Travel Notes: Russia, June 2021
On 14 May, not long after we took off from Brussels airport on our Aeroflot flight headed for Moscow, with onward flight to our final destination, St Petersburg, the lead stewardess announced on the public address system that it was mandatory for all passengers to remain in their face masks during the entire flight. She went on to say that if any violators refused to comply, the captain would put the plane down at the nearest airport, eject the offenders and all costs relating to this maneuver would be charged to them. That announcement got our entire attention and put us on notice that official Russia takes the Covid pandemic very seriously.
Indeed, my traveling to Russia at this time was quite exceptional in that the country has been closed to foreigners since March 2020. Business visas, e-visas, tourist visas: all were cancelled back then and are still not being issued today. The only exception is for those who, like myself, are the spouses of Russian citizens accompanying them to their homeland on two-entry visas valid for three months. To all appearances, on our flight from Brussels, there were no other foreigners, just Russians.
Our flight was full, but that is not surprising given that all air traffic has been greatly curtailed since the onset of the pandemic. Brussels Airlines had wholly suspended its Russian service early in the first wave and Aeroflot offers only two flights a week, both only to Moscow.
On the continuing flight to St Petersburg, no announcement about the penalties of not wearing a mask were made. Scattered passengers did not wear them, or had them under their chins, in a show of defiance. One of these exceptional individuals happened to be in our row and my requests to cabin staff to intervene elicited no great interest on their part. It began to become clear that the situation with respect to hygienic regulations was not as it first appeared.
The days that followed in Petersburg and the countryside to the south of the city confirmed this confused and disturbing state of affairs where “deconfinement” is the rule. That being said, the rates of infection, hospitalization and death are similar to those of Belgium and Western Europe, which still have a much more restrictive regime in place and are opening up much more slowly. However, the trend in Russia is headed ever so slightly in the wrong direction and surely a major factor is a low take-up of the vaccinations on offer, about which I will .offer some explanations below. Otherwise, in what follows I will share impressions about current daily life, about the economic and social impact that Covid appears to have had since my last stay in Russia.
Much has changed in Belgian and Western European society since the onset of the Covid pandemic. So it should come as no surprise that the Russia of today, is not the same as what I left behind 18 months ago.
The economic impact of Covid is immediately obvious. Platforms for small vendors like our Gostinny Dvor shopping complex in downtown Pushkin have lost half or more of the shops; the entire second floor of the building is now vacant, representing the loss of dozens of small enterprises.
Here we see the consequences of the Russian government’s very low level of financial assistance to business generally. Measured as a percentage of GDP, Russia remained fiscally conservative from the start. It did not take out massive new loans to assist recovery from Covid as did the USA and the European Union. It mainly directed its outlays to assisting families with children, through one-time grants and new monthly allowances, building on pre-existing social programs. Similarly, it extended a program of cheap mortgage loans both to support the important construction industry and to help people with limited means to improve their living conditions. It put new money into medical services, hospitals, salaries to doctors and nurses. But, overall, the economy was left to its own resources.
Public sector employees, a large part of the work force, were largely protected against financial loss from the lockdowns. Meanwhile, for their part, the big industrial and agricultural enterprises had sufficiently deep pockets to avoid lay-offs and pay salaries to those who were not working normal hours. They could survive the crisis on their own.
It was the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) who needed help and who did not receive it. Highly regrettable stinginess on the part of the Putin government has opened wounds in society that will not easily heal even if the economy as a whole plows ahead and returns to its pre-Covid levels thanks, in particular, to the recent sharp rise in the price of gas and oil, as well as of agricultural commodities that Russia exports in vast amounts.
Other social and economic losses resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic arose from the closing of borders. For the reasons noted above in my introductory remarks, foreign tourists have disappeared. The most visible such groups were, of course, the Chinese, who came through the Hermitage, the suburban tsarist palaces and other cultural and historical centers of interest in enormous groups. They had been a source of irritation among locals, who found their own access to these facilities limited as a result and who questioned whether the Chinese groups, taken around, fed and housed by enterprises run by their compatriots, really contributed much to the economy. Such questions are no longer relevant: there simply are no Chinese, almost no Americans and West Europeans. To a limited extent, luxury establishments like the Hotel d’Europe, are now taken over by wealthy Russians. But there are not enough of them to go around. As a result, hotel vacancy rates are high and ‘must visit’ gourmet restaurants are nearly empty.
The closed borders also have cut down substantially on the numbers of Gastarbeiters from Central Asia who had been performing all sorts of menial but essential jobs in construction, public works and miscellaneous services. Their gypsy cabs that 18 months ago provided us with instant transportation in the outlying districts of Petersburg are today a distant memory. Now we are reliant on Uber, Yandex and the other cartelized taxi providers operating only by phone or internet reservations. They are thin on the ground outside of the city center.
On the positive side, in Russia, just as in the West, the pandemic lockdowns supercharged online shopping. Russia’s answer to Amazon, a company called Ozon, has vastly expanded its presence. And major supermarkets have offered facilities for placing orders online that are delivered to the shopper’s home.
Meanwhile, as regards Covid itself, the picture which emerges from the month I have spent in Russia’s second largest city, St Petersburg, and in the countryside 80 km to the south, in the Gatchina district of the Leningradskaya oblast, is more complex than what one might assume from reading reports in mainstream Western media. Our journalists stress only the low vaccination rate across the population as a whole without any differentiation. They speak about the public’s uncertainty over the Russian vaccine Sputnik V due to its “rushed” approval. And they cite mortality figures from Covid which are several times those officially published by Russian authorities.
What I found by talking with people on the spot revealed a big cleavage in acceptance of the vaccination program, as well as in acceptance of the sanitary regulations surrounding wearing of masks and social distancing between city people and country people, between the “intelligentsia” meaning educated folks, thinking society, and everyone else.
The country folk we met with in the hamlet of Orlino, population 400, had been vaccinated at the first opportunity, without hesitation or discussion. They all wore masks in stores, as required. Otherwise, they walked their streets mask-free, so that to anyone driving through it was as if there was no Covid.
But, of course, Covid reached into even the smallest and remote communities. Our immediate neighbors on one side of our property all came down with Covid just after New Year’s 2021. Where did they get it? Answer – at work. Apparently, their illness was only moderately serious: no one was hospitalized and all appear to have fully recovered. We saw them last weekend planting and tending their potato patch, which is back breaking work.
In our St Petersburg borough of Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), we have no acquaintances whom we might ask about vaccinations. But we do see that the respect for Covid sanitary regulations is less uniform. To be sure, in the major supermarket chains Pyaterochka, Perekryostok, Magnit and Fix Price which I frequent, all the staff wear masks and most but not all customers do as well.
At Pyaterochka, a gal in her early twenties in line just after me approached the cash register mask-less and was asked by the cashier, also in her early twenties, to take one of the free masks offered to shoppers at the entrance. She did that without complaint. That in itself was testimony to the remarkable civility today of Russians in their settlement of differences and contrasts starkly with the shouting and cursing that often accompanied enforcement of rules in the Soviet past.
In downtown St Petersburg, the general observance of Covid-related sanitary regulations is much more lax and, frankly, cause for concern.
The latest daily reports on new Covid infections in Russia are heading in the wrong direction. From a low of less than 8,000 daily a couple of weeks ago, the figures have risen to more than 13,000 now. Of that roughly half the new cases are in Moscow, a significant rise. St Petersburg’s daily count is said to be stable at around 860 cases. Bear in mind that the general population of St Petersburg is less than half that of Moscow. The incidence of new Covid infections is therefore about three times less than in Moscow.
How may we understand the relatively worse situation in Moscow than in St Petersburg given that medical facilities in the former are much superior to those in the latter? The question is all the more intriguing given that Moscow is governed by one of the most sophisticated and energetic mayors in the country, Sobyanin, whereas St Petersburg is run by the nonentity Beglov, of whom the best people say is that “he has done no harm.”
Possibly the difference is found in the relative isolation of St Petersburg to the outside world at present, with almost no international flights, in contrast to Moscow which is virtually the only port receiving international passengers from all over the world, including “red zone” countries. Then, as a second possible contributor, there is the mass transit system. Moscow’s metro is by far the biggest carrier of commuters in the country. It is far larger and far more needed given the vast territory of the capital and the outlying residential areas feeding in commuters each day.
I cannot say how secure is the Moscow metro from spread of Covid, but I can offer an observation about its St Petersburg counterpart, which as presently run must be a significant spreader of infection. Only a small minority of passengers are wearing masks and the level of occupancy of the railcars is very high even in off hours. Surface transport in Petersburg also appeared to be hit or miss with respect to mask observance.
Meanwhile, in St Petersburg public entertainments are being offered as if there were no pandemic. I went to two operas and two ballet performances at the Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky theaters. All the performances were sold out, all seats were occupied, and only some spectators wore masks. For its part, Horeca is operating normally, both restaurants and bars.
Russia has taken a stand as a front-runner internationally in reopening and normalization of public life. The St Petersburg International Economic Forum is often referred to as a Davos-scale event of international importance. But whereas Davos remains on hold and will be largely a virtual event this year, the St Petersburg forum attracted more than 2,000 foreigners, which though substantial is about half the normal contingent. The arriving foreigners all had been issued special forum-related visas and all were required to undergo a PCR test before being admitted to the event premises.
Similarly, St Petersburg is host to UEFA competition matches, whereas other European capitals like Brussels did not agree to take the risks this year. Two days ago, we witnessed the opening of a fan zone in the city center. Hundreds if not thousands of young people were streaming towards the entrance gates, almost none of them wearing masks. By contrast, the Rosgvardia and city police officers present to maintain order were nearly all in masks.
In a word, apart from the daily news broadcasts that highlight the latest infections, hospitalizations and deaths, judging by the behavior of most city folk, there is little to remind you that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has infected more than five million Russians, killed more than 100,000 if not three times that figure.
Our city friends are nearly all well educated people. For the most part, they have not been vaccinated. Some say they are waiting for availability of new Russian vaccines later this year which they think will be safer. Others say they have no intention of getting vaccinated at all. The reasons they give can be amazing in their ignorance and disregard for the advice of medical experts and the authorities generally.
“Why should I get vaccinated? I haven’t been sick!” This bit of illogic I heard from both ends of the urban social spectrum. At the top end, the speaker was a late ‘30s, early 40’s woman with a musical education. She is happily married to a much older music professional. She says that very likely a year ago they both came down with Covid. Given his age and comorbidities he was greatly at risk of complications. Yet, she refused to take him to a clinic or hospital, reasoning that they would put him on a drip and progressively see him to the grave. Instead, she nursed him at home, gave him aspirin initially and then after a week, when the fever abated, gave him standard antibiotics. They both recovered. Fine, you may say. However, she refused to see a doctor even after recovery or to undergo PCR tests, saying they give contradictory results and are worthless. Accordingly, they now have no proof that they recovered from a Covid infection. As they plan foreign travel, she intends to buy counterfeit certificates of vaccination, which are now coming onto the Russian consumer market for a price of $60 each.
In her case, her aversion to the vaccine and to the entire Russian medical establishment is part of a broader refusal to believe anything coming from official sources, whether Russian….or foreign. When I presented statistics showing the dramatic effect that the first strict lockdown and now mass vaccinations have had on the incidence of infection, hospitalization and death in Belgium, she refused to listen, saying that all statistics are phony.
My case from the bottom of society is the Uzbek vendor of dried fruit in one of the city markets where I have made regular purchases for more than five years. Fine fellow! But when I asked if he had been vaccinated, he gave the same response as my lady acquaintance above. No mask on him. No interest in hearing about Covid.
The identical wording of their rejection of vaccinations and of expert medical advice possibly suggests a common source in one or another of the widely followed social networks and celebrity bloggers. However, I believe that the cause-effect linkage of these gurus is the inverse of what is popularly assumed: namely, people choose to follow bloggers and celebrities who say what they want to hear.
In the West, media commonly speak of the “authoritarian regime” in Russia as if the populace were cowed and docile. However, as the resistance to Covid prevention measures here indicates, there is a strong undercurrent of what I would call elemental anarchism in this country. It goes back a long way in national traditions. It was best formulated in the last quarter of the 19th century by the theoretician-political activist Prince Piotr Kropotkin.
So far, this anarchist mind-set has not resulted in any bunt or spontaneous outbreak of violence. Surely it has revealed itself in the outpouring of support for the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who offered no political program as such, to attract his followers, only a rejection of everything. Commentators in the West refuse to see this side of the pro-Navalny demonstrations of several months ago following his arrest and internment. For them Navalny is but an instrument, a lever to be used in their quest to disrupt Russia and bring about regime change. I see the outpouring of demonstrators in the streets as a generalized expression of frustration over the Covid restrictions and worsening standard of living they engendered.
Before closing, I offer one further observation of what has changed here in the 18 months I was away: respect for the United States and the Collective West has fallen sharply among all of our acquaintances, even those who were formerly Anglophiles, Liberals and sworn opponents of the “Putin regime.” The sanctions, the never-ending flow of bitter denunciations of Russia coming from Western media have arrived together with news of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, mass shootings by madmen and abuses of the militarized police forces in the US, providing stark illustrations of the double standards being practiced in the West in contradiction with their supposed values. All of this disillusionment comes on top of the Russians’ generalized feelings of frustration over the Covid restrictions. Moral of the story for anyone willing to listen on Capitol Hill: this is not a propitious time to bait the bear if ever there were such a time.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021
Post Script, 19 June 2021: My remarks about the rising Covid-19 infection and hospitalization rates in Russia offered a week ago were prescient. The latest infection figures announced by Russian state radio yesterday were above 17,000, of which half the cases were recorded in the city of Moscow. And in Moscow itself more than 80% of new infections are of the newly arrived Indian variant, all of which suggests that the city’s being the sole point of entry for international flights explains its particular vulnerability to new waves of Covid.
Meanwhile, the authorities have decided at last to take firm action on behalf of the vaccination program. In Moscow city, then in the surrounding Moscow Oblast in the past week they introduced mandatory vaccination for workers in various spheres who have contact with the general public, exceptions being made only for those who have medical justification for not undergoing vaccination. The order has immediately made itself felt in the past few days. Nationwide, the vaccination rate went up by 5%. In Moscow itself, the daily number of vaccinations has increased by 30%.
However, in proudly announcing that more than 40,000 vaccinations are now being administered daily in the capital, the city fathers miss the point that in the state of Belgium which has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Moscow, the daily vaccinations reached more than 200,000 as the country hit its stride a month ago.
Yesterday, we had tea with a long-time friend who is well educated, very sophisticated in her artistic, gastronomic and other tastes. You might call her a perfect intelligent if it weren’t for her having become very patriotic in the past few years and if it weren’t for her having gotten vaccinated at the first opportunity. As we discussed the Covid situation here, she remarked that “Russia needs to be ruled with an iron fist.” Indeed, the broad population is only confused and annoyed by gentleness in matters that concern its own welfare, like countering the pandemic. The Kremlin has finally taken notice.