Contagious Solidarity: As Russia Faces Growing COVID-19 Crisis, Independent Activists Gear Up To Help
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Aleksandra Krylenkova is a human rights activist with a long track record. In recent months, she has been campaigning in support of the defendants in the so-called Network (Set) case, a terrorism prosecution that many believe was trumped up by the Federal Security Service. She has also publicized alleged human rights abuses in Ukraine's Crimea region, which was seized by Russia in 2014.
Now, like the rest of the world, Krylenkova is turning her attention to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I have already spoken to everyone who lives in my part of our building," she told RFE/RL, arguing that for Russia to cope with the rapidly unfolding situation, civil society must play new and more active roles.
She quickly created a group called Covidarnost, a portmanteau word combining COVID with the Russian word for "solidarity." The new organization's slogan is "Solidarity Is Contagious."
The grassroots group -- which includes activists, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, computer programmers, and others -- aims to identify, network, and assist local "initiative groups" around the country. It is developing standardized informational handouts and protocols under which volunteers can safely help the elderly and other vulnerable categories of people through the coronavirus crisis period.
Krylenkova said Covidarnost plans to open a telephone hotline to provide psychological and legal counseling through the crisis period.
Officially, Russia had registered 658 COVID-19 cases and no fatalities as of March 25, but the country's coronavirus task force acknowledged two deaths, describing the victims as elderly patients suffering from pneumonia and complications. (The Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, which monitors the global spread of the virus, now lists three deaths in Russia, including those two fatalities and one death that officials later said was caused by a blood clot.)
Even as they rise, many in Russia are skeptical
Under the two decades of President Vladimir Putin's rule, Russia's nascent post-Soviet civil society has come under sharp attack. Some independent organizations have been forced to register as "foreign agents" and have been cut off from many key domestic and foreign funding sources. Activists have been harassed, attacked, jailed, and fined across the country.
In addition, Kremlin-friendly pseudo-nongovernmental organizations -- so-called governmental nongovernmental organizations, or GONGOs -- have been set up to marginalize genuine grassroots initiatives.
Projects like Krylenkova's already face "competition" from All Together 2020 (Myvmeste2020), an apparently similar volunteer organization created by the All-Russia Popular Front (ONF), a Kremlin-created vehicle that supports Putin and often acts as a partner to the ruling United Russia party. The All Together 2020 project is a joint effort with the state-friendly nongovernmental Russia-Land Of Possibilities organization that "was created in 2018 at the initiative of President Vladimir Putin" and the Presidential Grant Fund.
Call To Action
In a Facebook post on March 20, Krylenkova argued that people shouldn't rely on mass programs with armies of volunteers under the current circumstances.
"We must all help one another," she wrote. "I have already begun. Join me!"
Others are quickly responding to the challenges as well. Russian Internet portal Mail.ru has created downloadable sample forms for people who are willing to help their neighbors with groceries or medicines. "Let's join together to help," runs the company's call to action.
A neighborhood group in the St. Petersburg region of Chyornaya Rechka has created a similar project, urging the elderly to contact them for help. "We, your neighbors, care about you!" the group's form says.
"Our active team is about 10 people and altogether there are about 30 participants," said organizer Pavel Chuprunov. "Previously we organized garbage clean-ups and election monitoring, and stuff like that. We started our [coronavirus] campaign just recently, and people are responding well, although I personally have only helped two elderly women."
"Each activist has been assigned a residential block," he continued. "The main thing now is to tell the elderly that they have this opportunity to get help. If they use it or not, that is up to them."
Also in St. Petersburg, the legal-aid NGO Agora on March 19 opened a hotline to provide legal assistance in matters arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first few days of the project, more than 150 people have called for consultation. Many of the inquiries are about the conditions of quarantine and the penalties for violating them or about procedures for getting refunds for cancelled travel plans.
In addition, callers have asked about forced hospitalization, freedom-of-speech issues, and questions about the conduct of police officers.
"We had to get involved," Agora spokesman Vadim Meshcheryakov told RFE/RL, "since the pandemic is affecting such a large number of people…. We decided to start this project because Russia does not have any centers -- state or private -- to provide legal assistance to citizens."
'Abandoned' In Quarantine
Agora lawyer Stanislav Seleznyov says many of the callers are people in quarantine who feel abandoned without information.
"As a rule, these are people who voluntarily reported themselves and checked into a hospital," Seleznyov said. "Now they are in quarantine and are given no information. Or they are given contradictory information. Some of them gave samples for testing three, four, 10, or 15 days ago and still have no results. They have not been released and they have not been told if their tests came back positive or negative."
Agora is aggregating such information and reporting it to the Health Ministry.
Another grassroots initiative has been an online petition calling for a moratorium on mortgage payments until at least May 20. More than 160,000 people had signed it as of March 25.
"More than 3.5 million of the most economically active Russian citizens cannot remain at home because they are required to make monthly mortgage payments," the petition argues. "Mortgage holidays reduce stress and help people extend their planning horizon so that they can stay home and get through the peak [infection] period."
Another project, Antijob.net, has set itself the task of protecting workers during the COVID-19 pandemic by collecting information about unsustainable working conditions and advocating that people working under "self-employment" or other similar agreements be given legal work contracts and the protections they entail.
"The current situation is grotesque," said project organizer Andrei Malygin. "People who want to do what they can to contain the virus by staying home cannot afford to self-isolate or even to stay home when they are sick or even to get proper rest on the weekends."
On March 20, Internet giant Yandex set a precedent by announcing it would provide financial assistance to its drivers and couriers who are infected or ordered into quarantine.
The Alliance of Doctors and Action are independent associations of medical professionals that have been informing authorities about the lack of preparations in many hospitals, including critical shortages of medical masks.