Russia Was Ready to Celebrate a Glorious Past. The Present Intervened.
As the coronavirus began its inexorable march across the country’s 11 time zones, it robbed the capital of lives, and also its chance to come together over a shared victory.
MOSCOW — As the coronavirus began its silent but relentless march on Moscow in February, the names of the millions of Russian soldiers killed in the far deadlier horrors of World War II were already appearing, one by one, on state television, scrolling down the screen in a harrowing torrent.
The Kremlin offered soothing words about the pandemic, saying that Russia would not suffer too badly. So, the names kept coming, day after day, mourning Russia’s wartime martyrs at a staggering rate of more than 6,000 a minute.
But at the end of March, when the coronavirus crisis could no longer be glossed over, the names suddenly vanished from TV. And Russia awoke from its glorious, morbid memories of the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany 75 years ago to confront an insidious enemy that kept getting closer and more menacing.
The pandemic arrived with full force in Moscow just as the Russian capital was preparing to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, a joyous annual holiday filled with national pride that transcends all of Russia’s many divisions. The timing has left the city in a strangely expectant yet suspended state.
The grand party has been canceled, but this becalmed, sometimes brutal yet still beguilingly beautiful city is all decked out for a big celebration. Copies of the red banner that was raised above the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945 fly on every silent street. Billboards outside shuttered theaters promote patriotic concerts, plays and songfests, none of which will take place as planned.
A flyby over the city by warplanes and military helicopters is still on for Saturday, but Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has told residents not to go out to watch it. State television, which now devotes nearly all its daytime news coverage to the virus, periodically resumes scrolling the names of the war dead late at night.
Orange trucks sent to spray the streets with disinfectant and water carry a reminder of canceled joy, emblazoned with stickers declaring “Victory.”
Police cars, meanwhile, cruise the streets, blaring a taped message on an endless loop: “Respected citizens. We ask you not to leave your home unnecessarily. Take care of your health and do not allow the infection of fellow citizens.”
Restrictions announced in March by the mayor, Mr. Sobyanin, have put the city in a lockdown more severe than those imposed on New York and London. All parks, restaurants and stores — other than those selling food, medicine and other essential items — are closed.
The rules, announced just as Moscow was shaking off the last icy chill of a long winter, make no provision for exercise, except for pet-owners, who are allowed to walk their dogs within 100 yards of their homes.
In a country with a long history of legal nihilism, the mayor’s stay-at-home pleas were not expected to gain much traction. Russia is, after all, a land where, according to popular wisdom, “the severity of the law is compensated by the laxity of its enforcement” and “when something is not allowed but is greatly desired it can be done.”
Most Muscovites, however, have more or less obeyed. That the threat was real, and not just another propaganda exercise to keep protesters off the streets or to gin up fury at the West, became clear in late March. That is when President Vladimir V. Putin shelved a referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in power until 2036.
Russia at the time had reported only 658 infections but, Mr. Putin, broadcasting from his country retreat, said it was “objectively impossible” to stop the virus from spreading. It now has more than 187,000 cases, after reporting more than 10,000 new infections per day for six straight days.
A vast propaganda machine geared to trumpeting the triumphs of Mr. Putin has mostly shifted gears. On the street near my apartment, an illuminated panel that at this time of year usually has a poster celebrating victory in 1945 now features a picture of the head doctor at Moscow’s main hospital for coronavirus patients. “Stay at home!” warns the doctor, who has himself tested positive. “This is the most dangerous place.”
Tormented by cabin-fever, Muscovites, at least those with dachas — country homes that range from huts to palaces — have left the city in large numbers. Others make do with furtive forays outside when they can.
An artist friend goes out at night for long walks, saying she feels like a World War II “partisan” as she darts between trees in the dark trying to elude police patrols.
I prefer going out during the day, walking with my wife, shielded by a big shopping bag in the hope that the police will let us be.
As a journalist with papers from the Russian Foreign Ministry, I have no real reason to worry about police checks, which are generally polite, but, still gun-shy after being mugged by a pair of thieving police officers in Moscow many years ago, I prefer to keep the police at a distance.
Russians who want to go out without worrying need a digital pass on their cellphone. These are easy to get for anyone working in essential businesses, which include takeout florists and, I discovered this week in an affluent area, a jewelry store aimed, according to a sign in the window, at “people who don’t wear jewelry.”
The area is usually crowded with tourists who come to experience the place where, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita,” the devil takes up residence and throws the city into disarray.
That part of the city is now smothered in a diabolical calm. The jewelry store had no customers.
Moscow has reported just 956 deaths, compared with more than 19,000 in New York City. The hospitals are strained, but not yet overwhelmed.
Stripped of the traffic jams and the deafening hubbub of the vibrant metropolis it was just two months ago, Moscow is today in some ways like the city I moved to soon after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then, too, it felt suspended, torn from the predictable, and waiting not for the plague — though some Russians certainly regarded the advent of capitalism as a terrible pestilence — but for some clarity as the rituals of Soviet life vanished. Except, of course, for Victory Day.
At the time, even as the country seemed to be falling apart, my wife marveled that at Akademicheskaya subway station near our apartment, the clunky escalators were still running, fitfully, and old ladies with mops were still cleaning the platforms. We wondered: How long can that all last?
But it did — for years and years, through an armed rebellion against President Boris N. Yeltsin, through an economic collapse more severe than the Great Depression, through two wars in Chechnya and murderous terrorist attacks in Moscow. The old ladies kept cleaning.
They were still at it this week when I put on my face mask and, thanks to my accreditation card, made my way to the subway, where the trains, always clean, still arrive like clockwork every few minutes.
In a car with only three passengers, all of them in face masks, a video screen flashed a message from President Putin: “Be responsible!”
Andrew Higgins is the Moscow bureau chief. He was on the team awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, and led a team that won the same prize in 1999 while he was Moscow bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.
Sergey Ponomarev is a freelance photographer for The New York Times. Follow him at sergeyponomarev on Instagram. @SergeyPonomarev