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Forced Into Lockdown, Muscovites Question The State's Shifting Coronavirus Response

Russian police officers patrol a deserted Red Square in Moscow, which went into lockdown on March 30.
Russian police officers patrol a deserted Red Square in Moscow, which went into lockdown on March 30.

MOSCOW -- After President Vladimir Putin announced a nine-day paid holiday on March 25, hundreds of Muscovites flew south to Sochi and other resort towns on Russia's Black Sea coast to while away the unexpected vacation in warmer climes.

Others flocked to Moscow's forested outskirts, to grill kebabs with friends and take advantage of the first balmy weekend in months. "There is no virus," one man told a reporter as he strolled in a park with his daughter.

Putin had urged people to stay home and aid the government's effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, which -- according to official figures that many critics suspect are lower than the real numbers -- has sickened more than 1,500 people in Russia and killed at least nine. In many cases, however, his appeal had apparently fallen on deaf ears.

Late on Sunday, March 29, authorities drastically changed tack. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that, as of March 30, Russia's capital would go into a lockdown more restrictive than in many European cities: Residents can now only leave home to seek urgent medical care, buy food or medicine at the nearest shop or pharmacy, walk pets within 100 meters of their door, or take out the garbage. No one is to commute to work unless they have to.

With four hours' notice, a city of over 12 million people essentially shut down.

"With each day we will control this situation more and more strictly," Sobyanin said, arguing that the move was justified because many Muscovites had ignored calls to stay home. He added, that within a week or so, separate permission would be required for each person leaving their apartment building, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on March 30 urged other cities and regions to follow Moscow's example and impose stay-at-home rules.

The sudden escalation from the authorities stood in marked contrast with their tone just three days previously, when officials in Moscow told people not to panic and promised that the situation was under control.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin

With Russia's official coronavirus case count rising, particularly in Moscow, it fell to Sobyanin to deliver the bad news. Putin, who had addressed the nation on March 25 and postponed a vote on constitutional amendments paving the way for him to potentially stay president until 2036, remained relatively silent.

"The president should bring good news only. He tried explaining unpleasant things to people in the summer of 2018," said Yekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political scientist, referring to a retirement-age increase that sparked nationwide protests. "His ratings fell and haven't risen since."

It's unclear how the lockdown in Moscow will be enforced. Authorities have hinted at an increased police presence, and Sobyanin touted the imminent deployment of "smart control" to enforce the new rules -- a presumed reference, in part, to the several thousand facial recognition cameras installed across the city.

Big Brother Vs. The Coronavirus
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A system of electronic passes is being prepared for residents with a smartphone, Sobyanin said. It was unclear what those without one would do.

'Total Confusion'

According to human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov, the authorities' failure to cite relevant laws or quote doctors with expertise in infectious diseases has left many residents in the dark and vulnerable to arbitrary law enforcement. Without introducing a state of emergency, he argued, their instructions to the population have little basis in Russian law.

"The lack of legal clarity is leading to total confusion," Chikov wrote on Facebook. "Businesses don't understand how to make up for losses. Citizens don't know whether they'll be punished for walking their dogs or taking out the trash."

Moscow Coronavirus Lockdown Takes Effect
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Elements of the Moscow lockdown are more restrictive than in other countries. Unlike in Britain or the Czech Republic, for instance, there is no allowance for outdoor exercise. Moscow's parks and playgrounds have been cordoned off. But the overall contours of Russia's response -- the closure of schools and universities, the call to remain home -- are like those in many countries.

"It's pretty much the same as every government's response, with our local Russian touch: bad legal technique," Schulmann said. "The mayor has no right to restrict people's movements, unless authorities announce a state of emergency."

Nevertheless, Mishustin announced hefty fines for violating the restrictions, from 15,000 rubles ($188) to almost 300,000 ($3,800) for repeat offenders. He proposed that all Russian regions introduce lockdowns analogous to Moscow's.

Authorities across Russia have already begun to clamp down. In St. Petersburg, a man faces criminal charges for violating an enforced quarantine after his return from Switzerland.

In Chechnya, a southern region governed by a Kremlin-backed strongman with little oversight from Moscow, there are reports of men armed with batons and pipes patrolling the streets and disciplining anyone who leaves home without a mask.

Numerous Russian officials have suggested introducing criminal liability for the dissemination of "fake news" about the coronavirus.

On the afternoon of March 30, Putin finally broke his silence about the Moscow lockdown, telling regional officials in a meeting to take all preventive measures "even if they seem excessive to some."

"It's this attitude that allowed us to win time and stall the explosive spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks," he said. "We need to use this extra time fully and effectively."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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