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From Russia With Rumors

Letter from Российская Федерация


Dear [name redacted],

As you know, Russia has become an epicenter for the coronavirus. For three days in a row, 10,000 new cases have been reported. It doesn’t look good. Public health care has been severely crippled during the last 15-20 years. There are extraordinary doctors, mostly working in private clinics, but these are out of the reach of most Russians.

The international news reported that three doctors, at least one of whom had been critical of Russia’s response to the outbreak, had mysteriously fallen out of windows from a great height. Two died, one is still alive. Like everything in the world right now, the story will probably be debunked, confirmed, explained, revised 150 times.

There is of course a lot of talk about the virus bringing down Putin. There has been talk about all kinds of things bringing down Putin for at least 15 years now. In 2011 or 2012 one highly placed friend told me with great assurance that Putin’s fall was imminent. In 2015 another whispered that the end was coming in a month or two.

From 1993 to 2012, the word on certain streets in St. Petersburg and Moscow went like this: as soon as it gets a little warmer, the people will revolt. These rumors were breathlessly reported, and amplified, by foreign journalists. The same thing is happening now.

In 2012 there was a serious spurt of protest, mostly in central Moscow but echoed in some more distant cities. A bunch of organizers were arrested, their apartments searched, their pride bruised, their reputations also (usually by revelations about money found in the apartments). Some of them were imprisoned. Putin’s chef produced a documentary proving that Hillary Clinton had organized and funded the whole thing.

And then it was over. Opposition journalists were either co-opted or continued to criticize within agreed-upon limits. These were allowed to save face and preserve their European villas as long as they didn’t touch certain themes. (I have met and talked with a number of these people and find them just as cynical as the pro-state propagandists, sadly.) The few dedicated activists were exiled or murdered. Several brave or foolhardy souls continue living in Russia under threat.

The sense of betrayal is, I would say, similar to what many people in the U.S. feel. Faced with grave illness, people in Russia remember that in January — when Russia and the US should have been preparing for the epidemic along with the rest of the world — the Kremlin and the whole country were only talking about one thing: revisions to the Constitution designed to keep Putin in power until at least 2036. Oh, and a Cabinet shuffle.

Oh, and incidentally, Putin’s closest associate, Igor Sechin, plunged the economy into disaster just as the virus was arriving, with his rejection of OPEC’s request to cut back on oil production in the face of reduced demand. The Arab countries responded by producing a glut, driving the price of oil — the single most important pillar of the Russian economy — down precipitously.

But. As we have seen, in troubled times — disastrous times — people tend to cleave to their present leader. In Russia too: remember that Stalin was totally responsible for the disastrous Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941, that he was utterly unprepared, the army had no weapons, the whole leadership of the army had been removed, repressed, or executed, the populace had no inkling that an attack was imminent.

Stalin hid in a bunker the day of the invasion, awaiting the police. Instead, the leadership concluded that they needed a figurehead — and as a result, soldiers ran into battle with the cry “For the Homeland, For Stalin!”; and to this day Stalin is credited with winning the Great Patriotic War.

I do not know what forces are keeping Putin in power, so I have no idea of what would cause his removal from power. And frankly, I really do not think it is necessarily something to wish for.

Grigory Pechorin is a writer and archivist living in Europe.

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