Russia’s Coronavirus Crackdown

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2020. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)
The Kremlin continues to downplay the pandemic, censor information, and punish those who report the truth.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A s the coronavirus spread across the world in the early months of the year, Russia stood out for its low number of cases. The Kremlin insisted that there was no outbreak and that the few confirmed cases were of people who had arrived from other countries and were being strictly quarantined. Anyone who had been in contact with them was identified and also placed in isolation. Pundits on state TV told people there was nothing to worry about and took undisguised pleasure in discussing the havoc being caused in the EU and the United States.

All that changed in the last week of March, when Vladimir Putin visited the elite hospital, in the Kommunarka district just outside Moscow, that is now dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients. He put on a full hazmat suit to enter the ward but also, bizarrely, toured the hospital in sportswear together with a doctor, Denis Protsenko, and even shook his hand. A few days later, Protsenko was diagnosed with the coronavirus, and Putin started working remotely, but subsequently, in early April, he met visitors and shook their hands. Putin and the Russian population in general appeared uninformed about asymptomatic transmission and coronavirus symptoms.

The Kremlin admitted that the coronavirus was taking hold, with about half of the cases in Russia estimated to be spread by people already inside the country. Putin addressed the nation twice, first announcing a “non-working week,” and then extending it to April 30. He cancelled a nationwide referendum that was scheduled for April 22 that presumably would have resulted in approval of constitutional amendments enabling him to remain in office until 2036. The election was likely one of the reasons why the coronavirus numbers were initially played down and reported as pneumonia or seasonal respiratory infections. Meanwhile, Russia sent transport planes full of medical supplies to Italy, the United States, and Serbia with great fanfare.

By leaving specific decisions to regional administrations, Putin tried to avoid blame for introducing strict lockdown measures. Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin immediately instructed everyone to stay home and suggested that people might have to use a QR-code for permission to go outdoors, although that has not yet been implemented. Dozens of regions followed suit, but problems arose when some required people to stand in queues outside local government buildings to obtain passes to leave their homes. Ramzan Kadyrov, the hardline leader of Chechnya, ordered the closure of the republic to all vehicles from outside, causing Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to express concern about overreach. On the streets of Grozny, police were seen armed with sticks, allegedly to beat people who violated quarantine.

Russia’s Duma passed new federal laws giving the Kremlin the right to introduce a nationwide state of emergency and providing for lengthy prison sentences for people who violate quarantine or “spread fake news about the coronavirus” — in other words, for those who publish anything other than the official numbers. Local courts have fined people for discussing rumors about coronavirus cases on social media, and government prosecutors have begun criminal proceedings under the new law.

The first person to face the criminal charge of “spreading fake news about the coronavirus” was Anna Shushpanova, 39, an opposition activist in St. Petersburg and a member of the liberal Yabloko party. On the social network VKontakte, in a section for news from the town of Sestroretsk outside St. Petersburg, she posted that a man who tested positive for the coronavirus went home from a clinic on public transport and that the head of the clinic’s department who sent him home resigned. Police came to search Shushpanova’s home on April 3. She and her sister were brought in for questioning. Andrei Romanov, Shushpanova’s source for the story about the incident at the clinic, is also being prosecuted.

Mayor Sobyanin himself admitted that there was no way to know the real extent of the epidemic in in Russia’s regions, while St. Petersburg governor Alexander Beglov said that cases in Russia’s second city would soon overtake Moscow’s numbers, which, according to official sources, are in the thousands. Notwithstanding, authorities have attempted to hinder the Alliance of Doctors, led by the outspoken Anastasia Vasilieva, which had drawn attention to dire conditions in Russian hospitals even before the pandemic. Vasilieva was first summoned for questioning by police for tweeting videos of herself talking about how the coronavirus numbers were being downplayed. She was then physically attacked by police, arrested, and fined for delivering medical supplies in Novgorod Oblast.

This didn’t stop Vasilieva and her colleagues, who traveled to the town of Reutov in Moscow Oblast in early April to deliver supplies to a hospital there. They were stopped by security guards at the gates. Police officers looked on as a member of the hospital’s medical staff drove up to the entrance and accepted the supplies from Vasilieva. Moscow Oblast has the second-highest rate of coronavirus infections in Russia, after the city of Moscow, according to official data.

The Alliance of Doctors regularly receives appeals for more supplies. In late March, it received this email, which it later published:

Hello, I work in a clinical cardiological center in Perm. I am a nurse anesthesiologist. Our clinic has been turned into a hospital for patients with community-acquired pneumonia and they even told us directly that it’s coronavirus. They didn’t give us any protection. For 30 staff in intensive care we have ten respirators with carbon filters, a roll of gauze [with which] to sew masks and sterile gowns, and they told us we’d also have anti-HIV suits. The whole administration will be brought back from holidays. We’re afraid to work in these conditions.

In Moscow, Vsevolod Shukhray, an employee of the N. N. Burdenko Neurosurgery Institute, was summoned for questioning by authorities after telling the U.S.-funded Current Time TV channel about a shortage of respirator masks and ultraviolet-light air purifiers in his department. He added that employees were told to check their temperatures with one mercury thermometer between them.

Another source of irritation for the Kremlin is opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his network of regional campaign offices. Activists on Navalny’s team are not afraid to speak about what they’ve seen. Alexander Chernikov, Navalny’s coordinator in Kaliningrad, tweeted videos of himself in the hospital, where he went after suspecting he had the virus. He lay in a corridor for a day with a high temperature before being seen to. “It’s very sad. No one gives a damn about you,” he commented, coughing. “No one comes and asks whether I’m alive or not.” Eventually he did receive medical attention and began to recover.

Daniil Markelov, Navalny’s coordinator in Krasnoyarsk, tells me that coronavirus cases in the region were being “minimized” as they were everywhere else in Russia. “The Russian government doesn’t want to spread panic ahead of Putin’s changes” to the constitution, he writes. “He’s the one who creates the image of stability, and the whole corrupt structure of Russia is dependent on him. The government understands that with the level of medicine we have in the country we can’t withstand this test without colossal losses.”

In Volgograd, regional authorities have been providing no financial support for sick and self-isolating people. Yevgeny Kochegin, Navalny’s coordinator there, replied to my questions about the situation. While all the media were talking about the need for medical supplies, “the administration of Volgograd Oblast isn’t even shy about buying expensive luxury cars for officials,” he writes. “Even before the first officially confirmed case of coronavirus in Volgograd, I know there were infected people in the region, and even two who died from pneumonia.”

“A friend of mine recently called an ambulance (she had a temperature, a cough and shortness of breath),” writes Oleg Yemelyanov, Navalny’s coordinator in Kazan, Tatarstan. “The doctors just told her to calm down, said you don’t have the coronavirus, just a cold. Of course, they didn’t give her any tests — I think there are also problems with testing.”

Navalny’s coordinator in Kemerovo, Stas Kalinichenko, replied in English to my questions: “I don’t think that hospitals are ready for the pandemic, because overall condition of our hospitals is awful. And it can’t become normal in one hour-long. . . . I’m sure that the number of infected people is lies. Our authorities simply don’t bother diagnosticating coronavirus. And they still haven’t established the process of diagnosticating.” In the midst of the pandemic another employee of Navalny’s Kemerovo office, Alexei Sushchenko, was jailed ahead of trial on a charge of possession of marijuana. His “confession” was broadcast on RT. Cases of police bringing drug charges against critics of the Kremlin are common. Investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was charged last year, but the charges were dropped after a public outcry.

Alexander Zykov, Navalny’s coordinator in Kostroma, writes: “The worst thing is the attitude of the authorities themselves toward the epidemic, and even though Governor [Sergei] Sitnikov himself brought in a regime of heightened preparedness, he violates it for the sake of PR. For example, the governor organized an event where he gave medals to old people, and they weren’t wearing masks or anything. This is absolute cynicism.” Zykov also says that it has been virtually impossible in the region to obtain a coronavirus test.

Like other countries, Russia is also struggling with severe economic problems caused by the pandemic. These are exacerbated by Putin’s rejection of an OPEC+ agreement to reduce oil production. As a result of his decision, oil prices plummeted below $30 a barrel for a time, and the rouble hit a low of 80 to the U.S. dollar from about 60 before the crisis. Although admitting that the oil prices are too low for Russia’s comfort, Putin has made no progress on cutting a deal with the Saudis. The West should lift sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin has suggested, to no avail. Factories, oil refineries, and construction projects, including construction of the Vostochny space center, continue in operation with little or no regard for social distancing. Putin has asked companies to pay employees who are not working, while the businesses themselves ask how that will be possible.

The prognosis for Russia is not good. An already abysmal human-rights situation looks set to deteriorate further, with state surveillance being stepped up and regional authorities able to enforce their own rules. The coronavirus fatality rate is likely to be high due to a crumbling health-care system, pressure to continue working, and censorship of information about what’s happening and what’s needed. Economic challenges could lead to political instability; Putin’s usual response to unrest is to increase repressions. Regional leaders such as Sergei Sobyanin may try to position themselves as potential successors to Putin, but that would hardly mean a significant change in course. The main risk to opposition critics such as Anastasia Vasilieva and Alexei Navalny still comes from the government itself, not the virus.

Orbis Business Intelligence assisted with the research for this article.

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