I have not done a general update in awhile, so in this blog entry I’ll comment on how things things are in Russia from my perspective in the small town of Luga. I’ll cover the weather, COVID, and a few other miscellaneous issues. I will also include something on the relationship between my two countries because the relationship between Russia and America keeps evolving. The blog turned out to be longer than I planned, so I decided to divide it into two shorter ones for more convenience. Here is part 1, and part 2 will be published shortly.
THE HEAT. This summer is by far the hottest summer I have ever experienced in Russia. It’s not just me. I have also heard some life time residents here say the same thing. The weather this past winter seemed a bit colder than normal for Luga. We had over a foot of snow in our yard for about 3 months. The temperatures were cold, rarely getting even a little above freezing during those months and well below freezing most of that time. This summer, however, we have had a many days with the temperature over 90 degrees (32 C). From reports I’ve been getting these temps (or higher) have extended from below Moscow up to St. Petersburg and to other regions as well. https://www.rbth.com/lifestyle/333934-hot-summer-russia.
The weather has seemed similar to our summers in South Carolina with high temps and high humidity. In S.C., however, almost all homes, apartments, and places of business are now air conditioned. While that is true of a few places in Luga, it is definitely not the norm. The summers here are usually short and the temps rarely get even close to what we are having now, so it’s just not worth it for most of us to spend money on air conditioning we would rarely use. So this summer we have been forced to purchase more fans to keep the air circulating in our home. It’s been very much like the American South of my childhood—hot and humid with no air conditioning.
I think over the years my body has adjusted to normal Russian weather, because despite my Southern, hot-weather background, I have very little energy in this heat and yet I can do my 5 mile walks in the snow with no problem. The good news is that according to the long range forecasts this is supposed to be the last week of the brutally hot weather. I hope the weather folks are correct.
COVID. By the end of February of 2021 the number of new COVID cases had plateaued in Russia with less than 10,000 new cases per day, and the recoveries were frequently higher than the number of new cases. Around March 1, the rates began to rise sharply. The numbers of new cases per day are often over 20,000 now. The mortality rate for those who get COVID in Russia has also gone up.
The total numbers overall are not near as high as those in the U.S. (even accounting for the population difference), but they are going up here rapidly. Here are the latest stats from worldometer.
Total # of cases U.S: 34,929,856 Russia 5,907,999
Deaths: U.S. 624,606 Russia: 146,868
Recoveries: U.S. 29,358,531 Russia: 5,300,908
There is still cause for concern, of course. I have heard several theories as to why this recent uptick has happened in Russia, e.g., new strands, more social interaction, the normality of viruses going through phases of growth/plateau, etc. The “experts” just can’t seem to reach a consensus on anything having to do with COVID. I will refrain from offering my own relatively uninformed opinion as to what caused the uptick. That is not the point of the blog anyway.
Oddly enough, despite the rising numbers, the Russian economy seems well on the way to recovering from the pandemic. Further, many believe there is no evidence of any long term negative impact of the pandemic on the unemployment or inflationary figures. President Putin said this week that the consequences of the pandemic have been largely overcome and the economy is generally back to normal.
Daily life still goes on as usual for most folks here in Luga. Some wear masks in public, but most don’t wear them even inside stores or taxis. I asked my stepson about how it is in St. Petersburg where he lives. He said the only place people are required to wear a mask is on the metro (subway).
Vaccines. Russia was the first country to develop a vaccine, and now there are four to choose from. Estimates vary, but most from last month indicated that less than 23% of Russians have received the vaccine. (I found estimates on the U.S. rate around 67%. One article that said that in the U.S. it is now up to 70%.) Several within the administration would like to make vaccination mandatory in Russia. President Putin and others have strongly encouraged people to get vaccinated, but he has stated he does not support mandatory vaccinations. He believes a great deal of flexibility should remain with local governments to make decisions. He stated early on that he believes Russia is just too large to have one set policy for the whole country. One health minister said that if you “shade and color” regions in Russia according to the number of cases, it would look like a patchwork quilt. The numbers vary a great deal.
Some cities, particularly Moscow and St. Petersburg, are making it mandatory for many workers and businesses operators to have the vaccine. A recent report in RT said that Moscow has become the first city in the world to make vaccination against coronavirus compulsory not just for healthcare workers, but for employees in a range of public industries which demand that they interact regularly with the public, e.g., catering, transportion, tourism and museums. A TASS report this week says 25 regions in Russia will adopt similar measures. They also have now begun a major “campaign” to convince Russians they should take the vaccine. They reported number of people getting the vaccines has started to increase.
There have been a few surveys as to why the large majority of Russians are still choosing not to be vaccinated. One reason frequently mentioned, and some regard it as the main reason, is that the majority of those surveyed said they don’t want the vaccines because they believe a longer period of testing should have been required. Many Russian people are reluctant to get the vaccine over concern for the long term effects on one’s health. It isn’t that they don’t believe COVID is a real or a potentially dangerous disease. They simply think the vaccines could present a greater danger in the future. They know they risks of getting COVID, and they realize their health could be negatively impacted, but they weigh the probability of those risks against the unknown impact the vaccines may have.
From articles I have read and comments I have heard about Russians in the American media, it seems the idea being pushed is that Russians just do whatever Vladimir Putin tells them to do. Putin still enjoys a high approval rating as president, and he has made it clear he wants more people to get the vaccine. The idea, however, that Russians just immediately submit to whatever Mr. Putin says about anything is a fabrication. I hope it is not what the majority of Americans believe, but some in the Western press seem to like presenting Russians as mindless and subservient Putin underlings. The truth is many who voted for Putin don’t consider him or his staff their medical advisor. And thank God there is no Russian equivalent of Anthony Fauci pontificating his own view as the only truly scientific one. If Putin’s goal is to become the dictator people like Sen. Ted Cruz say he is, then he is not doing a very good job of it.
The majority of Russians think for themselves and make their own decisions. There are members of my extended Russian family who want me to get vaccinated. I have chosen not to. They don’t agree with me, but they respect my decision. There is no arguing or condescending remarks about the ignorance of the other’s perspective.
I read an article last week in which it was reported that the leaders of the Democratic Party in America were saying it’s the Republicans in America who refuse to get the vaccine. It is all about politics. Maybe more Republicans than Democrats refuse the vaccine. I don’t know, and I don’t care. My point is that in Russia whether you do or do not get the vaccine tells me absolutely nothing about your political views or preferences. Putin has strongly pushed the vaccine in several public remarks, as have other members of his administration. Yet I know people who strongly support him as president say they will not get the vaccine. Individual decisions like this one are about how people evaluate the risks and advantages of the vaccine. That principle applies to a number of social issues in Russia, by the way.
RUSSIAN/AMERICAN RELATIONS. I won’t go into great detail about the political relationship between America and Russia since I have done that in a number of blogs. Nevertheless, some recent events and changes need to be mentioned I think. First, I have noticed a sharpness that was not there before in the comments of even diplomats like Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, when he speaks of the actions of America. Lavrov is the epitome of what a diplomat should be in my opinion. He is always in command of the facts, and he is careful, clear, and thoughtful when he speaks–whether in Russian or in English. (He is fluent in English.) Yet both the tone and content of his and other Russian leaders’ comments lately indicate they have largely given up on believing the U.S. will come to the proverbial table accepting Russia as an equal. I think Putin, Lavrov and others have tried a long time in their public statements not to frame the relationship as adversarial, but I sense that time is over. American politicians frequently refer to Russia as an adversary. I think the folks in the Kremlin have accepted that status.
Why the change? After Biden was elected, but before he was inaugurated, Putin, Lavrov and others stated that they were hoping for improvement in the relationship but not really expecting it. I think their slim hopes disappeared when the folks at the Kremlin saw in February that the new administration was still going to back protests in Russia over Alexei Navalny. I wrote on this issue in my February blog. At that point I think Russia moved beyond actively seeking reconciliation with the U.S.
America held to the wrong-headed belief that Alexei Navalny was some kind of populist leader of the opposition to Putin. It appeared they believed he could be useful in undermining Putin’s presidency. I think it obvious that the U.S. and other Western countries seriously overestimated Navalny’s popularity in Russia. They also seriously misjudged his character, but that’s another topic.
There have been a few minor events that indicated Russia would no longer tolerate the taunting actions of Western aligned countries near its borders. A very significant one occurred when the British vessel HMS Defender went 3 kilometers inside Russian waters not far from the coast of Crimea. The Russians reported that they warned the ship to turn around, and after it refused to do so they (the Russians) opened fire near the ship and even dropped a warning bomb.
Initially, British officials denied what Russia said had happened. There was a BBC reporter aboard the Defender, however, and confirmed (with a video) that warnings were directed at the ship, then gunfire and a warning bomb followed–just as the Russians had said. British officials then changed their story to say they had every right to be there because in their opinion Crimea is not a part of Russia.
Despite clearly being caught in a lie about a serious international incident, other Western countries still supported the British. I have lost count of how many lies about Russia have poured from the mouths of Western politicians, but they still insist Vladimir Putin is the dishonest one. One can be quite confident that if the West really had caught Putin in such a lie it would be front page news. In the U.S. and Western Europe, however, if you lie about or lie to Russia it really doesn’t count as a lie. Boris Johnson’s administration didn’t lie. They just misspoke.
I found what President Putin said in his Q & A with the Russian people afterwards extremely significant. There were many who were saying WW3 could have been started over this incident had the British ship not left the waters near Crimea. Putin responded to his questioner, “You said the world teetered on the brink of a world war. No, of course not. Even if we had sunk that ship, it would still be difficult to imagine that this would have put the world on the brink of WW3, since those who are doing this, they know that they cannot emerge victorious from this war.” Clearly, Mr. Putin was sending a message that he believes the West knows that Russia has superior strategic weaponry. He will not back down in the face of further provocations. I have not heard him speak so bluntly before.
In my next blog I’ll conclude the discussion of Russian/American relations and then move to personal reflections on how our long absence from America has impacted my thinking on life and freedom in the two countries.