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At one point in the classic Soviet comedy whose title translates clumsily as The Diamond Arm, the actor Andrei Mironov breaks out into a song called Bad Luck Island — with lyrics that, despite tropical references to crocodiles that can’t be caught and coconuts that won’t grow, seem certain to be about the Soviet Union, no matter what the experts say.
It’s a label that Russia has avoided, at least for now, in a world engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic. With thousands of deaths in China and Italy, and hospitals in New York struggling hard to battle a disease that has also killed more than 1,400 Americans, Russia — with an official death toll of four — so far seems to have escaped the worst.
That’s if you believe the figures reported by the state. Many Russians don’t, for several reasons. A poll by the Levada Center found that 24 percent completely distrust the official information about the coronavirus situation that is disseminated in the media, and 35 percent only partially trust it.
The past, distant and recent, is part of the equation. Russians are aware of a long line of lies that includes Chernobyl and stretches long past the Soviet collapse that disaster helped hasten, into — among other things — efforts to avoid government responsibility for civilian deaths critics say were caused by bungled rescue operations in terror attacks at School No. 1 in Beslan in 2004 and, two years earlier, at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, a few kilometers from the Kremlin.
Those arguably bungled responses are among the more grim milestones of President Vladimir Putin’s two decades in power as president or prime minister — the umpteenth recent reminder of which came on March 26 — the date he was first elected president in 2000, after being made acting president by Boris Yeltsin four months earlier.
Deadly incidents like the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000 and a fire that killed 60 people at a Siberian mall weeks after his most recent election in 2018, many of them children trapped in a movie theater — as well as terror attacks in many of the years in between — presented challenges for Putin. This one is different, because of its potential scale.
And with plans now in place for constitutional changes that will enable him to seek a new term in 2024 if he chooses, and again in 2036, he presumably does not want to bungle it. Not because there’s a big risk of those plans being derailed — given the Kremlin’s control over politics and what goes on the TV screen, it would probably take a catastrophic result to do that.
Don’t Trust Your Luck
But a substantial defeat at the hands of the coronavirus, real or perceived, could undermine the image he has sought to build as Russia’s protector and erode the legitimacy — and thus the staying power — of whatever power arrangement he seeks to put in place at or ahead of the end of his current term in the Kremlin.
And so, Putin seems to have set out to avoid a big defeat at the hands of the coronavirus on those two fronts: perception and reality.
He altered his tone this week, sounding less dismissive of the threat. It will pass, he said in an abruptly announced address broadcast live on March 25, and may be over in just a few months, but this will require an effort: “Let’s not rely on our good old Russian luck.”
Putin used the term “avos” — which can be translated as luck but may have a slightly different connotation. Picture a mariner, perhaps, facing a giant wave in a small boat, dropping the oars and saying, “We’ll make it.” A reliance on something at once stronger and fickler than fate.
“Avos” can lead to corner-cutting and encourage the kind of corruption in which an inspector turns a blind eye for a price. As result, it has been cited as a factor in avoidable disasters such as the mall fire the Siberian city of Kemerovo on March 26, 2018 — two years ago this week.
Putin announced the postponement of a nationwide vote on the constitutional amendments that had been set for April 22. It will be held at an unspecified later date, he said, a tacit acknowledgement that to go ahead with it might have made him seem ready to risk the health of citizens for the sake of his own interests — the opposite of the protector figure.
Putin also stepped up measures aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 within Russia, urging most citizens to stay home next week, and cities including Moscow — which had more than two-thirds of the officially confirmed cases and all three acknowledged deaths — tightened restrictions on movement and gatherings.
There were signs of a potential lack of foresight, however, such as when the Kremlin declared two days later that people working from home should continue to do so. That adjustment came amid concerns that treating it like a holiday could worsen the spread of the virus and increase the damage to the economy.
As for perception, the state’s campaign to shape it began weeks ago.
In one way, this task is easier than in some other cases. Putin has often pointed the finger of blame abroad for problems that a have wracked Russia. In this — unlike in terror attacks carried out largely by Russian citizens, for example — the foreign origin of the coronavirus is a fact.
Other parts of the effort to form opinion and control information about the situation surrounding COVID-19 have come in for criticism — such as using a “fake news” law signed by Putin a year ago to go after some Russians who have questioned the official figures.