Recent visitors to Russia (and Ukraine, and Belarus) note the dearth of masks on crowded sidewalks. In early March, as the COVID pandemic was raging in the region and intensive care units were filled over capacity, restaurants were also filled over capacity — all booked up for corporate parties celebrating International Women’s Day, a major holiday in the post-Soviet world. A veritable woke feast in the time of pestilence.
If Russian speakers around the world remain relatively at ease with the pandemic, it’s probably not because their government minimized it. That the authorities minimized it is not a matter of dispute, of course. However the public’s response to the novel disease has more to do with cultural expectations and historic memories than with government mandates or with the lack of such.
In that respect, Eastern Europeans are no different than any other people. After all, there is a world of difference between San Francisco and Reading even if both are subjects to laws imposed by the California governor Gavin Newsom. Although the two towns stand a few hours away from each other, they are populated by different tribes with different ways of life.
Here is why Russians remain nonplussed in the face of Covid.
In Russia, human life is cheap
Russians live under the shadow of the 22 million. That’s how many Soviets, Russian speakers, and et al., died in the Great Patriotic War defending their Motherland from the Nazis.
Actually, it’s much more than that, and this fact is in part attributable to the way Joseph Stalin conducted the war, but regardless, Russians are quite proud of their 22 million and are conditioned to think that heroic self-sacrifice is the norm.
When Alexei Navalny recently returned to his homeland, fully understanding that Putin is going to kill him, the opposition leader was acting the script he absorbed early in his life. Meantime, comfortable Westerners can’t believe his courage and resolve.
With that mentality, Russians figured out that their odds with the COVID pandemic are better than with Hitler and continued going about their business. Many of them know someone who came down with a bad case of illness, maybe was hospitalized, or even died.
But survivors tend to describe it as a bad flu, not because they don’t understand that it’s a different virus, but because that’s how they experienced it. They might relish every nasty detail of the illness when discussing it with friends and family, but cheap cognac can lead to nasty hangovers, too, but that doesn’t mean that we should all stop drinking.
So, crazy Russkies, right? Maybe. Or maybe very sane ones.
Russia didn’t take a holiday from history in the 90’s
After the fall of the USSR, the economy of the former “Republics” crumbled, the normal flow of life ceased. Factories stopped working, gas supply to homes was halted in winter, even buses stopped running. Those still fortunate to have something like a job often worked for the promise of pay.
We can debate who is responsible for the failures of the transition, but that’s beside the point. Having lived through that time, and having experienced the social fallout, including mental illness, high rates of substance abuse, decline in life expectancy, and the society-wrecking birth slump, I and many Eastern Europeans view any disruption of everyday life with suspicion.
As my Russian-born septuagenarian Jewish mother said when Gavin Newsom imposed his statewide shelter-in-place order in California, “Why are we doing it? If there is a war, young men risk their lives to protect the old. Well, with the virus being what it is, we can take a risk for the young, and so that normal life can continue.”
She personally took precautions, she just didn’t think that the lockdown measures were warranted considering the risks to the society as a whole. Her thought was informed by a very different understanding of “we are all in it together” than the one adopted by her American-born neighbors.
Russians are not the best planners
A popular Russian proverb states «Пока гром не грянет, мужик не перекрестится,» or “Man won’t cross himself until thunder roars”. It conveys the attitude of people who, being improvident, react to unfortunate events rather than prepare for emergencies in advance.
This mentality is less common among the highly educated elites than among the unwashed masses. Nevertheless, the elaborate anti-COVID measures voluntarily adopted by many in the US seem wild to Russian speakers. Layering masks is not a Russian kind of neurosis.
The structure of everyday life is not easily adoptable to restraints of self-quarantine
Russia is a urban country; the majority of its residents live in modest apartments in midrise buildings and travel in crowded public transportation.
American suburban sprawl provides many individuals with an opportunity to go full Karen — our houses are large and each comes with a yard. It’s possible to take a long drive, or walk down a near-empty street while zealously policing unmasked neighbors. At the same time one can’t be expected to self-isolate in a high density population center without going berserk sooner rather than later.
Russians are sketchy
It’s tempting to think that a repressive regime like that of Joseph Stalin would create an obedient population, but Russia is unruly.
Stalin, who easily tolerated the ancient Thieves in Law subculture, and whose henchmen recruited socially and politically-compromised individuals into secret police, never intended to shape his subjects into rational, law-abiding citizens. Nor, in any event, did he create anything resembling a state governed by law.
During the Soviet era, Russians learned to build underground distribution networks called blat, and industrial production was managed by mafia-like structures. Moonlighting was the norm even if it was illegal and strictly punished. The contemporary business environment is fantastically corrupt, with the biggest thieves sitting in Kremlin. Authorities may impose some kind of anti-Covid measures, and even install facial recognition cameras in Moscow to monitor the whereabouts of the infected individuals (OK, we all know the true purpose of facial recognition technology in Moscow) but Russians comply with only the minimal amount of required measures, and continue going about their lives.
The bottom line, a middle-aged Russian man who survived the 90’s is not going to display too much concern about WuFlu. If he needs to put food on the table or if he wants to let out some steam and hang out with friends, he will do so regardless of the personal costs to him, and despite governmental restrictions. He will deal with the consequences later.DONATE
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