In Pandemic, a Remote Russian Region Orders a Lockdown on Information

  By Andrew Higgins Published April 19, 2020Updated April 20, 2020, 6:23 a.m. ET MOSCOW — Nearly as big as California but served by only…


MOSCOW — Nearly as big as California but served by only a handful of mostly decrepit Soviet-era hospitals, the remote northern Russian region of Komi is a coronavirus petri dish for the horrors lying in wait for the world’s largest country.

Amid growing evidence that the pathogen had already breached Komi’s feeble defenses, the local authorities moved vigorously last week to contain the crisis: The police summoned critics of the regional government to ask how they knew about an outbreak in a hospital at a time when officials in Komi were insisting nobody had been infected.

Among those called in for questioning was Pavel Andreev, the director of 7×7 Komi, an independent online journal that revealed last month how a surgeon in a Komi state hospital sick with Covid-19 had infected patients.

Mr. Andreev said the police officer who led the interrogation mainly wanted to know about a comment the media director had posted online that said, “It is impossible to trust the state, even in hospitals.” Mr. Andreev, who has not been charged or even asked to take down his post, said the encounter was not so much menacing as baffling: The cat is already out of the bag so “why waste time and energy on this?” he asked.

The police intervention was carried out at the behest of Komi’s health minister, who was fired last week for his mishandling of the pandemic. It highlights one of Russia’s biggest obstacles as it struggles to control the spread of the virus in its vast and often ramshackle hinterland: a lumbering bureaucratic machine geared first and foremost to protecting officials, even after they lose their jobs, not safeguarding the public or its health.

Unlike China — which routinely arrests government critics or simply makes them disappear, while scrubbing the internet of comments about the coronavirus that the authorities do not like — Russia is not a ruthlessly efficient police state but more a haphazard confederation of bureaucrats.

Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, well aware of his country’s dysfunctions, has spent much of the past week haranguing officials in far-flung regions, ordering them to get a grip.

But faced with a pandemic that does not respond to the Kremlin’s go-to tools of propaganda and repression, Mr. Putin has mostly delegated handling of the coronavirus to these same regional leaders. In doing so, the Kremlin has only empowered instincts, deeply entrenched in many local governments, to try to cover up bad news.

Mr. Putin, in an address to the nation to mark Orthodox Easter on Sunday, assured Russians, “The situation is under total control.”

Shortly after he spoke from his country retreat, however, the health authorities reported more than 6,000 new infections across Russia, by far the biggest one-day rise yet, bringing the total to nearly 43,000. More worrying, more than two-thirds of these new cases were outside Moscow, which had previously accounted for the bulk of new infections.

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