Pandemic has Changed Russians, But Can It Change Russia?

Aerial View of Kremlin and Environs

(Jamestown Foundation – jamestown.org – Eurasia Daily Monitor: Volume 17, Issue 54 –  Paul Goble – April 21, 2020)

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has changed Russians more fundamentally than any past revolution. In particular, the government’s response and the changes in day-to-day life for the average Russian has destroyed traditional widespread faith in society that Russia’s authorities are omnipotent while the people lack political power. That important shift, which lies behind President Vladimir Putin’s falling ratings and what some now call “coronavirus federalism,” will almost certainly outlast the pandemic (Svpressa.ru, April 17; Club-rf.ru, April 16). The real question now is whether this swing in public attitudes will also change Russia itself – either by forcing the regime to take the opinions of the citizenry more seriously or ultimately sparking a revolution if the Kremlin ignores them and chooses to rely on repression alone.

Many in Moscow have pointed to the fact that what seemed so important only a few weeks ago now looks petty and irrelevant. According to Aleksandr Tsipko, a senior Moscow commentator, Russians are no longer debating whether God should be inserted into the language of the constitution or whether Putin’s presidential terms should be extended indefinitely. Instead, they are focusing on questions of survival; and with that shift in focus, they have changed their understanding of those in power in fundamental ways (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 16). “Today it is becoming clear that the people in power are also mortals” who can be infected and die from a virus no one planned for. A few months ago, “it seemed that everything that occurred at the summit of the political Olympus was intended by God. But now, the mysticism of power has fallen away, and it has become clear that, in fact, if not each of us, then many of us can suddenly be transformed from ‘nothing’ to ‘everything’ ” or just the reverse, he writes (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 16).

“In my view, there will not be any revolution in Russia after the coronavirus leaves us,” Tsipko continues. “But the powers that be in Russia, if they want to remain in place, must consider real life and think more about the present and not [strictly] about what will remain after them in the future.” Such a reevaluation of policy priorities would represent a more fundamental change than many revolutions have. The pandemic “is returning to us our instinct of self-preservation, and we are finally beginning to see ourselves and others with open eyes. And consequently, the mists of Russian mysticism and the mists of ‘the Russian idea’ we have thought up and which always overwhelmed our good sense are being dispelled.”

“Suddenly, we are discovering that ‘His Majesty, Chance’-the coronavirus epidemic-is destroying the world that the powers that be created and that seemed to us inviolate. Yet, it turns out that all the plans thought up at the top, be they voting on amendments to the constitution or inviting Western leaders to the May 9 parade, can be easily destroyed … It turns out that the higher leaders are not gods and that they are under the power of ‘His Majesty, Chance’ ” just as much as anyone else. As a result, “the coronavirus is killing not only faith in our Russian specialness and exceptionalism … but returning to us the Christian idea of the moral equality of people and forcing us to be humble,” Tsipko argues.

Moreover, he continues, it is precisely here that the radical difference between the spiritual consequences of revolutions and those of spontaneous misfortunes like the novel coronavirus outbreak rests. Revolutions often encourage not humility but an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance; whereas, events like the pandemic show “the hopelessness of our self-confident civilization.” When it becomes obvious that everyone, from top to bottom, can be a victim of a faceless enemy, it also becomes obvious that we share this and should not view some as being divinely elected to be the leader of a state or the state itself, the Moscow commentator continues. Indeed, it makes those notions absurd.

What is particularly important, he suggests, is that these changes are not temporary: they are “already forever.” And that will prevent Russia from sliding back into a past in which millions of people were killed for a false idea. Many feel that Russia after Crimea represented a “return to the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics].” But Russia after the pandemic will not be like that. The country will “focus on taking care of people now rather than celebrating the past and worrying about the future, an approach that led to so many disasters in the past.”

The real question now, Tsipko says, is “whether the political elite of present-day Russia understand this.” That is far from clear; but certain things are more evident. In particular, while in many other countries such a shift in public attitudes might portend a change in government or even a revolution, that outcome is not likely in Russia in the near term, other analysts like Yekaterina Schulmann assert (Rosbalt, April 19). Instead, the Kremlin can be expected to increase domestic repressions or launch another “short victorious war” to try to boost its standing and save itself. However, those strategies will only work for so long. Yet, according to some experts, the authorities cannot restore the pre-pandemic order given the change in Russians (Newsru.com, April 20); the country can and will change overnight whatever the authorities do (Harbin.lv, April 18). Several even contend that the incompetence of the regime in the face of the coronavirus (Kasparov.ru, April 20) and the fact that Russians are now comparing Moscow’s response with other countries makes radical change more likely (Znak, April 20).

What can be said with confidence is that, in Russia today, a real revolution has happened, not in the streets as some may expect, but in the minds of the Russian people. And those currently in power will have to come to terms with this development if they hope to remain there for the longer term.

[article also appeared at jamestown.org/program/pandemic-has-changed-russians-but-can-it-change-russia/]