Fire fears shut down Moscow university

August 28, 1998

Although the academic year begins on September 1, students of Russia's premier academic institution may not be allowed to enter their main building because it has breached more than 100 fire-safety regulations.

Last week, after a seemingly routine check of fire precautions at the Moscow Lomonosov State University, the State Fire Prevention Service ordered the closure of the skyscraper, which dominates the campus on the Sparrow Hills that overlooks the capital.

When it was built after the second world war, the building was hailed as a triumph of Soviet civil engineering and architecture. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, there have been many complaints about its deficiencies, particularly in the wings used as halls of residence.

The safety inspection revealed that the main tower block had no smoke alarms, that one-third of the fire hydrants lacked necessary couplings, and that poorly marked escape routes traverse stairways with walls clad in highly flammable materials.

The inevitable question is how long this condition has existed. In the Soviet period - or at least before 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev declared the policy of glasnost, criticism of such a prestige building was unthinkable. Some of the failings noted by the inspectors could have been due to recent neglect. However, financial pressures on higher education in the past seven years have meant that only the most urgent maintenance work has been done. The flammable cladding on the stairways almost certainly dates from Soviet times.

Significantly, the announcement of the closure appeared last week in the media together with reports of a fire that devastated the Moscow headquarters of the Russian electrical grid. Had the fire spread to the dispatcher unit, half of the country could have lost its electricity supply.

Last September, the fire prevention service identified more than 70 safety deficiencies in the electricity company's building, but no action was taken. Last week's fire, which appeared to have been caused by faulty wiring, may have given the fire safety inspectors the clout to shut the university.

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