Back when 2020 began, everything looked great for the Kremlin as it decided to freeze Russia for the next twenty or more years under Putin’s rule. The two chambers of Russia’s parliament speedily approved the amendments and pro-Kremlin media, as usual, provided favorable coverage celebrating the forthcoming change. The Russian people showed no visible dissent to Putin’s desire to stay in power after 2024.
But some of Putin’s friends were irritated by falling oil prices. These friends were in charge of the biggest Russian oil company; and they had the ear of the president. As result, the Kremlin got into a price war with Saudi Arabia, refusing to reduce oil production. To teach the Russians a lesson, the Saudis dropped oil prices dramatically, and the Kremlin’s gamble misfired. Then the coronavirus crisis hit the world, decreasing demand for oil and gas, which were always a significant source of income for the Russian budget.
In Russia, the coronavirus arrived as the country was experiencing the effects of a disastrous healthcare reform: in Moscow alone, 60 hospitals were closed, along with 400 clinics, and 20.000 doctors sacked. It had been common knowledge since the 1990s that one needed to pay money under the table to the hospital authorities to get proper treatment, and quality was still not guaranteed; as a result of the recent cuts, the very number of hospitals one could turn to was reduced.
Uncertainty about the political future combined with the certainty of an economic crisis—which always accompanies falling oil prices, as Russians have learned since the 1990s—and finally, lack of trust in the healthcare system: that was the combination awaiting the virus’s arrival in Russia.
Putin vs the Moscow mayor
The virus arrived in April, and the whole territory of this vast country was put under lockdown, forcing Putin to postpone a vote on the constitutional amendments. Four members of his government contracted virus, including his new prime minister. His own spokesperson, who has been with him since the early 2000s, fell sick as well. The president was facing a very unusual crisis, probably the biggest in twenty years, and that made him nervous.
Russians have gotten used to seeing the president very active in times of crisis, but this time Putin stepped back and isolated himself. The Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitri Glukhovsky compared Putin’s odd behavior to Dracula, who isolated himself in the basement of his castle, not going out to avoid danger.
While Putin retreated, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin stepped forward, visiting hospitals and giving orders to combat the coronavirus crisis. The mayor, a seasoned bureaucrat and former head of the president’s office, had always known his place. This changed during the crisis: now it was him who introduced the restrictions, including a ban on walks further than 100 meters from one’s apartment, taking the lead in the national fight against the virus. The mayor was determined to keep most Muscovites indoors, but the big city needed a lot of people on the move to function properly. The mayor decided to rely on a hastily created system of digital passes to maintain this delicate balance.
In a city of 14 million people, there was no way such a system could end well, and indeed it did not. Soon huge queues gathered at metro station entrances because the police were checking every passenger manually, which took time. Within two weeks, city hospitals and clinics registered an outbreak of infected people, which prompted rightful outrage on the part of Muscovites towards the police. We cannot say that public outrage has ever bothered Russia’s police before, but this time it happened: policemen canceled their street checks and disappeared from most of the streets in many of Moscow’s neighborhoods. In Russia, the city police are subordinated to the chief of the Interior Ministry, not to the city authorities, and their visible sabotaging of the mayor’s efforts was a clear sign that Putin was irritated by the Moscow mayor’s highly publicized activities.
Abandoned by the police, the mayor introduced another technical measure to control people’s movements that sparked Muscovites’ fury. Every person who had contracted the virus was required to download an app on their smartphones called Social Monitoring. The app tracks the geolocation of the phone to prevent its owner from leaving his or her apartment, and it also requires users to take a selfie every 5-6 hours at random times to prove they are at home. This app was manned by the city government’s Department of Information Technology, not the police. People who got requests to take a selfie during the night or while they were in the bathroom and failed to send them were fined for breaking the rules. Some were fined by mistake even while they were following the requirements closely and sending their selfies on time. For instance, one Muscovite discovered once she felt better that she was fined the equivalent of €550 for an alleged quarantine violation during her stay at home.
Soon the Kremlin started using this public outrage to attack the Moscow mayor. Russia’s prime minister ordered an investigation into the legality of this practice. The FSB began looking into the social monitoring “out of privacy concerns.” In the Kremlin’s language that usually means one thing: be careful.
The Kremlin has many reasons not to be happy. In June, when Russia slowly started reopening, Putin’s personal rating dropped significantly—according to Levada Center polls, only 25% of respondents said they trusted the president. 28% of those interviewed expressed readiness to take part in protests over falling living standards.
The quarantine made another breakthrough possible. Political satire, banned from Russian screens since the early 2000s, made a surprising comeback, if not to TV but YouTube. Maksim Galkin, a top Russian comedian and celebrity fully approved by the authorities, a constant presence on Russian TV, made a parody of both Putin and Moscow’s mayor. The video mocked the mayor for incomprehensible and stupid restrictions in Moscow, and Putin for depriving Russian dissidents of oxygen. A backlash promptly followed, and several Russian publications were contacted by the presidential administration and mayor office with requests to take down articles about Galkin’s parody, but the genie was already out of the bottle: the video had gone viral.
It’s well known that under stress people make unexpected decisions. It came as a real surprise to us when Denis Protsenko was made chief medical officer of Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital. A heavy, bald man, Denis is the doctor who saved Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident who was twice poisoned in Moscow—in 2015 and 2017. We wrote about him in our last book The Compatriots. Few doubted that the poisoning was the Kremlin’s revenge for Kara-Marza’s efforts to get Russian officials put on the American sanctions blacklist.
When the crisis hit, the country saw Protsenko on Russian TV, showing Putin his hospital and shaking his hand, and talking to a crowd of journalists. Now we saw him on dozens of billboards along the city roadways, on which he asked Muscovites to stay at home during the lockdown. He soon became a celebrity, the chief doctor fighting the pandemic in Russia. Among the patients in his hospital were many famous singers and TV presenters. Nobody recalled that this very doctor once saved the life of Putin’s enemy, which was quite a brave act in itself. The lack of proactive people, one of the main characteristics of Putin’s system, became tangible in a time of crisis.
Liberals turn totalitarian
In April, Muscovites awaited the arrival of the coronavirus in a state of some panic, mainly because the stream of terrifying news from Bergamo and New York made them expect the worst. Pro-Kremlin media were telling them, on a daily basis, how bad Italian and American healthcare was, but Russians knew that most of their clinics and hospitals were much worse. When a strict lockdown was introduced in the capital, including a total ban on walks for kids and those older than 65, it seemed that many Muscovites approved of the restrictions. Streets became desolate, with no signs of children playing or old ladies.
Because we don’t believe that going for a walk along the streets could be dangerous for anybody, we kept going out. But we tried to avoid the places where police patrols were usually seen, and our strolls resembled partisan raids on enemy territory more than part of a daily routine. Every time out could cost us 4000 rubles (€50) and we did not want be fined for the chance to breathe fresh air. We felt lonely in the empty city, but we felt even more lonely on Facebook among our liberal friends, who demanded restrictions be tightened even furthere and violators like us be punished more severely. We could never have imagined that liberals would attack the authorities for weakness in a time of crisis, calling for more restrictions. That was absolutely new and unexpected. The situation did not change even when owners and employees of small and medium-size businesses, like hair salons and restaurants, started to loudly express their outrage over the lockdown that deprived them of all income. Russian liberals, who had always been known as ardent disciples of the American economist Milton Friedman and his concept of a tiny role for the government, continued to support the lockdown along with the totalitarian measures introduced by the authorities to keep people indoors and under control.
To us, it was a very surprising outcome.
So far, the pandemic in Russia has not been as devastating as was expected by many experts and journalists. Russia has the third most infected people in the world, after the US and Brazil, but mortality rate has been comparatively low. According to official statistics on May 3, there were 5.215 deaths, whereas in the US more than 10 thousand people had died up to that point. Russian officials immediately called it a Russian miracle—and it really was, given the sorrowful state of healthcare in the regions.
Many experts were skeptical of the figures. Our healthcare has always been non-transparent and free from public oversight, and, after all, it was Russians who invented Potemkin villages, and they still hold the patent. But even if the figures were intentionally underestimated, they are still very low.
The pandemic, worsened by the economic crisis, proved that Russia under Putin has suffered from a lack of proactive leaders, all of whom were expelled from the ruling elite years ago. As soon as somebody tries to take responsibility, as Moscow’s mayor did, he makes himself vulnerable and risks provoking Putin’s anger and jealousy. And that seems to be the country’s long-honored tradition. Back in Soviet times, not long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communist leaders were so paralyzed by waiting for orders from the top that, time and time again, they proved absolutely helpless in the face of any kind of crisis. The worst example of this was the Chernobyl disaster, when nobody dared to tell people the truth about the catastrophe at the nuclear power station, thus causing more casualties and more suffering.
And just as in the Soviet Union’s final days, the present crisis shows that there are very few people capable of making decisions—like the doctor Denis Protsenko, who saved the life of the Kremlin’s enemy and then was chosen by the Kremlin as a leader in the fight against the coronavirus.
The crisis delayed Putin’s plan to stay in power indefinitely and sank his approval rating. The combination of the virus and economic crisis, the worst in Putin’s time in office, angered people and made them ready to protest. Political life is coming back to the country, and it certainly won’t be boring.
June 10, 2020.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Russian journalists, co-founders of agentura.ru and authors of The Red Web and The New Nobility. There latest publication The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad was published by Public Affairs in October 2019. Both of them are former Visting Fellows of the IWM.