People joke with me about all kinds of things in Russia – from amusement park rides to Soviet automobiles to airplanes – being unsafe, so there’s definitely a stereotype floating around about cheaply-made Russian machinery and a lack of safety standards. Not that that’s not well-founded: Aeroflot, which I consider perfectly safe to fly nowadays, had to make significant improvements to its safety and quality standards before being allowed to join SkyTeam in 2006.

But as I was discussing with a friend earlier this week, after news of another fatal riverboat crash (the second this summer), the problem is no longer equipment or standards; not really. The common thread in these crashes – and several high-profile airline crashes that made my first flight on a Russian carrier in 2006 one of the most stressful events of my life – is human error caused by incompetence, lack of preparation, and disregard for safety regulations.

I read a great piece in Forbes Russia (R) on the Kazan riverboat disaster that illustrates this point. The author was at the scene of the crash; he starts out with a description of the rescue equipment – high-quality lifejackets on dead bodies and inflatable life rafts empty but totally intact – and the history of Russia’s very well developed code of maritime law. “The rules were not thought up in the calm ministerial offices of Moscow’s corruptioneers, but written through the centuries with the blood of thousands of dead sailors.” The law, he says, is as perfect as the equipment onboard. He then excoriates the crew and the entire river-cruise industry for an appalling willingness to cut corners, and the two boats that were in the vicinity of the emergency for not saving the passengers of the Bulgaria.

There are several tropes that can be invoked in explaining this kind of carelessness: the Fatalistic Russian Spiritual Mindset (“why try to protect ourselves? If tragedy befalls us, God has willed it”); the Backward Russian Peasant Mindset (“If they give us a steel plow, we will break the steel plow so we can continue using the iron plow we are accustomed to”); the Soviet Disregard for the Value of Human Life (…well, ok, they did ship millions of their own citizens to labor camps). The simpler explanation is that contemporary Russian society provides no incentive for following the rules.

So you can call the riverboat owners’ actions podlost, I guess, or “irresponsibility and greed,” but I kind of see blaming the riverboat industry as the moral equivalent of blaming rising rates of obesity in the U.S. on a lack of individual willpower. It doesn’t make sense, and it makes us out to be something worse than what we are. The problem with following the rules in Russia is clearly systemic:

1. Russia’s calcified bureaucracy makes everyday interaction with the system so onerous that people go under the table to avoid it, and busies its bureaucrats with so much paperwork that they can’t do anything meaningful with their time. Russian bureaucratic inefficiency and lack of compassion goes back at least as far as Gogol.

2. Deep mistrust of the very institutions of society was fostered by the Soviets and intensified by the brutality of the social and economic collapse and complete loss of most social safety nets that were part and parcel of the breakup of the Soviet Union. This engendered the perception that accidents like this happen not because the rules are being broken, but because the rules aren’t designed to keep us safe in the first place. If the rules aren’t there to keep us safe, it’s every man for himself.

3. Everyone higher up is corrupt. This is actually true, but aside from its truth, this widely-held belief buttresses the idea – nay, the reality – that the only way to get ahead is to cheat, and it creates a rift in society that amplifies and perpetuates the belief outlined in #2 above.

4. On a larger scale, the Russian delusion that the West is just out to pick on them allows Russia to shrug its collective shoulders when the rest of the developed world tells them that something they’re doing is completely unacceptable. This seems to stem from a combination of leftover Cold War mentality, a robust culture of xenophobia, and wounded pride at the loss of superpower status.

5. Relatedly, foreign businesses pulling out of Russia don’t seem to have significant punitive effect, as long as Russia still derives her financial might from an extractive natural resource economy and feels free to manipulate the market through illegal relationships between government and business.

How do you fix corruption? Change the risk/reward balance. How do you do that? Well, by addressing all five of these factors, and probably some others, too. But how do you do that? No one seems to know.

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