These days Russian television, like television in Europe and the USA is almost entirely given over to reportage on the coronavirus epidemic: how it is being experienced in Russia and how it is being experienced in the world at large. The only positive notes are those on laboratory research into vaccines. Even the occasional interview with a celebrity who came down with the virus and was saved thanks to the dedication and possibly unique knowhow of Russian medics serve the purpose of warning the general public of the horrendous, life-threatening complications that may come with the infection. And so, Russian news programs are presently bleak and depressing.
However, there are some obvious conclusions to be drawn from the videos showing Russian police measures to enforce lockdown that somehow are missed by the political watchdogs in Moscow and which bear explicit discussion here: namely, what is being done at present to enforce social distancing is nothing more than a tap on the wrist.
Yes, the limitations on travel within Moscow technically facilitated by electronic passes are controlled by police roadblocks and we may assume that violators are being turned back. However, during these May day holidays, Muscovites and presumably residents of other Russian cities are being allowed to leave the city for their country dachas, which about 50% of them own. They are advised not to socialize outside their household, not to hold their traditional barbecues with neighbors and relatives. But this is only advice and it likely will not be controlled, except by investigative television crews on a spot basis for the evening news.
More important is how Muscovites are behaving within their neighborhoods in the city. Are they out and about? Is youth on the prowl for partying in the parks as usual?
In the television reportage, police officers are shown gently reminding young people and the not so young congregating at recreation areas that this is not allowed and proposing that they disperse. In a way, these scenes are no different from what CNN shows us of the enforcement attempts on some Florida beaches.
Meanwhile, the daily count of confirmed infections in Moscow and Russia in general seems to be following the kind of exponential curve we have seen in the West, even if hospitalizations are relatively low and deaths, so far, are very low.
Where, one might ask, is the heavy-handed policing that one might expect given the criminal jeopardy that violation of quarantine carries under recently passed federal law, namely up to seven years in prison. Nowhere! To date, Russian enforcement agents are behaving like pussy cats.
The same may be said of Russian state control of the churches and the pussy-footing of secular authorities with rebellious clerics who have created hearths of infection and death in many parishes.
Why is this lax control of the population amidst a pandemic being allowed to continue? I venture to guess there is one reason: to avoid at all costs the appearance of authoritarianism that might be exploited by the non-systemic Opposition and provide grist for the country’s defamers and detractors in the USA, in the UK, in continental Europe. To be sure, there is also a potential domestic resistance that could be inflamed by stricter closing of churches: the fervently religious, of whom there are now a great many in Russia.
So far, with rare exceptions like The New York Times and the odd article in the Financial Times, Western news coverage of the coronavirus epidemic in Russia has been benign and non-ideological. The Information War on Russia has been shelved and coverage is in both print and electronic media focused on the ‘human interest story’ where Russia is just one more large and somewhat exotic country on which the news machine informs the public, alongside reports on coronavirus in Latin America or in Africa. As a case in point, I would mention yesterday’s featured report on BBC World from its Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg.
Rosenberg blows hot and cold on Russia in general. Yesterday’s report was definitely friendly: he interviewed a 97 year old Russian WWII veteran, a much decorated lady sergeant who earned her medals at the Battle of Stalingrad. She was moved by the past weeks’ BBC reporting on 100 year old British veteran, Captain Tom who has now raised tens of millions of pounds on behalf of the National Health Service by daily walks to and fro in his garden. Our Russian heroine just knitted him a pair of socks to keep his feet warm on these fund-raising promenades. Rosenberg filmed her packing the socks in a little parcel that has been carried express to London for delivery. A heart-warming story that happens to center on Russia. This is as close to international solidarity in the face of the pandemic that we get as regards East-West relations.
If the Russians put in place draconian police and military enforcement of lock-down, which is entirely possible in the coming weeks should the infection rate, hospitalization rate and mortality surge rather than plateau and decline because of the utter indiscipline and egoism of so many Russians and their scorn for social distancing, then it will be a wholly different kind of news coverage that we will see in the West. The hints at how facial recognition techniques are being implemented in Russia for coronavirus control that we have noted in some Western media will explode into daily tirades against the Putin regime and how it is reintroducing Stalinist repression.
I have no doubt that the Liberal minority among Kremlin elites, the faction of Kudrin and Medvedev, to name but two visible personalities, has been urging great restraint for this very reason. What it comes down to is their usual ass-licking of the West. The days ahead and the evolution of the viral infection in Russia will determine whether the country puts paid to Public Relations and focuses on the mortal threat to its population and economy presented by the novel coronavirus. To their credit, the Chinese had no compunction about deploying massive force to ensure that self-isolation was imposed and not voluntary. The results in terms of deaths and in terms of present reopening of their economy speak for themselves.
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020