Ilya Klishin is a Russian journalist and media consultant and the former editor-in-chief of TV Rain, Russia's only independent TV station. He has contributed to Russia's most prominent independent press outlets, including Vedomosti, Snob, OpenSpace and others, and to the English-language Moscow Times, and had a central role in anti-electoral fraud campaigns after Russia's December 2011 parliamentary elections.
In a guest post for IranWire's ongoing series about disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic, Ilya Klishin wonders what happened to the Sputnik-V vaccine.
If you’re an average resident of Russia, i.e. a sad woman of around 50 years of age, doing an arbitrary government job in a small, provincial, depressed town full of high-rise concrete blocks (and in all likelihood living in one of these industrial ghettoes on your measly salary yourself), then you probably get your news about coronavirus vaccinations from the TV, since you rarely use the internet – and even then, mainly for messaging.
So if you’ve been paying close attention, you will have been presented with a welcome, even inspirational picture from Russian state TV news bulletins in recent months. Your soul will have been touched from with pride in your country, which has once again “shown” everyone. This will have applied all the more to your husband, if you really are a 50-something provincial Russian woman – he definitely will have drunk a bottle or two of vodka with a neighbour to toast the victories of Russian science and technology.
Let’s describe the stage that was set by this state propaganda: Russia is the first country in the world to register a vaccine. Now it’s started mass inoculations before anyone else. Now hundreds of thousands, no, millions of people have received their jabs, and billions of doses of Sputnik-V vaccine will be exported to dozens of other countries around the world.
But if we tear ourselves away from the TV screens and critically analyse the situation, we'll see something rather different – radically different, in fact.
In December, it became clear that the newly-approved Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were the ones being rolled out in Western countries, and the ones being ordered through COVAX. The start of the vaccination season in Russia was announced at top speed in response.
But across the country, most notably in Moscow... practically no one came. In the first few days the number of vaccinated people didn’t even reach four figures, which was funny for a city with a real population of 15 to 20 million (if you count the suburbs and undocumented migrants).
And exactly a week later, the official count of vaccinated people ended. For good. Completely. The media didn’t even try to falsify it or dress up the figures. It just stopped.
Now from time to time, officials like the mayor of Moscow, representatives of the Health Ministry or developers of the vaccine, will surface in public offer up radically different figures. Just a week ago there were 800,000 vaccinated people in Russia. Now there are over a million. It’s impossible to verify these figures; you just have to believe them.
It’s interesting that this particular strategy was chosen. Not fake news, but rather, no news – and the barest trickle of the most necessary information finding its way out. Apparently, unlike counting Covid-19 patients (albeit in a distorted fashion), Russian authorities don’t consider it necessary to provide daily updates on the vaccination project. The demand isn’t there. If they had stopped counting infected people that would have been a scandal – both within the country and at the international level. But in this case almost nobody cared.
Another contributing factor is that evidently, the Kremlin’s PR people didn’t want to spoil the image that objective reality had already started to ruin – and like little children they just stopped talking about things they didn’t like, and later grudgingly replaced them with the necessary figures.
The fact of the matter is that the Russian authorities usually resolve such problems by chasing state employees – like the average Russian woman we posited (and they account for about 40 percent of the population) – to do whatever is needed, from voting for the party of power to sweeping up afterwards. But here they probably wouldn’t have gotten away without a scandal. It’s one thing to go and put a cross on a ballot paper, something else entirely to have something unknown and possibly unsafe injected into you.
Mass scandals, rebuttals and resistance from normally loyal provincial 50-something women who make up the foundation of the current Russian state wouldn’t have been good for anyone. So it was decided not to force them. Perhaps only temporarily, so as to boast on TV about millions of volunteers. Or perhaps they won’t be touched at all; parliamentary elections are coming up in Russia this year, so maybe it’s better not to anger your voters, many of whom on the one hand believe the TV, and on the other don’t trust the official vaccine, and many of whom, alas, don’t trust any vaccines: the result of decades of brainwashing and the excising of any desire to think critically and rationally.