MOSCOW — Lyudmila Rolshchikova was walking down the sidewalk near her home when a chunk of ice the size of a desktop fell seven stories, bounced off a porch roof and hit her in the head, killing her instantly.
In itself, the death of the 52-year-old cleaning woman was not unusual--falling icicles claim an estimated 10 victims a year in Moscow. What is rare is that her family has gone to court to pin liability for her death on the workers who were supposed to remove the ice before it fell.
If the family defies precedent and succeeds in proving negligence, the workers could be sent to jail and Rolshchikova's survivors could receive as much as $23,000 in compensation--a huge award by the standards of Russian justice.
"It is very difficult to win a case like this," Tatiana Dmitriyeva, a family friend and law student who has doggedly pursued the matter, said, expressing a view with which experts agree. "People are not held accountable. No one has ever been put in prison or paid damages in such a case."
For most Russians, such hazards as falling icicles, contaminated tap water and trolley buses that give off lethal electric shocks are an accepted part of daily life. From poisonous bootleg vodka to deadly Moscow traffic, Russians live with a wide range of avoidable risks that most Americans would not tolerate.
Accidents are the second-leading cause of death in Russia--a country where the life expectancy of men is an especially dire 59 years. In 1995, government statistics show, a Russian was nearly five times more likely to die in an accident than an American.
Russia's fledgling legal liability and insurance systems have done little to create financial incentives for the prevention of accidents, the cleanup of pollution or the protection of workers, experts say.
Liability insurance is virtually nonexistent, and the resolution of disputes, if it happens, is handled through personal negotiation. In the rare cases when a court orders a defendant to pay damages for a death or injury, the judgments are usually so small that paying compensation costs less than taking steps to ensure the same thing can't happen again.
Many Russians simply trust in fate to protect them from all manner of everyday hazards: erratic drivers, unmarked holes in streets and sidewalks, crumbling buildings, tainted food products, polluted air and water, dangerous workplaces and unsafe public transportation.
Russian fatalism toward life's accidents is often summed up in a favorite proverb: "If you are doomed to die from fire, you won't be drowned." Few drivers buy auto insurance--but many keep religious icons on their dashboards, figuring it can't hurt and it might help.
But beyond Russia's fatalistic streak, most Russians feel there is little they can do to change things, large or small.
Decades of Soviet dictatorship and, before that, centuries of brutal czarist autocracy taught Russians not to speak out. Many had high hopes for their country after the fall of communism, but the tainted democracy that has taken root in the past five years has left them deeply disappointed. With corruption rampant and the government unable to pay its bills, most Russians have lost faith in politicians, the government or the courts to solve their problems.
A Disillusioned People
"People are disillusioned," said anthropologist Anton Ivanov, a research fellow at the Center for the Study and Prevention of Conflict. "They don't think they can change anything through concrete action."
Many Russians turn instead to alcohol--and that is becoming increasingly dangerous. The volume of toxic moonshine vodka sold in Russia is on the rise, and bootleggers are becoming increasingly skilled at bottling their products to look legitimate.
On June 3 in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, police reported that 22 people died and 12 others were hospitalized over a four-day period from drinking a batch of illegal vodka. The liquor was made with poisonous methyl alcohol instead of ethyl alcohol. It tasted like rubber, consumers reported, but that didn't prevent dozens from drinking it.
The high rate of accidental deaths in Russia--including alcohol poisoning--is a major factor in the decline of the nation's population, a presidential commission reported last month. Deaths in Russia now exceed births by 600,000 annually, the commission said. Of boys who are 16 today, only 54% will live to see age 60--a rate worse than 100 years ago.
In Moscow, hazards that contribute to Russia's high death rate are not hard to see. On the congested streets of the city, it is every man for himself. Rattletrap Russian cars belch thick smoke as they zip along, often ignoring painted lanes. Motorists rarely slow to let pedestrians cross a road--and honk at those who do. It is common to see old women scurrying to dodge traffic and pedestrians standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway with cars whizzing by in both directions as they wait to cross.