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Russian jet crash kills hockey team in stinging national tragedy

Russians are reeling from the news of yet another deadly plane crash in a summer that’s been littered with tragic airline accidents.

Wednesday’s accident involved a small Yak-42 jet that blew up during take-off in the Volga city of Yaroslavl, killing at least 45 people, including most members of a Russian hockey team.

Russian news reports said the plane was carrying the whole roster of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, one of Russia’s leading ice hockey teams that includes a Canadian coach, a Swedish goalie, players from Germany, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and several former National Hockey League stars among its members.

They were on their way to the Belarussian capital of Minsk to play a season opening game for the newly created Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) when the aircraft reportedly plunged off the runway, hit a fence, and burst into flames.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who was due to take part in a political forum that opens in Yaroslavl Thursday, told journalists “there has been a terrible tragedy,” and said he will visit the accident site immediately upon his arrival to honor the memory of the dead.

“Locomotiv was a wonderful international team, a leader in Russian hockey, they were all such talented people. It’s such a blow,” says Igor Larin, a reporter for the popular Moscow daily Sport Express. “Russia is a hockey-playing country, and Yaroslavl was the heart and soul of Russian hockey.”

It’s the latest in a string of high-profile aviation disasters that have called into question the basic safety of Russian airways, and deeply stung Russian national pride.

Just over a year ago, a Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-154 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and nearly 100 leading Polish dignitaries crashed on landing near the central Russian city of Smolensk, stirring up tensions in Polish-Russian relations that have yet to subside.

A number of other summer crashes involving aging Soviet aircraft have rattled Russian nerves and led the government to order most Tu-134 and An-24 planes, the workhorses of Russian regional aviation, to be grounded early next year. The Yak-42, a late Soviet design, was not on the banned list and is considered to be a generally reliable aircraft.

Experts say that even when the shock of the tragedy has worn off, the toll on Russians’ already frayed national pride is likely to be steep.

“Accidents like this have a profoundly depressing effect on everyone,” says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the Center for Political Assessment, an independent Moscow think tank.

“It erodes belief in the system, implants doubt that infrastructure is functioning properly, generates anxieties,” he says. “When planes fall from the sky because they cannot fly, it hits everybody in a deep way.”

“Tragedies like this increase public tensions and discontent with the existing state of things,” says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, and independent Moscow-based public opinion agency.

Mr. Grazhdankin notes that the last years of the USSR were marked by a chain of tragic accidents – Chernobyl, the sinking of the Admiral Nakhimov cruise liner, and a massive train crash in the republic of Bashkortistan – that darkened the public mood and eroded confidence in the Soviet system.

“It’s hard to judge the influence of this string of terrible events on political confidence, and much will depend on the reaction of Russian leaders,” he says. “Taken separately, each such event can be forgotten, but when they happen one after another like this, then the impression remains and grows into a vague public discontent. If it doesn’t end, it might erupt in very unexpected ways.”

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