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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.Published in