MOSCOW -- On March 16, the day Russia recorded a spike in coronavirus cases and officials began urging the population not to panic, political analyst and Kremlin critic Valery Solovei made a guest appearance on the radio station Ekho Moskvy.
The government was failing to cope with the threat, he told listeners, and asserted that the authorities were lying about the scale of the epidemic. He dismissed the official figure of 93 cases and no deaths, as well as any suggestion that Russia wouldn’t be hit hard by the pandemic.
Seemingly surprising the host, Aleksei Solomin, Solovei claimed that there were actually at least 1,600 “confirmed” deaths and predicted that 2 million Russians would soon be infected. He did not cite evidence.
When asked by Solomin where he had gotten his information, Solovei responded, “Not all officials have lost their conscience."
(Solovei was more specific when asked by RFE/RL about his sources, saying the death toll he cited came from a government official he declined to name. He did not provide any other evidence.)
Solovei’s claims of a state cover-up soon spread online, tapping a climate of suspicion about the authorities’ version of events. On March 20, authorities ordered Ekho Moskvy to remove the interview from its website as part of "measures to prevent the spread of false information related to the coronavirus,” and the radio station complied. Solovei was threatened with a 100,000 ruble ($1,300) fine.
Russia is rife with skepticism over the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. With its official caseload at 495 infections and zero deaths as of March 24, Russia has so far avoided the fast spread that is seen in many other countries and which is expected with such a highly infectious illness. But with almost 200,000 tests conducted, many distrust that low number, and others point to reports of a 37 percent rise in pneumonia cases in January as evidence that something is amiss.
WATCH: A massive construction effort in Golokhvastovo, southwest of Moscow, to build a hospital for treatment of COVID-19. The site is expected to have 500 patient beds and dormitories to house 1,000 staff. City officials say the hospital could open its doors within a month.
The deaths of two Muscovites who were initially reported as victims of the new virus were subsequently chalked up by officials to other ailments the patients suffered from. The Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, which monitors the spread of the virus, has continued to list one death in Russia since March 19, when the first of those two deaths was reported.
In a country were many citizens still remember the Soviet government’s secrecy over the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, distrust is high.
In response, the government has launched a campaign to control the information space, wielding a new law banning the spread of what it calls ”fake news.” President Vladimir Putin signed the law in March 2019, but it wasn’t until October that a Russian court punished someone under its auspices, fining a publishing house and its editor a combined 260,000 rubles ($3,300) for posting videos warning of a revolution in Russia.
Now, the law -- which carries a fine of up to 400,000 rubles -- is being cited readily in what the government says is an effort to control dangerous misinformation and critics call a means to deter dissent.
“This is a pointless practice, but it fits into the Russian style of governance,” Solovei told RFE/RL in a phone interview. “One can trace it back to the Chernobyl catastrophe, and see its continuation in contemporary Russian history, when deaths and diagnoses have been covered up.”
On March 19, police in St. Petersburg said they had summoned a man for questioning after he sent voice messages with information about the COVID-19 pandemic that didn't “reflect reality.” The same day, a woman in Russia’s Far East was charged for a social-media post suggesting a local person had contracted the virus. “Such information is a lie,” the police said in a statement. And that evening, a woman in the Lipetsk region was disciplined for claiming cases of COVID-19 had been discovered locally. Three cases had indeed been recorded, authorities said, but all patients had since recovered.
Some of those targeted by the new law have apologized publicly, potentially aiding the state’s cause but raising questions among government critics about possible coercion.
On March 20, after she was fined 30,000 rubles ($380) for a message claiming that her city in Tatarstan would be locked down due to fears over the virus, a resident of Nizhnekamsk, Oksana Garipova, issued a public apology on a local radio station.
“I’m deeply sorry,” she said on the broadcast. “Please, don’t believe everything people say.”
Three days later she was brought to Moscow to appear on the popular talk show Let Them Talk, where she told viewers across the country that the punishment she received was fair.
Reached by phone, she told RFE/RL the message she was fined for had been a “bad joke” played on friends and refused to comment further.
Interactive Coronavirus Map
On March 23, the government raised the stakes: Anyone who spreads "fake news" about the coronavirus, it announced, could soon face criminal charges. If such measures are introduced, they would significantly increase the costs -- up to potential prison terms -- for violators.
The Kremlin appears to be banking on success in preventing the coronavirus from causing a major public-health problem in Russia. Putin is one step away from securing constitutional changes that would allow him to run for reelection in 2024 and potentially remain president until 2036. A nationwide vote that was meant to cement those changes is scheduled for April 22, and postponing it due to the pandemic would be a headache for Putin’s government.
According to Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, holding the vote is the Kremlin’s main priority, and efforts to control information fit into that broader goal.
“If you describe the situation as well-managed, saying everything is under control and there is no big risk to the national vote, then you can still hold it,” she said. “But if you lose control of the information space, if you let panic unfold and people become anxious, you won’t be able to hold the vote in such circumstances.”
The Russian authorities have themselves stood accused of sowing disinformation abroad about the coronavirus. Excerpts of an internal EU document leaked to the press on March 16 said that pro-Kremlin media outlets were actively spreading disinformation about the pandemic in a bid to "undermine public trust" in Western countries.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the report was based on "groundless accusations,” but his response came two weeks after the Kremlin made its own broadside, alleging that malign actors from abroad had been working to sow confusion within Russia.
On March 4, Putin said that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, had determined that the spread of “provocative” fake stories was being organized from abroad. “The aim of such fake stories is clear: to sow panic in the population,” he said.
Aleksei Goreslavsky, who leads a government center that informs Russian citizens about the COVID-19 situation, claimed that the authorities have uncovered several dozen deliberate campaigns to distribute voice messages peddling fake news about the epidemic.
“We are cooperating with colleagues in the Interior Ministry and FSB, and all those cases where there are signs of deliberately misleading will be passed to them for investigation,” he said in an interview on state TV.
His statement came the day after the March 19 wave of disciplinary action against alleged violators of the “fake news” law.
Many of those cases are still being investigated. Solovei said he is yet to receive notice of a fine from the authorities for his statements about the coronavirus death toll in Russia.
But he expressed confidence that his status as a well-known public figure would protect him from repercussions, and even make the authorities think twice.
“That’s the only thing in Russia that can protect you,” he said. “Publicity.”