As Russia’s COVID crisis raged on, prompting lockdowns, paid holidays, and a mix of pleas and pressure for the populace to get vaccinated, President Vladimir Putin took aim at the West again. Meanwhile, the clampdown on Kremlin opponents, independent media, and civil society continued.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
With COVID-19 case numbers and deaths rising sharply for more than a month, there are certainly signs that the Kremlin is concerned. Putin decreed a nationwide “nonworking week” from October 30 through November 7, and Moscow and other cities have imposed some of the most restrictive lockdown measures since the start of the pandemic.
Perhaps most strikingly, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, noting daily infection and fatality counts that were “no cause for optimism,” refused to rule out mandatory vaccination throughout Russia – something that Putin had all but promised would never happen.
But the audience last week at an annual forum that Putin uses to make statements, send signals, and simply bask in the spotlight might be excused for thinking that Putin sees “cancel culture” and gender fluidity as greater threats to the country than the pandemic that has been killing over 1,000 Russians every day since October 19, according to official figures that are widely believed to be undercounts.
Putin often uses meetings of the Valdai Discussion Club and other high-profile appearances to highlight what he claims are threats from the United States and the West. In speeches in recent years, Western values – at least, in the form in which Putin portrays them -- have been elbowing issues such as NATO enlargement and U.S. missile defense in a struggle for primacy on the longtime Russian leader’s list of bugbears.
In remarks at the Valdai forum on October 21, Putin described this year’s theme as “the person, values, and the state.”
Railing against “revolution,” as he often does, Putin asserted that his government is guided by an “ideology of healthy conservatism” and contended that liberal values emanating from the West could cause potentially destabilizing “sociocultural disturbances.” He compared so-called “cancel culture” to the inflexible dogma of the Bolsheviks -- whom he has repeatedly criticized despite also playing on nostalgia for the Soviet era – and asserted that it leads to discrimination against the majority.
Putin reserved his harshest words for issues involving gender. He said it is “monstrous” when “children today are told from a young age that a boy can easily become a girl and vice-versa,” falsely claimed that “this choice that is supposedly available to everyone is essentially forced upon them,” and asserted that this is “on the verge of a crime against humanity.”
For some who have listened to Putin’s diatribes for two decades and heard him tackle topics on which his knowledge seems to be superficial at best, the initial response may have been an eye-roll -- kind of like, Here he goes again, a 69-year-old man with opinions and the kind of power that means he’s hardly likely to get hauled offstage.
But Putin’s rhetoric increased concerns about the rights and the safety of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people in Russia eight years after he signed a law against the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” that rights activists say has encouraged discrimination, hostility, and abuse against the LGBT community.
And analysts said that Putin was courting conservatives in Russia and abroad, including the far-right in the latter case, and seeking to sow divisions in the West while suggesting to the domestic audience that the values of Europe and the United States pose a threat to Russia’s stability and what he asserts is its way of life.
“This ideological spin, which is becoming more and more official and concrete, is the main aid to repressions, much stronger than any election,” the Washington Post quoted Russian political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, an expert on Putin, as saying in a post on Telegram.
Efforts to rally Russians around the idea of a threat from the West are nothing new for Putin, of course. Observers say the claim that the country’s “cultural sovereignty” is under attack – a concept that’s now part of the official National Security Strategy – is one of the tools he has used to try to shore up support and unify Russians – not including those whose rights, safety, and security are being put at risk by his words and actions.
Another such instrument is the memory of World War II and the Soviet role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which he commemorates annually by addressing a military parade on Red Square. That tradition was bit with criticism when the popular Russian rapper Morgenshtern questioned the scale of the annual celebrations and the state’s spending.
Morgenshtern could face prosecution and has issued an apology – but his suggestion that Putin’s government focuses on an achievement that occurred more than 70 years ago because “there’s nothing [else] to be proud of” may have struck a chord.
In any case, Putin’s repeated rhetoric about an alleged moral threat from the West seems to fit in well with the way the Russian state, in its persistent campaign to crush the political opposition and silence dissent, has used “foreign agent” legislation and other laws -- as well as simple but often evidence-free allegations -- to brand Kremlin foes, independent media, and civil society groups tools of the West.
There was little or no mention of the ongoing clampdown at the Valdai forum – a fact that presumably pleased Putin. But it continued before, during, and after the meeting. One example: Gleb Maryasov, a 21-year-old man arrested at a January 23 protest over the jailing of Putin opponent Aleksei Navalny, was sentenced on October 27 to 10 months in prison for blocking traffic.
At the Valdai forum, there was also not all that much talk about the COVID crisis gripping Russia or the extent of the government’s role in the failure to avoid the current situation, whose contributing factors appear to include the country’s low vaccination rate and the Kremlin ‘s reluctance to impose unpopular restrictions at earlier stages in the pandemic.
In August 2020, Russia became the first country to certify a coronavirus vaccine for use, and the campaign to vaccinate the populace began in earnest in December. But as of October 28, just over one-third of the population was fully vaccinated, according to Johns Hopkins University data based on government figures.
At Valdai, Putin’s most prominent remark about the coronavirus was one that elicited disdain and disbelief: Without evidence – unless “doctors are saying this” counts – he claimed that Europeans travel to Russia to get the Sputnik V vaccination and buy fake papers at home saying they got Pfizer, adding that they “consider Sputnik more reliable, safer.”
“This is what happens when you believe your own propaganda,” Pavel Lokshin, Moscow correspondent form the German media outlet Welt, wrote on Twitter. “It's exactly the other way round: Well-off Russians are travelling to Europe to get vaccinated and receive an EU certificate. Others stay home and buy fake certificates because they have no trust in Sputnik V.”
Whether Putin believes it or not may be impossible to know, but his remark and his recent calls for Russians to get vaccinated appear to fit into a pattern: state TV messaging at home and abroad.
In a detailed analysis of content in RT’s broadcasts in Russian and in other languages, Current Time found that when targeting Russian-speaking audiences, the state-funded network formerly called Russia Today echoes the messages that Putin and his government have been sending: Get vaccinated, wear masks, take precautions to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
But on its foreign-language platforms -- English, German, French, Spanish, and Arabic – RT “peddles conspiracy theories and coronavirus falsehoods,” Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, found in its research.
The same measures advocated by RT in Russian are cast into doubt in its foreign-language channels, which also air often baseless or evidence-free reports questioning the safety and efficacy of Western vaccines, Current Time said in an October 25 report.
“The only exception is Sputnik: RT authors do not criticize the Russian vaccine,” it said.