Notes from the dormitory: Covid-19 and the Russian soul
“Why worry about things you cannot change?” and other vox pops from St. Petersburg.
Editor’s note: John Fraser is the pseudonym for Western student who wishes to remain anonymous, and who has decided to remain in Russia during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For any guest from the West caught in Russia during the Covid-19 pandemic, the experience feels like being a character in a serialized, satirical novel that explores the Russian soul v.3.0. There’s a palpable sense that the ending of this life-as-fiction experience is a foregone conclusion. The only suspense is in guessing what twisted path the plot will take to reach its pre-destined dénouement.
It’s disorienting that the backdrop for the pandemic in Russia is definitely modern, but the mindset with which most people here are facing the crisis is a throwback to an earlier time. Deep down, there’s still a prevailing belief that individual actions won’t make much difference when confronted with larger than life, mystical forces.
You encounter such fatalism all around on the streets of St. Petersburg, the same streets once roamed by the immortal personalities created by Gogol and Dostoyevsky.
I talked to one woman not far from Nevsky Prospekt who stated casually, and without any anger or resentment, that citizens shouldn’t expect the government to protect them. The government’s job was to ensure the health of the state, not its people.
“No one can rely on this government, or the health system,” she said. “Why worry about things you cannot change?”
Many are showing mind-numbing ambivalence to evident danger. A video making the rounds on social media shows fans of the Zenit club of St. Petersburg at a mid-March football match displaying a massive banner that read, "We're all infected with football and will die for Zenit,” while engaging in a defiant chant, “we’re all gonna die.”
During the last weeks of March, as the pandemic was sweeping Europe and the United States but had yet to make its effects felt in Russia, many in St. Petersburg, regardless of age or education level, seemed in a state of denial, or perhaps detached resignation.
Encountering three babushki in an underpass shop, one noticed my accent and enquired suspiciously whether I was Italian, the implication being that, as a foreigner, I was probably an importer of alien thoughts and diseases. “There are many cases in Italy, but we will all be fine here. We don’t have any coronavirus here,” the cashier at the store interjected.
More educated office workers also weren’t feeling a need to take precautions or learn lessons. For some, the official warnings to stay at home and tele-commute seemed like a hyperbolic response to news from abroad. “This is Russia, we have had worse,” one young exec said. “Sure, it will be awful for a time, but then it will be over. […] It will sort itself out.”
I asked another Petersburg resident in late March why people in the city appeared so reluctant to wear masks, and he replied with a laugh, joking it was a very Russian quality to wait until the last minute to do something, and then panic intensely.
A fair share of Petersburgers are leaving their futures to fate: When the going gets tough, enlightened thinking tends to take a backseat to reflexive mysticism.
So it was for one Petersburg taxi driver, a guest worker from Tajikistan. He was well aware of the pandemic but seemed totally unconcerned. At the time of our encounter, Moscow had already mandated that cab drivers wear masks and switch them every three hours, as well as disinfect their vehicles twice a day.
“I do not fear the virus, or what might happen. I won’t get sick. It’s not a big deal,” he said at one point.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t really know.”
The taxi driver’s outlook on life was that of a modern muzhik.
Throughout Russian history, traumatic events have been given eponymous names with the appendage “-shchina” attached. Thus, the peasant uprising against Catherine the Great in the 1770s led by Yemelyan Pugachev is known as the “Pugachevshschina,” and the Great Terror launched by Stalin’s NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov, is called the “Yezhovshchina.”
It may be that when the history of the pandemic in Russia is written, the chapter will be titled the Muzhikshchina – a scourge that was much worse than it had to be because of traditional suspicions and disregard for outside influences.