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Russia Has Its Own (Very Russian) Way of Dealing with COVID

Unmasked Moscow residents publicly congregate in a local shopping district. (Photo: Tuvia Tenebom)
‘What’s the point of hiding from it?’

Moscow — Once upon a time, quite a few months ago, there was a plague in Russia and everything was locked down, but now nobody knows if it’s still around, and the lockdown is over.

No, it’s not that they really don’t know. Of course they know, and that’s why museums are closed in Moscow at the moment.

But theaters, shopping centers, cafés, and restaurants are open. Why are they open? Well, you can’t keep the Bolshoi, a world-famous Russian establishment, closed; and you can’t say no to good Russian food. Some of the best food on the planet, after all, is in Moscow.

The casual, often fatalist approach to COVID-19 here is a world away from its treatment in the West, where people spend their days fearful that they could die today, tomorrow, or next week.

I don’t know if Russia’s approach is any better or worse, only that the everyday life in Russia can tempt you to believe the pandemic is not even happening. Briefly, anyway.

Personally, I like to have my dinner in a restaurant. “If that’s what you like,” a Russian man tells me when I suggest we meet for dinner, “you’d better dress up with special clothes.”

What kind of clothes?

“Heavy clothes.”

Why?

“You could end up on the floor in the middle of the meal.”

What?

“Restaurants in Moscow must close at 11. Yes. A couple of days ago, a few minutes after 11, police entered a restaurant, guns drawn, and ordered everybody on the floor. And while the people were lying on the dirty floor, the police gave them tickets.”

Well, I’m not sure if this really happened, but it’s a nice, imaginative Russian story.

I came to Russia from Germany, and what a different world these two are! Before I came here, for example, I bought a designer mask, a top bestseller in an upscale fashion store in Hamburg. It’s a “Pali” mask, short for “Palestinian,” and it looks like a piece of a Palestinian headdress. Many upscale Germans identify with Palestinians, because they’re anti-Israel, and wearing a Pali mask makes them feel good. I bought it because, just like most Jews outside of Israel, I wanted to fit in with the gentile majority. And I brought it with me to Russia, but the Russians don’t even notice my Pali. Here, unlike every EU state I’ve ever been to, they don’t care about Palestine.

They don’t care about face masks either. At the entrance to subway stations in Moscow, police stand vigil to make sure everybody wears a mask. But then, about half of the people take their mask off once they are inside the train. Those passengers who don’t take it off, I think, are just too lazy to do it.

Moscow taxi drivers, on the other hand, wear a mask. I mean, kind of. If you, the passenger, wear a mask, they will wear it too. Otherwise, who cares?

A ballet performance in a partially reopened Moscow. (Photo: Tuvia Tenebom)

Russia.

It’s a different world, not the one I’m used to. Russia is not the West, and even the logic here is different. What is the logic here? I’m not really sure. Sometimes, I feel that one needs to be a rocket scientist to understand it. On January 6, for example, I wanted to attend the Orthodox Christmas Eve service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a big and tall church that became famous almost a decade ago, when the Pussy Riot group staged a guerrilla performance inside its walls. But when I walked to the church, there were police all over, even on a bridge leading to it, blocking the entrance. It’s too dangerous to have too many people in the same place at the same time, I was told. Yet the Gum shopping center in Red Square, just across from the Kremlin, is packed with people every day. Why are the police not stopping people coming to the Gum, only the ones who go to the Savior?

God knows.

Not that this country has an agenda against churches. Many Russians are in total love with their churches. If I could make a dollar for every time that I see passersby stop when walking by a church, make the sign of the cross, and mumble a prayer, I would be richer than Joe Biden and his son combined.

I’m glad to say nobody stops me at the entrance to the Marina Roscha Synagogue, a center of the Orthodox Hasidic sect, Chabad, when I go there on Friday night.

It’s an interesting place.

Half of the attendees cover their faces, or chins, with masks, and the other half don’t. They pray and sing quite loudly, as if there’s no risk of spreading the coronavirus. In New York, many Orthodox worshippers don’t sing, but Moscow is not New York. “At some point,” a member of the congregation explains to me, “everybody will get infected. What’s the point of hiding from it? Why worry? We are Russians.”

I ask Elena, a filmmaker, to explain to me what being “Russian” means.

“We like a strong government, but we don’t trust our government,” she tells me. “If our government tells us that we must wear a mask, we don’t want to wear a mask. And in the next election, we’ll vote for the same government again. That’s ‘Russian,’ that’s who we are.”

That’s not the only thing that defines “Russian,” I soon learn.

“Russian women are the most beautiful in the world,” Kate, a young engineering student, tells me. Kate is my roommate on a sleeper train going to St. Petersburg, a city many tell me I should visit.

Kate doesn’t wear a mask. Isn’t she afraid of getting COVID? “My grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, uncle, and cousin all had it,” she tells me, “and I’m not afraid to get it because I’m young, just 21. But I don’t want to get it because I don’t want to infect anybody. My father, a few months ago, was put in ICU because he needed oxygen. He’s home now, but still, at times, it’s hard for him to breathe.”

When I get off the train in the morning, I see a huge sign across from the station, Hero City Leningrad, and I go to meet some locals. The first thing they tell me is the harrowing story of the German siege of St. Petersburg in World War II, which lasted almost 900 days, and how their relatives died, slowly, slowly, of acute starvation. The war ended in 1945 but has not been forgotten to this day. “Our grandparents survived that siege, and we will survive every plague.”

Natali, a theater producer, talks to me about the present. “Ninety percent of the people in our theater,” she tells me, “had COVID, but the theater is still open, the actors come, and the audiences too. I had COVID, and it was very tough. But we are not going to pull down the curtain.”

I take a walk in the city, and my eyes notice many “for rent” signs, probably a consequence of a lengthy lockdown earlier in the plague. It’s depressing. Each closed store, each business gone, tells a story of loss that screams in its silence. Yet a visit through the restaurants, open and packed, and a stroll through the transit system, where trains and buses are full to capacity, tell another story, a story of a living people, stubborn Russian people, who are determined not to give in until the last breath.

Saint Petersburg as seen from a train window. (Photo: Ekaterina Anchevskaya)

Of the people I meet, very few trust the government’s official figures of COVID patients in the country, but almost all of them have either taken the Sputnik V vaccine or are planning to take it. Not that they trust the government that this is a good vaccine; they just hope that it’s a good vaccine. Being Russian, I learn as the days go by, also means living a life of hope and feeling, not of logic and cold facts. They are humans, not computers, and that’s their strength.

Before I came to this country, I didn’t think that I would like Russia, or the Russians. I just wanted a break from the constant media and government warnings about COVID, and the never-ending stories about Donald Trump. But I’m falling in love with the country and its people. Russians are warm, friendly, very welcoming, and have a great sense of humor. Most of all, I readily admit, I like Moscow. There’s so much to do and experience, even at times like this. So many theaters, so much art on its streets, so much culture all around and, as already mentioned, so much great food.

Back home where I live, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, they used to have — and maybe they still have — a BLM vigil every evening at 7, where affluent, young whites shouted, “Say his name! George Floyd!” If I passed by and didn’t raise my fist, like they did, they accused me of being racist. But this evening, I’m in Moscow, and at 7 p.m. I’m going to see a ballet at the Bolshoi. No raised fists, just dancing toes.

Yes, there’s a plague in the world, and it’s frightening. But you don’t need to be consumed with the fear of it every day and every night, every minute and every second.

Tuvia Tenenbom, a journalist and playwright, is the author of three Spiegel best-sellers in Germany and four best-sellers in Israel. His most recent book, The Taming of the Jew, is coming out in the United States on March 1.

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