MOSCOW—On a bitterly cold day, amid powerful blasts of wind and snow, a few dozen men gathered on Red Square in this locked down city to celebrate Vladimir Lenin’s 150th birthday. Neither the freakish late-spring storm earlier this month nor the spreading virus stopped the ceremony outside the tomb that holds Lenin’s mummified corpse, and only a few of the old Communists wore masks while laying flowers before their idol.
Gennady Zyuganov, the 75-year-old leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the party’s post-Soviet reincarnation, gave the commemorative speech. Wind whipped his scarf as his voice droned on.
“If you want to end the current crisis and defeat coronavirus,” he proclaimed, “learn from Lenin’s advice—and everything will be alright.” Lenin knew how to mobilize Russians; he knew the power of the state; he won a civil war; and he defeated the scourges of infectious diseases that swept through the country, from plague to typhoid, to smallpox. There are lessons in that history, Zyuganov said.
So Soviet ideology, which has been making a comeback for years under Vladimir Putin, is now being touted as the answer to a pandemic. Soviet sympathizers argue that the totalitarian approach could now be useful in beating COVID-2019. But to make that case requires a very selective reading of the past.
The Russia of Lenin’s time suffered a dreadful era of mass murder, mass migration, sickness, homelessness and misery. More than five million citizens fled the country from 1918 to 1924. Infant mortality claimed one child in four, life expectancy was not more than 40 years. World War I, followed by revolution, civil war, and the Red Terror, killed more than 10 million people. The weakened country was also hit by waves of cholera, dysentery, and typhoid. But the response to the epidemics emerges as one of the few positive stories from that time—even if plagues thrived in the first place because of the political and social upheaval.
When the Spanish flu swept through the country from August 1918 to October 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, it killed as many as 2.5 million people, or roughly 3 percent of the population, and showed the enormous inadequacy of the health-care system inherited from the czars. In 1913, out of 93 provinces, only 30 had sanitary organizations with a total of 257 doctors; there were 49 functional laboratories to serve 1,063 cities. By 1922, the Soviets set out to build a whole new health-care system, but it was slow going.
The Kremlin of the early century was a dirty place—contemporaries described manure on the Kremlin’s courtyards. Whole households of the early Communist leadership were affected by various diseases. Lenin’s closest associates, including Yakov Sverdlov and Josef Stalin, suffered from the Spanish flu and smallpox.
The army was a main vector spreading disease. Gen. Isaak Rogozin, one of the leading Soviet virologists, wrote in his book Development of Military Epidemiology During 50 Years of Soviet Power that from August 1914 to September 1917 the Russian army counted 64,264 soldiers sick with dysentery, 30,810 soldiers with cholera, 97,522 with abdominal typhoid and 75,429 soldiers suffering the type of typhus spread by infected body lice.
Some lessons were never learned. The current epidemic of COVID-19 has infected more than 70,000 Russians. At least two parliament members, both Communists, and four drivers working with MPs have been tested COVID-19 positive. Three weeks into lockdowns, Russia suffered 513 deaths. Yet on March 30, in the midst of the global pandemic, the Russian commander-in-chief—that is, President Vladimir Putin—ordered 135,000 men aged 18 to 27 drafted into military service.
Conscription would mean that epidemic or no epidemic, thousands of doctors will have to check hundreds of thousands of young men and select the healthy for service. The idea infuriated Soldiers’ Mothers, a group critical of conscription.
“It is an insane idea to draft soldiers. Even before the epidemic, we saw about 300 out of 1,000 conscripts going to hospitals during the first week of training,” Valentina Melnikova, the leader of Soldiers’ Mothers, told The Daily Beast. “The draft should start only when the country recovers from coronavirus—to draft soldiers now would be a crime not only against the soldiers’ families but also against the army.” After public reaction and analysis by doctors, the army put the draft process on hold and has also quarantined units to prevent the spread of the disease.
What was Putin thinking? Probably that in Russian history, and Soviet history particularly, the military could be called on to fight disease as well as invading armies, and army protocols for containing epidemics inherited from the Soviets are coming into play today.
“We may not have a strong health system but we benefit from a powerful army,” Sergey Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst said. “At times of crisis, both regular forces and emergency units help. Soldiers have built 16 hospitals in less than a month around Russian cities with more than one million population. They have their algorithms and protocols for such crisis situations.“
“Russia is not a militarized society, but in a state of emergency it will be immediately turned into a military camp,” Markov said. “There is an algorithm for mobilizing the entire state, every government institute has secret instructions for reacting to the emergency regime.”
Mobilization is a word that every Russian knows well after almost a century of war and Soviet propaganda, which glorified mass response to the industrial and security challenges of the nation.
Lenin created this system of ideological mobilization. To fight the pandemics of his time, Lenin’s government mobilized emergency units of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, much as soldiers were mobilized for war. Prevention of disease—and control over people—were their main principles. The decree Lenin signed in 1922 introduced a new state agency, SANEPID, a sanitary-epidemiological service, which in the following decade opened thousands of field stations across the nation.
The militarized state had strict control over its sanitary epidemiological units during World War II, trying to keep disease from adding to the carnage wrought by the Nazi invasion. By the late 1950s, life expectancy in the USSR was 68.7 years, higher than in the United States at the time, though the statistics may have been cooked.
Today, Russian doctors, like those everywhere, have no protocol for COVID-19 treatment. In less than a month, the coronavirus has spread around every corner of this vast country, affecting regions where the Soviet epidemiological system of preventing and controlling diseases has degraded and is no longer effective at tracking cases and quarantining. The numbers of COVID-19 infected triple every week, but Putin still has not declared a national emergency. Besides, Russians are suffering from their own long-term pandemic, alcoholism: according to the World Health Organization, alcoholism killed 168,000 people here in 2016.
The Kremlin has deployed Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Protection Troops to defeat the virus, and enlisted a military weapons lab to create a vaccine in cooperation with the ministry of health. The commander of the forces, Igor Kirilov, reported the beginning of large-scale laboratory research. On Monday, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported 901 soldiers sick with COVID-19.
“The army is Putin’s main muscle,” says Aleksander Golts, an independent military analyst. “Thanks to COVID-19, this is the first week we don’t hear news about Russia winning the arms race.” Golts says there should be a realization that building missiles ought not to be the main goal of the government, but notes that “in a military state this realization is unlikely.”
It’s the old debate about guns and butter, but it’s now about missiles versus pipettes.
The main goal, according to Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, is to supply Moscow labs with enough little pipettes to conduct the necessary number of COVID-19 tests. Last week Moscow tested 20,000 people but this week the city ran out of pipettes and had to cut the number of tests down by 5,000.
“It is easier to build the hospital, than provide it with equipment,” the mayor told BBC reporters. The tests are an essential procedure, which would allow Russia see the scale of the epidemic, which “does not go away, it is growing,” Sobyanin added.
Out of Russia’s registered 68,622 COVID-19 cases 54 percent are in Moscow. There are about 15,000 beds occupied with COVID-19 patients in the capital already—for now Moscow has no shortage of beds—but the city is preparing 25,000 to 30,000 more for the upcoming worst days of the epidemic.
“Just like in any other countries, our tests often show negative results, so the patients stay home self-treating the respiratory disease at the time when they need to be here at the hospital,” Svetlana, a doctor at a Moscow hospital of infectious diseases, told The Daily Beast. “Some people die with a heart failure diagnosis and we don’t know if they actually had coronavirus or not.”
The Ministry of Defense is preparing vaccine tests in dozens of regions; at least 60 volunteers have agreed to take part in the research, starting in June. If there was a time when Russians would again be receptive to Lenin’s ideas of mass mobilization, however scary in normal circumstances, it is now.