You’d think after the brutal crackdown that essentially destroyed the democratic opposition in Russia, Pápa, as Putin is sarcastically referred to in Moscow’s political circles, would finally be able to slip on that Loro Piana tracksuit and kick back in his billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea coast. After all, what else is there to conquer?
The summit in Geneva established red lines and a modicum of mutual understanding between leaders of Russia and the U.S. Battered by sanctions, the Russian economy is nonetheless resilient and keeps the regime and its many 400-foot yachts afloat. Putin’s No. 1 political opponent, Alexei Navalny, is behind bars, his lawyers have been labeled as “foreign agents,” and even Pussy Riot—the feminist punk collective known for their art performances against the Russian patriarchy—fled the country after months of intermittent arrests. Finally, the upcoming parliamentary elections, curated by the Russian security services, are set to produce yet another rubber-stamp parliament. This time, it’s going to be stacked with semi-forgotten celebrities such as Dmitry Pevtsov, a B-list television actor whose heyday was in the early 2000s, and the eccentric hairdresser Sergey Zverev. Their last gig is going to be a “yes” vote on whatever new repressive bill is in front of them.
But this year’s sweltering summer has proved that there is, in fact, an immovable object in the way of the Kremlin’s unstoppable force: unvaccinated Russians.
Some 54 percent of Russians say they’re not going to get the vaccine, and only 19 percent of the population say they have. The Russian government, faced with surging coronavirus cases, enacted mandatory vaccinations for those working in the government and public-service sectors. The Moscow government went a step further and severely limited the unvaccinated—including with a ban on dining in or working as an Uber driver if one couldn’t produce a government-issued QR code as proof of having been vaccinated. While the official statistics show a steady rise in vaccinations in Moscow, restaurant owners say that attendance declined by 80 to 90 percent after the new laws kicked in.
We didn’t beat Napoleon, Hitler, and common sense only to be limited by some machine-readable barcode. So, while most of the world was anxiously waiting for any kind of a vaccine, in Russia, a black market for fake vaccination certificates popped up, with some people paying upward of $200 for a QR code that allowed them to get a table at a restaurant without getting the shot.
There is, in fact, an immovable object in the way of the Kremlin’s unstoppable force: unvaccinated Russians.
In an attempt to flee the above restrictions, Boris Zarkov, whose Moscow-based White Rabbit is at No. 13 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, led a crew of upper-class Muscovites to his new venue, on the banks of the Volga River. The theme of the restaurant’s opening party was burlaki—named after the enslaved laborers in czarist Russia who manually hauled barges on the narrow river, often at the cost of their lives.
Two tasting menus were offered: “At the Dacha”—caviar, champagne, and lilac ice cream, favored by aristocratic Russians staring idly at cherry orchards as the world around them burned. For the serf-and-turf crowd, the “Burlaki” menu included sturgeon’s ear, cabbage, and black bread. Moscow’s “It” crowd wore peasant costumes and posed for cameras. The restaurant got rave reviews.
Those opposing the jab remained a quiet majority for some months after Sputnik V, the first Russian vaccine, was approved, but when the new limitations hit, a huge portion of the Russian public said “Enough.” Wars, targeted killings, rampant corruption, and a 22-year presidential term didn’t seem to bother most Russians, but this time protest came not to the democratically minded, Western-oriented youths but from deep within our very own Bible Belt on the Volga.
In Russia, a black market for fake vaccination certificates popped up, with some paying upward of $200 for a QR code that allowed them to get a table at a restaurant without getting the shot.
Some of those protesting the vaccine are the very voters Putin relies on for support; others took part in mass protests against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The lines that divided Russian society are now radically re-drawn.
On June 22, Russian actor Egor Beroev wore a yellow Star of David onstage at the national television-and-film awards, delivering a fiery speech on how mandatory vaccinations are labeling those who don’t want the jab as second-class citizens, much like Jews in Nazi Germany. Mr. Beroev instantly became a viral sensation with tens of thousands of people praising him for having “the bravery to speak up against this atrocity.”
It didn’t help when the food-delivery app Delivery Club launched a campaign in which the vaccinated could have their QR codes tattooed on their hands. “My body, my rights,” said Mr. Beroev, seemingly unaware that the phrase is a slogan for the reproductive-rights movement.
VkusVill—the Russian Trader Joe’s—launched a social-media campaign centered on the different families who shop at the chain store. Included was a photo of an L.G.B.T.Q.+ family with a caption saying that VkusVill is about all kinds of families. In a stunning reversal of modern woke values, VkusVill was called out for subverting Russian traditional values and had to remove the “controversial” photo and issue a formal apology to the Russian public.
The Moscow mayor’s office canceled the QR-code program merely three weeks after implementing it—some say the opinion polls were so bad that they had no choice. Slowly but surely, the Kremlin’s worst nightmare is coming to life: the opposition is all but dead, but ordinary Russians, usually passive when it comes to their rights, are beginning to stand up to the Kremlin. Democracy has to start somewhere, even if it’s a grassroots movement of people demanding their right to die from the virus. But no matter how foolish and illogical it may be, this movement is one that Pápa may not be able to break.
Andrew Ryvkin is a Moscow-based journalist and screenwriter