Thanks to covid-19, Vladimir Putin has become almost invisible
FRESH OF victories in Tokyo, the Russian Olympic medalists were preparing for a reception with Vladimir Putin earlier this month when told they would spend a week in quarantine before meeting with the president. “I still can’t believe I’ll have to sit in a room for seven days,” gymnast Angelina Melnikova wrote on social media. But the demand was not new: senior officials, journalists and even WWII veterans had to isolate themselves before they found themselves within breathing range of the man who has been in command of Russia ever since. more than two decades, and which next week turns 69.
When Russia first recorded an increase in coronavirus cases in March last year, Mr Putin donned a yellow hazardous materials protective suit to visit Moscow’s main covid-19 hospital. State TV cameras caught him taking selfies with staff and shaking hands with hospital chief doctor Denis Protsenko. “No head of state has so far dared to approach so close to the infected,” exclaimed the main Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov during his Sunday night news program. All is well for a strong man who has built his reputation on stunts of men of action.
But in the months that followed, perhaps no world leader has been so protected against the virus. A few days after Mr Putin’s visit to the hospital, Mr Protsenko announced that he himself had covid-19, and Mr Putin locked himself in his residence outside Moscow, haranguing officials via video link as his approval ratings dwindled. Special tunnels have been installed at the residence to spray visitors with disinfectant. Alexei Navalny, the main figure of the Russian opposition, who is now in prison, invented a new nickname for his political enemy: “grandfather in a bunker”.
In March, the BBC reported that the Kremlin had spent $ 85 million on quarantine accommodation for staff and visitors coming into contact with Mr Putin and other measures to ensure his well-being. This figure is all the more surprising considering that Russia has had a working vaccine since last August, when the president approved the Sputnik V jab. On September 14, Mr. Putin announced that he was was self-isolating after detecting cases of covid in his entourage, less than three months after revealing that he had been vaccinated. He appeared two weeks later, to be seen meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 29. But Muscovites don’t expect to see him around.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Hidden Poutine”