MOSCOW -- "You deal with your lockdowns first, then we can shake hands.”
Those were the words with which Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, greeted a group of European delegates last June at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, an event hailed as a grand ceremony to signal Russia’s emergence from the pandemic.
Four months later, infections and deaths from COVID-19 have skyrocketed in Russia amid intractable vaccine hesitancy and pandemic fatigue, and various stay-at-home measures have been introduced across the country to curb the rapid spread of the virus.
And on October 21, Moscow announced it was imposing the kind of lockdown that Matviyenko, and many other Russian officials, had publicly ridiculed.
The announcement by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin -- who avoided the word “lockdown” but ordered so-called “nonworking days” and the closure of most indoor public spaces between October 28 and November 7 -- came the same day authorities reported a record 36,339 new coronavirus cases throughout Russia and 1,036 deaths from the illness in the previous 24 hours.
“The situation in Moscow is developing according to the worst-case scenario,” Sobyanin wrote in a message posted to his website. “In coming days we will reach historical peaks in terms of COVID infection.”
Calling a paid holiday “the most effective way to lower the infection and fatality rates from COVID,” the mayor urged Muscovites to use the unplanned break to “spend more time breathing fresh air in the park,” among other things.
Previous experiments with “nonworking days” show that Russians sometimes take such advice quite literally. In March 2020, a weeklong holiday aimed at curbing community transmission prompted hundreds to flood Sochi and other Black Sea resort towns and gather at parks to grill kebabs and enjoy time off work.
This time around, there are fears the same thing will happen, and the signs of another southward tourist surge are already emerging.
Shortly after the lockdown measures were announced, Russian flight search website Tutu.ru reported that demand for plane tickets across Russia had risen by 50 percent, with 87.6 percent of buyers opting for flights within the country, Gazeta.ru reported. Many foreign destinations are off-limits due to COVID-related restrictions and requirements.
Experts chalk the longevity and severity of Russia’s coronavirus epidemic up to widespread vaccine hesitancy. Only 30 percent of Russians have been fully vaccinated, according to official figures, and the uptake for Russia’s three freely available COVID-19 shots remains low, even as most people eschew masks or other precautions against the virus.
Months of mixed messaging from the government, which has variously touted its “victory” over the pandemic, downplayed its dangers, and urged people to vaccinate, have most likely only made things worse.
“The authorities are unfortunately acting so opaquely and dishonestly that such crisis situations make clear how much [public] goodwill there does or doesn’t exist,” psychologist Aleksandr Kolmanovsky told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Other Russian cities have introduced requirements for QR codes to be shown as proof of vaccination at entrances to cafes and other venues, without going as far as Moscow has in temporarily shutting down public spaces. In the Russian capital, unvaccinated residents over the age of 60 have been barred from going outdoors altogether, until the current infection spike recedes.
QR codes can only be effective if there is a high vaccine rate in the population, restaurant owner Sergei Mironov told Current Time.
“This works when enough people are vaccinated, so that venues don’t remain empty,” he said. “But we have too few people who’ve taken the shot.”
The latest measures, which come as many European states with high vaccination rates are cautiously reopening, have prompted not only anger from critics but also frustration among medical and government officials who now admit that the vacillating official strategy was a mistake.
“We have to be honest. The government lost the information campaign on the fight against the coronavirus,” Pyotr Tolstoi, the deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament, said on October 16.
Denis Protsenko, an early hero of the pandemic who took charge of the country’s flagship coronavirus hospital in Moscow last March, took to the Telegram messenger app to urge people to secure protection against the virus.
“We have to get vaccinated,” he wrote. “Guys, honestly, the coronavirus is not a joke or a fabrication. It’s amazing that in the second year of the pandemic we still have to convince people of this.”
Others have publicly wondered why Russia has stopped short of a full lockdown, issuing orders that residents stay at home until cases drop. The only time Moscow and other Russian cities introduced a series of lockdowns, at the end of March 2020, widespread anger over the measures caused government approval ratings to plummet.
Critics say it is because of this political effect that the government of President Vladimir Putin has opted for “lockdown lite” -- not confining people indoors but promising vague subsidies for businesses while essentially forcing the businesses themselves to cover the costs of nationwide closures.
“Introducing a lockdown or mandatory vaccination will mean an immediate drop in trust toward the authorities,” journalist Dmitry Aleshkovsky wrote in a Facebook post. “But not doing so means that health care fails, which by itself will lead to anger and a crisis of trust.”