The Pandemic Is Beating Putin

A deadly virus can’t be ignored, jailed, exiled or co-opted — nor can it be locked down without great economic cost. That puts President Vladimir Putin of Russia in a bind. The pandemic, perhaps his hardiest foe to date, has starkly revealed the limits of his power.

The past several weeks have been especially painful. Daily infections in the country have hovered around 35,000 — while the official figures, probably undercounted, record over a thousand deaths each day. (And that’s before the Omicron variant, newly found in Russia, circulates widely.) The misery is largely due to the low vaccination rate in the country: After a nearly yearlong campaign, only 41 percent of the country’s people are fully vaccinated, a lower number than in Laos or Cape Verde.

The Kremlin has itself to blame. Given Russia’s intellectual, administrative and technological capacities, a successful vaccine rollout should have been possible. Instead, the authorities fatally eroded the public’s trust with conflicting messaging — oscillating between triumphalism and scaremongering — and haphazardly applied containment measures.

The result is a mistrustful, skeptical public — the latest poll from the Levada Center, an independent polling company, puts vaccine hesitancy at 36 percent — and a growing anti-vaccine movement that, headed by previously regime-friendly figures, is stirring up trouble. It’s not clear that Mr. Putin, usually adept at quashing sentiments not to his liking, can do much about it.

The anti-vaccine movement uses lines first delivered by the authorities. In March 2020, a leading Russian physician, Leonid Roshal, claimed that the new coronavirus was no more dangerous than ordinary flu and even demanded prosecution for those who said otherwise. As the true scope of the pandemic became apparent and European capitals went into lockdowns, state media and officials downplayed or ignored reports of disastrous outbreaks in several regions, lauding Moscow’s “openness.”

Over the months that followed, state TV happily spread conspiracy theories about Western vaccines, casting doubt on the efficacy of vaccination. Russia Today, which fed its Western audiences a steady diet of conspiracies, even seems to have actively bolstered vaccine opponents at home. By the time the government and the media changed their tune, enforcing mandatory vaccination in the summer of 2021 and cracking down on anti-vaccine conspiracies, it was too late.

The rush to announce the world’s first registered vaccine, supposedly a victory over the West, was another gift to vaccine skeptics. They call Sputnik V, released before it completed the full roster of clinical trials, “untested” and refuse to take part in “illegal medical experiments.” Suspiciously inconsistent official statistics and policy reversals — on a QR code system for the vaccinated in Moscow, for example, or regional mask mandates — have further undermined the public’s trust.

Steadily, a grass-roots anti-vaccine movement has taken shape. The current focus of its attention is a bill introduced on Nov. 12 that would require Russians who want to enter any nonessential public facilities to present a QR code verifying their vaccination status. Two mainstream left-wing parties in the parliament, or Duma, opposed the new legislation, calling it “inflammatory” and “fascistic.” In the face of criticism, the Duma announced that the bill would be delayed for another month to allow for further consultations.

Opponents of the bill then flooded their local authorities’ social media with complaints. When the speaker of the Duma asked for the public’s feedback on Telegram, a messaging service, he was deluged with more than 725,000 angry comments. Online, activists raised hell. And the protests were not confined to the internet.

Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who studies anti-vaccine sentiment in Russia, noted that there’s been a sharp uptick in vaccination-related public disturbances in Russia’s regions — from barely a dozen in October to over a hundred in November. Starting off as mostly peaceful gatherings where a few dozen people read aloud an appeal to the “good czar” to protect them, these protests now often involve groups of people “occupying” government offices and engaging in physical altercations with security and police officers.

It’s still far from the mass demonstrations seen in Paris, Brussels and Berlin over the past year. But it’s a significant development in Russia, where public dissent has recently been all but completely outlawed and members of the political opposition put under house arrest for ostensibly violating coronavirus measures.

In response, Russian state-owned and loyalist media have poured vitriol on vaccine skeptics with the ferocity usually reserved for the anti-Putin opposition. Russia Today’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan — who herself claimed in January 2020 that the coronavirus affects only “ethnic Chinese” — wrote on her Telegram channel that she had doubts about the anti-vaccine activists’ basic “cognitive abilities.” But denouncing “sociopathic” “anti-vaxxer half-wits” is unlikely to win many hearts and minds — nor is attempting to paint the domestic anti-vaccine movement as a foreign plot to undermine Russia.

That’s because the vaccine skeptics aren’t drawn from the usual ranks of anti-Kremlin activists. In fact, the movement is spearheaded by celebrities like Maria Shukshina, the highly decorated actress who was recently awarded the Order of Merit for the Motherland, and Egor Beroev, a popular actor who has become infamous for wearing a yellow Star of David. The usual playbook for dealing with the opposition — legal, physical and media harassment, arbitrary arrests and kangaroo trials — isn’t applicable.

Mr. Putin seems to be sensitive to the dilemma. He has repeatedly shifted the burden of announcing new restrictions to government officials and local governors, reportedly to protect his popularity, and does not wear a mask in public. Unable to mandate its way out of trouble and wary of riling up people too much, the Kremlin is stuck: Clearly, there’s a limit to what an authoritarian ruler like Mr. Putin can force on his population. Russians, meanwhile, continue to die in the thousands.

In April, things looked different. Other countries, Mr. Putin boasted in his state-of-the-union speech, “were unable to deal with the challenges of the pandemic as effectively as we did in Russia.” That assessment, it turns out, was more than a little premature.

Alexey Kovalev (@Alexey__Kovalev) is the investigations editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet.

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