MOSCOW—Yelena Malysheva has been lecturing Russians on healthy lifestyles for 23 years. She presents, rather like Dr. Oz in the United States, a TV show that tries to make medicine entertaining and accessible, even if science takes second place to showmanship or, some would say, serious quackery. Like Dr. Oz, who has the ear of America’s president, Malysheva has the ear of Russia’s. And like Dr. Oz, she has never been more dangerous than right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Malysheva’s “It’s Great to Live!” broadcasts on state television have been at the center of multiple mind-blowing scandals over the years. She upset mothers of children with intellectual disabilities, for instance, by calling their children “cretins” in a program she called “My Child is an Idiot.” She angered millions of women by calling for an increase in the age for their pension from 55 to 67 years. But her show went on.
Today, when more than 120,000 Russians have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and officials admit to more than 1,200 dead, among them dozens of doctors, Malysheva has become a symbol of ignorance, disinformation, corruption and hypocrisy. But hey, she has lent her longstanding popularity to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own misleading pandemic talking points, and he still seems to think she’s great.
Malysheva is not just an ex-doctor hosting a health show; she is a member of the Central Council of the People’s Front, a political group loyal to Putin. Malysheva’s show welcomes the country’s leading pediatricians, gynecologists, and cardiologists. The president trusts her and so do millions of housewives watching her show.
So on Feb. 12 when Malysheva announced: “There is no pandemic! There is no coronavirus in Russia, there is no spreading either,” Russia relaxed. But weeks later, when coronavirus was spreading all across Russia, Malysheva’s commentary sounded not so much like an effort to cheer people up or sugar coat some bad news as a deliberate disinformation campaign. “All signs indicate that a common flu is a much more severe infection,” Malysheva told her television viewers as late as March 13.
For Russians, the smiling face of the 59-year-old doctor is about as familiar as anyone’s on television. She turns almost every medical issue into a fun show with actors dressed up as various human organs, explaining and demonstrating theatrically the functions of human body parts. Her son, Yuriy, now a doctor in New York, became famous in Russia several years ago for his bizarre performance as a sperm-producing testicle on his mother’s show.
Malysheva continued to smile and crack jokes when people began to die in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and regions throughout the country. She just waved her hand: “At the end of the day, coronavirus will be an ordinary seasonal infection, the entire hype around it is not because it is a super-deadly infection or the new plague,” she said with a big smile on March 19.
By the middle of April up to 90 percent of newly registered COVID-positive Muscovites were younger than 65 and 5 percent were children. The head doctor of Moscow’s main hospital treating coronavirus tested positive. Nobody, even in the Kremlin, argued that it wasn’t horrible. Malysheva’s Instagram followers began to wonder why their favorite doctor downplayed the scale of the virus’ spread.
But Malysheva would not change her line. On April 17, when more than 4,000 Russians were tested positive for the virus in one day, Malysheva told more than 1 million of her followers on Instagram in an ironic post: “... even now I believe that this virus is a magical miracle. Children under 20 do not die, they do not get sick, they are not hospitalized in intensive care units. Only 70-80-90-year old people are hospitalized. Ask any doctor, that is exactly right.”
So far, purveying ignorance has not spoiled Malysheva’s career. In one of her shows back in 2014, she sounded like a 19th-century racist discussing alcoholism: “There are people of a certain nationality, I would say even a race... We for instance are a white race, Slavs, but there are also dark skin people.”
The Kremlin’s favorite doctor concluded that people of mongoloid races, including indigenous people in Russia’s far northern areas, should not be drinking alcohol, and her viewers should not be drinking with them. “And there is no discrimination about it. Different races have different physiology. We mean a threat to that person’s life,” she patronized. “The features of the mongoloid race: narrow eyes”—at which point she pulled the corners of her eye for the camera—“moon-faced people... Here is why we don’t want you to drink with mongoloid race.”
The authorities and journalists in Yakutia, a republic in Russia’s North, sent multiple requests to Channel One demanding an apology. They never got one. There is no shortage of alcoholic Slavs.
The Kremlin’s health officials often use disinformation for political purposes, aligning bans for this or that product with Putin’s economic or political imperatives. Depending on how tense Russia’s relations are with its neighbors, the country’s political doctors allow or ban Georgian and Moldovan wine, Lithuanian cheese or chocolate from Ukraine. Another doctor of medical science, Gennady Onishenko, banned dozens of Georgian alcohol products in 2006. The conflict that started as an embargo on comestibles eventually became a military confrontation in 2008.
The approach Malysheva chose for her coverage of the coronavirus pandemic matched the Kremlin’s general line: Our country is successful in fighting the virus while Europe and the United States make messy and chaotic mistakes that lead to mass death. “The situation in our country is calm and under control,” Malysheva said on her show March 26, repeating President Putin’s statements of a few days earlier almost word for word.
Ordinary doctors fighting the epidemic in Russian hospitals strongly disagree. The virus has killed dozens of their colleagues, infected while giving care. The tragic list of coronavirus victims among medical workers is called simply: “We Remember.” It includes more than 80 names. While Malysheva on television tried to downplay the danger of coronavirus spreading, doctors in St. Petersburg, Pskov, Moscow and other regions pleaded for better protective gear. Hospitals filled with patients one after another, ambulances with patients waited in lines when all beds were taken.
There is a huge distance between the Kremlin’s elite and ordinary Russians. Most Russian doctors and nurses are survivors, living on shockingly modest salaries; very few medical workers can afford a trip to the United States. But Malysheva lives differently.
Last week, Russian corruption fighter and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny reported on Malysheva’s two giant apartments in Manhattan. According to the documents obtained by Navalny, Malysheva's two sons, Yuriy, the erstwhile dancing testicle, and Vasily, are residents there.
In 2016, when many in Putin’s circle believed that with Trump’s victory they would create a stable future in the United States, Malysheva and her husband purchased a home decorated with gilt and marble in Alpine, New Jersey, one of the most affluent communities in America. Navalny’s investigation shows that the television doctor, who also runs a business empire in Russian real estate, owns about $11 million worth of property in the United States.
The Daily Beast submitted a list of questions concerning these various issues to Malysheva’s assistant, who said they would be passed on. But there has been no response.
Today the main questions for Dr. Malysheva would not concern the source of her wealth or the size of her mortgages in the United States. The main question would be why the host of “It’s Great to Live!” has so consistently downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, a stance that is likely to cost many thousands of Russians their lives, and many hundreds of thousands their health.