Living in Russia with the option of travel, restaurant dining, or even working in an office is increasingly requiring proof of inoculation against COVID-19.
For some of the millions of Russians who are hesitating to get shots or don't plan to at all, that means phoning in an order for medical documentation showing they were vaccinated -- even if they were not.
"Hello. Can you make a COVID vaccination certificate?" a Current Time correspondent asked one online business offering medical documents without appointments. "Yes, it'll cost you 3,000 rubles (about $40)," came the reply. "We've got lots of orders like that. So you'd better hurry."
As promised, the next day a courier delivered a freshly printed certificate complete with all the official stamps, signatures, and registration numbers. What happened to the actual dose -- whether it was thrown out or administered to another person -- remains a mystery.
Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, has discovered dozens of Internet sites offering vaccination certificates, with paper documentation available for as little as $40 and documentation along with registration with the official vaccination database for up to $350.
Investigative journalist Christo Grozev, alluding to false conspiracy theories that vaccinations are being used as cover to tag humans with microchips, on June 19 sarcastically tweeted: "No need to see a doctor and risk a chip implant. There's nothing that's not for sale in Russia."
The need for vaccination documents has been rising sharply as some regional authorities and enterprises have introduced new measures requiring them for everything from visiting medical facilities to going out for a drink to traveling outside the country.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov addressed the situation during his daily coronavirus news briefing on June 22.
"The reality is such that discrimination will inevitably set in," Peskov said. "People without vaccination or immunity will not be able to work everywhere. It is not possible. It will pose a threat to those around them."
In Moscow, new restrictions that will go into effect on June 28 will limit restaurant visits to people who have been vaccinated or can prove they had COVID in the past six months, with violators subject to fines of 5,000 rubles ($70). Audiences at concerts, sporting contests, and other events will also be limited to less than 500 people under the rules, unless organizers can ensure all attendees have been vaccinated.
Meanwhile, more than 170 cafes and restaurants in the city have independently signed up to be listed as "COVID-free" establishments that will be allowed to remain open without time limits as of July 1. Once they provide a QR code showing their vaccination has been officially recorded, patrons can stay without masks or social distancing.
Around the country, Russians have supported proposals to offer discounts at cafes, free tickets to museums and theaters, and lotteries with cash prizes to people bearing vaccination certificates.
As regards career life, the capital's chief state sanitary doctor has adopted a decree making vaccination compulsory for most workers in the service sector.
"We need reliable protection from a dangerous disease, from the death of thousands of Muscovites," Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote in announcing the measure. "There is such protection -- vaccination."
While Sobyanin asked people to "support this extremely difficult, but necessary and responsible decision," not everyone is eager to follow through on getting vaccinated.
A poll by the Levada Center this month showed that 55 percent of Russians are not afraid of contracting the coronavirus, and that number is growing.
A similar survey in April by the independent pollster showed that trust in vaccines has fallen, and only 26 percent of respondents were willing to be vaccinated with the domestically produced Sputnik V vaccine.
President Vladimir Putin announced earlier this month that about 18 million of Russia's population of 144 million had been vaccinated, although he did not indicate whether they had received only one dose or the full course as required.
The country's telecommunications watchdog has busied itself fighting COVID disinformation, announcing recently that it had removed about 1,000 web pages containing inaccurate material about COVID, and blocked or deleted about 150 websites, including an unidentified number selling phony vaccination certificates.
And Russian law enforcement has reportedly begun cracking down on the black market trade in certificates, the use of which can result in up to six months in jail.
Attorney Vadim Kudryavtsev told Current Time that travelers can be prosecuted, for example, for trying to use the certificates when passing through customs. He predicted there could be a surge in criminal cases and inspections of medical institutions.
'What A Crime!'
And even if some sites selling certificates have been shut down, cybersecurity expert Yury Drugach said, there are hundreds more "in dormant mode" waiting to be activated.
Bella Bragvadze, a Moscow-based pediatrician and immunologist who maintains a popular Instagram channel that provides online medical advice, lamented the situation Russia finds itself in.
"For 3,000 rubles, your vaccine will be poured into the sink and you will be given a certificate," she wrote in a June 21 post. "What a crime!!!"
"The entire civilized world will begin to live a normal life… and we will continue to fill intensive-care units," she added. "Can you imagine if the world community finds out about our purchased certificates??? I think with horror that we will not be allowed anywhere... ever."
Adding to the outcry in a Telegram post highlighting the urgent need to halt the practice of selling fraudulent vaccination certificates, author and Russian Radio University presenter Dmitry Konanykhin had an equally dire take.
Writing in response to seeing a family of "very smart people" proudly admire their ill-gotten vaccination certificates, Konanykhin was blunt.
"The virus is undead, it does not care about your cunning, cash, and scheming," he wrote, adding that the coronavirus would provide its response with the sound of a zipper sealing a body bag.