As the world struggled under the unprecedented strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, pro-Kremlin media assured its audiences that Russia had everything under control, despite evidence of the contrary.
This messaging seemed directed at managing fear and panic among a domestic Russian audience. State-owned media outlets tried to create the impression that the Russian public did not fear the coronavirus, contrasting this account of the situation in Russia with what they claimed was pandemonium sweeping many European countries. Russian social media users, however, have posted geotagged videos that show empty shelves in supermarkets and other signs of a worried public.
While Russian authorities have introduced travel restrictions and physical distancing recommendations, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “[The] Kremlin does not see a reason to declare an emergency situation due to the coronavirus.” Up until March 25, 2020, only one city in southern Russia has introduced emergency measures. Meanwhile, Russia’s official number of COVID-19 cases remains dramatically lower than that of many other countries.
Dmitry Kiselev, the head of state-owned media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya and anchor of a weekly news show on Kremlin-owned TV channel Rossiya 1, ensured Russians that everything was under control. During a recent broadcast on March 15, 2020 he said:
In Russia, the situation with coronavirus is much calmer then in Europe or Asia. If there are thousands of infected people, then in Russia the number is in the tens. Many of the cases are brought in from Italy, France, Austria, and China ... I will repeat — in Russia it is not like in Europe. Life in general goes on as usual.
Earlier, a fringe Russian news outlet called Nation News published a story based on an interview with an “experienced psychologist” named Mihail Hors, who suggested that Russians as a people who were not afraid of COVID-19.
The article began by citing a popular Russian entertainment media outlet, Life.ru, which had tweeted about Russian tourists who had filmed people in Valencia walking with plastic bags on their heads. “Russians laughed at people with plastic bags and continued to walk around without face masks,” they wrote. The article quoted the psychologist as saying:
Well, coronavirus … For us, as for the society, this is not so alarming. Over the past 30 years we have had several similar cases related to serious life quests. In Europe, life was stable; and the lack of this experience makes them weaker.
Sixty-six other media outlets picked the story up between March 14 and March 16, according to Russian online news aggregator Yandex News. Most of the outlets were fringe or small scale. Among the mainstream media were several Kremlin-owned outlets, including Vesti.ru, Zvezda TV, Rossijskaya Gazeta; pro-Kremlin outlets Lenta.ru, Gazeta.ru, Krasnaya Vesna, Vzglyad, Regnum, Komsomolyskaya Pravda, Tsargrad; TV channels such as Mir 24, TVC, RBK, Piter TV; and independent Russian TV channel Dozhdy.
People do not sleep because the disease appeared in China: they say — a virus. They are afraid that the virus will come, and they will die. Wait, you will die anyway. Do not try to die before you die. Thousands of people die from the flu. This is the same virus.
Kremlin-owned media outlets RIA Novosti and Federalnoye Agenstvo Novostey, along with the pro-Kremlin outlets Komsomolyskaya Pravda, Rambler, MK.ru, and Lenta.ru amplified Kadyrov’s comment between March 14 and March 17, according to Yandex News. His remarks were also picked up by 31 Russian-language fringe outlets.
Social media posts
The nonchalant tone of coronavirus coverage by Kremlin-owned and pro-Kremlin media did not reflect the reports by social media users in the country. On Instagram, Russian users reported empty shelves at the METRO Cash & Carry near Tomilino, in Lyuberetsky District of Moscow Oblast. “In METRO they wiped out everything,” one user wrote. “There is not even bread.” Another person added, “People are wiping out everything…. Soon people will start stealing from each other’s carts, 100%.”
Some social media users on Russian social media networks, namely VKontakte and Odnoklasniki, expressed confusion at the level of panic. “I can’t understand this panic, why everyone is so worried about the coronavirus,” wrote one individual. “While I was riding around the city for my own business, I got shocked. People walk in masks, everyone buy everything in stores…. Is it a panic? I’m racking my brains here.”
“I call you to stop and support my flash mob #iamagainstpanic,” another wrote. “We in Omsk do not have problems with groceries on shop shelves.”
Response of the Kremlin media
RIA Novosti and Lenta.ru reported that Russians were cleaning out grocery stores, but some other Kremlin-owned and pro-Kremlin media downplayed this behavior. For example, Rossiya 24 journalist Dmitry Schugorev interviewed Yevgeny Timakov, a doctor specializing in epidemiology on March 16. “We need to praise our citizens for not having panic as severe as it is in the United States, Italy, other European countries where people are literarily storming the stores,” Schugorev said. “Here it is more calm.”
Timakov replied, “People are buying some things, but what they are buying? They are buying whatever is cheaper. People aren’t buying whatever is more expensive, so therefore there is no panic buying.”
Another state-owned channel, Rossiya 1, aired a story on March 17 that suggested the reports of people hoarding supplies from grocery stores were fake. After referencing another fake news story that alleged Russian streets would be disinfected at night, the program anchor said:
Other anonymous sources warn Russians about the alleged grocery deficit in stores. As a result, many are buying sugar, buckwheat, canned food, and oil. The head of the state, Vladimir Putin, warned that this is not necessary.
Thought the story itself did not deny that some Russian stores had been bought out, the title of the news story, “Fake attacks: Russians in panic are buying out stores,” suggested the claims were fake, which was misleading.
Pro-Kremlin media is known to downplay domestic crises; this time, the practice may threaten public health. Although Kremlin-owned media did not outright deny or ignore the change in consumer behavior in Russia brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the discrepancy between what people were reporting on social media and how state-owned media was framing the situation fosters mistrust between the Russian government and citizens.