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In Russia, Distrust of Authority Hinders Coronavirus Response

Maxim Trudolyubov
Image: Russia File QR Code
A person holding a phone to scan a QR (quick-response) code. As a result of the coronavirus, Moscow has recently begun tracking citizens’ whereabouts throughout the city using QR codes.


“Today, the risks associated with [Russia’s] health care system may prove greater than those that the disease itself presents,” Artemy Okhotin, a doctor from Tarusa, a small town south of Moscow, recently wrote in a blog post that circulated widely in Russia.

“This is nonmedical advice. In ‘peaceful times,’ under a more advanced health care system I would have advised differently,” Dr. Okhotin wrote in his post, which stirred much controversy and was later removed from Medium, the platform Okhotin used.

Okhotin advised against getting tested for COVID-19. A negative test result might give you a false sense of security because tests may not be sensitive enough; whereas a positive result will put you squarely on the state’s radar screen, he explained, and your personal well-being is not the state’s main priority. You may contract an infection while undergoing tests, he wrote, adding that even computed tomography was not safe because the machines were not always properly sanitized.

This kind of radical distrust of a health care system would appear fringe in any conversation, but coming from a well-respected medical professional it sounds downright scary. Still, it is indicative of a distrust of the state and its motives that is widespread in Russia.

Only 12 percent of those polled trust the government-provided count of those who have the viral disease, 50 percent think the government suppresses the real statistics, while 26 percent decline to answer questions, a recent poll organized by Moscow’s Higher School of Economics showed. In an earlier poll by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, almost 60 percent said they were not buying official data on the spread of the coronavirus.

Among those who, Russians think, are at the center of the Kremlin’s attention, top-ranking security professionals (so called siloviki) take the lead, business magnates and state officials follow. The country’s middle class and “ordinary people” are at the bottom of the list.

A low opinion of the government’s willingness to take care of the people’s basic needs, depressed incomes, and thin safety nets (60 percent of Russians have no savings) compel Russians to cling to their jobs and evade government restrictions if they prevent them from maintaining their livelihoods. Most people do not see themselves as irresponsible when they go out and mingle with others during the outbreak. On the contrary, they see themselves as responsible for their families and those who depend on them, the sociologist Alexei Levinson explains.

The Kremlin’s initial downplaying of the gravity of the situation and the lack of government support for those working in the private sector meant that a lot of Russians, faced with a stark choice between the risk of losing income and the risk of contracting a viral disease, would choose to go outside the home and continue working for as long as they could. They simply did not trust the government’s willingness, capacity, and impartiality to make the right choices and support all social groups hurt by lockdowns.

What the citizens see as their obligation in the face of a crisis the government sees as citizens’ irresponsibility and insubordination. The government then tries to toughen the restrictions and introduce digital tracking technologies to make sure the rules are observed. Moscow has just imposed a system of electronic passes using QR, or quick-response, scannable codes on the city’s multi-million population. The passes caused much resentment as long lines formed at the entrances to Moscow’s vital metro stations. Following a near transport collapse, the city government had to stop wholesale screening and move on to selective checks.

Russia is not unique in its struggles. Low-trust societies, which include advanced as well as developing nations, democracies, and autocracies, have generally been less successful than high-trust ones in fighting the pandemic, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama observed recently. “I don’t believe that we will be able to reach broad conclusions about whether dictatorships or democracies are better able to survive a pandemic,” writes Fukuyama in the Atlantic magazine. “Democracies such as South Korea and Germany have been relatively successful so far in dealing with the crisis, even if the U.S. is doing less well. What matters in the end is not regime type, but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state.”

Distrust of government institutions may spread because of the citizens’ own experiences, as in Russia’s case. It may also be fueled by populist grandstanding and conspiracy mongering. Italian politicians initially did not take the pandemic seriously and called for defiance in the face of baseless “fear.” “Our economy is stronger than fear,” wrote Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party, part of Italy’s governing coalition, and posted an image of himself having a drink with several other people. He soon tested positive for the virus.

The US administration’s late and muddled start, just like the Kremlin’s, had to do with a failure to recognize the virus’s biological, nonpolitical nature. The default mode of laying blame is apparently hard to reconcile with a reality that can’t be manipulated. “The intense distrust that Trump and his administration have aroused, and the distrust of government that they have instilled in their supporters, will have terrible consequences for policy,” Fukuyama wrote.

High-trust societies seem to fare better. The government’s frankness about what the virus calamity might entail sometimes goes hand in hand with fewer restrictions because the citizens are more cooperative. They tend to trust their health systems and their politicians to support them and their business, and thus are willing to go on the lockdown.

Denmark, Norway, and Finland, which all shut down early and were open about the situation’s gravity, have been prime examples of efficient cooperation between the state and society. Sweden’s outlier experiment of leaving it up to the citizens whether to shelter in their homes or continue their social engagements is proving unsuccessful and may not continue for long. Sweden’s COVID death toll exceeds that of its Nordic neighbors by a factor of 4 to 10, despite its population being roughly double that of Norway, Denmark, or Finland.

With their low death tolls, most Central and Eastern European societies are coping relatively well too. Although trust levels there are not as high as in the North, the populations of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia have been willing to cooperate out of the sober realization that their cash-strapped governments and relatively weak health care systems would be overwhelmed by the virus.

A very different mutual understanding has formed in Russia and other low-trust societies. Distrust of their governments’ sincerity and capability to be of help compels citizens to fend for themselves, which—under a pandemic—might often mean subverting the hygiene rules.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more