In 1941, when German forces blitzed their way into the Soviet Union and destroyed the Russian air force in the western borderlands within 48 hours, then-Soviet dictator Josef Stalin retreated to his dacha and saw no one for several days.
The memory of Stalin’s weeklong seclusion is now being invoked in the Russian capital by Muscovite critics of President Vladimir Putin, who say he has been largely absent as Moscow battles to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and St. Petersburg readies for a surge in cases.
Russian authorities confirmed 3,388 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, bringing the country’s official number to 24,490, marking the latest one-day record in new cases.
“The COVID-19 crisis is highlighting one of Putin’s less-inspiring traits — his willingness to let certain serious challenges become someone else’s problem,” said Mark Galeotti, an analyst at Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and a columnist for The Moscow Times.
In mid-March, Putin donned a hazmat suit and respirator during a visit to a Moscow hospital. The visit came as Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warned that the outbreak in the capital was much worse than official figures, suggesting the Kremlin failed to grasp how widely and quickly the coronavirus was spreading.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov downplayed the threat, saying there was “de facto no epidemic in Russia,” suggesting that Russia might “avoid one.”
“One of the main topics today is why Putin is almost imperceptible in the coronavirus situation," Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center posted in a commentary.
“He only addressed the nation briefly twice and went to the (coronavirus) hospital in Kommunarka. But he neither gave his own assessments of the crisis nor proposed a plan of action but limited himself to scattered measures and general words. No drama, empathy or attempts to mobilize,” she said.
Putin has been secluded most of the time at his Novo-Ogaryovo estate on the outskirts of Moscow. In his first statement on the coronavirus, he reassured Russians that the government had gotten out ahead of the virus by taking early measures and that the situation was “under control.” He announced a “nonwork week.”
On April 2, the Russian leader announced he was extending the public vacation until the end of the month, adding that as the virus was unfolding differently across the country, “the regions themselves will make decisions that are based largely on the objective situation.”
He said it would be up to each governor to decide what lockdown measures were needed “in terms of ensuring health, people's safety and the sustainability of the economy.”
Tasking the regional governors with the main responsibility of tackling the coronavirus is a reversal of the policy pursued by Putin since he came to power, say analysts and Russian media commentators.
The Kremlin has over the years curbed the powers of governors, insisting Russia needs a strong a central government.
“Suddenly, at a critical moment, we are told ‘let the governors decide,’” Russian journalist Yulia Latynina told listeners of the Echo of Moscow radio station.
Critics say Putin and the Kremlin initially underestimated the danger of the pandemic as much as Stalin misunderstood the war intentions of Nazi Germany. Putin’s approval rating has dropped this year to 63% in March, the lowest since 2013.
The plunge in international oil prices, as well as the effect of continuing western sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea, have severely impacted the economy. The coronavirus will also likely depress the economy and bring more hardship to ordinary people.
The Chamber for Trade and Industries, a government-backed business association, has warned that 3 million Russian companies could go bankrupt, and 8 million people will likely lose their jobs because of lockdowns.
In a video-conference with cabinet members on Monday, Putin’s tone changed.
“We have a lot of problems,” he said. “We don't have anything special to brag about, and we certainly must not relax.”
He said Russia's situation was “changing every day and unfortunately not for the better.” He warned that people need to ready themselves for “complex and extraordinary” circumstances as the contagion spreads.
Analysts say it remains unclear if the meeting marked the start of Putin taking a hands-on role in tackling the virus, or whether he will conduct regular and frequent updates, as leaders in the United States, Britain, France and Italy have been doing.
Tatiana Golikova, a deputy prime minister, is currently in charge of handling the national response. During his meeting on Monday, Putin gave no indication he was ready to stop delegating much of the decision-making to the country’s governors.
Kremlin aides say the strategy is the right one as the governors are in a better position to understand what is needed.
Galeotti of RUSI suspects the Kremlin is looking to shift the blame for the contagion and death toll on the governors’ shoulders and is determined to shield “the federal center” from “taking a direct responsibility for the effort.”
Stanovaya disagrees that Putin’s absences are part of an effort to avoid being associated with unpopular measures or an attempt to shift accountability onto his subordinates. In her commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center, she said the Russian leader has not shied away from unpopular decisions in the past.
“Putin simply doesn’t see the threat from the epidemic as part of the presidential agenda,” she said. “He is used to focusing on issues that, as he sees it, determine the country’s future in the global arena. …Deciding what quarantine measures should be put in place in which regions and what the fines should be for violating those measures is a job for less senior personnel.”
That may explain a pattern that has been seen before when man-made or natural disasters have struck on Putin’s watch.
In 2000, he vacationed at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. He eventually met with the relatives of the 118 victims as a media storm erupted. The meeting did not go well, as relatives accused him of inaction and the military of incompetence.
In 2018, Putin was criticized for a sluggish response to a massive shopping mall blaze in the Siberian city of Kemerovo that left at least 64 dead, 41 of them children. Bereaved families accused him of repeating his Kursk mistake.
Whatever the reason for delegating much of the coronavirus effort to governors, ordinary Russians are doubtful about the information they are receiving from the Kremlin.
An opinion poll published Monday by the Levada-Center, a non-governmental organization based in Moscow, found that almost 60% of those surveyed said they trusted official information on the coronavirus “only partially” or “not at all.”