Community spirit, military language, and the search for guilt at close quarters. How does COVID-19 change Russian society; and is the curtailment of basic democratic rights really temporary? Maria Stepanova writes to us from Russia, where shortly before the publication of this article Vladimir Putin won a political victory, which allows him to hold the office of president until the year 2036.
By Maria Stepanova
Foto: Gleb Morev
I’m writing this on the seventy-ninth day of my self-isolation. I’m spending the day in my flat in Moscow: I can only leave with an electronic keyfob that entitles me to be out and about in the city, which means that – apart from walks with our dog, which are also restricted to a radius of a hundred metres around our home – I virtually never go outside anymore.
The pandemic has made the already clear division in society even more obvious
City life as we knew it until a few months ago is dead – cafés and bookshops are shut, boulevards and parks closed off, not a soul on the streets, you only come across couriers in green and yellow uniform. The pandemic has made the already clear division in society even more obvious: it’s divided into those who can afford the luxury of not stepping outside their front door, and the others, who provide their goods and services. Not only do they have to carry on working, they are exposed to a higher risk of infection on all levels. In Moscow this primarily affects the migrant workers, in other words the part of the city population that’s least socially secure. Even before the pandemic they effectively had no rights – employed in illegal work with miserable pay, cramped together in temporary accommodation, where sometimes fifteen or twenty people sleep on the floor. Now, with work at a standstill in most companies by order of the state, they face a dilemma: they don’t have enough money to return home, but they also no longer have work from which they could live here. Delivery jobs for restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies and courier services are amongst the few remaining earning opportunities. The voices of these people are practically never heard, neither in the official media nor on social networks. The debates in recent weeks about the need to rebalance the relationship between freedom and safety, and the resulting unavoidable losses, are conducted by people who actually have a choice, who are in the fortunate position of not having to go outside their homes.
The debate about the need to rebalance between freedom and safety, are led by people who actually have a choice, who are not forced to go outside their homes.
Out of the eight of us lodging here, these days everyone knows exactly what the other seven are doing: we’re all sitting in our flats, between these four walls that all of a sudden seem so transparent. Things that used to be a matter of imagination or assumption (Might my mate be travelling, is he staying in a different city? Is he at work or at home?) are now open for all to see: one way or another we’re all dealing with the same situation. People in different cities, in different time zones, in different forms of isolation are waiting for it to be over, and all the normal things they do other than that serve only to shorten the wait.
People are using military metaphors to talk about Covid-19: They speak about a war, a battle, victory, heroism, liberation and victims.
There’s something tragic yet comical about that, because people are constantly using military metaphors to talk about Covid-19: they speak about a war, a battle, victory, heroism, liberation and victims. Yet in this phase, citizens are not being called to action – in fact it’s more a case of being asked to do nothing, they are asked not to fight this war that – according to the unspoken assumption – someone else is waging on our behalf. In the age of the pandemic, the most important civil virtue is social passivity – the willingness to hand over the action and responsibility to others, who are “sorting it all out”, the willingness to rely on professionals and experts, and relinquish the right to make their own decisions and judgements for the moment. Even in countries with a highly-developed social and healthcare system this strategy is not without risk, but in what they call troubled societies – and that’s the majority of them nowadays – it can lead to shocking results. The experience of life in an autocratically governed country causes people to become cautious about temporary restrictions that are introduced with no discussion or justification whatsoever.
The fact that the restrictions associated with the pandemic are necessary for public welfare, and therefore for a higher interest, seems to be undisputed. What’s interesting is how every single one of us experiences these limitations, the way our concept of self changes. The reality of not being able to make long term plans anymore, of being obliged to focus on the present (and a very immediate future that looks almost identical to the present), could in theory make this present time more intensive – but apparently that isn’t happening. My experience is similar to the one described by Jonas – enclosed within my own four walls, I suddenly find it difficult to do things I’ve been doing all my life: thinking, writing, reading. This incapacitation of a person trapped in the present can be experienced as an existential comedy, because after all there have always been people who carried on working under much more unpleasant conditions – in prison, in hospital, on a psychiatric ward. Just me, in my cosy little apartment in Moscow, I can’t manage it. On the other hand, the breakdown of personal will (not to mention political will – or maybe even more so) is exactly the reaction that the state and society (it doesn’t matter which) expect of individuals in the event of a sudden emergency.
I remain sceptical of a safety mentality, which attributes an absolute value to human life – or more precisely to literal, stark survival. For its sake we are meant to forego basic democratic rights and freedoms.
At this point I should probably mention that since the beginning of lockdown I have conscientiously followed even the most absurd regulations (and there really is plenty of absurdity in Moscow’s municipal government statutes). Nevertheless I remain sceptical of a safety mentality that seems to have become all-encompassing, which seems to unite people with extremely diverse political views lately. It looks to me as if there’s a pitfall in this way of thinking: it attributes an absolute value to human life – or more precisely to physical life, literal, stark survival; for its sake we are meant to forego a range of rights and freedoms that we have spent a long time taking for granted and no longer question. However, freedom of movement and freedom to gather in numbers are not abstract commodities – along with these you are giving up the right to plan your own life and to participate in public activities. The individual in a pandemic has no political will, they are held hostage by an exceptional situation with no time limit, which is not only reflected in public opinion but also in their own healthy common sense – that very same common sense that tells me to stay home.
No one can take away my right to be careless with my own health, my own body, my own life. But in a pandemic situation, my personal decision is directly associated with the survival and health of others, it’s linked with the fate of dozens, or even hundreds, of people I don’t even know. My mere existence can become a threat for them, because an asymptomatic carrier of the virus is dangerous just by the fact that she breathes. In these circumstances, isolation seems to be the only practical solution – to ensure that other people can survive, a responsible citizen has to put herself into a sort of embryonic state, hide away from people like herself, stop interacting, she needs to draw boundaries not just between countries, but also between people.
And yet while I stay at home, warehouses, shops, couriers and all sorts of other service providers continue to work, making my isolation bearable and even comfortable – and that means thousands of people. These people are invisible, marginalised. In the popular black-and-white view of doctors and healthcare workers fighting on the corona front line while everyone else is saving lives by heroically sitting at home, they don’t exist. Their survival doesn’t count, and no one cares that they don’t get to choose between self-isolation and work for the good of society, because they simply can’t afford not to work.
In addition to them, members of the so-called risk group had no choice either – in other words anyone over sixty. In Russia (and not just here) those people are categorically banned from leaving the house – physical survival ranks above everything. This age discrimination disguised as concern, which has effectively robbed an entire demographic group of their capacity to act and make decisions, is fatally similar to the reasoning of robots in some old science fiction novel: to ensure that people don’t cause themselves any harm, they have to be kept under control – as strictly as possible.
The logical consequence is that I increasingly perceive myself to be a threat to society, someone who would be better off locked up. This diffuse feeling of guilt, the restriction of elementary rights and the lack of understanding of the big picture cause our self-image to blur – everyone’s a potential danger and a potential victim at the same time, everyone’s afraid for themselves and their family, yet at the same time fears harming an unknown person. For most people that’s reason enough to enter a state of inertia, at least temporarily.
The shared misfortune seemed to have a logic of community, not an enemy – but a problem that could only be solved by combining forces.
Right at the start of the pandemic I thought that out of all the antiutopian scenarios imaginable, perhaps this one is the most acceptable. The shared misfortune seemed to have a logic of community, giving rise to a shared concern rather than alienation and polarisation. Even though every single border was closed and flights were cancelled whilst this was going on, it was after all happening in a transparent world in which everyone could see what was going on around them, and everyone was involved in a circular system of solidarity that didn’t differentiate according to continents, countries or religions. The war everyone was talking about did not cause us to seek out a common enemy – instead there was a common problem that could only be solved by combining forces. As long as that danger wasn’t personified, I thought, it can be countered effectively – without wasting energy on the production and reproduction of hatred. But above all it seemed to me that the world possibly for the first time in its history would pull through a shared misfortune together – like a living organism that’s aware of its unity.
It seems to be the case that hatred is a substance that generates of its own accord despite everything, as a product of uncertainty and fear – but since no clear vision of the enemy has materialised, projected on a distant horizon, people are now looking for that enemy right amongst them.
Two and a half months later, after countless hours spent on various social networks, I am seeing this new unity in a different, more unsettling light. It seems to be the case that hatred is a substance that generates of its own accord despite everything, as a product of uncertainty and fear – but since no clear vision of the enemy has materialised, projected on a distant horizon, people are now looking for that enemy right amongst them. Social media platforms are becoming a place of unswerving situational polarisation, where short-lived units and delineations are forming, virtually unrelated to the profiles of political agendas and parties as we knew them before corona. This fleeting new affective politics is not consolidating into a stable system – it manifests itself through likes, reposts, acts of spontaneous solidarity with disparate motives at their core. Yet the slightest difference of opinion, the tiniest variation in expressions in the current situation, in which apart from immediate family people practically only socialise online, appears so alarming that it immediately triggers verbal aggression – and this perspective in turn can easily spill over into reality.
While I was writing this letter, the Kremlin announced the end of the pandemic. The motives behind it are clear. On 1st July the country is meant to be voting on the planned changes to the constitution, with the help of which Vladimir Putin could remain de facto president for his lifetime.
While I was writing this letter, out of the blue the Kremlin announced the end of the pandemic. As of 9th June, Moscow’s residents are allowed back out on the streets, cafés, hair salons and museums are open again, on social media they’re all cheering and discussing their holiday plans. The summery parks are full of people, with and without masks. Meanwhile the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise, and even according to official statistics the curve is only just starting to flatten. Where it will all lead, releasing the people from their imprisonment unexpectedly like this, is unclear – however the motives behind it are clear. On 1st July the country is meant to be voting on the planned changes to the constitution, with the help of which Vladimir Putin could remain de facto president for his lifetime. For this election to be possible, the polling stations need to be full, and Covid-19 needs to have been officially overcome. Then we’ll probably have to brace ourselves for a second wave of infections, and the first victims of those are likely to be the people throwing themselves back into public life today. Maybe we have been a little too reckless about relinquishing the right to make important decisions on our own.