The tragic fires in a Dagestani and a Siberian school - which killed dozens of children - may seem at first to have little to do with the noticeable lack of protest in Russia over the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
But there is a connection, and it is an important one.
Why, considering the great public opposition to the war, were the protests limited mainly to extremist right-wing groups and some ardent Communists? Why was a broader swathe of the Russian population not represented?
In Western countries, including members of the "coalition of the willing," hundreds of thousands protested, representing almost all points of the political spectrum. Yet, in Russia, the anti-war bombast of the mass media notwithstanding, only a handful of people emerged. What is the explanation for this?
The reason is a simple one: Most Russians are primarily concerned with their own living conditions, not with events far away that have no immediate impact upon their lives. They are concerned first and foremost with their paychecks, the medical care they receive, the quality of the schools their children attend and their hopes for the future.
Russia's social infrastructure has been crumbling for a decade, and little thought has been put into its revival.
Talks about a "2003 problem" - this year is the year of Russia's peak foreign-debt payment, even while much civilian infrastructure is in atrocious shape - may be exaggerated. But there is little doubt that the country's roads, public facilities, utilities and other essential systems are in danger of breaking down.
This does not bode well for the country's future, even in the short term. And why should Russians go out to protest destruction in a foreign country, when so much of what surrounds them in their daily lives is already in a state of utter disrepair?
The government has by and large ignored the problem, perhaps hoping it would just go away. This is part of a general apathy toward social problems. We see evidence of this every day - the police officer checking documents of those who look like they might be from "down south" while ignoring children drinking beer in plain sight; the fire inspector who shows up not to verify a building's safety, but to extract a bribe; the bureaucrat who lines his wallet instead of doing his job.
This is an attitude of extreme selfishness, of "getting what's coming to me" while watching the rest of society fall apart. It is Louis XIV's statement, "apres moi, le deluge," written large across the face of society.
With such an attitude from authorities, is it any wonder that tragedies like the school fires, not to mention others like heating failures in the dead of Russian winter, are an all-too-common occurrence? It is surprising that these tragedies do not occur more often, considering the complacency with which the government seems to greet them.
The Russian economy may have boomed over the past few years, but there is little indication this has benefited anyone beyond the key shareholders in Yukos and Gazprom. Certainly, it has not made its way down to the doctors and teachers in state-run institutions, who are still paid a pittance - a crime, considering the importance of their work to the country.
Money is not being invested in Russia's future, and who knows what will happen when world oil prices fall and the country is no longer glutted with petrochemicals money?
Children are the future. And, if what befell the schoolchildren of Dagestan and Siberia recently is any indication of the government's inclination to make life safe for them, the state must care very little.