Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Как дела Мистер Пу?: The Politics of Coronavirus in Russia

 

This should be a weekend of parades and celebrations all over Russia, especially in Moscow and the former Leningrad, as citizens rush to celebrate their nation’s part in the Великая Отечественная война (the generally used Russian term for WWII, which marks the dates 1941-45, and is usually translated into English as The Great Patriotic War, although The Great War for the Fatherland is an equally valid interpretation, closer to the meaning of the adjective). It should especially be a time of celebration for one Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who for the last 20 years has never missed a chance to parade the streets of Petersburg with a framed photo of his veteran father, along with tens of thousands of other Russians. There will be no ceremonies this weekend, and Mr. Putin has fewer and fewer causes to celebrate. 

The situation in Russia has received relatively shallow coverage in the West. Vladimir Putin is a man who built his claim to legitimate authority on his strength, on reasserting the power of Russia in the world as the eyes of most security analysts and Western leaders, which had for the past half-century been focused so heavily on Russia, turned towards the Middle East and Asia as the main centers of coming conflict and rising greatness. Putin, by symbolically rooting out the corruption that has plagued post-Soviet politics (and replacing it with cronies of his own) and making advances into ‘rightfully’ Russian territory in places like Crimea, has attempted to recapture the pride of the Great Patriotic War, which remains one of the few largely uncontroversial focuses of Russian patriotism in the 21st century. But a global pandemic does not have recognizable border divides or command tanks and ground forces, and in a state which has thrown the bulk of its resources behind military expenditure and industry, Vladimir Putin is beginning to struggle. 

Putin’s approval rating has reached an all-time low of 59%, and ordinary Russians are well aware that the statistics that their government presents to the world reflect only a portion of those afflicted by the virus, with a crumbling healthcare infrastructure that is there for all to see. By no means a stupid man, Putin closed the border with China and banned Chinese nationals of any provenance entrance in January, intimately aware of how unprepared Russia’s система здравоохранения was for the onslaught that COVID-19 could prove, but he ultimately ended up only delaying the inevitable. Like the Chinese state, the Russian government has kept up a heavy barrage of internal propaganda blaming the US for the dire situation, but support for constitutional reform, only a few months after Putin’s bold reorganization of the Russian government, is rising rapidly. So, what will happen? 

This will, in large part, be dictated by the course that the virus takes through Russia. At the moment, there are reports that Russian medical students are being threatened with expulsion from their programs if they don’t agree to join the fight in any capacity that is asked of them, even as mortality for healthcare workers rise and complaints about the lack of any effective protection gear and medical supplies for them grow. So far, there have been three cases of doctors diagnosed with the illness and forced to continue treating patients ‘accidentally’ falling from high windows.

Major cities like Moscow and Petersburg also house a large number of migrants, now temporarily or completely without work, from poorer areas of the country, and as they struggle to find food or retain shelter (when much of what they had before was abysmal) the risk both that they will begin to spread the virus through the cities’ homeless populations and deepen the crisis or eventually begin protesting for better treatment or assistance (when many of the older among them have the memory of a cradle to grave welfare system) grows. The disease reached the cabinet days ago, putting Putin at increased personal risk. And if the ordinary Russian people, many of whom have tolerated or supported him because of dreams of renewed economic and political greatness, see the great weakness that his policies have contributed to in healthcare, watch members of their own families die, and are faced with an even more anemic economy than before, then the man who has already lost the support of many of the young and the urban elite in his nation may face a serious challenge. Challengers like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in exile in London, continue to broadcast a firmly anti-regime message which may, as had failed under men like Boris Nemtsov when Putin’s power seemed unbreakable, find a larger and larger audience. 

There is no guarantee, perhaps not even a significant chance, that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s reign will be under major threat because of the crisis. It bears remembering, though, that the former человек КГБ-а gained power precisely at a time of crisis and unprecedented uncertainty, and that the hair of the dog may just be the cure to Мистер Пу.* 

*I thought it was a good time to take a look at the situation in Russia, and spend a little time translating news articles, mostly because I’ve spent the better part of the last month speaking mainly Russian, and listening almost exclusively to Russian news and podcasts. That was due to the oral exam I did yesterday, worth 40% of the grade for my Russian module this year and a huge factor in whether I’ll be able to move onto the next level and complete my degree with a double major. I don’t particularly like speaking English to someone for 20 minutes, nevermind Russian, but I made it out relatively unscathed (although nervousness wreaked a bit of havoc on my declensions) and even managed an answer about why I chose to devote my culture project to the poetry and ideas of Joseph Brodsky that seemed to impress my examiners. Still struggling a bit to transition back to English, so I figured it would be put to good use here as I gear up for the rest of my exams, and try to banish the last of my paralyzing nerves. On to writing about bills of exchange and Mughal-Safavid relations tomorrow.

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  1. JosePluma Thatcher

    Thank you for taking your time on this.

    • #1
    • May 7, 2020, at 3:33 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    Thank you for taking your time on this.

    You’re welcome. It’s a constructive distraction from worrying about how to rate the importance of shared Persian culture in Mughal-Safavid relations, or whatever joyful exam prompt I’m working with tomorrow. 

    • #2
    • May 7, 2020, at 3:34 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Interesting post, KW, and best of luck with the remainder of the ordeal.

    • #3
    • May 7, 2020, at 3:36 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A fine post, all true…but a mild dissent: the various dissidents inside Russia and idealists-in-exile are regarded by most Russians, not just pro-Putin fanatics, the way Ricochet readers react to Bill Kristol, Max Boot and Mona Charen. Even if in theory their purity is admirable, in practice they’ll weaken the one man who gave the country back their pride. Right or wrong, it’s a tricky issue. 

    • #4
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:21 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor

    A couple additional points from The Eastern Border

    Putin issued a “stay at home” order which offered people their regular wages to not go to work, at the expense of the employers.

    Putin also promised increased compensation for healthcare workers dealing with the virus. Said compensation hasn’t come, and if I were you comrade I wouldn’t go asking after it.

    • #5
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:21 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A fine post, all true…but a mild dissent: the various dissidents inside Russia and idealists-in-exile are regarded by most Russians, not just pro-Putin fanatics, the way Ricochet readers react to Bill Kristol, Max Boot and Mona Charen. Even if in theory their purity is admirable, in practice they’ll weaken the one man who gave the country back their pride. Right or wrong, it’s a tricky issue.

    You’re absolutely right, although I think the degree of that sentiment depends to some degree upon who the person in question was before they left and what they are doing now. And on who you’re asking (there’s a young, educated elite that seems more open to a lot of the pro-democracy sentiments exiled Russian politicians express, though they aren’t by any means a majority). After seeing what happened to Nemtsov, I wouldn’t blame anyone who has even thought something critical about Putin for making a run for it and never looking back. All three of my Russian teachers escaped before the collapse of the USSR, and only one goes back at all, even though the other two still have family there, which says something about how much some people really feel things have improved from the old days. The doubly tricky thing for Putin is that that sense of pride is what got him power, but losing it, even through no direct action of his own, will come back to bite hard.

    • #6
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:26 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  7. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Hank Rhody, Badgeless Bandito (View Comment):

    A couple additional points from The Eastern Border

    Putin issued a “stay at home” order which offered people their regular wages to not go to work, at the expense of the employers.

    Putin also promised increased compensation for healthcare workers dealing with the virus. Said compensation hasn’t come, and if I were you comrade I wouldn’t go asking after it.

    I wouldn’t going looking after much other than a way out, at this point. I doubt employers are going to be able to offer much either, with the way economies all over the world are struggling (and the Russian economy’s dependance on oil and gas exports), and Putin, after pumping money into the health system to try to prevent all out collapse, keeping up funding on his various military ventures, and propping up various semi-state owned ventures won’t have too much left over to give those that had to stay home.

    • #7
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:32 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  8. Bob Armstrong Thatcher
    молодец! интересно читать и раздумать.

     

    • #8
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:36 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    молодец! интересно читать и раздумать.

     

    Спасибо большое! Я рада что вы понравилось читать его. 

    • #9
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:40 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Bob Armstrong Thatcher

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    молодец! интересно читать и раздумать.

     

    Спасибо большое! Я рада что вы понравилось читать его.

    Извините, молодца!

    • #10
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:47 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    молодец! интересно читать и раздумать.

     

    Спасибо большое! Я рада что вы понравилось читать его.

    Извините, молодца!

    Хаха, это все хорошо. Иногда я использую неправильный пол также. 

    • #11
    • May 7, 2020, at 4:54 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Hammer, The Member

    I’m a bit jealous. I studied Russian history in college, was admitted to a Russian studies PhD program, but chose law school instead. Did pimsleur for a while but never learned much Russian. If I could go back and tell myself to try harder at it, I would. Not that I couldn’t start it up again…

    • #12
    • May 7, 2020, at 6:21 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  13. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Hammer, The (View Comment):

    I’m a bit jealous. I studied Russian history in college, was admitted to a Russian studies PhD program, but chose law school instead. Did pimsleur for a while but never learned much Russian. If I could go back and tell myself to try harder at it, I would. Not that I couldn’t start it up again…

    I completely understand why you went a different way. I very nearly cut my loses at the end of last year, and almost regretted not doing it at the beginning of this year, but it has paid off. It’s a very intense course (145 hours per term) and if it’s going badly, it feels like the end of the world, but we found our rhythm in the end. If you decide to do some self study, the Michel Thomas Russian audio courses are good from what I hear (I know the woman that does them, a bit) and Terrence’s Wade’s A Comprehensive Russian Grammar is an excellent tool, it was the only thing, after months, that actually got me to understand verbs of motion, although it’s 100% not a textbook, self study or otherwise. 

    • #13
    • May 7, 2020, at 7:22 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVeyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Bob Armstrong (View Comment):

    молодец! интересно читать и раздумать.

     

    Спасибо большое! Я рада что вы понравилось читать его.

    Извините, молодца!

    Хаха, это все хорошо. Иногда я использую неправильный пол также.

    Ha, ha, horrorshow!

    • #14
    • May 7, 2020, at 8:07 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge

    A great post, as always. I’ve recently started reading the Gulag Archipelago. Whenever I hear someone whinging about Ireland’s terrible past I always remind them that we could have been in Russia. 

    • #15
    • May 8, 2020, at 1:32 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    A great post, as always. I’ve recently started reading the Gulag Archipelago. Whenever I hear someone whinging about Ireland’s terrible past I always remind them that we could have been in Russia.

    We got a free choice this year on one of the topics for our exam, and I did mine on the genre of gulag novels. (We do a Russian style exam, so we are allowed to chose four presentations to prepare and we find out which one we will be doing when we arrive at the exam, either by flipping a card or the examiner’s choice). Even my examiner asked why I picked such a depressing topic. I had thought I was fairly well read in gulag novels/stories, but I would unhesitatingly recommend, after all of my research for the essay that formed the basis of the presentation, Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov. There are six volumes if you take the full translation, but I think there are also a few condensed one volume version. Divorced from the topic they are beautifully written and well plotted, and within the context of the gulag they are very illuminating. Although I wouldn’t personally recommend the Penguin translation.

    • #16
    • May 8, 2020, at 1:44 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  17. Front Seat Cat Member

    Very interesting post – thank you and good luck in your studies! I’d like to hear about Joseph Brodsky and what you like about him. You are right – the West is not covering what is going on there very much. As a matter of fact, the leader of that country also met with the leader of the country that the virus originated from quite a bit over the last couple years – do we even know what the authoritarian regimes are up to since all the coverage has been the virus??

    • #17
    • May 8, 2020, at 4:56 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  18. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Very interesting post – thank you and good luck in your studies! I’d like to hear about Joseph Brodsky and what you like about him. You are right – the West is not covering what is going on there very much. As a matter of fact, the leader of that country also met with the leader of the country that the virus originated from quite a bit over the last couple years – do we even know what the authoritarian regimes are up to since all the coverage has been the virus??

    Thanks! I’ve been meaning to do a post on him for a while, although it might be a bit before I manage (my exams have become essays, and the amount I have to write and deadlines mean that I am writing an essay, either 1k or 1.5k words, everyday from yesterday to the 18th). I can’t claim to have any divine insight into the mind of Putin, but I do watch enough internal news to know that they’re falling in line with the Chinese in blaming the US for everything. Sometimes I think Americans fail to realize how much of an appetite there is for that still in Russia, especially outside of the two major cities. Quite a popular bumper sticker there brags (in crass terms) about how the Russians defeated the Nazis and can do just the same to the Americans. A Russian journalist wrote quite an interesting, and controversial, article about Russian perceptions of WWII and how that is really the mindset a lot of Russians are stuck in, because they see it as the last unmitigated Russian victory and a triumph in a modern history marked by few (it’s also taught in a way that erases the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and any motivations/tactics that suggest that the USSR and Uncle Joe were involved out of anything other than the goodness of their own hearts). On the very limited plus side, Putin might just have a harder time using this as an excuse to seize yet more power because he really needs to focus on propping up the Russian healthcare system in order to prevent some kind of humanitarian disaster that will necessitate outside help, the last thing he wants. One could at least hope that leaves him 5% less time for plotting.

    • #18
    • May 8, 2020, at 5:35 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  19. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    This is the bumper sticker in question with a bit of…selective editing done.

    • #19
    • May 8, 2020, at 5:44 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Very interesting post – thank you and good luck in your studies! I’d like to hear about Joseph Brodsky and what you like about him. 

    Me too. I confess I’d never heard of him until a few years ago when I met a relative of his living in a small town not far from me. 

     

    • #20
    • May 9, 2020, at 4:18 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Very interesting post – thank you and good luck in your studies! I’d like to hear about Joseph Brodsky and what you like about him.

    Me too. I confess I’d never heard of him until a few years ago when I met a relative of his living in a small town not far from me.

    He is (0r at least was in his time) quite famous in Russia, and to some extent in the US as a high profile defection, but fame for poets there is much more common. One of the questions I actually had to answer during my exam was why I had chosen him, when there were such world famous and transcendentally wonderful Russian poets like Blok and Pushkin. Funnily enough, Brodsky thought the lack of fame for poets in America was a problem too and proposed a program to try to fix it. There are a lot of great videos of him on YouTube doing recitations of his poems once in Russian and once in English, so that audiences could feel the original rhythm and understand. I think he might be an easier poet, in translation at least, for Westerners to understand because he was very heavily influenced by writers like T.S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, W.H. Auden, and John Donne.

    • #21
    • May 9, 2020, at 5:16 PM PDT
    • 3 likes