Wed, 19 Jan 2022

A month-long trip in Moscow and southern Russia proved to be an eye-opener in many ways. While many people tend to err on the side of caution, the pandemic really has not changed the Russian approach to life.

On a snowy morning in the first week of December 2019, when I left St. Petersburg for Moscow to take an international flight out of the country, I had absolutely no clue what was in store for the world in a few months. If someone had told me then that I'd be separated from my second home for almost two years, I'd have laughed in the person's face. Then, of course, 2020 happened and, in 2021, winter gave way to spring and summer and fall before I decided that I had been away from Russia for far too long. For how long could a person live in fear of lockdowns and getting stuck in another city or country?

So, there I was, at the departures of the Delhi Airport, determined to spend a month in Russia, anxious over what awaited me in Moscow when it came to pandemic-related measures and officialdom! The images and videos of strict health controls and testing and tracing and the likes were on my mind as the plane landed at the crack of dawn in Moscow. All foreign passengers were made to fill in a health declaration form and told that we'd need to test for Covid-19 after immigration clearance. On leaving the aircraft I was mentally prepared to see an officer in PPE at passport control, several checks and a long test procedure, but none of these things came to be.

The border guards were unmasked and surprisingly not even grumpy about working at 5:30 am. When I submitted my health declaration after immigration, the young and pleasant official told me I did not need to take another test, since I had taken one before my flight. Not a single co-passenger was masked at the baggage claim area and no one in uniform seemed to notice or care. This was a sign of things to come!

Read more: Why do foreign tourists come to Russia regardless of the pandemic?

Thinner crowds in Moscow

With friends in Moscow

With friends in Moscow

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Whether it was the main thoroughfares in the city center or the metro, Moscow felt a lot less crowded. Several organisations in the Russian capital have given people the option of working from home and every single friend of mine has grabbed this offer with both hands. Those in managerial positions told me about how much more productive their employees have been since they started saving energy that is lost in a one to two-hour commute!

The one noticeable change on the streets of Moscow was the sheer number of food couriers. It was hard to walk on Tverskaya or Bolshaya Sadovaya streets without having a delivery person on an electric scooter pass you by. Muscovites had gotten so used to getting food delivered to them that fewer people went to restaurants and cafes. This rule did not apply to the fancier or more popular places that seemed to be packed on most evenings.

No trip to Moscow would be complete with a spotting of St. Basil's Cathedral

No trip to Moscow would be complete with a spotting of St. Basil's Cathedral

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Coming back to the metro, even at what was supposed to be the busiest hour, the wagons felt a lot less crowded, although there were enough people in them to throw the concept of "social distancing" into the Moskva River.

To mask or not to mask

Technically, a mask mandate has been imposed on all public transport, but this is a rule that seemed to be largely ignored on the Moscow Metro. Some simply wore the masks as chin-guards. In the city's new high-quality electric buses, I didn't witness a single person wearing a mask. This may not be the wisest strategy. Besides any risk of getting infected, there is a chance that an unmasked person's wallet becomes a lot lighter. I was told of surprise raids on the metro when the authorities imposed stiff fines on every single unmasked person in a wagon.

Back in vastness of Russia (Tver Region)

Back in vastness of Russia (Tver Region)

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Restaurants insist on a mask on entry, but once a patron is seated, the mask is taken off and no one bothers asking them to mask on their way out. Museums, many of which insist that visitors buy their tickets online, try to enforce the mask rule. After a point though, the employees, who themselves are sick of wearing masks, look the other way when visitors take off their masks.

The one place where mask mandates are strictly imposed in Russia is inside a plane. On a Moscow-Sochi flight, an anti-masker started shouting about his "constitutional rights" and refused to put on a mask. As soon as the plane landed, the crew asked passengers to remain seated until police officers who were entering the aircraft left! Three officers entered the aircraft to arrest the anti-masker. I was told by a co-passenger that this was a regular occurrence.

Warm November in Sochi

Warm November in Sochi

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There was no mask mandate on both long-distance train rides that I took. On the 23-hour ride from Volgograd to Sochi, my friend and I got off at a station in Rostov Region, where there was a long halt, and entered a store without a mask on. A policeman, noticing this, walked in and said there was a fine of 30,000 rubles (approx. $400), to which we asked if they accepted cards! He let us off with a warning.

QR-codes

Attempts to enforce a QR-code regime in Moscow restaurants in the summer did not last too long, as the hospitality industry began to lose a lot of money. However, during the week from October 30 to November 7, which included a long weekend, due to a national holiday, many establishments in Russian regions began to ask visitors for a QR-code that proved a person was either vaccinated, recently recovered from Covid or had tested negative within the last 72 hours (Moscow was under a "mild" lockdown during this period).

Assumption Cathedral in Astrakhan

Assumption Cathedral in Astrakhan

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Travelling with an Indian vaccination certificate and a Russian anti-vaxxer, we expected problems in Astrakhan, Volgograd and Sochi, but this was not to be. Restaurants in these cities could not scan my QR-code, but let me enter since I said I was vaccinated. As for my friend, they suggested that she say that she was in the first trimester of pregnancy and hence could not be vaccinated. Other restaurants asked her to switch off her phone and, in case there was a raid, just tell the authorities that her battery was not charged and that she couldn't show them the code (Russia Beyond doesn't approve of such behavior - editor). Unfortunately, foreign tourists in St. Petersburg were denied entry to museums, since the authorities there refused to accept their vaccine certificates.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?

The news and social media were rife with reports about increasing cases, hospitalisations and deaths, but on the ground level, there seemed to be no sense of panic. I was told that people were sick of being scared of Covid-19 and had learned to live with the pandemic.

With my adopted Russian parents in Sochi

With my adopted Russian parents in Sochi

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If, in India, some middle-class families overdo it by wearing masks inside their homes, some claim Russia is at the other end of the spectrum. Society though seems deeply divided on the topic of vaccines. There wasn't a single day in the entire month when I did not hear about the pros or cons of vaccines. I also heard theories on the lines of aliens using vaccines to take over the planet!

Many long-term friendships have broken up over the issue of vaccines. This is indeed a highly divisive issue. In fact, a friend looking to get back in the dating game showed me some profiles on apps where some women insisted that they would only date unvaccinated people. He said there were also many who insisted on the reverse.

While sitting in a cable car in Rosa Khutor, my anti-vaxxer friend spoke about how unfair it was that restaurants there only allowed people with QR-codes. Sitting next to her was a mother and daughter fully masked and wearing gloves. They looked petrified when they heard her speak and were thrilled to get off the cabin and almost run away from us!

Comfort and personal freedom

Coming from a paranoid society, I felt an incredible sense of personal freedom in Russia this fall. Despite the state of the world, Russian hospitality and openness had not changed. This was not a country where people looked at visible foreigners as carriers of a new and potentially dangerous variant of Covid-19. Friends, pro or anti-vaxx, were eager to meet and invite me home. No one seemed afraid to hug or shake hands. None of the ridiculous fist-bumps or shoulder-bumps or an "artificial namaste" that is seen in other parts of the world. Thankfully, the authorities in Russia have enough common sense to not force people to wear masks in open outdoor spaces.

Mountains of the Caucasus

Mountains of the Caucasus

Personal archive

It was clear from everyone I interacted with that April 2020 was a scary time in the country, but even the most cautious of my friends had a sense of balance in the way they dealt with and lived with the reality of the pandemic.

Disclaimer: Russia Beyond in no way endorses any of the illegal actions expressed in this article.

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