Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, is taking far more stringent precautions than most of his global counterparts to prevent getting the coronavirus.
Kremlin spokesmen Dmitry Peskov this week confirmed that anyone wanting to see the Russian president has to walk through a futuristic "disinfection tunnel," where they're sprayed with an aerosol mist. In April, it was confirmed that anyone wanting to see Putin has to undergo a test for the virus beforehand.
The chamber, manufactured by a company in the Russian town of Penza, was installed in Putin's country dacha in the town of Novo-Ogaryovo, west of Moscow, where the Russian leader retreated virtually full time after some of his officials tested positive for the coronavirus, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Peskov. Putin made a brief public appearance last week — the first in weeks.
The efficacy of the tunnel, which also emits ultraviolet light, is doubtful, though, according to the World Health Organization. There are media reports that similar disinfection chambers are being used in Beijing.
The WHO says such tunnels or chambers are potentially dangerous, as users may inhale cleaning solutions in aerosol form. The global body says anyone who goes through the tunnel can still transmit the virus as "soon as they start speaking, coughing or sneezing."
Nonetheless, Peskov told reporters Wednesday, "Extra precautions are justifiable and understandable where the president is concerned."
But some commentators note the Russian president has always appeared overly sensitive about his health — a contradiction to the derring-do physical feats Putin likes to be filmed doing.
Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he was once filmed hectoring ministers for coughing, demanding to know why they had come when sick. Last November, he upbraided his entire cabinet when discovering only three had been vaccinated against flu.
"Three people, or four if you count me," he said. "Getting the flu is self-harm. You could have prevented it, but you didn't," the Russian leader snapped.
'Need to control everything'
Taking precautions — from frequent handwashing to maintaining social distance — is one thing, retreating behind a futuristic disinfection tunnel another, said psychologist Frederick Coolidge, a professor at the University of Colorado who has studied the personality traits of autocratic leaders.
"They tend to have an excessive fear of death or infection," he said. "They fear losing control, they fear losing everything and have a need to control everything," he added. "And they are not always rational about it."
It is not unusual to be worried about germs and to do what one can to stave off infections, but the lengths the germaphobe Russian president has been taking to avoid contracting the virus prompt comparisons with past autocrats, Coolidge said.
Including one of Putin's predecessors, Josef Stalin.
In his 2003 book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore described the communist dictator among other things as "a fidgety hypochondriac suffering from chronic tonsillitis, psoriasis, rheumatic aches from his deformed arm and the iciness of his Siberian exile." His hypochondria and fear of death — whether from natural causes or otherwise — drove in part the infamous 1952 "Doctors' Plot" the year before his death, when a group of Jewish Moscow doctors were rounded up and accused of plotting to kill him.
Germany's 19th-century strongman, Otto von Bismarck, was also excessively worried about his health and suffered from hypochondria — opposition to his "sovereign will," whether in human form or in the form of germs, he found intolerable, according to his biographer, Jonathan Steinberg.
Blaming malevolent powers
When ill health does strike, some autocrats have reflexively blamed malevolent powers — human or otherwise.
Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman, believed the cancer that eventually killed him wasn't due to bad luck or poor genes, but was engineered by the CIA.
"It's very difficult to explain, even with the law of probabilities, what has been happening to some of us in Latin America," he said in a speech before his death. "Would it be so strange that they've invented technology to spread cancer and we won't know about it for 50 years? I'm just sharing my thoughts, but it's very, very, very strange."
Ugandan autocrat Idi Amin reacted with fury when a son fell ill with a stomach ailment. His immediate thought was the boy had been poisoned. Storming into the palace kitchens, he put a gun to the head of the first chef he saw and threatened, "If the kid dies, I'm going to kill all of you," according to a cook interviewed by Polish journalist Witold Szablowski for his recently published book, How to Feed a Dictator.
One former Kremlin official dismisses the comparisons and says as head of state, all means should be employed to protect Putin. "Better that," he said, than following the example of Britain's Boris Johnson. "He was blasé, shaking hands with everyone, and look what nearly befell him."
In April, Johnson said he nearly died after developing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.