This year was to have been the pinnacle of Vladimir Putin’s political career, when the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War, as they call the conflict against Hitler, auspiciously coincided with his own personal triumph: 20 years of iron rule in the Kremlin.
Putin was supposed to be master of ceremonies earlier this month when a traditional Red Square parade of missiles, tanks and troops rolled by, and again when the newly built Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was to be consecrated amid huge fanfare.
This 6,000-seat, onion-domed cathedral outside Moscow is a tribute not just to Russia’s military, but to Putin’s uncompromising vision. Symbolic numbers lie at the heart of its construction.
The width of the main dome is exactly 19.45 metres, for example, signifying 1945 when the Second World War ended. The main belfry is 75 metres tall, to mark the anniversary. A smaller dome is 14.18 metres wide, signifying the 1,418 days the Soviets were at war. A Perspex-covered path takes worshippers 1,418 steps over captured Nazi banners and standards of the kind hurled at Stalin’s feet in 1945.
There were to have been mosaics depicting Stalin alongside Putin and the current defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, until the authorities thought better of it.
But what of the president’s triumphant moment now?
All quietly forgotten – his grandiose plans defeated by an enemy he cannot see and has done all too little to fight.
There were to have been mosaics depicting Stalin alongside Putin until the authorities thought better of it.
Despite his boasts about controlling the virus with strong leadership – and his glee at the suffering of America – Covid-19 is running amok in the vast territory he rules, and the Russian people know it.
Today, the world’s supreme strongman has retreated from the spotlight, which is unusual for someone who likes to be photographed stroking tigers or riding horses and big motorbikes with the Night Wolves, Russia’s equivalent of the Hell’s Angels. Meanwhile, his plans to become de facto leader for life (of which more later) lie in ruins.
Now aged 67 and hence vulnerable to the disease, Putin has retreated inside his heavily guarded Novo-Ogaryovo estate outside Moscow.
Ever since he suffered a bad case of flu in 2015, this fitness-obsessed germophobe has insisted that all visitors are checked by thermographic cameras which capture their body temperatures.
Yet he refuses to wear a mask or to stop shaking hands, even though his own prime minister has gone down with Covid-19.
Putin’s television appearances consist of video conferences with ministers and regional governors, where he looks sullen and bored, barking orders which are then imperfectly obeyed in remote Chelyabinsk or Komi.
He frequently drums a pen to indicate his impatience in dealing with a subject where his grasp is unsure.
These days, he surrounds himself with optimists and refuses to listen to bad or downbeat news.
So, seeming to imagine that Russia would be saved by its vastness (in surface area, it is half the size of the Moon), and the fact that its main cities are strung out across 11 time zones, Putin has been powerless as the virus outruns him.
Russia now has 280,000 cases, making it the world’s second most infected country after the United States. At least 186 healthcare workers have died so far.
The pandemic is burning in almost every corner of Russia. In the Caucasus mountains of Dagestan, 1,200 miles to the south of Moscow, doctors and activists are talking about a ‘tragically high’ death toll after it was revealed that 600 people had died from pneumonia since April. The official Covid-19 total for the region is just 36.
One in five of the 11,000 workers at a huge construction site at a gas processing plant near the Arctic city of Murmansk in the far north have come down with the virus.
An emergency hospital the size of three football pitches was built for the infected, and a cruise ship was moored off the coast in case extra space was needed.
At a Gazprom plant in Yakutia in Russia’s frozen east, a third of the 10,000 workers have been infected amid protests against crammed dormitories, shared showers, shared canteens, poor food and the absence of sanitisers and masks.
Last month, Moscow alone saw at least 2,000 more deaths than normal. It has even been reported that one of Putin’s closest allies, the feared Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, has been flown from the Chechen capital Grozny to an elite Kremlin clinic with a serious case of Covid-19. It is only a few days since doctors in his oil-rich republic who dared to complain about a lack of protective equipment were forced to retract their statements and apologise on TV.
It has been reported that the feared Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has been flown from the Chechen capital Grozny to an elite Kremlin clinic with a serious case of Covid-19.
Yet the Kremlin claims, mysteriously, that only 3,000 Russians have died of Covid-19 – a death rate of just 18 per million people, compared to just under 300 per million in the US, and 500 in the UK.
Needless to say, such low numbers are the result of straightforward statistical fiddling. Deaths are being attributed to underlying causes because health authorities and regional governors are afraid to report bad news to the Kremlin.
The regime’s evasions, lies and incompetence become ever clearer as the death toll rises – and Putin’s popularity falls. As elsewhere, it is regional or state governors and city mayors who have to tackle this crisis, even if this means, as in Moscow’s case, defying the national government.
Some of the 85 regional governors are oligarchs. Putin has told them to open their personal coffers to cover lost wages in what are called ‘monograds’ – single-industry towns whose nickel or gold pays for their houses in Mayfair and Monaco.
In a country that prefers to spend more on high-tech weapons than on health, it is inevitable that there have been acute shortages of vital equipment, including protective clothing and ventilators.
A handful of under-equipped doctors and nurses have bravely spoken out, but this is unwise in Russia. Dr Alexander Shulepov posted a video of himself and a colleague in which he claimed his head medic had insisted he keep working despite contracting Covid-19.
Two days later, Shulepov seemed to recant his earlier ‘emotional’ claims in a second video.
He no longer had to work shifts and was being treated in hospital. But shortly after that he fell from a hospital window, fracturing his skull. Fortunately, he is still alive. Two more doctors – Natalya Lebedeva and Yelena Nepomnyashchaya – fell from upper-storey windows that very same week after criticizing the official response to the pandemic. They both died from their injuries.
For such a thing to happen once might seem unfortunate, but three times is no coincidence.
Combined with collapsing global oil prices, the pandemic is having a devastating impact on an already shaky economy. Putin has consistently failed to diversify from grain, hydrocarbons and mining, while the chronic drain of mathematicians and scientists to the West makes it hard to modernise. Who buys anything made in Russia except guns and fuel?
Two more doctors – Natalya Lebedeva and Yelena Nepomnyashchaya – fell from upper-storey windows that very same week after criticizing the official response to the pandemic.
Russia’s health service is chronically underfunded, yet no expense is spared when it comes to the areas from which the elite enrich themselves.
Russia’s extensive military modernisation program is going ahead, pandemic or no pandemic.
Those in heavily braided uniforms may be glad that Russia is testing its new S-500 Prometheus hypersonic surface-to-air missile, even though that would pay for a lot of face masks and vaccines.
Some ordinary Russians are now wondering why the big money on display never comes their way as they suffer years of declining incomes.
Unpopular, too, is the way Putin is using the coronavirus pandemic to ramp up state surveillance.
Earlier this year, Moscow installed 200,000 extra CCTV cameras as part of a ‘Safe City’ drive. This means that when infected people leave their home to put out the rubbish or to walk the dog, they are arrested. The dog is left to fend for itself.
Newly purchased phones must include pre-loaded government-linked apps supposedly to track the sick, but these could be used to track political critics and dissidents, too.
Drones are already used to follow quarantine violators and could also easily keep free-thinkers under surveillance.
When infected people leave their home to put out the rubbish or to walk the dog, they are arrested. The dog is left to fend for itself.
All of this matters because the president’s great aim for 2020 was not merely to aggrandize himself, but to solve an urgent problem: how to ease his way out of power with his vast wealth intact.
Over the course of the past two decades, Putin has amassed a barely believable fortune of between $49 billion and $247 billion, much of it held in trust for him by friends and henchmen around the world.
As president, he is safe from investigation, let alone prosecution. But that could change when his fourth six-year term expires in 2024.
His solution, as he explained to the Russian parliament earlier this year, was to amend the constitution in such a way as to set the number of presidential terms he has served back to zero. This would allow him to remain president until 2034, when he will be 82.
This, he conceded, must be put to a nationwide referendum. But Covid-19 has scuppered this, too. The pandemic means that it is impossible to conduct even a rigged poll and his safe route out of the highest office has been blocked – for now.
Today, Putin seems diminished and sour. The old braggadocio is missing. Many Russians are reminded of his first major misstep when, in 2000, the nuclear submarine Kursk suffered a catastrophic explosion from a defective torpedo and sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea with the oxygen running out. All 115 hands were killed.
Then, as now, Putin disappeared from public view, saying nothing to the families.
There has always been a sense that Putin has been a convenient placeman for the shadowy figures whose real interest lies in roubles, rather than political power.
Will they decide the former KGB officer has had his day? The would-be Night Wolf is looking like ‘a sick old wolf’, after all. But not if he can help it. Putin is a canny political operator who prefers loyalist hacks to competent lieutenants. The result is that there are few plausible rivals.
And it may be that the measures introduced to combat the coronavirus provide his greatest security. Who would bet against him using a beefed-up state surveillance machine to force through his lifelong power grab?
Unless, that is, the virus now ravaging Russia gets him first.
Michael Burleigh is the Engelsberg Chair of History and Global Affairs at the London School of Economics’ IDEAS Institute