Nothing typically happens in Russia in August. As a rule, the final month of summer is when the big cities empty out, their inhabitants making for their dachas or to seaside resorts, leaving their worldly problems behind them. But between the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent on 20 August and widespread protests in neighbouring Belarus, this summer’s atmosphere has weighed heavier.
Russians have not been too worried about Covid-19, however. The country’s lackadaisical, two-month lockdown was lifted in June. With little appetite to return to self-isolation, and social-distancing fatigue setting in, many Russians now see the pandemic as a closed issue.
Russia’s official death rate remains low at around 18,000, for unclear reasons. In the absence of Italian-style scenes of horror, an inclination for conspiracy theory nurtured by opaque authoritarianism is reasserting itself. It is not uncommon to hear dark mutterings that the virus’s threat was exaggerated by the media. A test of Russians’ residual interest in the virus came on 11 August, when Vladimir Putin announced that the country’s regulators had approved a vaccine developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, the first such instance worldwide.
The Sputnik V vaccine was so safe, the president said, that his own daughter had already received it. With only 76 people yet officially confirmed to have received the vaccine as part of phase one and two trials, international endorsement remains a long way off.
But while people seem to have lost interest, there are signs of official concern. After a recent spike in cases, masks and social distancing – once rare and derided – are now in theory required almost everywhere. The result has been to expose Russia’s internal divide. Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, has distinguished himself with a serious-minded approach to the pandemic. Under his leadership, Moscow is aggressively enforcing the mask mandate.
But Moscow is not Russia. Out in the regions, the picture is quite different. In the heaving Black Sea resort towns, which are capitalising on a boom in domestic tourism catalysed by sealed borders, basic health precautions are so rare as to make insisting upon them seem almost boorish. Here in Anapa, on the coast between the now annexed Crimea and Georgia, ubiquitous signs note that entry to shops and restaurants is for the masked and socially distanced only. But adherence is near zero. Public health has become a strictly pro forma matter. If prompted by an official, the occasional customer might momentarily don a mask out of deference before invariably removing it once out of sight.
Even a pandemic has had to accommodate itself to one of the familiar rhythms of Russian life: the endless, undeclared war between a state eager to impose rules, and a population long accustomed to ignoring them. With Russia planning to make its vaccine publicly available from October 2020, perhaps biomedical wizardry will yet trump public health laxity. Or perhaps it won’t.
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid