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The Week In Russia: COVID, A Killing, And A Crisis Of Confidence

Public trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin fell to 53 percent in August, down from nearly 80 percent in 2015. It has not been lower since October 2012.
Public trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin fell to 53 percent in August, down from nearly 80 percent in 2015. It has not been lower since October 2012.

The coronavirus toll rose fast, trust in the president fell, the prospect of justice in pathbreaking journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s killing receded further still after 15 years, and harrowing footage emerged with a claim of widespread prison torture.

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

Target Audience

On his Sunday prime-time current affairs show on state TV, Dmitry Kiselyov frequently directs his trademark stream of derision against Washington and the West.

The most striking example may have come in March 2014, just as Moscow was dressing up its armed takeover of Crimea with pomp-filled parliament sessions and elaborate legislation, when Kiselyov told viewers that “Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.”

Lest the message come across as too subtle, the screen behind him showed a billowing mushroom cloud, a visual aid to help audience members at home and abroad contemplate the unthinkable.

State TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov: “Here’s a vaccine for you.... But in response, citizens, for the most part, wanted to spit on themselves and others.”
State TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov: “Here’s a vaccine for you.... But in response, citizens, for the most part, wanted to spit on themselves and others.”

On October 3, Kiselyov took aim at a target closer to home, or actually at home: the Russian people. With COVID-19 case numbers climbing and the official daily death toll reaching new highs nearly every day, he admonished citizens for failing to take precautions against the coronavirus even as the state, he used a Russian idiom to assert, is “crawling out of its skin” to protect them.

“Here’s a vaccine for you. Here are masks and drugs. Here you go: new hospitals and doctors. But in response, citizens, for the most part, wanted to spit on themselves and others,” he said, using another colorful phrase to claim that most Russians don’t give a damn.

The prominent placement of this public lashing -- or public-lashing – suggested to observers parsing the subtleties and not-so-subtleties of Russian state TV that President Vladimir Putin and his government are concerned enough about the COVID crisis to blame it on the people.

The current situation certainly seems like ample cause for alarm. Daily case numbers have risen sharply in the last month, reaching about 25,000, and seem to be headed toward the high of just under 30,000 that was hit in December 2020. The number of deaths recorded daily has far surpassed the high reached at that time, 635, and hit 929 on October 6. The total official number of coronavirus deaths in Russia is now over 213,000, but the state’s numbers have been widely questioned since the start of the pandemic and estimates of the true number of COVID deaths range up to 600,000 and above in the country of 142 million.

Kiselyov hit on a big part of the problem when he mentioned vaccines first on his list. Despite being the first country to approve a vaccine for use back in August 2020, when Putin made the announcement, Russia has fully vaccinated only about 30 percent of its population – less than one-third, compared to about two-thirds in France and Germany and over 56 percent in the United States.

Beyond Belief?

And a big part of that part of the problem is trust, or rather the lack of trust in the authorities and their claims and their motives -- a phenomenon that has deep roots in the seven-plus decades of Soviet rule but which has also been driven by the words and actions of Putin and other prominent Russians inside and outside of government.

Trust is also a problem for Putin himself, polls show.

According to a survey by the independent Levada Center, which released the results on October 6, public trust in the president fell to 53 percent in August, down from nearly 80 percent in 2015 -- following the seizure of Crimea the previous year -- and 71 percent in September 2017. It has not been lower since October 2012, three months after he returned to the presidency following a stint as prime minister.

Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 69 on October 7 and is now older than Boris Yeltsin was when he stepped down on the last day of 1999.
Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 69 on October 7 and is now older than Boris Yeltsin was when he stepped down on the last day of 1999.

Putin’s ratings have been hit by an unpopular retirement-age increase in 2019 as well as broader economic woes such as rising prices, stagnant living standards, and household wealth levels that are also lower than at any time since 2012.

The poll was conducted in late August, before the legislative elections were held on September 17-19, so the survey did not gauge how voting for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, may have affected the public mood.

But amid widespread allegations of fraud following a campaign in which the authorities took extensive steps to keep Kremlin opponents out of the elections, it would seem counterintuitive to think that trust in Putin or the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party has been boosted by the balloting.

Whatever the causes of the decline in trust for Putin, it may not be what he wants to hear as Russia hurtles toward 2024, when his current term ends and he has the option -- provided by a constitutional amendment pushed through in 2020 -- to run for reelection.

Putin, who turned 69 on October 7, is now about a month older than Boris Yeltsin was when the country’s first post-Soviet president stepped down on the last day of 1999 and handed him Russia’s reins.

Putin has been president ever since, aside from the four-year stint he served as prime minister from 2008-12 to avoid violating the constitution -- which he went ahead and had changed in 2020 anyway, to give himself the option of staying on in the Kremlin until 2030 or even 2036.

The Journalist And The Murder

October 7 also marked 15 years since the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative reporter, human rights champion, and Kremlin critic who was shot dead as she returned to her Moscow apartment building after buying groceries.

At the time, Politkovskaya’s killing was a ghastly reminder -- not the first and not the last -- of the risks run by Russians who delve into the doings of those who hold power in Russia or ask uncomfortable questions about the way the state works.

Amid concerns that the statute of limitations has expired, her murder has also become one of the most powerful pieces of evidence suggesting that when suspicions about a grave crime lead too close to the Kremlin or Putin’s power structures across the country, justice -- in the form of the successful identification and prosecution of the person or people behind the killing, as opposed to those who carried it out -- is extremely elusive.

Anna Politkovskaya: A Journalist Silenced
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Fifteen years later, Politkovskaya’s killing is still those things, of course, and it’s also more: Looking back, her slaying seems to many like an ominous forecast of a future that is now the present.

In a book published two years before her death, she warned that Russia was “hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance," and wrote that journalists who did not serve Putin risked “death, the bullet, poison, or trial.”

The anniversary of Politkovskaya’s killing comes amid a sweeping clampdown in which the state has targeted the political opposition, civil society groups, and independent journalistic outlets, using forceful means as well as an expanding web of legislation, including “foreign agent” laws, to muzzle the media.

Despite the pressure on journalists and activists, however, information that raises suspicions of wrongdoing by the state -- and sometimes appears to provide strong evidence of crimes by the authorities -- sometimes emerges.

There are the Pandora Papers, for example -- a huge leak of financial documents that exposed the hidden wealth and financial dealings of dozens of Russians, among others, including several who are considered close to Putin.

On October 4, human rights defender Vladimir Osechkin said he and his colleagues had obtained a large amount of footage showing inmates in several regions being tortured by Federal Security Service (FSB) officers and prison guards.

Osechkin, who left Russia in 2015 and lives in an undisclosed European country, said he obtained 40 gigabytes of footage from an IT specialist and former inmate who recently fled abroad.

Osechkin said the videos show that officers of the FSB and the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) are using rape and other forms of abuse to force inmates to cooperate with them and turn against other prisoners, pulling them onto a “conveyer belt of torture” behind bars in Russia.

Pyotr Kuryanov, an expert with a Russian prisoners’ rights foundation, suggested that the persistence of torture and abuse is a legacy of the Soviet Union and its vast prison camp system, as well as a result of the dominance of current and former members of the security services -- Soviet and Russian -- under Putin.

People “who came out of the NKVD, the Cheka, and the KGB remain in their posts," he told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. In a sense, he added, “the gulag, the barracks, and the very same KGB methods continue to operate.”

NOTE: The Week In Russia will not appear October 15. The next edition will be published on October 22.

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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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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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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