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Opinion | In Russia, the Pandemic Is Beating Putin

Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who studies anti-vaccine sentiment in Russia, noted that there’s been a sharp uptick in vaccination-related public disturbances in Russia’s regions — from barely a dozen in October to over a hundred in November. Starting off as mostly peaceful gatherings where a few dozen people read aloud an appeal to the “good czar” to protect them, these protests now often involve groups of people “occupying” government offices and engaging in physical altercations with security and police officers.

It’s still far from the mass demonstrations seen in Paris, Brussels and Berlin over the past year. But it’s a significant development in Russia, where public dissent has recently been all but completely outlawed and members of the political opposition put under house arrest for ostensibly violating coronavirus measures.

In response, Russian state-owned and loyalist media have poured vitriol on vaccine skeptics with the ferocity usually reserved for the anti-Putin opposition. Russia Today’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan — who claimed in January 2020 that the coronavirus affects only “ethnic Chinese” — wrote on her Telegram channel that she had doubts about the anti-vaccine activists’ basic “cognitive abilities.” But denouncing “sociopathic” “anti-vaxxer half-wits” is unlikely to win many hearts and minds — nor is attempting to paint the domestic anti-vaccine movement as a foreign plot to undermine Russia.

That’s because the vaccine skeptics aren’t drawn from the usual ranks of anti-Kremlin activists. In fact, the movement is spearheaded by celebrities like Maria Shukshina, the highly decorated actress who was recently awarded the Order of Merit for the Motherland, and Egor Beroev, a popular actor who has become infamous for wearing a yellow Star of David. The usual playbook for dealing with the opposition — legal, physical and media harassment, arbitrary arrests and kangaroo trials — isn’t applicable.

Mr. Putin seems to be sensitive to the dilemma. He has repeatedly shifted the burden of announcing new restrictions to government officials and local governors, reportedly to protect his popularity, and does not wear a mask in public. Unable to mandate its way out of trouble and wary of riling up people too much, the Kremlin is stuck: Clearly, there’s a limit to what an authoritarian ruler like Mr. Putin can force on his population. Russians, meanwhile, continue to die in the thousands.

In April, things looked different. Other countries, Mr. Putin boasted in his state-of-the-union speech, “were unable to deal with the challenges of the pandemic as effectively as we did in Russia.” That assessment, it turns out, was more than a little premature.

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