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The Week In Russia: Putin, Pechenegs, And Pneumonia

Cossack volunteers, wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, patrol the Palace of Kuskovo in Moscow on April 8.
Cossack volunteers, wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, patrol the Palace of Kuskovo in Moscow on April 8.

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President Vladimir Putin reaches back more than a millennium to find an analogy for Russia's fight against COVID-19, unleashing a mass of mocking memes. And, as recorded infections rise fast and Putin seeks to signal control over the country's coronavirus response, fresh signs that the official numbers are an undercount emerge.

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

Pechenegs And Polovtsy

The notion that Russia is surrounded by foes, or at least potential adversaries, has long been a go-to narrative for the Kremlin, as has the idea that outsiders are to blame for the bulk of the country's woes.

Frequently, over President Vladimir Putin's two decades in power, the alleged culprits have been the West, NATO, or the United States. Almost a decade ago, Putin accused then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of fomenting street protests that in fact were triggered by anger over evidence of election fraud and dismay at his plan to return to the presidency after a four-year hiatus.

And in 2004, Putin shifted the November holiday that had earlier commemorated the Bolshevik Revolution and repurposed it as a celebration of the ouster of occupiers from Moscow in 1612, during tsarist Russia's war with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

A group of Russian conscripts, wearing face masks for protection against the coronavirus, wait for a medical checkup at a military conscription office in Moscow.
A group of Russian conscripts, wearing face masks for protection against the coronavirus, wait for a medical checkup at a military conscription office in Moscow.

In a televised vow to endure the coronavirus crisis, Putin turned the clock back even further, holding out armed struggles against the Pechenegs and the Polovtsy, or Cumans -- two groups that harried Kievan Rus in the 10th and 11th centuries -- as examples of what he said was Russia's hardiness and resistance to pressure.

"Everything passes, and this will pass," Putin said in the live broadcast on April 8. "Our country has endured serious trials many times: the Pechenegs tormented it, and so did the Polovtsy. Russia has dealt with everything, and we will defeat this coronavirus infection."

Cue the hailstorm of mocking memes.

On social media, critics and commentators took gleeful aim at the arguably arcane nature of Putin's comparison and at its historical accuracy -- for one thing, it was the Kiev-based precursor of today's Russia and Ukraine that battled the Pechenegs and Polovtsy: Moscow had not yet been founded.

One satirical website ran an article saying that Putin had exempted Pechenegs and Polovtsy from the spring military-conscription campaign, while opposition politician Aleksei Navalny predicted that the ruling party would legislate major state spending on a celebration marking victory over the Pechenegs.

Natash, Are You Asleep?

A popular recurring meme featuring a photo of several house cats trying to wake an unseen sleeping woman named Natash (short for Natasha, a pet form of Natalya) quickly played on Putin's remarks, showing the cats with speech bubbles saying: "The Polovtsy tormented us," "And the Pechenegs, Natash," "And the coronavirus infection, Natash, honestly."

One journalist wondered whether Putin had "begun an online course in medieval history in his self-isolation."

Wouldn't put it past him. Putin has shown a seemingly increasing interest in history as he seeks to employ the past -- or his portrayal of it, which critics say is often skewed -- to promote his own interests and the interests he ascribes to Russia.

This phenomenon has been played into a persistent dispute with Poland, spats with other countries, the commemoration of Holocaust victims, and preparations for May 9 celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II.

But there may be some careful calculations behind Putin's decision to reach so far back into the past, choosing two groups whose names are known from history books and not much else.

For one thing, if you're looking to cast the coronavirus as a threat from abroad the obvious choice would be China, where COVID-19 originated. But the Kremlin has long sought close ties with Beijing, both as a buyer of its oil and gas and an ally in efforts to combat U.S. global clout, so laying blame there would make little sense.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with governors and officials via video link on April 8.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with governors and officials via video link on April 8.

In fact, Russia and China are accused of supporting one another's COVID-19 disinformation campaigns. An example is an apparent effort by the Russian Foreign Ministry, following in Beijing's footsteps, to suggest that the original source of the outbreak was not a live animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan but a U.S. biological weapon gone awry.

Blame Game

Public finger-pointing at the West, however, might have little benefit for Putin -- particularly as he seeks to shore up an economy hit by COVID-19 and an oil-price collapse caused partly by Moscow's rejection of a Saudi Arabian plan to reduce oil output in order to bolster the price as the coronavirus cut demand by drastically curbing travel and a number of industries.

Drawing a parallel between COVID-19 and the Nazi invasion, meanwhile, would risk vastly overstating a threat that Putin has taken pains to describe as serious but manageable.

Putin's comments on April 8 appeared to be an attempt to convince the Russian public that it is he, and not anyone else, who is doing the managing.

When Russia abruptly changed tack and began imposing lockdowns, not long after Putin said the situation was "under control," it was Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin who took the most prominent role -- or was handed it.

In a change from two previous televised addresses about the coronavirus, Putin this time used a video conference with regional governors "in the role of diligent students writing down the head of state's words in their notebooks," as the political editor of Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Kirill Martynov, put it in a column.

It was meant to be "a visual signal that the president has not self-isolated from responsibility and is in control," Martynov wrote. He noted that Putin chose "a native format" for those Russians working from home and "holding meetings on Zoom," an app that is one of the main platforms for communication among co-workers, friends, and families confined largely to their homes.

Not everyone has a home, though, and not everyone in Russia is on Zoom. As they have in other countries, the lockdowns imposed in Russia have in many cases deepened divisions between the haves and the have-nots, making already difficult lives even harder for those in straitened circumstances -- financial or otherwise.

Pneumonia And COVID-19

Putin's comments came a day before the publicly announced number of confirmed COVID-19 infections rose above 10,000, potentially feeding fears that his government may have acted too slowly to stem the spread of the virus and may be understating the numbers.

They have risen fast this week, reaching nearly 12,000 on April 10 -- with 94 deaths -- after increasing by a record amount for the fifth straight day.

Apparent evidence that the official number of COVID-19 infections is higher than the officials are saying has continued to crop up across the country. In many instances, this has involved suspicions that people being treated for pneumonia have the coronavirus -- or had it before it killed them.

That is what happened to Anastasia Petrova, a 36-year-old journalist in the Urals city of Perm who died on March 31 following a diagnosis of double pneumonia. After a friend and fellow journalist posted a text message in which Petrova had said her second COVID-19 test came back positive, health officials changed the official cause of death to "double pneumonia brought on by a coronavirus infection."

On a larger scale, a doctor who was among more than 1,000 personnel and patients placed under a strict coronavirus quarantine at the largest hospital in Ufa, a city of more than 1 million and the capital of the Bashkortostan region, said the facility had seen an increasing number of cases attributed to pneumonia over the past two weeks.

"The flow of patients was simply enormous," Rimma Kamalova, head of the Kuvatov Republican Clinical Hospital's rheumatology department, told RFE/RL on April 8.

And, in an interview on state TV late on April 9, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said that doctors would begin treating all pneumonia patients for the coronavirus rather than waiting for positive COVID-19 test results.

The minister's statement came after a number of Moscow doctors involved in treating COVID-19 patients said that the vast majority of pneumonia cases in Russia were probably caused by the coronavirus and should be treated as if they were.

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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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