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Russia's 'Rona Rage': St. Petersburg Killing Highlights Rising Pandemic Tensions

Andrei Khabursky was stabbed in the back after an altercation on a bus.
Andrei Khabursky was stabbed in the back after an altercation on a bus.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Fifty-three-year-old Andrei Khabursky was killed on November 19, stabbed in the back after an encounter on a city bus in which he apparently confronted a couple who were not wearing masks despite a local order aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.

Local media in St. Petersburg released a soundless security camera video of the initial incident, in which Khabursky speaks briefly with the couple before the male figure stands in anger. Khabursky then strikes the man in the face and flees the stopped bus with the maskless man in pursuit.

Sometime in the next few minutes, Khabursky was stabbed in the back. According to the owner of a nearby cafe where the wounded man rested on the steps while bleeding profusely, he tried to stand and struck his head violently when he lost consciousness.

"The killer himself tried to help," the cafe's owner told local journalists about the suspected assailant. "He pretended to be a passer-by, came up to him, and began giving CPR."

Khabursky, a deputy director of a research institute, left behind a widow and an adult daughter.

Two days later, St. Petersburg police arrested 40-year-old Aleksei Verbitsky, a welder from the Ural Mountains region city of Orenburg, and charged him with murder. According to prosecutors, Verbitsky has confessed to the killing.

The local edition of the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda quoted a friend of Verbitsky's -- who asked not to be identified -- as saying Verbitsky did not "believe" in the danger posed by the coronavirus.

'Alarm And Pessimism'

The St. Petersburg slaying is just one incident in a growing wave of so-called coronavirus rage cases sweeping Russia as it faces a new national spike in infections. As has been documented around the world since the pandemic began in the spring, COVID-19 and the lockdown restrictions that have been implemented to combat it have produced powerful traumatic consequences including increased anxiety, depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse.

"The quarantine restrictions bring the trauma of isolation, for one thing," said Yury Sivolap, a psychiatrist and drug-addiction specialist at St. Petersburg's First Naval Medical University. "For another, there is the danger of infection and people are afraid they will fall ill themselves or infect their loved ones. In addition, many people are experiencing economic losses and uncertainty, which is also pretty traumatic. No one knows how this will end."

According to official figures, Russia has had more than 2.1 million infections and over 37,000 coronavirus fatalities since the pandemic began. Since November 5, the country has seen more than 20,000 new infections daily, and the number of deaths on November 25 -- 507 -- was the highest yet. Russia's official figures have been criticized as understating the real situation.

Aleksei Verbitsky has been charged with murder.
Aleksei Verbitsky has been charged with murder.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on November 25 that the Kremlin had noticed a sense of "alarm and pessimism" among Russians "in connection with the fact that there's a pandemic in the country, as in the entire world."

Sivolap said that in Russia, particularly, tensions are on the rise over the question of wearing masks.

"Those who don’t wear masks have several views," he told RFE/RL. "There are those who just don’t believe in the coronavirus at all. Some believe in conspiracy theories such as the claim mask wearing is profitable for the producers of masks. Some think it is a restriction on their personal liberty. While, in my view, those who wear masks are proceeding from reasonable caution and are acting responsibly."

"There is a clear tension between those who wear masks and those who don’t, and this has become a breeding ground for conflict," Sivolap concluded.

He added that the tensions are growing now that the days are short, the streets are often dark, and the weather is inhospitable.

Winter Darkness

In Petrozavodsk, capital of the northern Karelia region, local officials introduced restrictions limiting public transport to one-half capacity. On the same day that Khabursky was killed, a tense altercation broke out on one bus after passengers objected to a young man who tried to ride in excess of the restriction. The young man spat in the face of a woman who pushed him out of the vehicle.

One day later, the regional governor, Artur Parfyonchikov, eased the restrictions in view of "the complicated situation that has developed during rush hour."

In the Siberian city of Barnaul, on the same day, a taxi driver was assaulted by a female passenger after refusing her service because she would not wear a mask.

The Khabursky case in St. Petersburg produced an impassioned reaction on social media that mirrored the aggressive tensions that Sivolap described. Hundreds of commentators blamed Khabursky for the incident -- not because he struck the maskless man first but because he approached the man at all.

"Maybe this will discourage other people from telling us who should wear masks and who shouldn’t," one commentor wrote on the VK social-media site. "Just put a muzzle on yourself and ride already. There is no need to try to educate others."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from St. Petersburg by correspondent Matvei Tutynin of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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