How many Belaruses would fit into Mother Russia? Eighty-three! And yet, as Ivan Davydov argues, the current Russian regime is a “failed police state,” unlike the Belarusian regime. Neither fish nor fowl (although most certainly foul), Putin and his vassals have tanked their country’s economy while also signally failing to save people’s lives, nor have they been able to conjure away the coronavirus pandemic (rhetorically, if not in reality) as successfully as their frenemy the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
My apartment looks onto the Yauza River and the park on the shore. In peacetime, there are crowds of people strolling there when the weather is good. And lots of shishkebabers, who are famously to blame for all our troubles.
For more than a month now, I have been locked up like all law–abiding Russians, making only occasional trips out of the house on urgent business. I watch the world mostly from my balcony, and my world has narrowed to the size of this selfsame park.
Going to parks has been prohibited in Moscow by a special decree of the city’s all-powerful mayor. In parks, the coronavirus is particularly brutal, tracking down rare passersby, lonely morning jogging enthusiasts, and mothers with children, attacking and devouring them. On construction sites, on the contrary, the virus is weak and cowardly: it is afraid of construction workers, whom it does not touch.
Parks are a different matter.
The irresponsible residents of my neighborhood would still go to the park. Not in droves, as was the case before, no. They would go in small groups, as families, apparently. Joggers occasionally popped up, and bicyclists flashed by. Children made their way to the playgrounds (which were also closed, of course). In other words, they violated the mayor’s wise orders.
To put a stop to this unbridled lawlessness, police patrols would come to the park. The guardians of law and order would park their car on a hillock and stand around smoking and watching people walking. Once, when it was particularly cold, wet snow was pouring down, and only a lone madman was sitting on a bench, they went up to the madman and forced him to sign some papers.
And once they went down to the park and fed the ducks, pointedly ignoring the people walking around, before returning to their car. Oh yes, and a couple of times they shouted into a megaphone about the fact that going to parks was temporarily prohibited, and that citizens should look out for themselves and their loved ones.
I will explain later what this pastoral sketch was all about, but in the meantime let us look through the window at our neighbor to the west. It is a fascinating story.
A Wonderful Neighbor
While the rest of the world has been in quarantine, Alexander Lukashenko has gained fame as a maestro of fiery speeches and colorful aphorisms. He has suggested treating the coronavirus with vodka, a bath, and field work. He has advised Belarusians who have lost their jobs to find a job and get to work. (It’s brilliant, really, and simple, like all brilliant solutions.) He advised overly light-minded men to be patient and not to mix with other men’s women for a while. Lukashenko is a president with real gusto, not a president who talks about ancient battles with the Polovtsy from his bunker.
To the frenzied delight of Russian jingoists, Lukashenko held a parade on May 9 [Victory Day], attracting crowds of people, including the elderly. And the very elderly—veterans, in fact. But that was only half the trouble. He also said that after the parade, the statistics on the incidence of pneumonia had gone down. He confessed (he’s an honest man) that he had feared an increase in the incidence of pneumonia, but it didn’t happen. “Well, what did we end up with? There has been a significant reduction in pneumonia in Minsk: it dropped by half yesterday. And I made the sign of the cross yesterday: God grant that we will continue giving hell to pneumonia like this.” Fresh air, he said, helps a lot.
And if Lukashenko had wanted, he could have said that people who died from the coronavirus had begun resurrecting after the parade. (As of May 12, according to the official statistics, 142 people in Belarus had died from the coronavirus.) Why? Because he can, that’s why. He can stamp out any protest. He can ignore the reports from the doctors.
It’s not even the Swedish model. The Swedish model, whose success is a matter of debate (a debate we will have later) stipulates that big public events not be held, and citizens behave responsibly. The Belarusian model assumes that there are no citizens. There is a populace that absolutely obeys the decisions of the supreme leader. Happily for us, the new virus is not the medieval black death: clearly, the country will not die off if you purposely avoid imposing a quarantine in order to save the economy. The Belarusian president made his choice by deliberately deciding to sacrifice a certain (non-essential) number of inhabitants, who cannot be saved by vodka or field work.
And after Vladimir Putin announced a “phased exit” from the semi-imposed non-quarantine, Lukashenko condescendingly praised his junior comrade, saying that Russia had followed the Belarusian path.
The Russian Miracle
But in fact, Russia has its own special path. The “non-working weeks” battered the economy considerably, but it is questionable whether they were able to protect residents. When the quarantine was imposed, there were very few cases. When the government started lifting the quarantine, Russia shot up to second place worldwide in the number of infected people.
Discussing the reliability of Russian statistics is a risky business: nowadays, the prosecutor’s office does not see much difference between well-founded criticism and “spreading fake news” about the coronavirus. But we will not make any arguments, we will just note what respected officials and politicians have been saying.
On May 12, Anna Popova, the head of [Russian federal consumer watchdog] Rospotrebnadzor, said that 28.4% of people identified in Russia as infected with the coronavirus were hospitalized. At the time, the total number of people identified as infected was around 230,000; a simple mathematical calculation gives us approximately 65,000 people in hospitals. (In fact, the real figure is another ten thousand less, since we are not taking into account the people who have recovered). But the next day, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said at a cabinet meeting that there were more than 100,000 Russians hospitalized with the coronavirus. You would agree that all this makes it seem that our government is surprisingly footless and fancy-free with statistics, even with their own official statistics, with statistics intended for the public.
On May 13, the Moscow Health Department reported that 60% of those who died with a diagnosed coronavirus had not been included in the coronavirus fatality statistics for capital, because they had died from “obvious alternative causes.” The governor of Petersburg also reported that there had been a spike in the incidence of pneumonia in the city: the indicators were “five and a half times higher than the average.” Since the first of March, 694 residents of Petersburg have died from pneumonia, and 63 from the coronavirus.
Perhaps this is the reason for the Russian miracle of rather low mortality rates from the coronavirus infection. Especially if you remember that Russia is not only made up of capital districts and metropolitan areas, that in the regions, as a rule, all or almost all media outlets are controlled by the local administrations, and it is even easier for them to turn statistics from an enemy into an ally.
And why did the head honcho announce the end of the “non-working weeks”? Well, it’s not so hard to turn a terrible virus into a non-scary one. It’s like with elections: what matters is not what really happened, but who counts the votes and how they count them.
Amulets for MPs
But what’s really going on? In fact, our high officials are afraid, and they are trying to protect themselves by turning the nightmare into a joke and not standing on ceremony with the public. Saving your own life is more important than standing on ceremony.
On May 13, Igor Molyakov, an MP from A Just Russia, asked State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin why some of their colleagues were coming to sessions of parliament not wearing their MP pins, as required by law, but wearing quite different pins featuring a white cross on a black background. Molyakov added that he was a dog breeder himself and would like to know whether it would be possible for him to wear the pin of his kennel club instead of the Russian tricolor on his lapel.
Volodin’s answer, I hope, will go down in the annals: “Let’s ask the people who are wearing these pins, but as far as my colleagues have told me, they are special devices for repelling the virus.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day soon, MPs ran naked around the State Duma building on Okhotny Ryad banging on pots: this method of fighting pestilence has been described by anthropologists. And we can only pray that no one tells them that fresh human flesh, for example, staves off the virus. They would believe them.
Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press Secretary, has fallen ill. And now he remembers regretfully the “virus blocker” that he wore and then stopped wearing after he was mocked in the press.
Here it is important to understand that the people wearing the miracle badges and warding off the virus with life-giving white crosses are the same people who explain why “phasing out restrictions” at the peak of the epidemic is justified, and make decisions that affect our lives.
Of course, they themselves get sick and get infected, but let’s not forget that we will be treated in slightly different hospitals, if push comes to shove.
It’s hard to stop. For dessert we have another intellectual delicacy, this time from Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. He has explained why masks cannot be distributed for free in the city during the mandatory mask regime: “Yesterday, we adopted a resolution not to give out free masks, but to hand out money. There are a lot of people in our city, both visitors and non-visitors, and people from other regions. How should we should distribute these masks? We should make you show your passport and ask where you are registered.”
The virus, you understand, asks to see people’s residence permits and attacks only native Petersburgers. It presents no danger to out-of-towners and migrant workers, nor can they themselves infect anyone. Governor Beglov is in charge of Russia’s second largest city, the home to millions of people and a “pneumonia outbreak” that, of course, has nothing to do with the coronavirus.
By the way, Beglov’s “money” amounts to 800 rubles [approx. 10 euros] for pensioners and members of large families to buy masks.
A Failed Police State
But let’s go back to my park. I started with it to illustrate the fact that the police state in Russia has failed. There has been a lot of overkill, and people all over Russia have been pretty annoyed, but the police have been unable to ensure compliance with the imposed restrictions. They are good at breaking up peaceful protest rallies, but bad at everything else.
The government had a choice. It could have engaged the citizenry in dialogue, rejected intimidation in favor of education, sought compromises where possible, and, of course, provided direct financial assistance to those forced to stay at home. It could have made Russia’s citizens its allies instead of making them the targets of an incoherent police dragnet. To do this, however, it would have had to see the populace as citizens, but we have a big problem with this sort of thing in Russia.
The government could have done it, but it was impossible—forbidden—for the government to do it.
It would have been possible to issue endless prohibitions of varying degrees of savagery and to force the population to comply with them using an old and proven argument—the police billy club. But that didn’t work out either. It turns out that there is no police state in these parts. There is a useless system of governance that starts to crumble at the first serious test. Ensconced in his bunker, the head honcho denounces the immorality of the Spartans, while his subordinates are decked out in life-saving amulets, expecting that by summer everything will have somehow worked itself out.
The reason they terminated the “non-working weeks” is that they simply could not enforce the lockdown measures. And they decided to rescue the economy since they had been unable to save people. But there was a tiny twist: they did this only after after the economy had been dealt a serious blow.
The Russian state makes war on Russian citizens as if they were the main threat when, in fact, there are no real threats to it, but it simply vanishes when there is a real threat. This is exactly what Putin has built over the last twenty years. This is the whole “Russian federal system”—terrifying, unsinkable, tending to totalitarianism. It’s a poor excuse for a Belarus. It’s a slightly rotten Belarus.
Take care of yourselves and help each other. No one else is going to help us.
Translated by the Russian Reader