Public vent fury at Putin as Russian fires rage on
LIDIA Luchkina stood in air thick with acrid smoke, her nose and mouth covered with a rag to keep out the smog's pollutants and vile stench.
Dressed in a ragged housecoat, she clutched a black handbag as she walked aimlessly around the porch of a Soviet-era dormitory in the Russian village of Beloomut.
"This is all I managed to take," Mrs Luchkina said. "Everything burned down, everything." She began to cry.
Mrs Luchkina is one of thousands of Russians who have lost their homes to the raging forest fires that continue to sweep the country, seven weeks into an unprecedented heatwave.
According to official figures, 54 people have died, but the true death toll will be much higher. In Moscow, health officials said 700 people a day were dying from the heat and smoke until the wind changed last Wednesday, granting a few days' reprieve.
As anger with the Kremlin's handling of the crisis grew, Russia's usually complacent press began exposing signs of a cover-up: doctors forbidden to diagnose heatstroke, bloggers having their websites shut down, and doubt that the official death toll is accurate, given the number of villages that have burned down.
The Kremlin's effort has been weak and slow in coming. Last Tuesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin climbed into a firefighting jet with television cameramen in tow to dump 24 tons of water on two wildfires near Beloomut. The spectacle was designed to appease an increasingly angry population.
Three different polls released last week for Vedomosti, Russia's leading business daily, found the prime minister's approval rating dropped in July to 47 per cent, down six points since January.
Critics have blamed the scale of the fires on a law signed by Mr Putin in 2006, while he was president, which devolved control of forests from the national government to regional authorities. It deprived Russia of a national response to crises like this one and cut the number of forest rangers by up to 75 per cent.