Friday, January 3rd, 2014
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Russian Sky Explosion Maximum Power

In Chelyabinsk the men are tough. So tough there is a meme among Russians depicting the tough men from Chelyabinsk acting out their audacious toughness: shouldering a dead horse through a peat bog, using a chainsaw to shave, having sex with a giant scorpion. When the meteor 60-feet-wide and weighing more than the Eiffel Tower shot towards Chelyabinsk at 41,000 miles-per-hour and burst into a fireball brighter than the sun, the tough men of Chelyabinsk looked up at the sky and cursed quietly. When the fireball exploded 14 miles above Chelyabinsk it did so with a force 30 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The subsequent shockwave shattered a million square feet of glass in the city, the heat a momentary summer on a frigid February morn. The men in Chelyabinsk shrugged and carried on with their day.

The dashcams were proof. The dashcams recorded the whole damn thing. A streaking star in the pre-dawn light that begins innocently enough, shimmering like something you’d wish upon, then turns missile, expanding and burning into, yes, it’s a sun—it’s a new exploding sun in the sky and now it’s, oh boy, now a small piece of it is careening towards the horizon line, towards earth, towards impact. Aleksandr Ivanov, a tough man in Chelyabinsk, mutters a Russian word that sounds to an English ear very much like, "Unbelievable." Then he drives on. His dashcam video was one of the most popular. There were plenty of others. There was a whole bit on the "Daily Show" about it.

Dmitry Simanovsky, a Russian writer and translator, hipped me to the "tough men from Chelyabinsk" meme, and called the meteorite event "the best ‘life imitating art’ act ever I think."

I found Simanovsky and a slew of other savvy Russian media-types through my friend Trina, who is from New Jersey and practices law in Moscow. I wanted to know about how the Chelyabinsk meteor was remembered there—there being Russia, generally, but Moscow and St. Petersburg, mainly. From the capitals, Chelyabinsk "feels marginally closer than, say, Wisconsin," one of them told me, even though it's a city of 1.1 million. I had some vague notion, looking back on the year, that the meteor had been lost to more recent out-of-the-blue, otherworldly events, such as the new Beyoncé album. The meteor felt very distant, geographically and chronologically, and I wondered if for Russians it might be the same. I wondered if the dashcams had anything to do with that; that if by documenting the meteor so thoroughly we had, in the process, demythologized it, or hadn’t even given it a chance to become a myth. Also, the existence of video cameras on the dashboards of millions of Russians almost immediately became more Internet-interesting than a many ton spacerock the size of a semi truck exploding terrifically over a rather large Russian city. Besides the men in Chelyabinsk, did other Russians shrug at the meteor after cursing quietly? Oh yes. Yes they did.

The TV journalist Andrey Loshak wrote me to say that "interest in the meteorite was much stronger among foreigners, and for me personally it was interesting to see, in the context of the meteor, how they (foreigners) see us. That is, due to the meteor, I saw Russians from an outsider's view and, well, I learned something about Americans, too. You (Americans) are, of course, remarkably meticulous and inquisitive. You (Americans) immediately started to enquire as to why we drive with dashcams, and also marveled at how cold-blooded Russians are—a UFO is flying right above a person, yet he continues on driving to work or clearing the snow as if nothing happened. In general, the meteor story aroused/excited America much more than it did Russia, alas. I kept waiting for a convincing take (on the event) to appear linking it to with Slavik Chebarkulsko but never came across one. That and linking it to another story dear to my heart—the Kryshtym dwarf."

Andrey Miroshnichenko, another journalist, emailed to say that "it seems the meteor explosion has taken its proper place in history—it is neither forgotten, nor fresh in mind… at that place of public memory where they deserve to be." Which was something like: oh, that thing. "But we have had a lot to remember," Miroshnichenko added. It's true. In 2013 Russia made alcohol advertising, homosexual propaganda, and insulting religious believers illegal—that's just stuff the country banned. There are Olympics coming up, protests in Ukraine, and a political prisoner suddenly free. A reminder of the meteor came last month when a popular television host named Arkady Mamontov said the Chelyabinsk event was a warning from the Lord God that gay marriage is an abomination. He also said that "Western sodomites are trying to sneak into Russia and mobilize a protest movement among our own perverts."

Miroshnichenko, like Loshak, was delighted at our (American) fascination with Russian dashcams.

It "was the subject of pride for Russians. And… is the significant part of the ‘meteorite legacy’ in public memory," he wrote. (Miroshinchenko also wrote an essay, which he just finished translating, titled "Mediarite Over Russia, or Sick of the Internet" about how the spread of misinformation in the hours after the streaking space rock was a result of our modern state of media, reacting "to events happening on the Internet rather than in Chelyabinsk.") "For Russians," he concluded, "having the evidence of unusual events recorded via dash cam is very ordinary stuff. Probably, the value of secret in people's perception is just going down… Probably, the abundance of dash cams makes us, Russians, less curious or impressionable. By the way, this conclusion may fit to all contemporary people—thanks to the omnipresence of media, people now have too many routine evidences of what was a thrilling miracle in the previous days."

On June 30, 1908, just after 7 a.m., the sky over Siberia split open and out poured fire. Another meteor, at least ten times as large and powerful as Chelyabinsk’s, was exploding. A witness described it 22 years later:

The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn't bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few metres. I lost my senses for a moment, but then my wife ran out and led me to the house. After that such noise came, as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing, the earth shook, and when I was on the ground, I pressed my head down, fearing rocks would smash it. When the sky opened up, hot wind raced between the houses, like from cannons, which left traces in the ground like pathways, and it damaged some crops.

The Tunguska Event felled some 80 million trees across 830 square miles. Its primary blast zone left the impression of a colossal butterfly with a 43 mile wingspan. At night, for days afterward, the skies over Asia and Europe glowed as light passed through ice particles, which had formed while so much meteoric turbulence rippled through the upper atmosphere.

Crazy shit happens with relative consistency in Russia and the bar for incredible is incredibly high. Its people are ready to be underwhelmed by disaster. Gleb Borisov, a film critic and bartender, put it best, calling this "a sort of apocalyptic consciousness" Russians carry with them. A supermarket roof collapses and the response is "I knew something like that would happen, what did you expect?" he said. A dam breaks. "Well, how long did you really think it would stand?" Russians live "mentally prepared for the fact that tomorrow may only be worse: If we don’t drown, then we’ll burn." There is a "deeply bred indifference." Compared to Americans, all Russians are men of Chelyabinsk.

Which is why it is so perfect that the dashcams became the bigger story. Everyday life in Russia is even more extraordinary than a ball of fire come from outer space exploding upon the horizon. "Yeah, sure, some object fell from the sky," Borisov said, but, he countered, the ultimate question is if "this story will be found somewhere near the video of that Russian tank crossing the highway at full speed."




Ryan Bradley is a senior editor at Fortune.

2 Comments / Post A Comment

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

All media analysis aside, the dash cam footage became a very important scientific record of the event. The dash cam footage can by synced with high-altitude telemetric tracking data to reconstruct not only the path of the meteorite but also its temperature, etc.

Incidentally, most of the people injured by the meteorite were standing at their windows watching the lights in the sky. When the shockwave hit, their windows shattered and they were cut badly. So: if this happens to your city, stay away from the window.

TimChuma (#9,158)

There were also a whole lot of Russian swear words that went to air in English speaking countries with no one noticing. "What is that? Some kind of c— meteor?" the most notable. It was not even shouted, just mentioned in passing.

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