A riddle from Russia: In a country where so many people have lost friends or family members to COVID-19, why is the pandemic taken so lightly? Sports festivals and international dog shows went ahead this summer as planned while crematoria overflowed with dead bodies. Masks are typically seen as an annoying formality, and people do not seem shocked by discrepant death counts. Between one state agency and another, death tallies diverge by over 200,000. How big a problem is the pandemic in Russia? In an important sense, we just don’t know.
What we do know is that the country is heading into a fourth wave of COVID-19, and while case numbers are rising, vaccination numbers are not. In 2020, Russia touted Sputnik V as the world’s “first authorized COVID-19 vaccine” and launched an effective export campaign: international vaccine sales garnered over $700 million in the first eight months of 2021. But inside the country itself, only about 30 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and most people don’t want to be. The Levada Center, an independent polling agency, repeatedly finds that over half of the people they survey claim not to be afraid of contracting COVID-19. Denis Volkov, Levada’s director explains: “[E]ven though people are concerned, and even though they see their friends and relatives dying around them, many are still not ready to be vaccinated because they do not believe the authorities.”
To confront this deep well of anti-vaccine attitudes, authorities have tried car raffles, cash prizes, and local vaccine mandates. But they face an uphill battle in a country where people tend to view laws in terms of whose special interests they serve. They’ll face Sergey Selivanov, for one.
I met Sergey this past August, in Ryazan—a regional capital of about 500,000 known for its military-technical institutions, a three-hour drive from Moscow. He’s a dog catcher; I’m a legal anthropologist studying the regulation of stray cats and dogs. My research isn’t specifically related to the pandemic, but it has led me to see how people work in systems of governance that they themselves find dangerously irrational. And for many people in Russia today, such irrationality extends to the official policies implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. As Sergey and I drove around his city, I heard in his position echoes of a political sentiment I had heard throughout Russia over the previous months. He told me that he and his wife had both had COVID-19, and that it made them both horrendously sick. But he also told me that he’s against the vaccines: He doubts their effectiveness, doubts their safety, and he doubts that the government’s vaccination campaign is driven by good intentions.
Sergey’s doubt touches on news stories and social media rumors, and it grounds on his lack of faith in the fairness and trustworthiness of Russian state governance. “When someone’s trying to organize a political meeting,” he said, “suddenly there’s COVID. But when they want to hold celebratory parades—no COVID?” Vaccine hesitancy in Russia today is often traced to a total distrust of the state—and such distrust is not wholly unfounded. Sergey and I discussed the massive public festivals St. Petersburg hosted this summer as the delta strain raged, we discussed how his local clinic diagnosed his tell-tale COVID symptoms as “acute bronchitis.” We both agree that official statistics cannot be trusted. The sentiment is common in Russia these days, shared by biologists, demographers, journalists, doctors, even by St. Petersburg’s ombudsman for human rights. Not only do two state agencies publish radically different numbers, but independent analysis gives reason to doubt them both. A similar statistical murkiness and lack of transparency has delayed Sputnik V’s emergency-use approval by the World Health Organization, even as reputable studies have shown the vaccine to be effective and safe.
I am vaccinated with Sputnik. I have a high antibody count, and I haven’t been sick. Sergey is not vaccinated, and does not plan to be. He is resolutely opposed. If he were to be subject to a vaccine mandate, he told me, he might go to court. But while the question of COVID-19 vaccines often splits people into irreconcilable camps —pro and anti—I don’t think Sergey crazy for doubting. From where he stands, the vaccine is not a question of collective immunity but of legal pressure. And Sergey knows firsthand that laws today often make for unsafe and unhealthy worlds.
As a dog catcher, Sergey works within the limits of a law whose logic he himself knows to be terrible. Adopted in 2018, this Federal Law N498 is the focal point of my study, the reason that I came to Ryazan. It decrees stray dogs and cats “ownerless” animals and forbids euthanizing them. It mandates instead that such animals be caught, castrated, and released back to the streets, or else kept kenneled at the expense of regional budgets until they die of natural causes. But Canis lupus familiaris is a pack-hunting predator. Free-roaming dogs destroy private property, kill family pets, spread diseases, and terrorize and attack people. To protect themselves and their communities, people in turn often brutalize street-dogs. Sergey has a dog at work that he and his colleagues are trying to figure out what to do with: They went out on call to catch her and met neighbors who swore that they’d kill her if they saw her again near their building. “She’s a nice dog,” Sergey explained, “but she eats cats.” Sergey feels bad for the dog, for the neighborhood cats and their owners, for the whole situation. But by law, his firm must release the dog back to the place where they caught her—and laws are to be reckoned with, even when they are irrational.
As we drove, Sergey and I discussed heinous cases from many Russian regions: little children mauled to death; senior citizens dismembered and partially eaten near their own houses; grown men and women attacked, mutilated, killed. We discuss how President Vladimir Putin has claimed street dogs to be an “inalienable part of the ecological system of cities,” and how the state’s started giving out medals “for valor” to people who’ve saved their fellow citizens from packs of dogs. A retired military dog handler, Sergey is well informed of the zoonotic danger dogs pose, especially in spreading echinococcosis and rabies. He has two dogs at home. Every year, he vaccinates and deworms them and marks their vet-passports accordingly. But legally “ownerless” dogs only get one shot of the rabies vaccine before he sets them free; he couldn’t revaccinate them if he wanted. Per Federal Law N498, it is illegal to recapture a dog that’s been tagged. And perhaps “setting them free” isn’t the best way to put it: These dogs sometimes chase his car for blocks when he leaves them. So he feels bad for them too. It’d be better to put them down, he reasons—if not for this stupid law that forbids euthanasia.
For many people in Russia today, the law is a web of regulations in which they seek loopholes to safeguard themselves and their social collectives from truly terrible outcomes. Some people, like Sergey, see the irrationality of this web in regulations pertaining to animal management. Others see it in other spheres. People complain about having been coerced into voting at work. They laugh at the State Duma—also known as the “the rabid printer”—for the quality and quantity of new laws it adopts. Some people are outraged by new laws branding politically dissident citizens and independent media organizations “foreign agents.” Some are demoralized by tax and investment incentives that let corporations sell the country’s natural resources for private profit, while small Russian towns scrape by on Soviet-era infrastructure. Some are incensed by the zoning regulations and governance schemes that allow trout fisheries to pollute their waterways, landfills to be built near their towns, and their forests to be stripped of their timber. In every such case, the law is seen as something with practical force but little moral standing: not an embodiment of the commonweal, and often a threat to community interests.
Legal systems generate a certain mystical power, that, when it works, makes people believe that the rules governing our social worlds are not only compulsory but also reasonable, even righteous. But this aura of righteousness must be a quality of the legal system itself, it does not stick to particular regulations in a patchwork fashion. Facing a fourth wave of infections, top state officials have once again called for people to be vaccinated as quickly as possible. But their electorate does not believe them. For people like Sergey, there is nothing inherently reasonable about the policies through which his country is governed. So when the state speaks of vaccinations, Sergey thinks of the practical force of the law: He thinks of which regulations might force him to be vaccinated, by whose will, for whose interest, and to what personal consequence. Widespread mistrust in the government’s motives, communications, and laws extends even to policies and regulations that are perfectly sensible: People prefer to take their chances with COVID-19 instead of accepting a state-backed vaccine because they do not believe that their country is reasonably or fairly governed. And this is something that neither the bait of car raffles nor the threat of vaccine mandates will fix.
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