Apathy and Wariness of Kremlin Leaves Russians Unvaccinated
MOSCOW — After Sofia Kravetskaya got vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine last December, she became a pariah on the Moscow playground where she takes her young daughter.
“When I mentioned I volunteered in the trials and I got my first shot, people started running away from me,” she said. “They believed that if you were vaccinated, the virus is inside you and you’re contagious.”
For Ms. Kravetskaya, 36, the reaction reflected the prevalent mistrust in the Russian authorities that has metastasized since the pandemic began last year. That skepticism, pollsters and sociologists say, is the main reason only one third of the country’s population is fully vaccinated, despite the availability of free inoculations.
The reluctance to get vaccinated is producing an alarming surge, experts say. On Saturday, Russia exceeded 1,000 deaths in a 24-hour period for the first time since the pandemic began. (Britain, with a little less than half the population, had 57 deaths in a recent 24-hour period.) On Monday, Russia broke another record with more than 34,000 new infections registered in the previous 24 hours.
Only about 42 million of Russia’s 146 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said last week, a rate well below the United States and most countries in the European Union.
But even with a record-breaking death toll, the government has imposed few restrictions, and its vaccination campaign has floundered, sociologists say, because of a combination of apathy and mistrust.
“Approximately 40 percent of Russians do not trust the government, and those people are among the most active who refuse the vaccines,” said Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling operation. In August, one of its polls showed that 52 percent of Russians were uninterested in being vaccinated.
“It’s about trust and approval in the government and the president,” he said. “Those who trust, they are much more ready to do it.”
Some demographers have questioned the veracity of the numbers the government reports, further damaging its credibility. Russia’s statistics agency said Friday, for instance, that more than 43,500 people died from Covid-19 in August. But another state body, the national Covid-19 task force, initially registered fewer than 25,000 fatalities that month, according to calculations by the independent Moscow Times. The discrepancies leave Russians not knowing what numbers to trust.
The Kremlin is concerned with the rising numbers. President Vladimir V. Putin asked parliamentarians to promote vaccination last week, saying “People trust and listen to your advice and recommendations.”
But in a rare critique of Kremlin policy, the Parliament speaker and Putin ally, Pyotr O. Tolstoy, said the approach of “we told you, you do it,” was not working.
“Unfortunately, we conducted an entire information campaign about the coronavirus in Russia incorrectly and completely lost,” he told a government-friendly T.V. station on Saturday. “People have no trust to go and get vaccinated, this is a fact.”
Any new push to encourage vaccinations may be far behind the curve, Mr. Volkov said. The government’s initial nonchalance about the pandemic engendered a casual view of the virus in too many Russians.
“From the very beginning there was no definite message that Covid-19 is harmful,” Mr. Volkov said. “This momentum was lost, and now it is very hard to implant.”
He noted that Mr. Putin, along with influential politicians and public figures, were not first in line to receive the vaccine. Mr. Putin was vaccinated behind closed doors in March, announcing only in late June that it was with Sputnik V, although the Russian Ministry of Health approved the jab in August 2020.
In general, the Kremlin’s position has been that regional governors should set restrictions. Thirty-eight of 85 Russian regions have introduced some form of mandates for public employees. In some, events of more than 2,000 or 3,000 have been banned.
But restrictive mitigation measures have in large part been avoided. Over the summer, the Moscow government imposed an order mandating that 60 percent of service workers be vaccinated, but critics say it is not enforced. In August, the mayor canceled a short-lived program tying access to indoor venues to QR codes proving vaccination because it was so unpopular.
The government is reluctant to impose restrictions because they do not want to “mess with this majority of people,” who oppose them, said Aleksandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist who researches Covid-related misinformation at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
She said her research showed that many Russians believed that political, rather than epidemiological, concerns drove policy. For instance, she said, restrictions were loosened ahead of September parliamentary elections, which she and others perceived as a political move to ensure that the ruling United Russia party did not lose support.
“Like other problems, the coronavirus has become a tool in political games,” said Vasily Vaibert, a 33-year-old hairdresser in Moscow.
He said he believed the same principle was in effect in the summer of 2020 when restrictions were relaxed ahead of a referendum on constitutional amendments, including one allowing Mr. Putin to govern until 2036.
Ms. Arkhipova suggested another possible reason for the low level of vaccinations: a diminishing sense of social responsibility in the three decades since the communist Soviet Union collapsed.
“Russians are no more a people of the collective,” she said. “Now the people became quite individualistic, and the concept of ‘the public good’ is very hard to explain.”
Finally, Ms. Arkhipova said, Russians are skeptical of the Sputnik V vaccine itself. While 70 countries have approved Sputnik V, according to its developer, the state-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund, there was much initial wariness of the vaccine because of the secretive and unusually speedy process of its development and approval in Russia. It is not accepted by the European Union, the U.S., or the World Health Organization.
“People are afraid of Sputnik V directly, not of all vaccines,” she said.
Ms. Kravetskaya, who is a designer, said she had been willing to try Sputnik V because her husband at the time, and her daughter’s nanny, were considered at higher risk for problems if they contracted Covid-19. She also has trusted friends who work as chemists and biologists who urged her to try it. But she said she did not trust the Russian authorities.
“I have a high trust in technologies used for vaccines, especially if they are Western,” she said.
Ms. Kravetskaya said some of her friends had bought fake vaccine certificates rather than take one of several Russian-made jabs. Channels on the chatting app Telegram offer fake vaccination certificates for 2000 Rubles ($28), or 5000 Rubles ($70) with a QR code.
Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.