Lockdowns, literature, and balconies in Covid-19 Russia

From the bubonic plague (1351–53,1770–71) to the various cholera outbreaks that assailed the nineteenth-century imperial power, Russia, like the West, is no stranger to epidemics and quarantine procedures. Indeed, cholera and tuberculosis epidemics arose to trouble the former USSR during the collapse of the Soviet state and its healthcare system. And like Western European writing, Russian literature is littered with epidemic and quarantine writing. Pushkin penned some of his most famous works like The Belkin Tales and Mozart and Salieri during lockdown at his family estate during an 1830 cholera epidemic. The resurgence of cholera and tuberculosis in the twentieth century no doubt played a hand in short stories like Liudmila Petroshevskaya’s “Hygiene”, a dark tale of quarantine, isolation, disinfection, and dystopia.[1]

Like governments in Western Europe and the English speaking world, the Russian government’s response to Covid-19 has included a combination of failed bureaucracy and health systems, bailouts for those least in need, and crumbs for the vast majority of ordinary citizens and the most vulnerable. It is no surprise then that ordinary Russian citizens are also chafing under lockdown and no surprise either that protests in Russia are mounting as they are in the EU, UK, and the US. Here I provide a short history of Covid-19 in the Russian Federation and the Russian government’s measures to combat the pandemic. It is a history that mimics our own, with stories of individual heroism, as well as institutional and personal failings, a story that reminds us of the commonality of human experience.

The number of tourists to Russia in December, January, and February is a drop in the bucket compared to travellers seeking the warmer climates of France, Italy, and Spain. This fact, combined with Putin’s early decree that all travellers from China were prohibited from crossing the Russian border, may have contributed to the delayed timeline of Covid-19 in Russia compared to Europe’s experience with the contagion. After the ban on Chinese travellers on 3 February, the Russian government began spooling up a response to the epidemic by closing the borders to all foreign travellers from 18 March and by mobilising the Russian army to build hospitals for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. Then, on 25 March, Putin announced a work stoppage, with pay guarantees and/or income supports (based on the minimum wage) for those facing unemployment due to the crisis and for families with young children, funded in part by a tax on bank accounts over a million roubles. But so far, roll-out of the income supports is slow, not to mention that it is based on a minimum wage assessment. Small businesses were promised a low level of monetary support in order to comply with the continuation of wages order. But with the explosion of enterprise in post-communist Russia, small businesses are having trouble accessing swamped government support systems to comply with the no-wage stoppage, just as they are in the hard-hit US.

Expecting Moscow to be the hardest hit because of its role as transport hub into the country, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, in consultation with the federal government, declared lockdown procedures for the city from 30 March. The Moscow regional government has followed Western Europe in its approach. Similar to the more stringent measures in Spain, only essential movement for buying food and basic supplies is allowed, and starting on 13 April, government passes were required for any travellers away from their home and for essential workers’ commutes. Similar lockdown procedures for the various regions of Russia were also instituted at the end of March. Currently many Russian administrative regions have instituted face-mask regimes for those moving outside of their homes.

Russia maintains a national health system, so organising a coordinated response might have been an easier achievement than in the US where there is no such provision. However, opposition media outlets like Novaya gazeta early on reported that, like health care workers elsewhere, many Russian medical staff were working without adequate PPE and succumbing in disproportionate numbers to Covid-19. Calls in the US, EU, and UK to ‘stay home for the healthcare workers’ are echoed for the Russian front-line medical defence. Similarly, delayed delivery of accurate testing and the establishment of reporting protocols seem to be a common pathology of government responses to the pandemic, and this is no less true in Russia. Presumably, these are some of the underlying reasons for the surprisingly low case and death rates for Russia in March and April. Cases and deaths cannot be reported accurately if there is a shortage of testing. Meanwhile, in a mirroring of the situation in the UK with Boris Johnson’s illness, Prime Minister Dmitrii Mishustin announced on 30 April that he had tested positive for the virus and was self-isolating.

A glimpse of the true scope of Covid-19 in Russia came on 3 May, when suddenly the daily new case rate hit 10,000/day. Putin ordered an extension of lockdown on 28 April to last until 11 May. Notably, and perhaps surprisingly, a vote on changes to the Russian constitution (which include a provision that would allow Putin to run for president yet again) has been postponed due to the scale of the epidemic.

But perhaps the most significant announcement was the cancellation of the 75th Victory Day celebrations on 9 May. The victory over the Nazis is of epic importance to a country that lost, at conservative estimates, 18 million Soviet citizens in World War II. The cancellation of this most solemn day of commemoration is an extraordinary move. It was an act that underscored the unprecedented time we as a species find ourselves in. In his address to the nation on the day that should have publicly commemorated those millions lost in the war, Putin told the Russian people that ‘We are united by our shared memory, hopes and aspirations, as well as a sense of shared responsibility for the present and the future.’ Putin’s speech was remarkably brief and anodyne. Favourability ratings of his leadership have dropped markedly in the past month. Russian citizens, faced with dramatic decrease in incomes, social isolation, and a staggering rise daily in new cases, may have regarded that answer as just as inadequate as the ones provided by counterparts in Western governments.

Following closely on the scaled-down Victory Day celebrations and the announcement of 11,012 new cases on Monday 11 May, Putin addressed the nation, announcing a schedule of opening the country back up. In this speech, Putin stressed that, at the discretion of regional governments, there will be region-specific plans for opening the economy and resumption of essential industries, in combination with increased blanket testing of the population and contact tracing. Self-isolation protocols will continue for elderly and high-risk individuals nation-wide, and cities and regions with high numbers of cases, like Moscow and St Petersburg, will remain under stricter lockdown protocols than regions with lower numbers of cases. Putin claimed that the health authorities were conducting 300,000 tests per day, implying that this, in combination with altered sanitary protocols, would allow for the safe resumption of some economic activity.

He also announced a new set of economic supports to individuals, families, and small businesses. These measures include doubling per-child monthly support payments, a one-time lump sum of 10,000 roubles per child up to age 16, as well as larger loans to small businesses who maintain 90% of their workforces, and tax and insurance waivers for 6 months. Self-employed workers will receive a 100% refund of 2019 taxes, as well as the same tax-waivers afforded to small businesses for that same 6-month period. Additionally, he promised that he will be guaranteeing the special hazard payments to health-care workers that has to date been very poorly and intermittently implemented. Finally, he emphasised the need to remain vigilant in following health and safety guidelines, but that the country needed to begin its economic recovery. In other words, it’s time to start sending people back to work. What the Russian people make of this will be something to watch.

There has been a long tradition of seeing Russia as ‘the other’ in Western Europe and the English-speaking world. The similar governmental and individual actions and reactions, failings and triumphs facing all people – Russian, Chinese, Spanish, Irish or American – in our new Covid-19 world belie this tradition of ‘othering’ unfamiliar cultures. My colleague José Brownrigg-Gleeson writes of the luxury of having a balcony in Madrid in his RTÉ Brainstorm article on Covid-19 Spain, “‘The Strictest in Europe’: How Spain dealt with the lockdown”. The famous Russian балкон or balcony has also long been a part of urban Russian life, places of freeze-drying laundry in winter and jungles of tomato pots and cucumber vines in summer. The Russian balcony has joined the balconies of Spain and the rest of the world: small windows onto a Covid-19-changed world.


Note: Russia’s current official infection, recovery, and death figures can be accessed at the coronavirus website for the Health Department of the Russian Federation.

[1] Translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers in the collection There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (Penguin 2009).

Emily Tock

Emily Tock completed a BA in Russian language and literature, and lived and worked in Moscow for four years. She returned to the US to complete an MA in library science, and worked for many years as a librarian and Russian language teacher. She is currently an IRC-funded PhD student at NUI Galway. Her research examines Edward Lear’s work in the context of evolutionary theory’s impact on questions of the self and empire’s place in nature. Emily has published articles on the topics of Irish copyright, Nabokov’s publishing history, and Russian-Western relations.