998 default on its foreign and domestic debt, which slashed the value of the ruble by two-thirds.

The Second Chechen War, a conflict that would take the lives of as many as 70,000 soldiers, militants and civilians, began in August 1999. Increasingly brutal fighting led to two plane bombings and a suicide attack in Moscow by Chechen rebels in subsequent Augusts.

At the end of the 1990s, there was no letup in Russia’s August misery. In 2000, the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, taking the lives of all 118 sailors on board. During other Augusts, Russians endured plane crashes, a deadly flood, devastating wildfires, a dam collapse and Russia’s five-day war with neighboring Georgia.

Russia’s worst terrorist atrocity – the 2004 Beslan school siege, which ended with the deaths of nearly 400 people, including children – just missed Black August infamy, as Chechen separatists struck Sept. 1.

“Everyone in Russia, including me, has been wondering why August sees so many catastrophes and so on,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Moscow-based Carnegie Center think tank. “And I still haven’t got a clue.”

One of the more popular theories is that, with the country’s leaders on vacation in August, subordinates are less willing to make quick decisions about security issues and vital time is lost while they seek the approval of higher-ups.

For example, President Vladimir Putin was on vacation in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi when the Kursk submarine went down, and the decision to call in foreign specialists was made too late to save the crew.

Ms. Shevtsova dismisses that explanation, which she says wrongly suggests that the country’s leaders are any better equipped than their underlings to deal with disaster.

“I don’t connect any of these tragedies and upheavals with the fact that the authorities are on vacation,” she said. “In fact, August reflects Russia’s fatalism and its reliance on luck, as well as the dependence on personal power that makes it vulnerable.”

The grim catalog of human misery in August has inspired suggestions among more superstitious Russians that the month might be cursed.

But Allan Chumak, a psychic healer who achieved national fame during the final chaotic days of the Soviet Union, offers no mystical explanation as to why August has proved so unlucky for modern Russia.

“Everything is connected, though,” he said. “All our feelings and emotions can have an effect on the world around us, even on climatic conditions.”

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