The door bell buzzed.
“Who’s there?” I said.
“I didn’t call for one.”
“You just came from abroad. I am checking on your well-being.”
A tall man in his thirties walked in, masked and gloved.
“Why are you here without a warning?” I asked.
“You need to be under quarantine, as of today, July 16th,” he said, handing me a form to sign.
“But I arrived in Moscow on the 4th! My two weeks end in just two days.”
“I received your paperwork only yesterday, and quarantine counts after this check-up.”
These were the rules set up by Rospotrebnadzor—Russia’s Consumer Control Office, responsible for COVID-19 response.
“This makes no sense.”
“I understand you on a human level,” he said.
It was an absurd scene from numerous works of Russian literature, where the menacing idiocy of the authorities has made for satirical masterpieces. “No document, no person,” was a great line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, where the Devil visits Stalinist Moscow and is stunned to discover that he has more humanity and feeling than the controlling system he encounters.
In a small act of rebellion, I refused to sign the form. Expecting the police to arrive the following day, I was instead visited by two young women, angelic-looking in sky blue, clad in full body PPE. Medics from a local clinic, they tested me for coronavirus, part of the “arriving from abroad” procedure.
They were caring and, to my relief, critical of the ambush visit of the Rospotrebnadzor “doctor.” My test results came back in two days. I was negative. Since I hadn’t signed the quarantine form, I was free to move around.
Or so I thought.
In the middle of June, I had a choice to make. I could stay in America, taking my chances in New York as it limped towards recovery. The city was shaken by inequality and the shortcomings of privatized medicine. My adopted country was rattled by protests for racial equality that Donald Trump was handling with increasing authoritarianism. On the other, I could go back to my Russian homeland, where authoritarianism is a long tradition.
There, despite many COVID-19 cases, at least the outbreak had been brought under control, aided by the fact that every Muscovite is entitled to free medical care from a neighborhood clinic. For the first time in my life—after thirty years of living in America—Moscow, not New York, felt like a more desirable option.
In devising my escape, I had to do what every Russian does—go around what’s permitted. Russia is big in size, but it has never been big on nuance. Closing and forbidding is its default position. The state has an unquenchable need to control and the people need to break the rules. We never believe that things work out, so we try to outsmart the system rather than wait for a problem to be resolved.
While many countries have been patiently waiting for the quarantine to be lifted, Russians immediately found a loophole and began repatriating through Belarus, a usually accommodating “Slavic brother,” which had often stepped in to make brisk business off of Russia’s habitual inflexibility.
Traveling through Belarus seemed like a reasonable course. In March, when Russia closed it borders, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, reportedly felt slighted.The two nations had signed a treaty in 1999, establishing the so-called “Union State,” a reconstituted version of the U.S.S.R. in miniature, allowing citizens of both countries to move freely across each other’s borders, to settle, work, or study.
In power since 1994, Lukashenko has never denounced the Soviet Union, even though geographically Belarus is closer to Europe than any other former Soviet republic. His restrictive policies and tough stance against opposition earned him the nickname of “Europe’s last dictator.” Aligning his country’s fortunes with Putin, he was able to maintain his independence, navigating a fragile balance between his neighbors to the east and west.
During the Covid pandemic, Belarus conveniently made arrangements for Russians to cross the border. Car services shuttled people from Minsk to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Or so it was, until August 9, when the nation held its presidential elections. Lukashenko, seeking his sixth term, massively rigged the election in his favor. The Belarusan people took to the streets. Lukashenko blamed both Russia and Europe for his political troubles.
In July, when I flew out of John F. Kennedy airport, the agreement was in effect. My flight connected through Amsterdam, where I walked through an eerily empty airport marked by signs reminding everyone to wear masks. Few actually followed those rules. Very few.
Lukashenko doesn’t believe in the coronavirus menace, so when I arrived in Minsk there were no such signs. Lukashenko had been getting away with ignoring Covid thanks to the communist-era health system. The country’s number of deaths—600—is low, even if you double the numbers for uncounted cases, ten times less than that of Sweden, which as roughly the same population.
When I was there, Minsk was festive and tranquil. Generally, people were relaxed about the president’s views on the pandemic. On July 3, Belarus celebrated Independence Day. Critics such as my friend, the writer Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian whose work won her a Nobel Prize, calmly predicted Lukashenko’s “somewhat manipulated victory,”would be followed by only minor protests. Most would accept the results, she predicted, “in fear of losing stability.”
“We don’t usually protest too much,” she told me. The last time Belarus saw tens of thousands marching through the streets was after the 2010 election, when the political opposition, demanding political freedom, was forcefully suppressed. In 2015, Lukashenko’s election provoked only a few hundred protesters.
"People valued their comfortable life, not rich but not poor, [the country] making deals with both east and west that the president says only he can deliver.”
One could have said the same about Americans not that long ago, I realized later. With no revolution to observe in Minsk, I embarked on the journey towards my final destination: Moscow.
Alexievich had arranged for an acquaintance to drive me 186 miles east for a reasonable price: $300. In Minsk, that amounts to a half-month’s salary or rent for a small apartment in the suburbs, but in the time of Covid, people are paying twice as much to get to the border.
The Volvo was black and the day was hot. Pre-owned many times, it had no air conditioner, but its driver, Arkady, brought me a bouquet of pink roses. They didn’t last, but it was a sweet Soviet-era gesture in the face of an unyieldingly bureaucratic system—giving flowers as a token of simple and direct human connection.
I had been warned that the previously nonexistent border on the Minsk Highway was now guarded by the Russian Federal Security Service (the FSB, successor to the KGB). Whether a Russian passport holder was able to cross or not was dependent on the officer’s mood—some had no problem, others chose passengers to turn away, seemingly at random.
Three hours later, we approached a dirty, gray, pillar with small, dusty Russian and Belorussian flags marking the state line. We were stopped by two grumpy FSB guards in black T-shirts and paramilitary pants.
“Where are you going?” the shorter of the two barked.
“Moscow. Here’s my Russian passport,” I replied.
“I’m just dropping her off,” Arkady said, showing his Belarusian documents.
“You can’t go any farther; this is the territory of the Russian Federation.”
We pulled over. I could see the guards were interrogating a family in the car behind us. After a few tense exchanges, they turned it away. I saw a little boy inside the car. He was crying.
My cell phone rang. It was my brother-in-law, Igor, who had driven seven hours from Moscow to pick me up. Igor couldn’t exit Russia because of the Covid shutdown so he was a few hundred yards away on the other side of the border.
“I can’t see you,” he said.
The situation was getting to me: the heat, the long hours of travel.
“Neither can I!” I heard myself screaming into the phone. “Neither can I!”
Igor could not leave the FSB check point on the Russian side of the border; Arkady, a Belarusian, couldn’t drive me into the Russian territory to meet Igor.
“Welcome to the Motherland, motherfucker,” I cursed, dragging my suitcases across the border under the hot afternoon sun.The cars driving by blew clouds of dust in my face. Insects dive bombed my naked ears. I began to regret my decision to leave New York.
Over the next weeks, Lukashenko, who had honed his methods as head of a Soviet collective farm, fully earned dictator status. He muzzled the internet, the courts, and his opponents. Before the elections, he imprisoned or scared off his most prominent rivals. These heavy-handed attempts to shore up his presidency wound up creating more problems for him.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former teacher and a jailed rival’s wife, stepped in to compete against the outdated president, gathering thousands of supporters. She promised to work on greater affiliation with Europe and a more equal partnership with Russia. Lukashenko dismissed the young charismatic woman as a “ridiculous girl” and on social media, branded her supporters as “sheep” led by Western puppet masters.
When Lukashenko announced his victory with 80 percent support, the election results, which were clearly false, unleashed the fury of the country’s factory workers, formerly his backbone of support. Many of them don't even use social media, but refused to be “sheep.” The unprecedented protests spread across the country. Protesters were met with savage and brutal police suppression: thousands of detentions, fines, broken bones, and even death.
Russia has, as usual, was blamed by the Western press. Critics, Svetlana Alexievich included, immediately argued that the brutality must have come from the Russians invited by Lukashenko to suppress the masses.
I doubted it. I speak from experience when I say that the Russian forces are rude, but they are usually not senselessly violent, as the Belarusian police showed itself to be after the elections.
But who can know? And in the end, it may not matter if Lukashenko’s despotic actions drive Belarus deeper into Putin’s embrace. The Kremlin uses disarray to expand its influence, as it tried in Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014, taking over chunks of these countries as Russia-affiliated territories. Size matters—a reason why Russia, an eternal empire, is obsessed with borders.
“Moscow should learn from the election’s public clapback,” Alexievich told me hopefully, confessing that she didn’t expect “such resolve against injustice from the normally obedient people of Belarus. I have fallen in love with them anew.”
Russians have been protesting, too. Protests in Russia are quite common so one tends not to make too much of them. They are also more localized. The latest is the Russian Far East, where people have been marching almost daily in Khabarovsk against dismissal of their popular governor, Sergei Furgal.
In late June, the country held a hurried—and falsified—referendum. The Kremlin suspended its national quarantine, but the only events allowed were sponsored by the state. In preparation for the vote, journalists, scholars, and politicians were arrested or put on trial. To no one’s surprise, the independent election observer, Golos, found that the referendum was rigged from the start.
With the pandemic damaging Russia’s economy, the real goal was shoring up Putin’s power. Like Trump, Vladimir Putin originally downplayed the pandemic. Unlike Trump, Putin was able to marshal a spotty, but ultimately adequate response to COVID-19.
Despite dire warnings in the U.S. media, Russia has had 15,000 reported coronavirus-related deaths to the 169,000 and rising in the U.S. Even if the actual number is twice as high, as some allege—ours is a country of secrecy with a system designed to avoid exposing vulnerabilities to adversaries—Russia has done a decent job of controlling the outbreak. The much-publicized vaccine taken by Putin’s daughter is promised to every citizen in a few months, or so the government claims.
While the efficacy of the vaccine is questionable, there is little question of the efficiency of Putin’s political tactics. This summer’s referendum allowed Putin to prolong his rule until 2036, the longest anyone has ruled Russia since Peter the Great 300 years ago.
When I was in Russia, Sergei Furgal was emerging as a credible opponent to Putin’s regime in the far eastern part of the country. The region’s main city of Khabarovsk is about 250 miles from the Pacific Ocean, 15 miles from Russia’s border with China and 5,000 miles from the Kremlin. The region, so far from the center of power, didn’t back Putin’s constitutional-reform referendum with much enthusiasm.
On July 9, Putin had Furgal arrested, charging the businessman-turned-governor with ordering contract killings of business rivals in 2004 and 2005, when he was building his interests in metal and timber. The arrest was politically motivated; this is not to say that Furgal is innocent.
In late July, when I thought I was done with my first quarantine, I joined a modest protest in support of Furgal. I knew of his character, but the larger principle of anti-authoritarianism brought me out on the streets. I got detained in Pushkin Square. I was accused of illegally demonstrating, since public gatherings are banned for the pandemic unless they are organized by the state.
My travel through Belarus came up on the police iPad, so I was found guilty of two more violations. A burly policeman insisted that I entered Russia against the law.
“But the FSB let me in,” I explained.
“Since you also broke quarantine by not signing the doctor’s form, your entry is illegal,” the policeman replied.
My heart hurt. Yet the mask-wearing policeman was almost friendly. Lauding me as “a responsible person”—I was the only one with a mask in a careless protesting crowd—he gave me a choice: go to a police station with my mask-less comrades or agree to another two weeks of home isolation.
My sense of self-preservation was stronger than the call to civic duty. No longer looking for logic, and happy to find humanity in a government official, I felt lucky to be under house arrest.
But then watching the Belarusians’ bravery—people of all professions and walks of life have risen up against a brutal authoritarian police state—I felt embarrassed for my Covid cowardice.
I hope our Russian protests will soon become as overwhelming and unstoppable as those in Belarus, and I know I will be there with them, masks or no masks.
Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School in New York.
Ochi Chyornye ::: from My Man Godfrey
Vichnaya Pamyat :::Hildur Gudnadottir
Black Snow ::: Pussy Riot
Siberian Sleighride ::: Raymond Scott
Sous Le Fenetre ::: Svetlana
It’s A Long Way To Tipperary ::: The Red Army Choir
Tsimando Chmerto ::: The Rustavi Choir
Psalm 151 ::: Boris Grebenshivov
Russia : Derek & Clive