Russia has suffered much throughout its history, and this is not the first time that Russia has had to deal with an epidemic. As with every other time, Russia will probably look a lot different when this epidemic has come and gone.

In the 1650s, the Moscow Plague killed off 70% of the city’s population. It was said that the disease spread “like a flame driven by wind.” Those who violated the quarantine were shot, those who died had their houses burned to the ground.

In the 1830s, cholera hit Russia, and it was “as though the Apocalypse has arrived.” Striking first in Georgia and the Volga region, it eventually worked its way up to St. Petersburg. 200,000 dead. For some reason, the Poles were blamed for spreading the disease and were lynched en-mass.

Along with the rest of the world, Russia was hit by the Spanish Flu in 1918–1919. Around the world, some one-hundred-million people died, and the Russia/Belarus/Ukraine lost some seven million.

Siberian Plague: I remember many years ago watching an episode of the X-Files, in which Agent Mulder predicted that global warming might release ancient diseases from underneath the ice. Well, it would seem that prediction has come true. You see, with the great climatic shift happening around the world, the permafrost that has long covered Siberia has started to melt. With this melting, a disease that Russians call Siberian Plague (we know it as anthrax) has come back hard, and not only is killing thousands of reindeer, but has caused a few people to be hospitalized. During the Soviet era, reindeer were vaccinated against anthrax, but when the Russian Federation rose to take its place, this program largely fell by the wayside. This has made the problem all the worse, as the native people in Siberia rely very heavily on reindeer.

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April 2020 was supposed to be a significant month for Russia, and more specifically for its president, Vladimir Putin.

Tsar in all but name

Vladimir Putin was not just your ordinary Soviet citizen watching helplessly as the only order he had ever know fell apart in just a few years. No, Vlad was a high ranking officer in the KGB, the storied domestic spying agency that made sure that no Russian citizen really trusted anybody else. Somehow, even as a KGB officer, Putin fell in with Boris Yeltsin, the man who would build the Russian Federation.

In the 1990s, Putin enjoyed the role of rising star in Russian politics. From various posts held in the St. Petersburg city government. On the eve of the 21st Century, Putin was made acting president when Boris Yeltsin felt he could no longer do the job himself.

Putin taking oath of office; Boris Yeltsin stands to his left

Before we continue, I thought I would share with you the words of John Evans, who was U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg from 1994–1997. Mr. Evans penned a long article for the The National Interest on the Vladimir Putin he knew back then, before he was president. I have made a brave attempt to summarize it here, but the link the full article is provided at the bottom.

Let me put it right out there: I believe we Americans have misunderstood — or, as George Bush might have said, “misunderestimated” — Vladimir Putin from the moment he entered our consciousness, at the very start of the present millennium……

-In all my studies of foreign policy, it was drummed into my head again and again that after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was little effort to really understand the new Russia, only to treat it as a child who now needed guidance.

It seems hundreds of books have been written about Putin, and thousands of articles. More are coming, and each of them will attempt to shed some additional light on this remarkable man, who has risen from humble beginnings to lead one of the world’s great nations.

Putin is what Russians call a “gosudarstvennik,” a man of the state. He is not motivated primarily by money, although St. Petersburg friends of ours acknowledge that he has not failed to take advantage of opportunities that have come his way. When I and other Americans in St. Petersburg knew Putin, he had the reputation as the only bureaucrat in the city who did not take bribes (this is an exaggeration; there were others)…..

Unlike Yeltsin, Putin was never a heavy drinker. Nor was he a teetotaler. He would deliver a toast when required, which was often, and do it well….

-It is documented that it was alcoholism that largely brought Boris Yeltsin down and made him deem himself unfit for office.

Those of us who knew Putin in the 1990s recall that his formula for the recovery of Russia consisted of three elements: rebuilding the economy, dealing with the crime problem, and reforming the courts.

-Russia in the 1990s was, by all accounts, a wild place. Russia’s economy was a wreck. Organized crime operated with near impunity. Gangster-ish businessmen took advantage of the Russian people’s lack of understanding of their new economic system to concentrate most of the country’s wealth in a few hands. Years of certainty provided by the old Soviet system was replaced with anything but.

I should mention Putin’s favorite sport, judo….Putin has won numerous
black belts. But he is a good sport: memorably, he allowed himself to be
thrown by a much younger opponent while visiting Japan. It also requires
sobriety, flexibility, and self-control, qualities that Putin exhibits in
abundance….

Much has been made of the fact that Putin started his professional life
in the KGB, the Soviet Union’s dreaded intelligence service. Senator
McCain once said that when he looked into Putin’s eyes he “saw K-G-B.”

“the KGB was our Harvard.”

-This was in reference to the notion that ambitious young men in Soviet Russia had few avenues that would allow them any kind of challenging or interesting careers.

As the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel in the late 1980s, Putin must have been dismayed at first…..

-Mr. Putin has made no secret of this opinion, once claiming that the fall of the Soviet Union was a great disaster.

Putin certainly had come to believe that the old Soviet system had failed and needed to be replaced by a new Russia based on different principles. His commitment to this goal was not incompatible with either his previous service with the KGB or his legal education….

-Who knows what he was thinking. He did, though build a new Russia based on different principles, though not in the way we would think is good.

Putin did not seek the presidency of Russia. He was visibly surprised to be appointed prime minister in the summer of 1999, and reportedly told Yeltsin he did not feel ready to shoulder the responsibility…..

It is common to ascribe America’s growing difficulties with Russia to President Putin personally, but the sources of Russian discontent predate Putin’s presidency.

-Absolutely. Russia and the United States have had a contentious relationship since the Communists took power after the First World War. Long running and full of opportunities for bloodshed, Putin merely inherited the relationship.

Perhaps the biggest source of Russian disappointment, even anger, has been NATO’s relentless expansion right up to Russia’s borders…..

-I see both sides of it. I understand Russia now feels hemmed in by NATO; much of the former Soviet Union is now part of it, and NATO assets are right on Russia’s border. On the other hand, these are people who were conquered and persecuted viciously by the Soviet Union and/or Russian Empire, so it should be no surprise that the likes of Latvia and Poland would seek to permanently remove that possibility from the board.

One issue on which President Putin may well have exercised outsized influence, it seems to me, was in reacting to the events in Ukraine, right on the heels of the Sochi Olympics, which Putin had planned as a spectacle confirming Russia’s return to the world stage….

-Right or wrong, it is said that Russia viewed the problems in Ukraine as an existential threat that had to be addressed.

Full article: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/key-understanding-vladimir-putin-82391

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Fast forward to today:

  1. Putin and his United Russia Party did bring Russia out of the dark period that was the 1990s. Solid economic growth, normalizing of relations with the outside world. Much of these gains have slipped away in the last few years.
  2. The Federal Security Bureau, or FSB, has been accused of being the KGB with a different name. This agency has spent the last few decades building a reputation of brutality and opaqueness.
  3. Depending on who you believe, Putin is still a man of principle hellbent on bringing Russia back to a position of respectability, or just another dictator obsessed with amassing wealth and power.
  4. Putin was president for the legal limit of eight years. Then his Prime Minister Demitry Medvedev was president for four years. Then Putin came back for eight more years. Now he wants sixteen more, and are at the crux of our story.

On 22 April 2020, the Russian people were meant to head to the polls. They were meant to rubber stamp a constitutional change that would allow Putin to hold the presidency of the Russian Federation for eight years beyond the additional eight that he probably should not have been allowed to have. Unfortunately for Vlad, Corona was standing in his way.

This referendum has been delayed. In the mean time, Putin has been making a few moves designed to mollify the Russian people: 1 week of paid vacation time for all workers; improvements to welfare payments that had been sorely lacking- these payments are to total some 4 trillion Rubles ($63.2 billion) between now and 2024.

Not only has the Russian government been trying to apply the “bread and circuses” method. They have also been spreading ridiculous propaganda about the Corona virus. This from the Guardian:

Russian media ‘spreading Covid-19 disinformation’

Leaked EU report says pro-Kremlin outlets seeking to aggravate public health crisis

Pro-Kremlin media have been spreading disinformation about coronavirus with the aim of “aggravating” the public health crisis in the west, the European Union’s diplomatic service has concluded in a leaked report.

An EU monitoring team collected 80 examples of disinformation from Russian sources in nearly two months up to 16 March. Coronavirus was claimed to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories contended the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax.

“Pro-Kremlin media outlets have been prominent in spreading disinformation about the coronavirus, with the aim to aggravate the public health crisis in western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems,” states the report, seen by the Guardian.

Full article: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/russian-media-spreading-covid-19-disinformation

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One podcast I have long enjoyed listening to, and which has provided a lot of useful information on this topic, is the Eastern Border Podcast. Written and produced by a gentleman from Latvia, it is quite an interesting listen. It is interesting to hear about the other side of the Cold War from someone who was once a Soviet citizen; it is invaluable to have someone is able to consult Russian-language media when doing research; that fact that he speaks fluent English makes the presentation all the better.

Not only going deep on the former Soviet Union, Kristaps Andrejsons also provides analysis on current Russian goings on. Not too surprisingly, he has spent a fair amount of time talking about the way Corona is affecting Russia.

Here’s what Kristaps has said on this topic:

  1. Russian government has consolidated control over a key bank in order to facilitate increased welfare payments.
  2. A diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia has caused global oil prices to drop about dramatically. Russia’s currency, the Ruble, is pegged to the price of oil and has dropped greatly in value.
  3. It is now illegal to publicly post rates of exchange for foreign currency. Apparently, Russian people have more confidence in the Dollar and the Euro and exchange whenever possible.
  4. The actual numbers of Corona infection are greatly under reported.
  5. Russian doctors were promised hazard pay to encourage them to volunteer to deal with Corona patients, but this has not materialized.
  6. Russian hospitals are understaffed and underfunded, with a shocking lack of personal-protective equipment.
  7. Putin’s main electorate, i.e., older people, are being hit harder than most by Corona. Furthermore, Russia’s youth are doing better, and much less likely to vote for Putin.

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We will not know for a long time, probably, how badly Russia has been hit by Corona. What we do know right now is that the Russian government is downplaying it. To quote the National Review:

As the coronavirus spread across the world in the early months of the year, Russia stood out for its low number of cases. The Kremlin insisted that there was no outbreak and that the few confirmed cases were of people who had arrived from other countries and were being strictly quarantined. Anyone who had been in contact with them was identified and also placed in isolation. Pundits on state TV told people there was nothing to worry about and took undisguised pleasure in discussing the havoc being caused in the EU and the United States.

(Full article: https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/04/coronavirus-russia-downplays-pandemic-punishes-those-who-report-truth/)

Russia is also attempting to, to show the outside world that it is in such a good condition that it can spare men and materiel to help others, recently sending a much-mocked relief mission to Italy. Italian newspaper La Stampa had this to say:

Russian aid sent to Italy is, in fact, useless, while among troops deployed there are not just military doctors, but also intelligence operatives, spec-ops officers, and military chemists.

(Full article: https://www.unian.info/world/10952627-think-tank-la-stampa-s-findings-on-intel-gathering-nature-of-russian-aid-mission-in-italy-confirmed.html)

Just like China, Russia cannot tell the truth, because it can’t afford to. Neither government can allow the sunlight to shine, because then their long-suffering peoples will see just how bad things are. Neither can brook real opposition, because neither is secure enough to engage in debate. In the case of China, President For Life Xi Jinping is sitting pretty, as it appears that the totalitarian Chinese Communist Party has managed to survive this incident and stay in power; we may never know to what lengths they went to do that. As far as Russia is concerned, Vladimir Putin is probably worried right now, because the jury is still out.

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