Michele A. Berdy is a writer and editor at the Moscow Times.
MOSCOW — A few days ago, six weeks into Moscow’s coronavirus lockdown, I was shopping at a local supermarket when the man behind me at the checkout counter started pushing into me. I told him to move away. He was astonished: “How come?” The cashier and I exchanged looks. “You’re supposed to stay at least a meter and half away from other customers,” she said. “Really?” he answered. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
It’s possible that this was simply the first time the guy’s wife made him go to the store since March 25, when Russia officially declared a “national paid vacation” and closed all but essential stores and services to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But it’s also possible he just didn’t watch the news. Or maybe he did watch the news but couldn’t make sense of the contradictory messages he was getting from President Vladimir Putin’s government.
For most of the spring, the official line from state media was that Russia had nothing to worry about. The coronavirus was happening somewhere else, in Europe and Asia and the United States, but not here in Russia. The country had reacted promptly to potential danger, closing the border with China on January 30, then screening incoming passengers and finally halting all incoming air traffic to keep the invading viral army out. Hospitals were refitted, doctors retrained, and protective gear and equipment sent to every hospital in the country. No problem, said the Kremlin: We’ve got this.
That’s no longer believable. As of Monday, May 18, Russia was in second place after the United States in number of infections — 290,678. And those are just the official statistics. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has said he believes about 2 percent of the population of Moscow is infected — that is, about 250,000 people. The death rate remains low, with only 2,722 deaths so far, although there are doubts about that number too: Recent media reports have shown how Russian methodology for assigning cause of death has lowered the COVID morbidity numbers, perhaps by more than 50 percent. (This was disputed by Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova.) I don’t know anyone who thinks the statistics are accurate, if only because people were dying from COVID in Russia before anyone was testing for it.
This was supposed to be a triumphant spring for Putin. Under his stewardship, the country had amassed a huge reserve fund, had confidently started a price war with Saudi Arabia over oil and was arranging a spectacular international event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. It was planned to be a lavish celebration, where hundreds of foreign leaders and dignitaries, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Xi Jinping and possibly Donald Trump would stand on the viewing platform above Lenin’s mausoleum and watch a military parade. Millions would march in “Immortal Regiment” parades, honoring relatives who fought in the war; the day would end with banquets, grand concerts and the best fireworks display of the decade.
Ordinary Russians are not worried about big business. They’re worried about themselves.
Putin had also carefully laid the groundwork for a series of political and constitutional moves that would allow him, effectively, to remain in power for the foreseeable future, maybe even for life. In March, the Russian Parliament approved an amendment to the constitution that would limit presidential terms but would also reset Putin’s presidential terms to zero, paving the way for him to stay head of state until 2036, the year he will turn 84. All that remained to seal the deal was a general vote on the constitutional amendments, which was supposed to be held in April.
Because of the coronavirus, the vote was not held and has not yet been scheduled. The 75th anniversary celebration has been postponed indefinitely. On May 9, when Russia celebrated Victory Day, Putin made a short speech and laid a wreath on the grave of the unknown soldier with little fanfare. A military flyover of 75 planes and helicopters was announced, but I watched it — they fly directly over my house, rattling the windows and setting off car alarms — and it looked like barely two dozen. And since no one was supposed to go out in the evening, the only people who saw the fireworks were those who lived near the launch point and had a balcony facing the right direction. The holiday, envisioned as a kind of coronation for Putin’s presidential “reset” and the triumphant return of Russia as a world power, went by almost unmarked.
Now, instead of consolidating public support, Putin appears to be losing it. In early May, the Levada Center, Russia’s sole independent polling agency, found that Putin’s approval rating was down to 59 percent. That might sound enviable to Western politicians, but it’s the lowest rating he has had in 20 years. Thirty-three percent of those polled said they did not approve of his performance. Putin’s hold on power doesn’t look as strong as it did a few months ago. His hands-off response to coronavirus might have something to do with it.
On a morning talk show in early March, I watched the deputy director of the research institute under Russia’s consumer watchdog agency say the situation in the country was “terrific — we’ve been living for almost three months along a huge border with China and have only five cases, so all the measures we’re taking are clearly effective.”
On other talk shows, where conspiracy theories reign, hosts and guests floated the notion that the virus didn’t exist. It was a hoax invented by the United States to destroy the Chinese economy, or it was made in an American laboratory and planted in China, or Bill Gates invented it so he could then make money on the vaccine. It was just a version of SARS, which in the end turned out to be less dangerous than everyone feared. Besides, 60,000 people die every year from the flu, and no one cares. What’s the big deal?
So many people seemed to believe this, or wanted to believe this, that they ignored the increasingly stringent lockdown measures instituted in Moscow beginning March 25 They didn’t practice social distancing, traveled all over the city, used services that were supposed to be closed, got together with friends, sniffed, sneezed, coughed and even spit in public. In stores, unmasked and barehanded, they squeezed every tomato in a bin before moving on to examine broccoli, then pushed and hovered at the cash register despite social distancing marks on the floor.
On television and social media, we all watched Italians singing on balconies and saw Parisians printing out forms every time they left their apartments. COVID was clearly bad outside Russia. But inside Russia? It was hard to figure out.
For example, on news shows I saw Russian airports with teams in hazmat suits, checking arriving passengers’ temperatures before releasing them. Some passengers were carefully screened. Then three of my friends flew into Moscow in March, two from Italy and one from Tunisia. I asked them about it. None underwent medical checks at the airport, although they all left contact information for public health authorities. One was never called, the second was called the day after arrival and told to quarantine herself for two weeks, and the third answered the door five days after his arrival to find a guy in a mask, handing him a back-dated, signed sick-leave form and telling him he should have been in quarantine for 14 days since his arrival. No one asked him where he’d been for the past week.
The worst situation came on April 15, when the city instituted mandatory digital passes for everyone using public or private transportation. Using a cellphone app or a computer, we all had to get QR passes for every trip out of the house, except for walks to the closest pharmacy or grocery store. For some reason — perhaps to show that the city was serious — on the first morning the passes went into effect, police stood at the entrances to the metro stations and checked each pass manually, so passengers ended up being tightly packed together for hours in the station halls and underground corridors.
When Moscow experienced an 11-day spike in infections two weeks later, in early May, we were wondering if there was a connection.
Of course, in some ways the coronavirus pandemic is playing out in Russia the same way it is everywhere else. Some people are cautious and follow the rules. People who can do their jobs from home do. Schools are closed, and internet memes like dressing as famous works of art have helped occupy the time in lockdown. Zoom has been turned into a Russian verb, and men on bicycles with candy-colored square backpacks speed along the streets delivering food and groceries.
But in other ways, the pandemic is not playing out in Russia like it has in other countries. Since March 25, Putin has been giving addresses to the nation almost every week promising a safe deliverance from COVID and aid for those who need it, but he is leaving the day-to-day decisions to local leaders and has barely left his residence outside Moscow. Meanwhile, his prime minister, three ministers and press spokesman have tested positive for the virus. Petty crime and scams are on the rise as people who are unemployed run out of money. And as time goes on, the Russian approach of finger-pointing, erratically implemented quarantine measures and little economic aid to those in need seems to be increasingly risky.
Economically, Putin has taken a different approach to the economic crisis from other world leaders. In other countries, governments have made trillions of dollars available to businesses and ordinary workers to keep them afloat until the economy can restart. But Russia, despite having a rainy day fund worth about $143 billion at the beginning of April (9.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product), has pledged only about 2.8 percent of GDP to aid primarily small- and medium-size businesses. The American bailout, by contrast, is close to 10 percent of GDP so far. Russia is actually making less than 1 percent of the GDP available in direct payments, with the rest in loan guarantees and tax deferments.
The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, the main association for large business interests, has been lobbying for some of the same benefits to be extended to big business, too, and so far has gotten an agreement for loan guarantees of 100 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) from the State Investment Bank. On May 10, the government also agreed to recognize 1,151 companies as “systemically important” — the Russian version of “too big to fail” — and said it will make preferential loans and other benefits available to them.
In all of Putin’s six addresses to the nation, he has never once mentioned support of big state enterprises. Konstantin Sonin, an economist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, says this was for a simple reason: There’s no need. “The entire Russian system is based on supporting Russian big state business. All the tools already exist: You go to the president or cabinet to ask for something, like preferential loans, at any time. These companies already have so many opportunities to do this that there is no need to come up with any new procedures.”
One of my friends put it another way: “Have you filled up your car with gas lately?” I had, at exactly the same price I paid six weeks ago — maybe even more. Russia has a “shock absorber” system in place that guarantees that the price of filling up your tank never decreases — even when the cost of Russia’s benchmark crude dropped from $56 a barrel in February to $8.48 a barrel in April.
So, ordinary Russians are not worried about big business. They’re worried about themselves.
Twice a day I meet up with a group of dog walkers in my local Moscow park for an hourlong stroll, along with news, gossip and complaints about the weather. Some of us have become close friends, the kind who celebrate birthdays together, borrow sugar or money, and spend time at each other’s dachas. I’ve lived in my apartment for more than 25 years; many of the others have known each other since childhood.
Despite the official assurances, by mid-March our only topic was coronavirus. Should we be worried or not? Some were cavalier. “It’s a bunch of nonsense,” said Masha, the owner of a big friendly mutt. Others were worried, especially if they had health problems or, like one neighbor, a newborn grandchild at home. And we were all worried about the dozen or so small businesses that had appeared on our block in the past couple years — especially because some of the owners were our neighbors.
Alexander, the owner of a big white boxer, has a nail salon in the building next to us. He was worried. The ruble had already tumbled against the dollar and euro. To be on the safe side, he had borrowed some money from a friend and bought a large stockpile of imported materials. And then he waited. But not for long. Just about a week later, Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor, ordered all nonessential stores and services to close, including Alexander’s nail salon.
In other countries, salons might have closed immediately. But Alexander was worried about his staff. He called them in to discuss their options, and they decided to take the opposite approach, to keep the salon open late every night until the cutoff date, March 28, so that they could earn enough money to hold them over for a week or so. That was almost two months ago. The salon has been closed since.
Alexander and his wife have other jobs that provide basic income. He thinks some of his staff are earning money doing house calls, and others are just waiting it out. Even when he can reopen, he doesn’t really know how to reopen. “It’s a question of safety for the staff and customers. I can figure out how to keep two meters between customers, but when will people feel safe and confident enough to come in?” He thinks it may be a year or more before he can recoup losses and pay off the debt in rent he is running up.
Another neighbor and dog owner Sergei runs a specialty shop. He used to get 35 to 50 orders a day; now it’s two or three. “My landlord lowered the rent by 40 percent, but that doesn’t help much when income has fallen by 90 percent,” he told me.
I asked Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow on the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House in London and professor in the political science department at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, why he thought Putin was willing to risk alienating voters like Alexander and Sergei.
Petrov said Putin didn’t need their support. “Authoritarian regimes rely on important people who are key to stability and staying in power,” he said. “Putin’s political base is the big companies, banks and state companies. He doesn’t depend on citizens, so he doesn’t see or hear those 10 or 15 or 20 percent of the population who are really suffering today from the measures to fight COVID.”
On May 11, Putin announced that the “national vacation” that had begun in March would end the next day, but that each regional leader would determine how and when to open up businesses. In Moscow, Sobyanin announced that the lockdown would continue until at least the end of the month and now include mandatory gloves and masks in public places, but that several categories of business could open. People shook their heads: Is the situation more dangerous or safer?
And there was a new joke making the rounds: “When we had 1,000 new infections every day, we were put on lockdown. Now that we have over 10,000 new infections every day, they’re sending us back to work.”
The problem is that not everyone is going back to work or working at home on salary. Small shops, businesses and services are still closed. In our neighborhood, one beauty salon — a branch of a citywide chain — closed and moved out within the first week of the lockdown. Three other shops have closed and might not reopen.
With the economic pressure mounting, Putin announced in his May address that he would increase aid to the population, mostly through direct payments to families with children, but including tax and insurance write-offs for sole proprietors and even reimbursement of income taxes paid in 2019. I asked my friends if this would help; they laughed. The first round of aid consisted mostly of benefits such as partial debt forgiveness, salary reimbursements if companies continued to pay their staff, and some tax deferments — none of which they qualified for or needed — and the current aid package wasn’t enough to make up for their catastrophic loss of income and continued rent payments.
But neither Alexander nor Sergei had expected state aid. “We never thought we’d get any support,” Sergei said. “But that’s the deal. Either you’re free and are totally on your own, or you work for the state and get a salary and aid, but you also have to do what they say, go to political rallies, whatever. Better to be free.”
Looking ahead, it’s clear that millions of small-business people, gig economy workers, waiters, salespeople, actors, dancers, musicians, museum curators, nannies, cleaners, fitness instructors and all those Russians working off the books — a large portion of the population — could come out of this with nothing. If they hold on to their businesses, they will probably have a huge debt to pay off. Many thousands, if not millions, of them could lose everything.
To some extent, given the nature of the crisis, economic pain is inevitable. Sonin says, “The crisis is unprecedented, and because the government didn’t move quickly and the measures aren’t, to my mind, sufficient, the downturn will be greater. But getting out of this crisis would have been difficult regardless of what Russia did.”
The government’s approach isn’t going to improve its popularity ratings, Sonin says, but adds, “I don’t think there is a risk of great discontent. In 2008 and 2009, the GDP fell by 9 percent, and the majority of households were cutting back on basic necessities. But the public didn’t rebel then, and I think it will be about the same this time.”
Nor does he think this crisis, however difficult, will spur Russian leadership to change: “There is no discussion of reconsidering priorities, like cutting back on defense spending, security, or propaganda, or repealing the countersanctions, which in my view would have been the first thing to do. There is no discussion of any of that. That’s not being done because they think the way things are is the way the things ought to be.”
Petrov is less sanguine about Russian patience. “Putin zeroed out everything,” Petrov says. “He wanted to zero out his presidential terms and start over, and he did that. But COVID has zeroed out all his achievements. His rating is low. Today, people don’t care what happened 10 or 20 years ago. He’ll be a leader if he shows himself a leader in the battle with COVID now. So far, he hasn’t achieved anything, and it doesn’t look as if he will.”
My neighbors are exasperated but resigned — which is pretty much a default Russian state of mind. Most of them don’t think the government has done a good job of organizing and communicating the response to the coronavirus, but they also think that, for whatever reason, Russia has done better than some other countries. No one knows when and how “life” will begin again, and everyone is looking bleakly ahead to a summer without travel or any sense of normality. “The thing is,” one friend said, “the worst may be yet to come.”