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Medical workers wearing protective clothing take a suspected COVID-19 patient into quarantine. One Russian NGO says it's been contacted by many people in quarantine who feel abandoned without information.

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!"

Russian activist Aleksandra Krylenkova (file photo)
Russian activist Aleksandra Krylenkova (file photo)

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.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by correspondents Lyubov Chizhova and Aleksandr Litoi of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
The editor in chief of RT, Margarita Simonyan, with her husband, film director Tigran Keosayan (file photo)

In 2018, the film was voted one of the worst by Russian critics: a comedic love story taking place against the triumphant backdrop of the bridge linking Russia to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow seized from Ukraine four years earlier.

The movie, titled The Crimean Bridge. Made With Love!, was intended to help celebrate the Kremlin's multibillion-dollar effort to cement the peninsula as part of Russia, international opprobrium and Western sanctions be damned.

It turns out scathing reviews weren't the only thing garnered by director Tigran Keosayan.

An investigation by anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny charged that Keosayan, his wife, Margarita Simonyan, and their relatives made around 46 million rubles on the project. At the time of the film's release in late 2018, that amounted to about $700,000.

Simonyan, who is credited with writing the screenplay, is the head of the state-funded TV channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today.

According to the investigation by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, the film's budget was about 154 million rubles. Nearly two-thirds of that came from federal funds, according to an earlier report by the BBC.

The remaining amount came from businesses linked to Arkady Rotenberg, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and the owner of the construction conglomerate that built the bridge to Crimea, the investigation found.

The funds granted to Simonyan and her family were awarded without any competitive bidding process, Navalny's foundation said. Keosayan earned 13.9 million rubles ($211,000) while Simonyan made 9.1 million rubles ($138,000), the investigation found.

Other relatives receiving salaries or payments for their work on the film include Keosayan's brother, identified as the general producer; Keosayan's nephew, identified as a unit production manager; and the nephew's wife, identified as an executive producer for the film.

The BBC, in its initial investigation into the movie, published in November 2018, found that the Russian Culture Ministry's Cinema Fund initially rejected the film's application for financing. Ultimately, the funds were released only at the request of Aleksei Gromov, a long-time Putin subordinate who was then his first deputy chief of staff.

As head of RT, Simonyan earns millions of dollars annually. The channel is funded overwhelmingly, if not entirely, by the Russian government budget.

Neither Simonyan nor RT had any immediate response to the Navalny investigation.

The news site Open Media, which is funded by exiled oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, spoke to several actors who appeared in the film, but they declined to comment on the allegations in the investigation.

Box-Office Bust

The movie was largely a box-office bust, according to the business newspaper Vedomosti, which reported in October that it took in only 70 million rubles ($1.1 million) in ticket receipts.

It was also a bomb where critics were concerned. Several Russian movie sites called it not only the worst film of 2018, but one of the worst of all time. On the Russian movie fan site Kinopoisk, 17,490 users voted, giving the flick a rating of 2.7 out of 10.

Russia's Crimea Bridge Rom-Com Panned By Critics
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"Тhis is completely monstrous and unbearable to the point to never ever think about it again," wrote film critic Yegor Belikov, in the art journal Afisha.

The investigation was the second this month by Navalny's foundation looking into the finances of Simonyan, a long-time journalist with state media, and her family.

On March 10, the foundation alleged that Simonyan and Keosayan had improperly received more than 700 million rubles for intermediary services between advertisers and NTV, a major Russian TV channel that is owned by the natural gas monopoly, Gazprom.

Simonyan denied that she or her husband had done anything illegal.

The bridge to Crimea, which spans 17 kilometers (11 miles) across the Kerch Strait, was completed in 2018 at a cost of $3.7 billion, and is key to the Kremlin's efforts to incorporate the peninsula into the Russian economy. There are no other land links between Russia and Crimea, which Putin claims is sacred to his nation.

Russia seized control of Crimea in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.

Most governments reject Moscow's claim that Crimea is part of Russia and continue to consider it a region of Ukraine.

Rotenberg's construction company, Stroigazmontazh, won the contract despite not having any experience in constructing bridges.

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