RUSSIA IS FAR more successful in fighting covid-19 than the West, thanks to its superior health-care system and excellent leadership. Though faced with one of the highest rates of infection, its fatality rate is a seventh of that in most countries. That is, if you believe Russian statistics.
Few independent experts do. Russia has officially recorded nearly 290,000 cases of covid-19 and 2,700 deaths, which makes its fatality rate less than 1%, compared with 4.5% in Germany and 14% in Britain. Yet the fatality rate among Russia’s front-line health professionals, who keep their own records, is about 16 times as high as in those in comparable countries, which suggests that the official figures are too rosy.
Nonetheless, these were the figures that on May 11th led Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, to order an end to a period of “non-working days”, a euphemism for a national lockdown that he never officially declared. Although he transferred responsibility for retaining restrictions to regional authorities, he signalled that Russia was through the worst. “We must give thanks to our doctors and our president, who works day and night to save lives,” Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian Duma, declared.
The Russian government and its servile parliament were upset when, on the same day, the Financial Times reported that the real death toll could be 70% higher; the New York Times quoted an expert as saying it could be nearly three times the official tally. These estimates were derived by calculating excesses deaths. One member of the Duma demanded that the journalists’ accreditation be revoked. Russian state propaganda unleashed a campaign against what it called an orchestrated attack on Russia by the West, intended to distract attention its own problems.
Meanwhile, some Russian doctors on social media say they were instructed to keep numbers low by including in the covid statistics only those who died directly of the disease, not those who had underlying conditions that might have contributed to their demise. Victims’ relatives are furious.
Adding to the confusion are the improbable figures posted by some regions. For example, in Krasnodar, a region with 5.2m people, the number of reported infections has varied only minutely, fluctuating between 96 cases and 99 cases a day for the past two weeks. That seems rather unlikely.
Several other regions have produced even more peculiar statistics. They show the number of infections recorded in regional centres and those recorded in adjacent territories fluctuating in opposite directions, thus balancing each other out and producing an oddly straight line of cases across the region as a whole.
The official numbers may not tell anyone much about the true scale of the epidemic in Russia. But they shed light on Russia’s political system which, like its Soviet predecessor, is saturated with lies and mistrust. Russian elections throw up similarly strange graphics. Many Russian athletes during the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014 took performance-enhancing drugs, and their cheating was covered up by secretly swapping urine samples with official connivance.
Konstantin Sonin of the University of Chicago says the problem is not that the Kremlin hides or distorts figures, but that it often does not have them in the first place. Most regional bigwigs are not accountable to voters but are entirely dependent on the Kremlin for status and money. They file rosy reports so as to appear to be meeting official targets. The aim is to please the president, not the people. “The Kremlin does not even need to tell them what figures to report; they know to report what the Kremlin likes to hear,” he says.
Over the past few weeks, Russian state television has provided a perfect illustration of this distorted system. In the West, officials have at least tried to communicate with their electorates and the media. On Russian television people see their officials reporting to the self-isolated Mr Putin via a videoconference screen. The screen resembles a Russian Orthodox icon: Mr Putin is displayed in a large central box, surrounded by 12 “apostles” in smaller boxes.
Yet this carefully manufactured image is starting to crack. Mr Putin’s ratings have dropped to historic lows in recent weeks. The latest setback occurred on May 17th, when the health minister in Dagestan, a Russian territory of 3m people in the North Caucasus, told a local blogger that the true number of coronavirus infections in the republic is four times that officially reported, and that outbreaks of pneumonia near hospitals and clinics had killed 657 people, not the officially recorded 27. Fully 40 medics had died of it. Mr Putin has blamed the citizens for trying to treat themselves at home.
The city of Moscow, along with a few other cities, has been more open in its communications that the Kremlin itself. It also admitted that the real number of cases could be significantly higher, and retained a lockdown.
The Kremlin’s handling of the crisis reminds some of the cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which prompted Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to launch glasnost, a campaign for more openness. “The whole system is penetrated by the spirit of bootlicking, persecution of dissidents, clannishness, window dressing. We will put an end to all this,” Mr Gorbachev told his politburo at the time. Mr Putin, who has changed the constitution to allow himself to stay in power indefinitely, is determined not to repeat that experiment, which ended up helping to bring the whole system crashing down.