SAMARA, Russia – She broke into the hospital morgue and the bodies were everywhere, a dozen of them in black bags on stretchers. She walked straight to the autopsy room, begging the guard in the black jacket: “May I speak to the doctor who opened my father?”
Olga Kagarlitskaya’s father had been hospitalized weeks earlier in a coronavirus ward. Now he was gone, cause of death: “viral pneumonia, unspecified”. Ms. Kagarlitskaya, recording the scene on her smartphone, wanted to know the truth. But the guard, his hands in his pockets, sent her back.
There were thousands of similar cases across Russia last year, according to the government’s own statistics. At least 300,000 more people died in the coronavirus pandemic last year than those reported in the most cited official statistics in Russia.
Not all of these deaths were necessarily due to the virus. But they deny President Vladimir V. Putin’s claim that the country has handled the virus better than most. In fact, an analysis of New York Times mortality data shows that deaths in Russia during last year’s pandemic were 28% higher than normal – a larger increase in mortality than in the United States and in most of Europe.
“People did not know the objective situation,” Ms. Kagarlitskaya said. “And if you don’t know the objective situation, you are not afraid.”
For much of the past year, Russia has appeared more focused on public relations and the economics of the pandemic than on tackling the virus itself. After a severe two-month lockdown last spring, the government largely lifted restrictions last summer, a boon to public opinion and the economy, even as the disease spread faster.
In autumn, Russian scientists have developed a Covid vaccine widely regarded as one of the best in the world – but the Kremlin has placed more emphasis on using Sputnik V fire to score geopolitical points rather than on immunizing its own population.
Perhaps the most glaring sign of the state’s priorities, however, is downplaying the number of coronavirus deaths – a move that many critics say has kept much of the public in the dark about the dangers of disease and the importance of getting vaccinated.
Asked to sum up 2020 at his end-of-year press conference in December, Mr. Putin released statistics showing that the Russian economy has suffered less than that of many other countries. Indeed, even as Europe introduced lockdowns in the fall and winter, Russians were largely free to pack nightclubs, restaurants, theaters and bars.
But Mr Putin has said nothing about the human toll of the pandemic – a toll which, in the dry monthly data from his own government’s statistical agency, is only now fully visible.
The official death toll of 102,649 Russian coronavirus deaths on Saturday – reported on state television and at the World Health Organization – is much lower, adjusted for population, than that of the United States and most of Western Europe.
However, a much different story is told by the official statistics agency Rosstat, which counts deaths from all causes. Russia saw a jump of 360,000 above normal deaths from last April to December, according to a Times analysis of historical data. Rosstat’s figures for January and February of this year show that the number is now well over 400,000.
In the United States, with more than double the population of Russia, these “excessive deaths” since the start of the pandemic, they have numbered around 574,000. According to this measurement, which many demographers consider the most accurate way to assess the overall toll of the virus, the pandemic has killed around one in 400 people. in Russia, compared to one in 600 in the United States.
“It’s hard to find a more developed country” in terms of Covid mortality, said Aleksei Raksha, a freelance demographer in Moscow. “The government is doing everything it can to avoid highlighting these facts.”
The Russian government said it was counting only deaths confirmed to have been directly caused by the coronavirus in its official toll. Additional cases confirmed by autopsy are part of a separate tally released monthly by Rosstat – 162,429 at the end of last year, and more than 225,000 in February.
But large regional disparities undermine the idea that the reason for the low official toll is simply methodological.
The city of Moscow recorded 28,233 excess deaths in 2020, according to figures from Rosstat, and reported 11,209 confirmed coronavirus deaths as part of the official toll. The Samara region – a relatively affluent area where the Volga passes oil fields and auto factories as it approaches Kazakhstan – has recorded 10,596 excess deaths, a 25% jump from the 2019 fatality rate. Yet the region only reported 606 official coronavirus deaths last year.
“The published figures are reliable,” said Armen Benyan, Samara’s health minister. “And they are what they are.”
He acknowledged that most of the excess deaths in his region were indeed due in one way or another to the pandemic. A heart attack in a patient with coronavirus, for example, would not have appeared in the official report.
The low official record has contributed to Russians’ ignorance of the dangers of the virus in some cases – and their deep mistrust of the government’s message regarding the pandemic in others. Last October, a poll found most Russians didn’t believe the government tally of coronavirus cases: half of those who didn’t believe the tally thought it was too high, while half thought it was too high. ‘it was too low.
In February, another poll found that 60% of Russians said they did not plan to be vaccinated against Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus, and most believed the coronavirus to be a biological weapon.
In the Samara region, the mother of obstetrician-gynecologist Inna Pogozheva died in November after being hospitalized with a Covid-19 referral based on a CT scan. The funeral directors, dressed in rubber boots and hazmat suits, carried his mother from the morgue in their hearse in a sealed coffin, then doused themselves with disinfectant.
But there was no word on Covid-19 on the death certificate.
Ms Pogozheva said she didn’t know what to believe about the pandemic – including whether, given widespread and bogus conspiracy theories, the Gates Foundation could be behind her. But one thing was certain, she said: she will not get vaccinated, even after seeing the devastation of Covid up close. After all, if she can’t trust her mother’s state-issued death certificate, why should she trust the Russian government for the safety of the vaccine?
“Who the hell knows what they got in there?” Ms. Pogozheva said. “You can’t trust anyone, especially in this situation.”
Ms Pogozheva is asking that the cause of her mother’s death be reexamined. The next of kin of a medical worker who died from Covid-19 caught on the job is entitled to a special payment from the state. Ms Kagarlitskaya, whose father was a paramedic, managed to change her cause of death to Covid-19 after her outrage went viral on Instagram and the governor of Samara personally intervened.
Despite all of these deaths, there has been minimal opposition in Russia – even among Mr. Putin’s critics – to the government’s decision to keep businesses open this past winter and fall. Some compare it to Russian stoicism or fatalism, or the lack of an alternative to keep the economy running with minimal state aid.
Mr Raksha, the demographer, noted that the high mortality that accompanied the chaos and poverty of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union was deadlier than the overall pandemic toll.
“This nation has gone through so much trauma,” Raksha said. “A people who have been through so much develop a very different relationship with death.”
In the Samara region, according to excess mortality statistics, the pandemic claimed the lives of one in 250 people. Viktor Dolonko, editor of a cultural newspaper in the city of Samara, said about 50 people qu ‘he knew – many of whom were part of the region’s thriving arts scene – lost their lives during the pandemic. But he doesn’t think Samara should have shut down her theaters – currently they’re allowed to be 50% full – in order to slow the spread of the disease.
The deaths during the pandemic were tragic, he said, but he believes they mainly occurred in people who were very old or had other health problems, and no were not all related to the virus. Mr Dolonko, 62, says he wears a mask in crowded places and washes his hands frequently – and goes to vernissages and exhibitions regularly.
“You can choose between continuing to live your life, cautiously, or isolate yourself and stop living,” Dolonko said. “Unlike you” – Westerners – “Russians know what it means to live in extreme conditions.”
At a church service in Samara on a recent Sunday, Rev. Sergiy Rybakov preached, “Let us love one another,” and the congregation hugged and kissed. A 59-year-old woman, leaving the service, explained why she was not afraid of catching the virus there: “I trust in God.
Orthodox Church coronavirus death tracking website lists seven clergy in the Samara region; Father Sergiy knew several of them well. He said he believed Russia had lifted its coronavirus restrictions because there was no end in sight to the pandemic. He quoted Dostoyevsky: “Man gets used to everything, the villain!”
“We are getting used to living in a pandemic,” said Father Sergiy. “We are getting used to the dead.”
Allison McCann and Oleg Matsnev contributed to the research.