We are the nation that defeated Fascism—that’s how we define ourselves now. Vladimir Putin, a Soviet-style strongman, has appropriated the Allies’ defeat of the Nazis and re-purposed it as a Kremlin victory: every day there are more statues, monuments, celebrations, and photos of toddlers costumed in miniature Red Army uniforms—the descendants of our heroes who saved the world in 1945.
In 2020, the enemy is again at the gates, but this time it’s not a foreign army, and this time the gates closed too late. Russia found itself in a world war against a virus—and it decided to fight the adversary the only way we know how: by sending millions of ill-prepared troops to face certain death.
There’s a full-scale mobilization of all medical forces in the country, and our frontline workers are thrown into battle as they were back in 1941—with no weapons and a leadership whose core strategy hasn’t changed since the day when Hitler’s army crossed the Soviet border: people don’t matter; victory does.
Russia decided to fight the adversary the only way we know how: by sending millions of ill-prepared troops to face certain death.
Numerous medical students say they’ve been asked to serve in coronavirus wards, and some of them report that refusing to do so may result in the withdrawal of funding or being barred from taking their final exams, thus making them unable to graduate—which in Russia also means being subject to the military draft. Predictably, faculty members deny any coercion. But when you dare voice your concern to the country’s leadership and the public, the coronavirus fake-news law kicks in.
Signed into effect in the beginning of April, the law makes sure there are no announcements or postings encouraging snake-oil remedies like the injection of Lysol—or vodka. But it’s also a censorship tool to suppress those who report higher death tolls, virus hot spots, or the doctors’ lack of P.P.E.
You see doctors’ desperate pleas on Web sites blocked; you hear stories of nurses being forced to work while infected, and how people burn out on the job. There are doctors who appear to have taken their own lives. Or worse. Paranoia is so rampant that when three doctors fell from hospital windows across Russia—two died; one is in critical condition—many Russians assumed they had been defenestrated for defiance. (Granted, it looks suspicious.) April 28 was quickly announced as Emergency Medical Service Worker Day, and you can be sure we’ll have more national holidays, and statues and memorial complexes dedicated to health workers. Our toddlers are going to wear little white coats.
When you dare voice your concern to the country’s leadership and the public, the coronavirus fake-news law kicks in.
There are a few differences between the Soviet times and today: for one thing, there’s no shortage of anything. The city is stocked with food, toilet paper, and even respirators (if you can afford one). Two competing apps deliver groceries in 15 minutes or less. Most people you see on the streets are migrant workers traversing the city in their respective delivery gear—yellow or green. They all have their temperatures taken before going out for delivery, and that number is written on a cute postcard attached to the bag containing your Cobb salad or borscht. Of all the Draconian measures, that number seems the most totalitarian. (And silly: Who in Moscow would really believe that a 98.6 temperature reading is actually true?)
Those aren’t the only differences between the Soviet days and modern times. When Moscow was under Nazi siege, legend has it, Stalin ordered the Virgin Mary icon—Our Lady of Kazan, the sacred protectress of Russia—to be flown on a military plane around Moscow, as if to defend the city against evil forces. This time, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church took a Virgin Mary icon, put it into the back seat of his highly customized, bulletproof Mercedes-Benz, and circled Moscow—blocking all traffic along the way—in hopes of staving off the invisible evil.
Our toddlers are going to wear little white coats.
The methods the Kremlin adopts when facing a crisis—be it war or Chernobyl—are modern, yet always true to our Russian core. The Moscow government hired tens of hip advertising and P.R. agencies to spread the stay-at-home message across all media channels. It also financed the development of the My Moscow app, which has now become a staple of the quarantine. A mix of terror meets cute: it generates mandatory QR codes for those who want to leave their home for anything other than taking out the garbage or going to the nearest grocery store. No Uber will be able to start a ride unless such a code is presented, and the codes are valid for only a day. But the app also suggests books—the works of Chuck Palahniuk is one—and fun things to do while in quarantine, from online interactive theaters to stay-at-home gym routines.
This touch-screen digital gulag allows for two “personal” trips a week, unlimited visits to medical facilities, and wants to know who you are and where you’re going. Palahniuk’s recommended book is, of course, Fight Club, and the Iron Curtain, once enveloping an entire empire, is now around each of our homes.
As always, Russia is going to win in this war, but the price of that victory is again going to be horrific. The nation rarely celebrates its heroes while they are alive, but it makes a damn good use of them once they’re dead. Will our doctors see statues of themselves being erected and the country’s victory over the virus transformed into a cornerstone of some new ideology? Will we see this fight against an invisible enemy become yet another testament to a history of little compassion, no remorse, with nameless, silenced lives given in the name of a greater good? Or do we stand a chance of diverting from the Soviet way and becoming the people who not only applaud the memory of our fallen heroes but support them while they are still alive?
Andrew Ryvkin is a Russian-American journalist and screenwriter based in Moscow