MOSCOW—When Russian President Vladimir Putin finally decided to admit at the end of last month that this country had not been spared the wave of disease sweeping over its Chinese and European neighbors, and called on Russians to take seriously the threat he had ignored, he asked them “not to rely on our good old Russian avos’.”
That’s an interesting word with a “colossal role” in culture, according to the scholar Anna Wierzbicka in her classic study of expressions almost impossible to translate. Basically, it is an attitude that “life is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and one shouldn’t overestimate the powers of reason, logic, or rational action,” she says: “The best one can do is to count on luck.”
But if Putin seriously wanted Russians to dispense with avos’ in the face of this deadly pandemic, that, too, was wishful thinking. Indeed, one might wonder if he was trusting in luck himself the day he visited a hospital filled with coronavirus patients last month and conspicuously shook hands with the director, who subsequently came down with the disease.
In any case, what we see on the streets of Russian cities today, especially outside Moscow, is fatalism with potentially fatal consequences.
In spite of hundreds of detentions—and fines for violating the self-isolation regime that even Muscovites consider huge—the metro is full of people and kiosks continue to sell fast food.
Muscovite Tatiana Dubrovina, an activist at the Sakharov Center, walked to a bank in the Oktyabr Pole district of Moscow’s downtown on Friday. “It looked like a parallel world. KFC sold food from a window, a cafe was open next door, people walked by, as if there were no coronavirus epidemic,” Dubrovina told The Daily Beast.
As of Monday morning, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, there have been 42,853 confirmed cases nationwide, with 361 deaths, but many people think even those counts are low.
Giant crowds waited in the metro and outside factory checkpoints for security to check their documents or temperatures last week. Emergency or not, many managers stuck to bureaucratic procedures while ignoring rules for social distancing, perhaps thinking the situation is simply out of their hands.
Generations of Russian poets and novelists have written about our blend of carelessness and fatalism in the face of a devastating crisis. Leo Tolstoy, for instance, saw these attitudes rooted in the wisdom of the people, who share a deep belief that life is like a river that cannot be resisted and demands to be accepted for what it is. A philosopher peasant in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Platon Karatayev, teaches noble Pierre Bezukhov to live “not by our mind, but by God’s judgment.”
One of today’s popular writers and poets, Dmitry Bykov, says fatalism is just as appealing to Russians now as to those who came before: “One person’s role is absolutely meaningless here,” Bykov said recently on Radio Echo of Moscow. “History takes its predestined, cyclical course and a man cannot stop that cycle, at least for now. Maybe plans and projects make sense somewhere in the world. They don’t mean anything in Russia where we make a plan in order to just step away from it later. It is interesting, I see it as a peculiar challenge.”
A 57-year-old factory worker in the small town of Kstovo, Nizhny Novgorod region, was waiting in line outside the Lukoil refinery’s checkpoint on Thursday. Like many of the people there, he wore no mask. “They do not have them at our pharmacies,” he told The Daily Beast. So, he reasoned, why bother?
Thus far there are 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kstovo, a town with a population of 67,623 near the Volga river. “Our guys don’t worry about the Chinese virus,” he said, “Our bodies are well sterilized—we are more worried about losing a job here. Lukoil is the best employer in town.”
The Bolshoi Theater closed down for quarantine in mid-March but more than 100 of its artists continued to work and organize the “We Are Together” concert that was aired on the Rossiya 1 TV channel on April 11. When COVID-19 test results arrived, it turned out that 34 theater employees had the virus.
Back on March 18, Putin said of the COVID-19 epidemic, “Thank God, we have everything under control, in general.” By that time Italy, Iran, Spain, and China had reported thousands of dead. But the Russian military continued to rehearse for the annual Victory Day parade, a huge affair marking the defeat of Nazi Germany 75 years ago.
The training was canceled only last week. On Monday, a report by a Russian state news agency, TASS, said that all the Russian soldiers who had previously rehearsed for the parade are now in quarantine. All the military equipment involved, and the trains that carried the troops, are now being disinfected. How many of the soldiers contracted the disease is not yet known.
Through much of the 19th century, fatalists were lionized in Russian literature. Grigory Pechorin, an adventurous young officer in Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time is one of the best known examples. Expelled from St. Petersburg for taking part in a duel, Pechorin goes to battlefields in the Caucasus where he courts death but soon grows bored with bullets whistling by.
Irina Yukhnova, a professor of philological science, studied the phenomenon of fatalism in Lermontov’s novel. “Pechorin is a pure fatalist, he believes he is in the hands of destiny,” Yukhnova told The Daily Beast. “But what was considered courageous at war did not help during a pandemic,” she noted.
Lermontov, the author, was brought up by his grandmother, who, perhaps saving the young man’s life, was a strong believer in isolation during epidemics. As a teenager, Lermontov survived a devastating cholera pandemic that killed more than 190,000 people in Russia. Moscow schools closed in the fall of 1830. Ugly gossip crawled from house to house and mobs beat Polish residents on the streets, blaming foreigners for poisoning the water in the city. But Lermontov’s grandmother made plans to save her family, not letting fate play its course; she stocked up on food and locked the gate of the family residence to wait out the devastating epidemic.
It was during this same cholera epidemic in 1830 that the poet Alexander Pushkin traveled to the provinces on business. He wanted to sell his family’s property in Boldino, east of Moscow. Pushkin planned to spend just a month away from his gorgeous fiancée, Natalya Goncharova, but the murderous spread of cholera grounded the poet for three months.
Those turned out to be the most prolific months in the Pushkin’s life. He wrote a poetic masterpiece every couple of days, completed most of his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, and started and finished a series of plays including A Feast in Time of Plague. In his poems, he clearly understood the danger, describing this scene of a distraught lover at a funeral: “Watch, but watch you from afar off / When they bear her corpse away!”
Yukhnova says the poet was restless that fall, and in fact tried to break quarantine several times. “Pushkin tried to escape from Boldino, but every time he was stopped at checkpoints and turned back.”
Russian poets and literary critics have been organizing “Boldino Readings” in Pushkin’s house for the last 50 years, in memory of those fruitful months when Pushkin was quarantined.
Victor Shenderovich, a satirist and playwright, suggests that recalling the work of writers—their moods, their perceptions—during past epidemics may help during the present one.
Pushkin wrote to his friend: “Hey, look, melancholy is worse than cholera; one kills just the body, the other kills the soul… The cholera will end any day. If we stay alive, we’ll be happy again sometime.”