Vijai Maheshwari is a writer and entrepreneur based in Moscow. He tweets at @Vijaimaheshwari.
MOSCOW — It wasn’t that long ago, in early June, that Russia’s capital Moscow was eerily quiet as the Kremlin enforced one of the world’s harshest lockdowns to flatten the rising curve of coronavirus infections. With the capital reporting more than 10,000 new cases a day, residents needed special permission via QR codes on their phones for trips outside, and most Muscovites cowered fearfully in their flats.
Flash forward nearly two months and the contrast couldn’t be greater: Parks, restaurants, museums, gyms, nightclubs — even strip clubs — are open once again. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin jolted the city out of its corona slumber with a massive June 24 Victory Day parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of World War II, Moscow is churning at full blast again. Walking around Russia’s celebratory post-lockdown capital, it’s easy to forget that we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic.
That’s likely what the Kremlin intended. Muscovites are well aware that their corona freedom came about in anticipation of a July 1 vote on a new constitution that Putin needed to push through to potentially extend his reign until 2036 — but there hasn’t been much pushback.
Reports of massive electoral fraud haven’t stirred public anger, and there have been no protests on the scale of last summer’s demonstrations. (There’s ongoing unrest in the far east of the country over the arrest of a popular, anti-Kremlin governor but they’ve stayed local for now.)
Instead, Putin is being thanked by Muscovites for having forced the mayor of Moscow to lift the lockdown earlier than planned, and his popularity has spiked.
Russians are mostly just relieved to be free again, even though the country is still recording more than 6,000 new cases daily. International borders may still be closed, but most Russians have thrown caution to the wind and already embraced a post-corona future.
Crimea has become the new Ibiza, with flush Muscovites flocking to the rocky beaches of the disputed peninsula for their belated summer holidays. The cavalier attitude toward wearing masks and social distancing among most Russians makes a deadlier second wave in the fall — or sooner — even more likely.
But for now, the corona nihilists have the upper hand in Russia: A survey by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics found that a staggering third of Russians don’t believe in the coronavirus pandemic and consider the threat to be exaggerated.
With an official death toll of just over 10,000 deaths for almost 1 million infections, their cavalier attitude does have some basis in statistics — or in government statistics anyway. Even though the New York Times claims that the Kremlin has been distorting facts to underreport the true mortality rate, the official numbers have helped quell the initial corona panic.
“I feel sorry for Americans,” confessed a taxi driver the other day. “They had more than 100,000 deaths while we had much fewer because of our superior medical care.”
Besides the low official death count, there’s another reason for the local corona sangfroid, and people’s willingness to play Russian roulette with their health.
Perhaps given their brutal and violent history, Russians are more fatalistic than others, and more inclined to shrug at chaos, disasters and pandemics than actively change their behavior and take precautions to mitigate the dangers.
The Russians even have a word, avos, for their fatalism: It roughly translates as believing that life is unpredictable and there is little that can be done to change one’s fate. Even Putin used the word when asking the Russians to take the corona threat seriously in late March this year and not “rely on our good old Russian avos.”
So, while other countries roll back restrictions as infections spike, Russia’s opened up with a bang. Even strict guidelines about the mandatory wearing of masks on the streets have now been rescinded.
The lifting of corona restrictions so quickly has led to a summer of euphoria as lockdown-weary Russians enjoy their freedom again. Even though many have come out the other side poorer, their financial future more uncertain, that hasn’t stopped them from packing the parks and mobbing the nightclubs.
The carefree mood fits Putin’s plans perfectly. While Russia parties and minds are on the sunny beaches of Crimea, the Kremlin has taken advantage of the vacuum to ruthlessly clamp down on its critics.
Just days after the vote on the new constitution, former journalist Ivan Safronov was arrested on treason charges, and police stormed the apartment of Pussy Riot activist Pyotr Verzilov, charging him for allegedly not declaring his Canadian citizenship.
The arrest of Sergei Furgal, an anti-Kremlin governor, in the far-east region of Khaborovsk for murder charges going back 15 years has sparked the most serious challenge to Putin’s post-referendum crackdown, with over 15,000 demonstrating this past weekend. “This is yet another intimidation campaign,” tweeted prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
At another time, these harsh moves might have led to street protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg too, but most Russians are too busy celebrating to notice. They’ve given Putin free rein for the summer at least so that they can let their hair down at last. They might be even willing to grant him their assent for longer — as long as there isn’t another lockdown.
Any talk about a new round of restrictions in the fall if cases spike after a summer of abandon could put an abrupt end to an otherwise happy conversation. Having lived through totalitarianism and the dark purges of the Stalin era, having their liberties restricted again terrifies Russians more than the coronavirus.
Putin understands their mentality, and so it’s unlikely — despite persistent rumors to the contrary — that the Kremlin will order another lockdown, even if cases do shoot up. A second quarantine could lead to street protests, and further crimp the Russian economy, already expected to contract more than 6 percent this year, according to the World Bank.
Unemployed Russians might then turn their anger against the Kremlin, and Putin’s carefully constructed plans for eternal rule over Mother Russia could begin to unravel.
It’s more likely then that the Kremlin will keep spinning statistics to downplay the threat, and let Russians enjoy their blissful ignorance. Russia has learned from neighboring Belarus, which never ordered lockdowns even during the peak of their corona spikes — it now looks like the Kremlin plans to let the virus run unchecked until it burns out in the vastness of Russia.
That strategy might be disastrous for Russia’s more vulnerable, especially its pensioners, but as long as hospitals can handle the surge, Putin should emerge unscathed. Unlike unpopular former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who turned the country against him by imposing a harsh prohibition in 1985, Putin has no desire to shut down the party and imperil his regime.
He knows that as long as Russians are free and happy, he can get away with murder.