Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kremlin has seized the opportunity to sow disinformation abroad while also suppressing freedom of speech and democracy at home.
Russia’s actions mirror those of other authoritarian regimes using the global crisis as an excuse to crack down on their political opponents and exert greater control over their public, both offline and online. In Azerbaijan, the authorities shuttered opposition offices “over coronavirus fears,” with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev suggesting that the move was intended to prevent any “provocations” from a “fifth column,” a reference to the opposition. In China, doctors, journalists, and citizens reporting on the crisis have been hunted down and silenced, or have disappeared.
Public health experts argue that banning large-scale gatherings and establishing a rigorous practice of contact tracing are critical interventions that governments must make to limit the rate of infection in a pandemic. But as many democracies have attempted to balance the interest of public health with civil liberties, authoritarian regimes have used tightening government restrictions worldwide as a convenient opportunity to stifle democracy further.
“Protecting” Russians from exercising democracy
Earlier in March 2020, Russian lawmakers introduced constitutional changes that could keep Russian President Vladimir Putin in power for another 16 years. In protest, Russian opposition groups planed a large rally in Moscow for March 21 and March 22 and applied for a permit from the city. Soon after, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin issued an order canceling all large public gatherings until at least April 10, citing fears and concerns about the spread and escalation of the coronavirus.
While China, Italy, and the United States have all reported cases in the tens of thousands, as of March 27, the number of cases in Russia is hovering just above 1,000 infections. The puzzlingly low number for a country with a population of 144 million has triggered suspicions of a cover-up, and a number of subsequent developments have strengthened that suspicion. Moscow Mayor Sobyanin, who Putin put in charge of steering Russia’s official coronavirus response, recently warned that the official statistics of coronavirus cases in the country may be inaccurate, saying that “the real number of those who are sick is significantly higher.” He is the first senior Russian official to question the Kremlin’s official tally of cases and its relatively muted response to the outbreak.
On March 10, 2020 the official YouTube channel of the Russian medical workers union, which has roughly 60,600 subscribers, published a video in which the head of the organization, Anastasia Vasilyeva, said Russian officials are classifying coronavirus deaths as pneumonia deaths, implying the true count for the former was likely higher than reported. Vasilyeva, who has served as opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s personal doctor, also alleged that doctors were being forced to treat patients without protective gear, risking the further spread of the virus. She based her statement on information provided by doctors working with coronavirus cases across Russia.
In addition to doctors, political pundits have voiced concerns about the veracity of Russia’s reported coronavirus statistics. On March 16, 2o2o, during a program on the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow, Russian political expert Valeriy Solovoy stated that the number of deaths in Russia was higher than reported, adding that his sources were “Russian officials who had not lost their conscience.” According to Solovoy, the Kremlin is trying to show the world that they have the coronavirus outbreak under control.
Both videos garnered a high number of views and likes on YouTube. At the time of the analysis, the video of the Russian medical workers union had 271,069 views and 9,800 likes, while the video of Valeriy Solovoy had 345,503 views and 12,000 likes.
Both Anastasia Vasilyeva and Valeriy Solovoy later reported that they have been targeted by Russian authorities for sharing their opinions online. In a follow-up video posted on Twitter, Vasilyeva said that Russian officials were sending criminal investigators to silence the doctors’ union and its concerns about the official number of COVID-19 cases. In this video, she addressed Russian authorities directly, saying that they can send whomever they wished, but that the truth will not change and the union would not be intimidated into silence.
Meanwhile, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Russia removed the interview with Valeriy Solovoy from the Echo of Moscow website. The page that once hosted the video now says the information provided by the website was not reliable and represented a threat to the health and lives of citizens. The video of the interview is still available on Valeriy Solovoy’s YouTube channel.
Kremlin-run propaganda channel RT also reported on charges made against a Russian woman accused of spreading false information about the coronavirus. According to the article, Russian law enforcement agencies discovered that the woman had “disseminated facts about coronavirus that did not correspond to reality.” The article added that the woman will stand trial for violating a law on the “abuse of the freedom of mass media.”
Meanwhile, in the period between March 11–13, several fringe Russian outlets reported of a widespread outbreak — ten thousand cases — of the seasonal flu or a severe respiratory infection across Russia, but the cause of the outbreak was not named. None of the articles mentioned the word “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19.”
The allegation that the Kremlin may be underreporting the number of coronavirus cases in Russia is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s lack of transparency with regard to the Chernobyl disaster, when the regime tried to downplay the disastrous effects of the nuclear meltdown. Then, as now, the regime was preoccupied with silencing critical voices rather than protecting public health.
Because authoritarian regimes silence criticism, target and punish opponents, and restrict the free flow of information, it is almost impossible to verify the reports coming from them, especially at a moment of crisis. But history shows that regimes that hide information and spread lies during a crisis end up endangering the lives of their citizens, and Russia’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak may be no exception.