Russian minister, Putin confidante dies in cliff-top tragedy

The Bell

Minister of Emergency Situations Yevgeny Zinichev died Wednesday in the Krasnoyarsk region of Eastern Siberia. The ministry said that Zinichev — also a military general — hit a rock when he jumped into a river to try and rescue a renowned film director. But there is an alternative – less heroic – version of events. Zinichev is a former deputy head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and known to be close to Putin.

  • Zinichev’s death was announced Wednesday afternoon. At first, the Emergency Situations Ministry said Zinichev had died in an inter-departmental training exercise. Later, the ministry released more details. There were apparently training exercises in the Krasnoyarsk Region that day, but Zinichev’s death was not linked to them in any way. Instead, the tragedy occured when the minister accompanied film director Alexander Melnik on a helicopter trip to the Kitabo-Oron waterfall in the Putorana nature reserve. Melnik, a prize-winning Russian director, has long co-operated with the ministry. He was working on a documentary about the Arctic and the Northern Sea Passage.
  • Zinichev traveled with the director to assess the 27-meter high Kitabo-Oron waterfall as a possible filming location. According to the ministry’s version of events, the 63-year-old director slipped on wet rocks and fell into the water. Zinichev, 55, leapt to his aid but hit a stone ledge and suffered a head injury.
  • But there is a second version of events, as described by independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta. According to the newspaper’s source, when Zinichev and Melnik approached the waterfall, one of them lost his footing and grabbed at the other. Both men lost their balance on the slippery rocks and fell together from the height of an eight-story building. Novaya Gazeta noted it is not recommended to climb near the waterfall without specialist equipment.
  • Both men were airlifted to hospital in Norilsk, but neither recovered from their injuries. President Vladimir Putin described Zinichev’s death as an “irreplaceable loss” and posthumously made him a Hero of Russia. “The minister died trying to save others,” said the Ministry for Emergency Situations.
  • This heroic narrative has been questioned by many. Journalist and commentator Oleg Kashin said the false heroic narrative was a “test of public loyalty… [and showed] a willingness to swallow Kremlin lies.”
  • Doubts were further fuelled by the fact that it was Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state-owned television channel RT, who was the first to report the heroic version of the story (a film crew from the channel apparently witnessed the tragedy). After her, a familiar chorus of pro-Kremlin celebrities joined in.

Who was Zinichev?

Zinichev’s official biography is somewhat patchy. For example, nothing is known of his upbringing. We only know he was born in Leningrad in 1966. But in 2006, Zinichev began accompanying Putin on all work trips. At the time, Russian state news agencies described him as an FSB officer. However, a source close to the Kremlin told media outlet RBC that Zinichev was an adjutant to the head of state.

Zinichev was briefly appointed governor of Kaliningrad Region in 2016 (his 70-day tenure was a record for the shortest stay in such an office). He left the post ‘for family reasons’. During his time as governor, he was noted for a single media briefing that lasted just 49 seconds and in which he answered only two questions.

After that, Zinichev worked for the FSB, and was then transferred to become the head of the Emergency Situations Ministry. That year — 2018 — was a difficult time for the ministry. Two months earlier, 60 people, including 37 children, had died in a fire at a mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. The blaze exposed a mass of problems in Russia’s fire services and the ministry. In his new role, Zinichev immediately began recruiting more staff, created a new safety department within the ministry and reversed a ban on planned inspections of small and medium businesses. “Under Zinichev order started to return,” an employee of one of the regional divisions of the ministry told Kommersant.

Why the world should сare: The head of the Emergency Situations Ministry is not the biggest political job in Russia and its ministers rarely make important announcements. But human lives depend on the ministry’s work. Under Zinichev, there were no serious complaints about its functioning. It is not yet clear who will replace Zinichev, nor how the department might change under new leadership.

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