- - 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.”

If catastrophe does not hit Russia by the end of next week, it will mark the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union of two consecutive years with disaster-free Augusts.

But with floods that killed more than 170 people in southern Russia last month and the deaths of almost 100 people when a boat sank in the Volga River in July 2011, many Russians are wondering whether it is the seventh month that they now should fear.

“Will July be the new August?” said Ms. Loskova, the lawyer. “It’s too early to say, I guess.”

Some analysts have speculated that this month has brought a different type of disaster for Russia — in a blow to its global image for the incarcerations of three young women who performed an anti-Putin protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral in February.

“The Russian public may be spared this month from a tragedy that costs human lives,” author Dan Peleschuk wrote in an article for Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti. “But this August may also prove to be one for the record books — just in a different way.”

The women were sentenced Aug. 17 to two years behind bars by a Moscow court, and the ruling has sparked international outrage and demonstrations outside Russian embassies around the world.

“August 2012 is a Black August for the Russian judicial system,” Russian blogger Nikolai Agofonov wrote.

Moscow-based journalist Alexey Eremenko doubts that August is any “blacker” for Russia than the rest of the year.

“I don’t buy this Black August stuff at all,” he said. “August is just a very quiet month for news. And as a result, disasters tend to stand out more. Russia sees disaster all year round. Has anyone compiled lists for the other 11 months?”

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