Irina Borogan, Andrei Soldatov:
Empty Streets of Moscow

We’ve grown accustomed to living in a city that never really sleeps. If you need to go grocery shopping or have dinner at midnight, it’s very likely you can do it in your neighborhood even if you don’t live in the center. And it wasn’t only clubs and restaurants that were running 24/7: usually the metro was full of passengers until 1 am. In this city of 14 million Muscovites and guests of the capital, as we politely and arrogantly call those who were not born in Moscow, you are free to get whatever you want whenever you want it. Some people prefer to go to the gym or visit the nail salon late at night, some love to go to the spa for a Thai massage when most of us are already in bed. When the authorities introduced a ban on selling alcohol in stores at night, on-line delivery services immediately stepped in to fill the gap. (One might wonder: is that one of the reasons Putin has been running the country for so long?).

We live in a vibrant neighborhood two metro stops from Red Square. It was the first Moscow district where foreigners were allowed to live—a privilege established by Peter the Great’s father in the 17th century­—and now it houses two universities and a few business complexes. On our way to the metro station we walk past cafés and fast food places, full of students and office workers waiting for their to-go coffee or a burger, scooters and bicyclists forming a natural part of the crowd.

On April 1, a day that is supposed to bring a lot of fun, we didn’t see any fun at all. Our walk to the metro was like a desolate path in the desert. We met only a couple of pensioners and a few young people, some of them wearing masks. The police were nowhere to be seen; it looked like they were the first to isolate themselves. This was the third day of quarantine in Moscow.

President Putin isolated himself after a brief visit to a Moscow hospital and announced a nation-wide coronavirus work stoppage until the end of the month. He also delegated most powers in the capital to the Moscow mayor, and the authorities introduced an almost total lockdown in the city. Though the metro and public transportation are still running, there is a ban on walking “aimlessly”, including taking toddlers and children for a walk (strangely, dog walking is still allowed). To enforce the lockdown, the mayor promised to enlist a whole range of high-end technology. First, even before COVID-19, a citywide system of CCTV cameras with significant facial recognition capabilities was introduced in the Moscow metro. Additionally, Muscovites were to be required to get QR codes from the city government’s website in order to go to the nearest shop or drugstore. And finally, mobile operators agreed to full and unrestricted cooperation to help trace people’s movements of people and spot them automatically if they leave the designated area. Violators will be fined: the fine for a first-time offence is 4.000 rubles, around 50 euros.

The restrictions are harsh, but people are not rebelling; the streets are empty and delivery services can’t keep up with the demand from everyone who is too frightened to go out—and more and more services ask for cash instead of credit card as a way of payment. Shop workers look gloomy and sad under their masks and special face shields that resemble glass helmets—it’s not easy to breathe under two layers of protection. The good thing is that all the shops near our apartment building are fully stocked with food and, of course, toilet paper.

Few voices have been raised against the digital prison that the authorities are constructing in Moscow or their efforts to put the city’s population under total control. Even fewer express concern that it’s highly unlikely that this system will be completely disbanded after the crisis ends. People are too frightened by the news coverage of the pandemic in Europe and the United States. But many are more worried about their salaries shrinking or disappearing during the month-long holiday than about the digital surveillance that is targeting them. The virus and the panic it caused arrived in Russia accompanied by two allies: the economic crisis caused by the Kremlin’s oil war with Saudi Arabia that began a month ago, and political gloom as Putin announced his intent to change the Russian constitution to allow him to stay in power another two terms—another twelve years on top of the twenty he has already been ruling Russia.

Though Russia is currently in a much better position than many European countries and the United States—as of now, 34 people have died and four thousand people have contracted COVID-19—ordinary Muscovites aren’t optimistic about the future. Anxiety has hit hard: many of our friends have developed symptoms that resemble those caused by the virus, only to be told by medics that it’s all psychosomatic.

Some news from the Moscow suburbs recently sparked a panic. People spotted a column of tanks moving towards Moscow, and gossip that the army would be taking control of the city spread quickly on social media. It turned out to be fake news: the Russian army was preparing for the Victory Day parade in May, which has not yet been cancelled—though rumor has it that the parade is likely to be postponed until September.

We have been living as freelancers for years, so for us life has changed less than for other people. We still try to take walks, now along empty streets; we write a lot; and we go out to the family country house on weekends. But we sorely miss our favorite café, which we used to visit almost every day, and the people we met there; we miss meeting our friends, our conversations and heated political debates. Books offer some respite from the solitude. Irina is reading Middle England by Jonathan Coe and Andrei is finishing For Honor and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066-1500, by Nigel Saul, as a means of distraction from the daily news.

Moscow, April 10, 2020.

Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan 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.

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