Greetings to my fellow sceptic comrades!
I come from an Eastern European country that was highly praised in summer 2020 for ‘defeating the coronavirus’. My country’s success cost me six months of being separated from my Russian wife. In the middle of September, we were able to meet in Turkey where covid hysteria was already almost non-existent. Anything was better than approaching Panic 2.0 (Second wave! Second wave!), so I decided to exile myself to faraway Siberia where my wife lived with her family and many relatives. My decision was also an attempt at a world record in social distancing. On October 10th 2020, I landed at Irkutsk airport in East Siberia and my great polar pandemic adventure began.
Irkutsk is an industrial and commercial city of 650,000 inhabitants with a bustling cultural life and many shopping malls, cafés, and restaurants so any excuses about lower population density, less social interaction etc. simply do not apply. On the contrary, Siberians are very sociable people, always visiting relatives and celebrating birthdays, New Year, Christmas and other religious holidays, 8th of March International Women’s Day, state holidays etc. In my family, eight to ten people participated in such events. I attended parties with 20 invitees, with a magician for children and Santa Claus. I even had a gig as a Santa Claus in a local English school and made quite a story: because the United Kingdom had cancelled Christmas, I was suddenly stranded in Siberia and had to bring gifts to Russian kids.
In winter, temperatures fall to -40 degrees Celsius, so logically people spend most of their time indoors. At night it’s so cold that almost nobody goes out unless it’s really urgent. So, we have a natural lockdown and curfew at the same time! Despite this, Siberian flu epidemics have always been quite nasty and in 2019 I was hit so hard by one regional variant that I was hallucinating with a fever of 39.5C. If even an extreme climate and being inside all the time couldn’t stop the flu, it probably hasn’t done much against corona either.
When almost nothing happened in Siberia, my country in Europe went into full lockdown paranoia, instituting lockdowns, curfews, and even forbidding people from meeting anybody. All records in cases and deaths per million were then broken, bringing us the top corona death toll worldwide and earning our PM the nickname of ‘gravedigger’. Meanwhile, in icy Siberia, all we talked about was the weather.
To avoid politics (Navalny, Trump etc.), it seems to many people here that the Kremlin realised the May lockdown was a terrible mistake that shouldn’t be repeated as crime began to rise back to levels unseen since the 1990s. The anti-pandemic measures reverted to the old playbook before 2020 and were mostly symbolic. A mask mandate remains indoors but many people openly ignore it or just wear a 3-month-old mask under their nose or even under their upper lip. I often forget a mask and I just put a scarf or a glove over my mouth. Nobody cares. Police issued some fines in October and then gave up after two weeks as covid enforcement was incredibly unpopular (in smaller Russian cities everybody knows everybody so police officers could not just issue fines ad infinitum as they then risked not being invited to birthday parties). While strong voices make megaphone announcements in supermarkets and shopping malls about how the virus is spreading and what we should do, nobody listens and it’s considered background noise. Even if I had been fined, my wife who is a lawyer knows how to block such penalties using byzantine bureaucratic procedures, so such a fine would have a very good chance of never being paid.
There have been some hastily printed papers glued to the doors of small shops: social distancing 1.5 metres, masks etc. Since my arrival, I have yet to see a single Siberian obeying the 1.5-metre rule (or is at a recommendation? Nobody is quite sure). Russia is still a land of queues but people will simply not queue outside at such temperatures. Small shops are packed with shoppers buying their favourite bread, yoghurt, vodka or caviar.
As a cultural curiosity, hand sanitisers have been almost completely absent. The local joke goes that some hopeless drunks were simply stealing sanitisers (mostly alcohol-based as it’s the cheapest type) to save on their vodka expenses.
Everything works. Buses and tramways have been packed all winter. There is nothing better at spreading germs than Siberian buses. They are 40-year-old imports from South Korea where they were sold for scrap metal. They have no ventilation whatsoever. During rush hours, people are packed inside worse than sardines. It’s not uncommon to skip one or two buses because they are so packed that it’s impossible to board them. Soviet industrial cities are spread over large areas so commuters might spend an hour and a half inside these rusty sardine cans (buses are so hated that many middle-class people consider a bus ride almost a trauma), breathing each other’s germs every day. Nevertheless, nothing happened.
Restaurants and bars are open until 10 or 11 PM, some of them remain open even later under the pretext of being booked for private parties. There are some theoretical limitations on guest occupancy but nobody really cares. Some seats are marked with an X, probably meaning that one shouldn’t sit there, but people sit everywhere and just don’t care.
Hospitals and dentists have worked normally all winter with no apparent disruptions whatsoever. I had two minor dental procedures at a private clinic and could book an appointment normally without any backlog. At the height of the winter pandemic resurgence, I went to have my lung X-ray (an old Soviet rule for TBC prevention, for example, people without proof of TBC-negative chest radiography are not allowed to use public swimming pools) at a state clinic. Even there, compliance with covid rules was so low that even the most hardened sceptics would find it hard to believe. I also visited a cosmetology clinic to make myself more handsome. Not only was the clinic open all the time, but it was also fully booked and getting an appointment was not easy.
Ice skating rinks and gyms have been fully open. The changing room at our skating rink is a log cabin with very poor ventilation. Even there, masks are rare and literally nobody wears a mask while skating. Yes, some people wear a mask outside but this is more about fashion and making a statement than being afraid of infection. When the cold falls below -25, it’s very common to hide the mouth and nose beneath a scarf which kills two birds with one stone.
Siberia might seem an ideal no-lockdown land of future exile for sceptics; however, some annoying and dumb policies remain. Hockey matches are being played without spectators which is especially ridiculous as hardened fans have always watched matches in an outdoor stadium regardless of temperatures. Museums and galleries are open only after prior reservation which is a very symbolic measure as almost nobody visits even during healthy times. My wife and I went to see an exhibition of Soviet-era teddy bears – one needs a really good reason to risk contagion with a deadly virus! Libraries were closed for some time. New Year fireworks at the central city square were cancelled and private fireworks were forbidden. But of course, no true Russian would obey such a rule so entire neighbourhoods prepared magnificent fireworks by themselves.
Schools were closed for two weeks. In Siberia, this is not unusual, schools can close down for a week or even two weeks due to extreme cold. My wife had to work two weeks from home, but the company soon realised it was inefficient and called everybody back to the office. Universities used Zoom during the autumn semester but this semester they are back to in-person lectures. As Russian universities are free, students didn’t complain much about Zoom. As I remember from my attendance at a Russian university, Soviet-style lectures are often excruciatingly boring, and many students struggle to stay awake while professors develop grandiose theories of bureaucratic metaphysics. At least now all those bored students can sleep.
Even travelling and tourism have continued, although the number of destinations has shrunk severely. My friends went to Turkey during the winter and had a wonderful time. I tried in vain to convince my wife to try a holiday in Tanzania (with direct flights from Siberia!). My father-in-law visited his relatives in Moscow in November by aeroplane. Apparently, even Trans-Siberian passenger trains continued to operate (although this seems so improbable that it needs additional verification as it takes four nights to arrive at Irkutsk from Moscow and such a train would indeed be an unsurpassable petri dish on tracks).
Irkutsk has by no means been any liberal exception to prevailing Russian pandemic policies. They were the same in Novosibirsk (population 2 million), Krasnoyarsk, and I suspect everywhere outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. This means that during the winter resurgence Russia imposed very few restrictions on at least 100 million people, becoming thus by far the biggest control group in the Northern hemisphere. Judging by the negligible real-life compliance, the Russian periphery had far fewer restrictions than even Sweden. Lockdown activists might say that Russia simply left its people to chance, to which a typical Russian cynic would of course reply that in a country which in the not-so-distant past killed, persecuted, and imprisoned millions of its citizens, allowing them the freedom to catch and maybe even survive a much less deadly disease is a sign of great progress.
Judging by my acquaintances, Russian people have remained healthily sceptical of the official narrative which goes something like ‘there is a virus, but Russia will as always save the world with vaccines, Russian science, heroic achievements, and the sacrifices of its people’. The common sentiment can be expressed as ‘if the virus was really that bad, they wouldn’t tell us’. It is a commonly accepted rumour that three to five times more perished due to corona than declared by official figures, but this doesn’t scare anybody. Russia is a land of deeply entrenched fatalism. When it’s time to pass away, it’s time, and that’s that. Even the people in power seem to be resigned to the idea, perhaps best expressed by Pushkin as ‘S bozhiyey stikhiyey Tsaryam ne sovladet’, or ‘not even the Czars can claim mastery over God’s elements’.
Many people simply decided to stop watching television and ignore the whole affair. Vaccines aren’t very popular either but that’s another story. The Kremlin overplayed its hand by defying the near saintly status of doctors here. Some typical ‘public health expert’ hacks were put on talk shows, explaining the usual about Corona the Terrible. However, doctors are extremely respected and seldom doubted across the entire ex-Eastern Bloc. Also vice versa, nobody other than a doctor is qualified to give any advice about the pandemic and should just shut up. So, Grandma Valentina in a remote Siberian village was simply not convinced, ‘This guy is not a doctor, what the hell is he talking about? Why doesn’t the government ask doctors?!’ She then switched the channel back to soap operas. So much for scaring the Russian people into submission.
Understandably, many progressive Russians are very disappointed with the relative lack of protests and opposition to lockdowns in the West. Such a development has made even the relative freedom of Siberia quite a melancholy one. But the best comment on Western lockdowns goes to my chronically sarcastic friend, an aficionado of classical 1990s Hollywood action films. Paraphrasing Sean Connery from ‘The Rock’ replying to terrorist Ed Harris, he remarked ‘but this is not healthcare, it’s an act of lunacy.’ Or ‘but I fail to see how you protect the health system by killing another million’.
Although I have considered myself a hardened lockdown sceptic since the very beginning of these interesting times in March 2020, I still struggle with the Russian attitude to the pandemic in general. To put it bluntly, most people here do not care at all. As Rhett Butler would say, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’. There is not even lip service to the common narrative that ‘we know that there’s a deadly virus’. Even if there is, we simply don’t care at all. Such a lack of fear and panic is indeed a cultural curiosity.
To put the pandemic in context, 85,000 people passed away with the virus in one year, according to official figures. According to a recent article in Politico, that means Russia has been ‘scarred by a pandemic’. But let’s see other causes of death that probably also bring great suffering and sorrow to many. 25,000 Russians disappear every year and are never found, so they are presumed dead. 28,500 die in traffic accidents (in 2018, 52 % of them were pedestrians!), 18,000 die due to suicide and 6,000 to 8,000 are murdered. To top it all, it is estimated that 400,000 Russians die every year due to chronic alcoholism, meaning more than 1000 a day. The pandemic’s grim toll is therefore not that impressive compared to the other horsemen of the apocalypse in Russia.
In the bloody history of Russia, which extended well into the Yeltsin era, the pandemic can’t even begin to approach the apocalyptic mass deaths sadly typical of the Russian experience. The last period of devastation was during the economic reforms of the 1990s which resulted in 2.57 million excess deaths compared to death rates in 1989 (see the book by Haynes and Husan, 2003). This means that the transition to a capitalist market economy led to the fourth-largest population loss in 20th century Russia, after World War II, World War I, the Civil War (1914-1922), and the inhumanity of Stalinist policies. If the coronavirus pandemic reached 100,000 victims, this would still be 25-times fewer than those who lost their lives during the economic reforms.
In the US media, it has been very popular to compare the pandemic death toll with the Vietnam war or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To be honest, the Vietnam war killed 2 million civilians and 1.1 million guerrilla fighters (according to Encyclopaedia Britannica) in addition to 58,200 American soldiers, so it is hard to accept this comparison while keeping a straight face. But let’s do this in a Russian context. As the death toll of the 13 months of the pandemic approaches 2.7 million people worldwide, this amounts to the death toll of the Battle of Stalingrad (1.9 million dead on both sides) and the Siege of Leningrad combined, making it roughly 12 % of the Soviet casualties accrued during World War II. The pandemic would have to continue with the same intensity without any vaccines or herd immunity for a decade worldwide to reach the war fatalities suffered by the Soviet Union during that time. I guess that now I’m beginning to understand why normal Russians pay next to no attention to COVID-19. My permanently sarcastic friend explained this to me, ‘you know, we Russians like to die in millions, not in thousands’.
So, what the hell is happening? Italians are going into their fifth or ninth lockdown (I’m losing count) and are not allowed outside again without registering, but here in Siberia, we’ve just participated in a massive crossing of the frozen Lake Baikal on foot. Hundreds of hikers took part, including many foreign students. Even the New York Times reported on the unexpected boom in winter domestic tourism on Baikal, some villages were fully booked, and room rates even went up to 200 dollars per night. The traditional holiday of Maslenitsa was celebrated with huge crowds and if anybody believes that masks were used or social distancing observed, that’s simply denying reality or due to never having visited Russia.
Perhaps it’s time for people in the West to learn some practical wisdom from the oppressed East. Normal Russians have very few illusions about any government which they cynically consider corrupt, useless, parasitic and utterly incompetent without adding any value whatsoever to their lives (and I must admit that a year of lockdown has convinced me of exactly the same opinion of my government at home). I’m opposed to any violence, but I sure am tempted to make voodoo dolls of our ministers. For example, in the Siberian dialect, the police are called ‘musor’, meaning trash. One can only rely on relatives and good friends, not on bureaucrats. ‘Bog visoko, Tsar daleko’, meaning ‘God is high, and the Czar is far away’. Freedom has not been something permitted by the Romanoffs, Lenin, Stalin, or the lockdown-loving Western apparatchiks of today; real freedom is taken and lived.
To finish on a Siberian note, as the ice and snow slowly melt under a blue spring sky, people who live in the taiga face their greatest nightmare in the forest. It is called the ‘shatun’, a bear that has just awoken from a very long winter sleep. Such a bear is very grumpy, angry and above all… hungry. Violent attacks on humans, sometimes resulting in death, are not rare. European lockdown governments might soon have to deal with thousands, if not millions of such angry hungry shatuns, but in human form, when the people finally awaken. I hope that the future transition to normality will not be a Russian one and that most of us can still expect a happy ending.
To your health, comrades!