Inside Russia’s surreal battle against the pandemic

Nanna Heitmann

2020 - Ongoing

With almost one million cases of coronavirus infections reported Russia has the fourth- highest number of infections behind the United States, Brazil and India. Coronavirus is reportedly 16 times more fatal for healthcare workers in Russia than in other countries. More than 600 medics have died from the virus.

My works focuses on different aspects and chronicles Russia’s sometimes surreal battle against the pandemic.

The Russian Orthodox Church feuded openly this spring over orders to follow pandemic safety measures arguing that guided group worship must take precedence over quarantine orders. Despite Moscow’s complete lockdown many Russian-Orthodox churches ignored quarantine instructions and were open until the end.

Since end of March for more than two months nearly all parts of the country were locked down completely. The official unemployment rate in Russia has dibbled in this time twice since early April: almost half of the population have no savings or just enough savings to survive for one month. I follow charities who support the most vulnerable of our society, increasing numbers of victims of domestic violence, homeless and people who just lost their home and their work due the pandemic.

I’m documenting the tireless work of doctors in Moscow’s overcrowded hospitals where complete hospital territories were turned into a red zone: fighting one disease that didn’t exist some months ago.

The jubilee of Victory Day should have become a huge celebration but only a fly over of military planes took place. President Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian military to hold its landmark parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II, which was originally scheduled for May 9. On June 24th, just some days before the vote on referendum that grants Putin the possibility to stay in power until 2036 it was decided that the parade will take place despite high numbers of new infections and with that end the lockdown in most areas of the country.

Now, of course, the government has announced this Russian COVID-19 vaccine—that they are making it official for use. For some months the government has been saying how well it was progressing with the vaccine, and there were rumors that some important people had already been vaccinated. On the state-owned channel it’s a big story; they’re saying how good the vaccine will be for Russia’s financial markets, that it’s safe, that President Vladimir Putin’s daughter received it and is doing well, that there’s nothing to worry about.

While numbers of new infections were going slightly down this summer the second wave is already approaching. This winter I want to see and witness how this pandemic changed the way of life in remoter regions of Russia. Getting away from the bigger cities we could have a more in depth portrait of how Russia and its minorities are now. Moscow's doctors are being sent to the poor and remote republics of the Russian Federation: such as the mountain republic of Dagestan where conspiracy theories, an ailing medical system and a cover-up of numbers by the government have let to and disastrous, uncontrolled outbreak.

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  • Inside one of the churches of Tver, a centuries-old city on the banks of the Volga River, worshippers gather for overnight services celebrating Orthodox Easter, Russia’s most important religious holiday. Easter is normally the occasion for outdoor processions and group singing but this year’s services were cancelled in some places, and in others modified by distancing and mask orders—which were not universally followed.

  • Evgenii, who used to work in a wood manufacturing company, says he lost his job when Moscow first began ordering pandemic quarantines. Before he was offered a bed in this hostel, he says, he had lived for a time in a social services center in which upright chairs were the only places to sleep. The crutches are for a broken leg that failed to heal properly.

  • Inside a tented meal kitchen set up by an Orthodox church charity, homeless and other needy people line up to register for food and drink. Workers at the organization, whose Russian name translates to “Mercy,” say that numbers at this tent—one of many such service projects—have tripled since the onset of the pandemic.

  • Following the centuries-old tradition of processionals that seek divine blessing, groups of Orthodox priests in Moscow this spring began evening walks around their monasteries, sprinkling holy water and praying for protection against the coronavirus. A 21st century flourish for this ancient practice: A monastery abbot posted processional visuals on Instagram. “Today we all need help from above,” he wrote. “The Lord will not leave anyone behind.”

  • A deeply Russian collage of hardship, history, and faith: one corner of a Moscow food kitchen tent run by the Orthodox service organization called Mercy. The man in military uniform is Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, founder of the Martha-Mariinksy monastery.

  • Faithful, masked, and un-distanced, Orthodox worshippers gather for procession and prayer outside a church in Tver, two hours from Moscow. Russian Orthodox religious leaders feuded openly this spring over orders to follow pandemic safety measures, with some pastors arguing—as they have in the U.S. and elsewhere—that guided group worship must take precedence over quarantine orders.

  • On Victory Day, Russia’s annual May commemoration of Germany’s 1945 World War II surrender to the Soviet Union, people and military parades typically fill Moscow’s Red Square. This year’s 75th anniversary events were supposed to have been especially showy but the pandemic quarantine left the square nearly empty of citizens. As military planes roared overhead, the only onlookers were journalists and a few determined patriots who declared themselves uncowed by stay-at-home orders.

  • After self-isolation orders lifted in Moscow, the Victory Day parade finally filled streets and sidewalks on June 24, six weeks later than originally scheduled. The celebratory show of military personnel and equipment surged past onlookers like these, providing Russians a day of patriotic flourish amid ongoing pandemic anxiety and economic crisis. By the end of the following week, voters had approved constitutional changes that could keep President Vladimir Putin in office until 2036.

  • On the day of this year’s subdued public events for Victory Day, hazmat-suited medical workers arranged tributes for veterans and their family members under treatment at Moscow’s Hospital No. 52. One doctor stripped his gloves off to play his guitar and walked from room to room, serenading patients and moving many of the elderly to tears.

  • A young patient, newly admitted and suffering from grave lung problems, is sedated and intubated in the COVID wards of Moscow’s Hospital No. 52.

  • Inside Moscow's Hospital No. 52, a patient recovering from COVID-19 breathes in the oxygen that is helping him try to return to health.

  • Nurse with flowers for war veterans on 9th of May

  • A Moscow intensive care patient lies prone, a position researchers say can improve oxygenation for patients in acute respiratory distress.

  • Nurse Margarita Sokolova, after working the so-called Red Zone—the most potentially contaminated areas of the hospital—for 24 hours straight.

  • An indoor swimming pool was emptied and repurposed as an employees’ dining area at Moscow’s Hospital No. 15, a city medical facility that was converted into a COVID-19 specialty hospital.

  • Physician Stanislav Korzunov waits as a Moscow Hospital No. 52 patient, desperately ill with COVID-19, is prepared for the last-ditch treatment called ECMO. The initials stand for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which circulates the patient’s blood through complex machinery and tubing as a substitute for some heart and lung functions.

  • Sister Natalia Georgivna, a helper from the Russian charity called Mercy, brings daylight into the flat of Ludmilla Alexandrovna. The visiting nun looks after the elderly, lonely, and sick; she comes to Alexandrovna's home three times a week, and says her caseload increased significantly as the pandemic intensified.