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The Week In Russia: The COVID Surge And The Sakharov Prize

Servicemen of Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry wearing protective gear disinfect Moscow's Belorussky railway station on October 20 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus cases and deaths hit new highs, prompting lockdowns and changing the Kremlin's tone as President Vladimir Putin urged Russians to get vaccinated. Putin's imprisoned foe Aleksei Navalny won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and Moscow's relations with the West got a little bit colder.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

What's Going On?

In public appearances, Putin seems to take pride in having facts and figures at his fingertips. He appears to enjoy being able to rattle off explanatory remarks on almost any subject, from the minutiae of the Russian economy to cancel culture and U.S. politics -- even if many in the audience think he's missing the mark.

So a comment he made on October 20 came off as unusual, even strikingly so: "I just -- I don't understand. I don't understand what's going on," he said.

Putin was talking about the coronavirus and was wondering out loud why so many Russians, including people close to him -- "well-educated people with graduate degrees" -- have resisted getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Of course, Putin's words don't always reflect what he really thinks or knows, and he may not be as baffled as he suggested about the root causes of vaccine hesitancy in Russia -- one of which, according to analysts and opinion polls, is a deep-seated distrust in the authorities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with senior government officials via a video link at his residence outside Moscow on October 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with senior government officials via a video link at his residence outside Moscow on October 20.

Putin himself has seen his public trust rating fall, and observers said the mixed signals he sent about vaccination for months after Russia became the first country to approve a COVID-19 shot, back in August 2020, probably contributed to a problem that just won't go away.

But however honest or dishonest his remark, it seemed to reflect a growing sense of concern in the Kremlin about a vital matter that Putin and his government have, the rising numbers of coronavirus cases and fatalities starkly suggest, failed to conquer, contain, or control.

On October 21, Russia reported a record 36,339 new cases -- up from about 21,000 one month earlier -- as well as the highest single-day death toll since the start of the pandemic, 1,036. And some experts believe those figures are major undercounts, estimating the real daily death toll at 3,000 or higher.

Meanwhile, on the Johns Hopkins University map showing vaccination rates wordwide, Russia was colored a palish green, with fewer than 33 percent of its citizens fully vaccinated. The United States was at more than 57 percent while Canada and China were dark blue, at 73 percent and 75 percent respectively.

On the ground, those figures translate into what one Moscow-based journalist called a "catastrophe."

Cemetery workers in protective gear bury people who died of causes related to COVID-19 in Omsk on October 9.
Cemetery workers in protective gear bury people who died of causes related to COVID-19 in Omsk on October 9.

As the human toll climbed and Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities and regions imposed new lockdowns, there seemed to be a sense -- 20 months after Russia's first COVID-19 case was reported -- that this was an outcome that could have been avoided.

"Our country had a real chance to avoid the current battle with the coronavirus. But it didn't use that chance," Mikhail Rostovsky, a political commentator at the daily tabloid Moskovsky komsomolets (MK), wrote in an October 21 article under the headline "Russia's Capitulation: The Country Has Surrendered To The Mercy Of The Coronavirus."

'A Dead End'

But the author seemed careful to spare Putin the blame, writing that "Russian society has driven itself into a dead end."

Blaming society, essentially, was what Putin did when he said he did not understand why reasonable Russians would hesitate. The message, which has been sent repeatedly by him and other officials -- was that the state has done its part but that the people -- or many people, at least -- have not done theirs.

In taking that approach, Putin may be banking on Russians forgetting the slow pace of the state's response as the coronavirus spread early in 2020. That March he said the government had "the situation under control," adding, "We have managed to prevent the mass penetration and spread of the illness in Russia."

As COVID raged in Russia, Putin suffered a blow in the international arena this week when his most prominent foe, imprisoned opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, was declared the winner of the European Union's top human rights honor, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

It was a high-profile piece of recognition for a man whose name Putin has rarely spoken, referring to him instead by terms such as "the blogger" and "the Berlin patient," and who asserts that the Russian president tried to assassinate him by having him poisoned with a lethal nerve agent in August 2020.

A protester expresses an opinion in front of the Chancellery in Berlin.
A protester expresses an opinion in front of the Chancellery in Berlin.

Amid a major, persistent clampdown targeting not just Navalny and his supporters but other Kremlin opponents, independent media, and civil society groups, the prize is unlikely to have much of an effect on the course of events in Russia, at least for now.

And while it accentuates the rift between Putin's government and the West, that divide is already deep -- and sometimes seems to widen every day. Russia is suspending operations of its diplomatic mission to NATO next month, while alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said on October 21 that relations with Moscow had not been this bad since the Cold War.

At this point, Putin is far more likely to be worried about a threat that cannot even be seen, let alone jailed, banned, or driven abroad by the pressure of the state: the coronavirus.

In the MK article, Rostovsky suggested that Putin had wisely preserved his political capital by avoiding an unpopular campaign of forced vaccinations, which he indicated would cross a red line for many Russians by interfering in their personal lives.

But the author warned that Putin will need that political capital, because the way things are going with COVID, "He's definitely going to have to use it."

"The country is creeping -- or rather, flying full speed -- into a new, very difficult period of its history," he added.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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