Why Russia Hasn’t Cracked Down on COVID-19
The country’s fragile political climate has repeatedly undermined its response to the pandemic.
By Joshua YaffaNovember 23, 2021
By the beginning of November, Russia had experienced an excess mortality of around eight hundred thousand people since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. According to calculations by Dmitry Kobak and Ariel Karlinsky, statisticians who have tracked global covid-related deaths since last year, Russia has now surpassed the world’s previous leader, the United States, in terms of total excess deaths, and trails only Peru and Bulgaria in terms of per-capita losses.
And the worst is not over: more people are currently dying of covid-19 in Russia than at any point in the pandemic. Officially, the number is more than twelve hundred per day, but Alexey Raksha, a demographer who was forced out of Russia’s state statistics agency last year, estimates that the figure is actually nearly four thousand. By the end of this year, the country’s death toll will likely reach more than a million.
The scale of the catastrophe is all the more remarkable given that Russia, as was announced with great fanfare back in the summer of 2020, was the first country in the world to roll out a state-approved covid vaccine. (I wrote about the development of that vaccine, Sputnik V, earlier this year.) But, in almost every other respect, the Russian state, an unabashedly autocratic machine, has opted not to use the full extent of its powers to control the pandemic.Read The New Yorker’s complete news coverage and analysis of the coronavirus pandemic.
Quarantine measures have been sporadic and short-lived. In late October, when cases in Moscow spiked to nearly ten thousand a day, the city went into a weeklong lockdown, but then opened back up with few restrictions. Although the Russian government is now considering a nationwide QR-code system, which would effectively require vaccination for many aspects of daily life, it spent many months declining the idea, shooting down the kind of mandates that have been in place in much of Europe for some time.
The result is an odd paradox, in which a state that poisons or jails opponents, and readily pushes through constitutional changes that could see Vladimir Putin rule for another twelve years—as was the case with a referendum held last summer—is unwilling to close restaurants or shopping centers. In the words of Vasily Vlassov, an epidemiologist and a former adviser to the World Health Organization, “Why does a Russian state that has proven itself so comfortable using force suddenly exhibit a certain delicateness?”
The answer reveals a great deal about the true power, and limitations, of the Putin system. Ekaterina Schulmann, a prominent political scientist in Moscow, has described today’s Russia as an “informational autocracy” that “relies most on the impression it is able to create.” The Kremlin can count on, say, F.S.B. henchmen to loyally carry out its edicts, but it lacks any real power to guarantee the same for millions of citizens, even those it considers a part of its electoral base. For Putin, if the majority of people are disinclined to follow quarantine measures or calls to be vaccinated, failing to force compliance only calls attention to a weakness that the architecture of the system was designed to mask in the first place. “This dynamic is especially dangerous in a time of constantly sinking popularity, when people have started to fall out of love with you,” Schulmann said. In the past several years, the Levada Center has found consistently falling levels of trust and job approval for Putin; last month, a survey showed that trust in the President was fifty-three per cent, the lowest such figure since 2012. “To enact harsh or unpopular measures and then see them ignored or sabotaged only deepens the feeling of crisis,” Schulmann told me. “The most dangerous thing of all is to give an order that won’t be followed.”
At the same time, the Russian public seems relatively unconcerned about the pandemic. Part of the reason is that covid deaths tend to happen at the hospital, out of sight, and so seem to be less a plague than a series of individual tragedies. Maria Volkenstein, the head of a market-research firm in Moscow, has overseen a focus group of Russians since the start of the pandemic, following their attitudes over time. She told me of a noticeable lack of collective experience. “There is not a feeling that we are living through a tragedy all together, but rather that each person is solving things for him or herself.”
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As an example, Volkenstein told me that, in many cases, people who have been vaccinated aren’t especially aggrieved by those who have falsified vaccine certificates, which, in the absence of a national policy, are required for certain categories of workers and for access to some civic spaces, such as theatres. “The pandemic is experienced as a kind of private matter,” she said.
Even on an individual level, it appears that covid-19 does not register as an urgent threat for many Russians. Levada Center surveys have shown that only around half of respondents are afraid of the virus. Greg Yudin, a prominent sociologist in Moscow, told me, “You might think that people are incorrectly judging the situation, and thus are not taking appropriate action.” But in today’s Russia, he said, things often work in reverse, with a person’s assessment of a situation stemming from a sense of powerlessness. He painted a picture of how the pandemic looks to many Russians: “You’re being lied to, there are no real statistics, this is all some game played by larger interests that are manipulating you—and you’re not able to do anything about it.” As such, Yudin said, “Thinking less about covid and caring more about your own personal problems comes to seem like the only pragmatic solution.” He paraphrased the approach: “Exhale and relax.”
Another telling data point from Levada Center polling came last spring, when fifty-eight per cent of those surveyed said that they personally feared arbitrary repressions from the state. (This was a larger percentage than those who said that they were worried about poverty or crime.) Yudin saw a connection between fears of repression and the lack of public outrage over Russia’s mounting death toll. “The message is that any kind of solidarity is dangerous,” Yudin said. “It almost doesn’t matter—for the government, against the government. If you didn’t get official sanction for something, best not to do it. Any attempts to think about problems other than your own are considered inopportune or perilous.”
Over the years, the Russian public has also come to assume that the government acts almost exclusively in its own self-interest. This dynamic is central to understanding Russia’s tragically slow vaccine rollout. Only around forty per cent of Russians are fully vaccinated, putting Russia in ninety-fifth place globally in terms of inoculation rates. (The U.S. is fifty-eighth.) The early rollout of Sputnik V centered on Russia’s victory in approving the world’s first covid-19 vaccine; reports on state television focussed not on the danger of covid-19 but on the triumph of Russian science, proudly showing shipments headed to Argentina and Hungary.
“This vaccine became a matter of national importance, and that ended up hurting both it and us,” Alexey Levinson, a well-known sociologist and senior researcher at the Levada Center, recently argued in Novaya Gazeta, a leading independent paper in Moscow. “For the majority of Russians, the question appeared as follows: we need to be vaccinated for them,” Levinson wrote, referring to Putin’s government. When the state’s interests are front and center, the Russian people have a clever way not so much to submit as to evade—a calculus of avoiding, deflecting, and pretending. Perhaps that explains the black market for QR codes used to certify vaccination status: earlier this month, the Russian paper Kommersant reported that one syndicate in Moscow had provided fake certificates of vaccination to five hundred thousand people.
In many instances, avoiding direct confrontation with an ineffectual, corrupt, and repressive system—while also seeking to outsmart it in small, private ways—is an entirely logical, even commendable, strategy. But a pandemic, like few other crises, requires trust and compliance on the part of the public; the state, meanwhile, must not merely project authority but perform with genuine competence. Russia has proved fatefully lacking on both fronts.
Earlier this month, Russian media reported on the case of dozens of paramedics in the Russian Far East who chose to resign rather than be vaccinated. As a result, the town of Obluchye was poised to lose emergency care entirely. In response, Artemy Okhotin, a doctor who works at the local hospital in Tarusa, a provincial town eighty-six miles from Moscow, wrote a column describing the bureaucratized, top-down world of Russian medicine. Officials, he wrote, “treat doctors like cannon fodder, not meant to discuss the bosses’ orders or meddle in their plans.” Medical professionals, like many other segments of society, have settled on a “certain consensus,” as Okhotin put it. “Everything heard on television or printed in orders and official recommendations is rubbish; we must seek the truth ourselves, passing it by word of mouth and never uttering it too loudly.”
In the course of the pandemic, doctors have had these suspicions confirmed yet again, as they saw how local officials undercounted covid deaths in their hospitals, and how the health ministry recommended ineffective medicines produced by powerful, state-connected interests. You can almost admire—or at least sympathize with the bravery of the paramedics in the Far East, Okhotin argued, even if, as it turns out, “they don’t believe the Kremlin’s clock at the exact minute when it happens to show the correct time.”
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Joshua Yaffa is a Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker and the author of “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and Compromise in Putin’s Russia.”More:MoscowCoronavirusRussia