Russia and COVID-19. An interview with Marina Shilina

Beyond the daily medical bulletin or the national and regional political strategies, understanding how Russian society has been reacting to this pandemic is the key to find new solutions, a new paradigma and new tools in order to adjust to this new “way of life”.
scritto da ANNALISA BOTTANI
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A better way to coexist with COVID-19, until a cure will be found. This is the real challenge that all countries, expecially those affected by the virus the most, will have to face in the next months. And Russia is one of them, with 379,051 infections and 4,142 deaths reported (data updated May 28).

According to the authorities, “the growth of new coronavirus cases is stabilizing”, even though the debate about the official numbers is still ongoing. And while President Vladimir Putin, starting from May 12, has ordered to end the non-working days, some Russian regions are about to ease gradually coronavirus restrictions. 

In Moscow the lockdown has been extended until May 31. However, starting from June 1, some COVID restrictions will be lifted. All non-food shops and some service sector businesses will re-open. Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has decided to test “over the next week or two” a scheduling system, for adresses and areas, that will allow people to walk outside.  

Beyond the daily medical bulletin or the national and regional political strategies, understanding how Russian society has been reacting to this pandemic is the key to find new solutions, a new paradigma and new tools in order to adjust to this new “way of life”. A first answer might come from scientific community, academia and field research.

That’s why we spoke to Marina Shilina, Professor D. Sc. at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics included among the 100 Universities of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings – 2020, Correspondent member to Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, Academic and Science Director to Nationаl Award for public relations development “Silver Archer”, author of awarded scientific monographs related to digital, Internet and data-driven communication and AI narratives in Russia, scientific director and speaker at forums and international events, among the 100 most cited Russian media scientists, journalist and former PR director in leading companies listed by Forbes, Russia.

“War zones”, this is how many doctors and nurses all around the world have described hospitals and other COVID facilities after the spread of the global pandemic. Even President Vladimir Putin has compared Russia’s fight with the virus to old wars with Pechenegs and Polovtsians. In your opinion, does Russian civil society, especially the youngest generation, share the same view?
Real things happening in Moscow hospitals and in other parts of the country are difficult to truly evaluate staying on voluntary self-isolation at home. But media and social networks allow us to see and understand how all other things are small and unimportant now compared to the COVID issues.

However, some people are dismissive of the pandemic and self-isolation. They even began to call themselves “COVID-dissidents.” In Russia, since the Soviet times, dissidents were considered fighters for the truth and now such people are called “covidiots”.

Despite the risks, today tens of thousands of volunteers, mainly young people, are helping doctors and everyone who needs help. There are many charity funds, official resources, groups on social networks that coordinate these initiatives.

I know that in Moscow there’s a set of senior medical students for work in hospitals, with a high salary by Russian standards. I’ve read that someone refuses, but others, despite the coronavirus, are ready to return to the ambulance. Ksenia, a university colleague (she’s not a doctor), sent her young son to her mother-in-law and daily goes to work in the green zone of the hospital, because stuff from ordinary departments is mobilized in the red one.

Just to quote a famous example: when the grandaughter videorecorded her 98-year-old grandmother Zinaida Korneva’ stories about the WWII, the veteran collected more than half a million rubles for doctors.

In the Moscow region, a businessman delivered a whole protective equipment cargo plane at doctors’ disposal. Well-known businessmen, such as Usmanov and Potanin, allocate billions of rubles, Alfa-Bank transferred the annual profit to the operational headquarters’ account to combat coronavirus. Volunteers and companies sent food, orderlies and even ambulances to hospitals. Hotels accommodate doctors who need a rest for free. Some taxis and private transport drivers carry doctors and donors for free as well.

In a megapolis like Moscow, Italian charity baskets (“sospeso” baskets), hanging out of the window to share products, are hardly possible. We share help and online donations.

We, Russians, like Italians, are sincerely grateful to the doctors and nurses “at the forefront”: we see how in the Italian cities people go to the balconies to applaud them. In Moscow, at night, one of the largest hotels – Cosmos hotel – where now doctors can be accommodated, lits a light on the façade in the windows with the words “Thanks to the doctors.”

Lights in the windows of “Cosmos” hotel in Moscow form the words “Thanks to the doctors!” Photo from Twitter

Let’s talk about Moscow. You live in this city and you’re a Professor at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobjanin has been the first to declare the lockdown, starting from the 30th of March. In your opinion, has he been handling properly the situation, considering that the majority of Russian infections is right here?
The Moscow pandemic scenario is still quite specific, it seems to me. The Chinese version, when in a provincial metropolis the infection was localized, was hardly possible to implement in Moscow. Moscow is the largest Russian city and transport hub. For example, there are five airports in it. Over the past month and a half, before self-isolation, more than a million people entered Russia via Moscow (and Muscovites were only about 120 thousand of them). The pandemic went to the capital according to the European model, as Mayor Sobyanin specified. According to official sources, the virus was brought to Russia from Europe and then infection chains began. So far, Moscow gives high numbers of coronavirus infected.

Why does the growth of infections continue after the self-isolation announcement? There is no definite answer, I think. In any metropolis, there are always many possible places of infection, even if all the rules are followed: grocery stores, public transport, the subway (where it is difficult to keep the distance at peak hour), taxis. Let’s think about skyscrapers where people are forced to use elevators. Every day it’s about two and a half million people who should support city life. The infected people’ statistics growth is also by the beginning of mass testing and identification of asymptomatic virus carriers explained.

Also, there is a “Russian specificity” of perceiving the situation, I suppose. My Russian friend long-lived in Berlin seems to be a revealing example: on the very first day of the reduction of self-isolation, she went for a walk and then quickly turned back to work. Her German husband, on the other hand, still scrupulously observes all the rules, keeps his distance even at home.

However, if the voluntary self-isolation had not been declared, it is not known how the situation would have developed. According to a study by the Plekhanov University “Modeling of socio-economic systems” scientific laboratory under the direction of Professor Sergey Valentey, made at the very beginning of the isolation, on April 21, the prognostic number of cases should have amounted to 295,000 people. However, according to Rospotrebnadzor and Johns Hopkins University, the figures were many times smaller. Now there is a debate about the numbers, but in any case the Moscow indicators in percentage terms are lower than, for example, in New York or London.

In Moscow, voluntary self-isolation, movement and passage through passes continue. Now it’s mandatory to wear masks and gloves in public transport and crowded places and the violation fine is quite high (4 – 5 thousand rubles / about 60 – 70 euros).

On May 11, President Putin announced that non-working days are over. In this case, the final decisions on self-isolation are made by the regional authorities. In Moscow, the self-isolation has been extended until May 31, but the phased transition to ordinary life’s scenarios has already been announced.

As Italians, we, unfortunately, are aware of the lockdown restrictions and we have to deal every day with fear and uncertainty about the future. How’s ordinary life in Moscow during these difficult days? Have you noticed any shortage of food, medicines, or other basic commodities?
According to the latest polls, Russians are primarily concerned about economic problems, and then everything else, including the health of loved ones. This is quite expected: according to different sources, incomes in almost half of the families declined. Depression is expectedly higher in low-income families. However, a third of respondents are depressed and one in ten is quite calm.

As in all countries, there was a moment of booming demand for protective equipment and products. Russian market experts have determined that in mid-March for the first time the excitement with purchases arose paradoxically, after the news about the lockdown and shortages in Italy. The second wave of rush purchases followed the deficit of the first one. People reacted to the news with lightning speed. On average, in March, buyers stocked up products for about three to four months, food products sold twice as much as on the New Years’ eve. Customer behavior stereotypes became memes quickly, for example, the massive purchase of buckwheat and toilet paper.

I happened to encounter a shortage of products neither in March nor now, but I saw such photos on social networks. For some time, it was difficult to find masks and antiseptic, but a long time ago everything has been around, masks are sold even in grocery stores and in subway stations vending machines, and in stores sanitizers are disposable freely.

Do you recall a crisis even remotely similar to this one in the Soviet world or after the collapse of the USSR?
In connection with the coronavirus crisis, the Chernobyl accident is often recalled.
But firstly I would recall the poliomyelitis epidemic in the early 1950s. Both viruses are naturally occurring and extremely dangerous. Polio affects children and adults (for example, President Roosevelt fell ill at the age of 39). Poliovirus is extremely small, enters the body due to dirty hands, and alas, does not die. The virus infects organs and the central nervous system, lung damage is fatal. Ten percent of the sick people die, forty percent of the sick become disabled. In Europe, the last major poliomyelitis outbreak began in the 1950s. In 1954, it was recorded in the USSR and the epidemic lasted several years. Mortality was very high. The Soviet polio vaccine (these are drops instilled into the mouth) helped to vaccinate one hundred million people, almost eighty percent of the population. The state launched powerful and clear propaganda of “clean hands”, and this also yielded results.

More than forty years have passed since the clarification of the nature of the virus at the beginning of the 20th century until a live vaccine appearance in the USA and the USSR. Let’s hope that today scientists will cope faster and COVID vaccination would be just as easy.

As for Chernobyl, there are several levels of comparison. As my colleague Artem Galustyan, the Kommersant journalist (one of the leading Russian media editorial), noted in a recent conversation, Chernobyl shocked him that usual social life could break off so easily, that everything was so fragile and arbitrary. But he went to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant decades later. In common, the personal perception of Chernobyl and COVID are quite similar because of a catastrophe emptiness and formlessness. They have no smell, no color.

The Chernobyl crisis affected many people and countries. In Russia, nearly 600,000 people participated in the accident liquidation. Thousands of people spent the May holidays on the street, not knowing about the explosion. The radiation cloud reached Europe, Italy, in particular.

The accident was not reported for quite some time and the whole truth was never told. But according to experts, not only because of the Communist party and bureaucratic apparatus inertia. Experts suppose that the authorities failed to assess the situation then.

Now the situation is also unclear and the crisis is global. So far, only a few countries have been able to achieve stabilization. In Russia, there is restructuring for the crisis. For example, local authorities make decisions themselves, in some towns the self-isolation was not even announced. Information on COVID-19 is open, available. And, of course, it requires clear honest professional explanations, well-grounded models of behavior for citizens.

In my opinion, despite the different causes of both disasters – man-made and biological – and different scales, the human factor remains the determining one. However, now the nature of the threat has radically changed, the spread or non-proliferation of the disease depends on each person, on the social solidarity level and our ability to make decisions in such an uncertain case. The social level of the crisis and the way out of it is determined by the digital inequality level and access to the Internet. This catastrophe “abstract” image – emptiness and formlessness, smellness and colorness – has to be very concrete for everyone due to media and professional communicators. Media and communication literacy should be a function of protection.

Nowadays, the pandemic is radically different, because it defines a fundamentally new level of social responsibility – or irresponsibility – and not only of élites but also of citizens, I think. And mass social solidarity is strongly needed.

Despite the virus spread, it’s crucial, as much as possible, the joint effort of all society, starting from the education field. In March, the Science and Higher Education Ministry has called on universities to move all class instruction to online and remote learning. How do you manage to arrange classes and schedules, giving, in the meantime, your support to all the students?
As soon as self-isolation was announced, almost all universities (and schools) switched to distance learning. In fact, the “University 3.0” concept is well-known and not so new. In this sense, the Plekhanov University complies with international standards. We have mandatory electronic educational courses in most subjects introduced long ago. All of them are in the internal university electronic system. Exam testing is also a long time in electronic form (for example, last year, one of my course students took an exam online, prepared three hundred questions). Each student and teacher has personal electronic accounts and corporate e-mail.

But a quick online translation of all activities and daily life changes is an obvious force majeure. In terms of organization, everything was rebuilt quickly. Immediately, on the university’s website information about the virus, regulations, a schedule with the e-mail addresses of the study sites, instructional videos on distance learning etc. appeared, online training webinars for students and teachers began and a hotline started. Our department created two groups in WhatsApp, a platform on Microsoft Teams for a constant, sometimes very intense, discussion, and daily problems solution (a health schedule where we put a plus sign “+” every morning has appeared).

Technical development of distant formats took some time, because when the whole university (tens of thousands of students and teachers) comes to study online, respectively, the load on the system increases. Curiously, the technical “restructuring” of the older generation was faster than that of many young people.

It turned out to be unusual to communicate with students through the screen (now it will become a sort of “must-have”, I presume). But bright teachers managed to “keep” the audience online. This was shown by our everyday work surveys, conducted from the first day of distance learning to understand how to organize all the process best.

Students, of course, began to say that there are too many home tasks. Although there were no such “childish” stories, such as at school distance lessons when the children included avatars in the classroom zoom while they did other things.

Now students are writing term papers, diplomas (and many libraries have opened free access to archives). We continue scientific research, prepare, together with the Russian Academy of Sciences, an international youth conference on the artificial intelligence narratives in a new communication reality, developing a concept for a joint grant for young scientists with Swiss colleagues. We look forward to continuing academic contacts with Italian colleagues from IULM University, EURISPES etc. I hope university and science are and would be more and more open, and not only digitally.

I talk with my students, as usual, by email and via different Apps. We began to talk more via phone. The teacher’s support has become more important when it’s not possible to set up personal meetings. But at the same time, it is necessary to maintain a free personal space from compulsory work matters and find more “home” formats for daily work. For example, our dean Elena Okun’kova arranges virtual meetings with a student asset but with a real tea party.

Young teachers create new formats: Maxim Markov reads rap with the necessary information in his pre-class teasers.

University Volunteer Center helps the elder people. For WWII Victory Day, they congratulated veterans with gifts.

In the campus, for students and interns, including foreign ones who haven’t left home, special isolation conditions have been created. The university provides foodstuff to everyone if it is needed.

At the Plekhanov, in the early days of the self-isolation where vibrant student life and “movement” from eight in the morning until night, six days a week, were constantly in full swing and the student “traffic jams” in the corridors during breaks were memes, the emptiness especially sharply was felt… I hope the university will remain a place of lively scientific and personal communication. I hope so because active force majeure immersion on the digital university future confirmed that despite the new distance-learning formats, in the “university 3.0” a university is still the key word.

Third housing of Plekhanov University of Economics in Moscow. Photo: wikipedia

How have your students been reacting, between fear of the virus and ordinary issues to deal with every day?
In general, the perception of the crisis among those young people I communicate with is positive. They are optimists just because they are twenty years old.
But the psychological burden has grown significantly. Even more precisely, it has radically changed with the ordinary daily life change.

Of course, students had “home protests” against “voluntary isolation”. But, in my opinion, everyone adapted quickly enough. I think the impact of the future profession is affecting this while we are engaged in creative work – such as advertising, PR, media, design. And creativity is always the search for innovative solutions. For students, creativity is also force majeure, as usual. For example, we make innovative technology projects that surprise us every time with fresh solutions arising on the fly, especially on the exam’s eve.

Now there is more free time left, and since each group has a curator in junior courses, we began to work with the guys on their interests and more personally.
My colleague Vladimir Koshel collects students in an online film club to argue about the nature of creativity. Senior students shoot short motivating videos for everyone and post them on social networks. For example, Daria Kuvshinova talks about her first in Russia research of virtual entities-influencers (it has already been published in France), Marya Terekhova presented the geobranding studies that she is currently conducting for her diploma in Switzerland. Alexandra Stepanova shares her experience in creating her own version of an online magazine for Aliexpress in Russia (her project won an international competition). Maria Sychkova describes how she worked in the jury of a national professional competition since she won a student competition with her colleague. Iva Shaghinyan shares her long-term artistic experience to make students’ own greater personal “voice brand”. Now, a wide contest of student videos about real life in self-isolation is running.

We try to use any interesting chance for communication. At the same time, we don’t particularly load on information, even positive and fun.
By the way, many jokes appeared now. Our students picked up the theme “We Are A Virus” – that in Venice, the water without humans-viruses was so purified that dolphins and swans returned there – and clarify that in their term papers and diplomas the “water” also became cleaner now.

In social life, the university continues to be a point of communication growth: hundreds of people still come to the traditional continuing education courses at the Plekhanov, which are online now. And our colleague Ksenia Kutyanskaya began to conduct free creativity training for everyone just now.

Self-isolation brought positive changes in the relationship. Staying home, many students say that they understood that the family is their place of power. During these difficult months, we, teachers and students, have become humanly closer. I think it’s just because now when we are getting in touch, we will certainly ask how our students’ families and loved ones are.
In general, we are all looking forward to the summer and holidays with special impatience!

This new scenario requires an important digitalization process that will be increasingly strategic in order to sustain citizens, students, and enterprises in the long run. President Putin has already set a digital economy between the main goals of Russia’s growth and in January Prime Minister Michail Mišustin said that the country should implement modern information technologies and a national digital economy program. In your opinion, are Russian Universities prepared to meet the challenge?
Last decade, in Russia, several strategic national programs for digitalization and the implementation of artificial intelligence have been developed. In the last years, at the ministry level, the idea of CDTO – Chief Digital Transformation Officers – has been implemented. The pandemic instantly plunged everyone into a digital future, turned digitalization into an obvious popular tool for many industries, and university education, of course. This trend will continue in any case.

It is difficult for me to judge the readiness of universities, while there is no such summary data now. On May 21, at the international online round table on higher education prospects Lomonosov University rector and the national rectors’ council chair Viktor Sadovnichyj said that since the first days of self-isolation 620 Russian universities – about 5 mln students and 300,000 teachers – are on distance learning.

According to the latest data from Urite, one of Moscow’s academic publishing houses, the average level of digitalization at Moscow universities and colleges is rather high.

Obviously, in higher education, the crisis gave impetus to the search for fundamentally new digital solutions. I’ll give you just one example: Higher School of Economics students created their university digital building inside the popular game Minecraft. Now many official events, even all-university open days will be held there. The Plekhanov and other universities decided to implement the experience.

The game format will allow students to develop different skills, both personal and professional, in a completely different way. For example, co-presence, the new “digital physicality” etc.

Moreover, online education means a zone of obvious challenges: decentralization, the emergence of “providers” like Minecraft, which are far away from higher education. Online education, even with innovative “chips”, in the end, is about the creation of a mass education product. Development, or I would even say, the cultivation of intelligence and personal growth – is an “artwork”. Also, education from the very beginning has always been a socialization factor. Although what will be socialization – and generally daily post-COVID life? It’s an open question.

Last decade, American scientists have proved that online students are not superior to offline ones. Online education before was justly considered an addition, not an alternative to higher education. Nowadays, the digitalization of education will continue in any case.

For the university, education – not training – was always considered the main thing. So, its goals and effects should remain humanitarian (it’s obvious from my teacher’s experience in both classical and applied universities in Russia and abroad, and scientific advisor’s and parental practice at all the stages of the university and post-graduate life I went through with many students and my children).

You’re a kind of “pioneer” in your field of communication study and you have achieved many accomplishments in academia, public and private sector. According to you, how will this crisis affect behaviors and connections between members of civil society?
Today, it’s difficult to make predictions, even based on studies we’re promptly conducting. And it’s impossible not to make forecasts.
Obviously, a pandemic will be a constant background risk. It will affect all levels of social networks and civil society, although there is no linear relationship between pandemics and social changes.

In economics and social development, the countries that stopped the crisis will benefit. If the world will divide into COVID-positive and negative citizens, there will no longer be traditional material, intellectual and class differentiation, and privileges. It refers to the extremely dangerous gap between COVID-positive and negative citizens at the initial stage. From the scientific point of view, I defined this situation as a “COVID-driven social divide”. It is multi-leveled, biological first of all, then digital etc. 

When a new “COVID-driven” social stratification and divide will appear, social relations crisis would be inevitable.

The pandemic has identified the importance of digitalization. It means that data capitalism and data-driven divide will increase, the society will increasingly depend on the invisible but mandatory Internet actors – owners of web sources, platforms, data, software, providers etc.

The production formats and employment relations will change. E.g., there will be a redistribution of the boundaries of family relationships due to online home employment.

The influence of the media will increase: the World Health Organization has defined the corona crisis as an informational epidemic, infodemia, while there is a shortage of facts and a collapse of fakes (as far as I know, in Russia, an encyclopedia of coronavirus fakes and rumors is already being prepared by Moscow social anthropologists).

Social crowdsourcing will also become global. In particular, it should help in the COVID-19 vaccine search and mass testing.

Open science and open universities will create fundamentally new scientific creative alliances to solve the most acute interdisciplinary problems and COVID first of all.

In everyday life, the “new physicality” will be important. At the very beginning of the pandemic, in the class we talked with students about communication and professionals of the future, where there will be tactility experts. Now it would be not one of the professional communication areas but a powerful trend.

In civil society, social solidarity will remain a key characteristic. It means that trust would be the core feature of interpersonal relations, production and world interaction.

In the public sphere, changing communication architecture will require dramatic changes. In fact, a new public space would be needed. In particular, I like the idea of new public coworking zones in residential buildings, which are so important during the lockdown, mentioned by Italian architects in an open letter (of doctors, architects, scientists) to the Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

In Russia, social relations have an expressed national specificity. To begin with, in the thirty years of post-Soviet transit, social groups have essentially not developed and are not described. The country has a traditionally low level of trust in the authorities (according to the 2019 survey, the exceptions are the President and the army). In the digital economy, it is also a key problem as we identified in our research a year ago.

The level of interpersonal trust is rather low, too. Therefore, local communities are developing poorly. Local connections will become in demand for the COVID crisis, especially in a megalopolis like Moscow. A significant reload of past strong production and interest ties, as well as their transition to the locality, should occur. At the same time, social capital primarily will be virtually formed and depend directly on personal qualities.

In the coronavirus crisis, the friend-or-foe division will especially affect migrants, both between regions and countries. In Sweden, the path of developing social immunity, relying on the self-knowledge and solidarity of the Swedes have taken. It is not so successful, while about a quarter of the country’s population are immigrants. That is one of the reasons for the chosen anti-crisis strategy problems.

New (post) COVID risks will arise. So, new social communication skills to stop it will definitely be needed. In particular, COVID media literacy and communicative life safety will be on-demand (we are currently developing such a project at the National “Silver Archer Award for the public relations development” Communication Lab). I strongly believe that these two “courses” have to be taught from early childhood (like media literacy in Scandinavian countries taught from kindergarten).

And, of course, it is necessary to learn how to resist real life and virtual conflicts and (digital) vigilantism.

In Russia, there was no so called “balcony Gestapo”, like in Spain due to weak local communication. Historically, it is rather a negative model of behavior here. But in a COVID crisis, such social activity of citizens could be required and become a point of social self-awareness growth.

The main thing is that a new generation (or generations?) of “covinials” is coming. This is a challenge for the family and the education system, society and the state. 

For the researcher, there is a unique opportunity to develop this new communicative reality foresight and prognostic models, to identify the features of social solidarity and empathy, COVID-driven social divide etc.

Self-isolation, quarantine, social distancing, this is a new reality, at least for a bit. Do you think new media, Information Technology, social media etc. will be able to contribute to easing the burden by creating a new paradigm and suitable communication and interaction tools?
In the lock-up crisis, digital media – in the broadest sense, as social communication means – become a priority resource for adapting to a new reality.
Primarily, apps and social networks become on-demand as a resource for instant alerts and social support. Users started to arrange zoom meetings and to send short videos with instructions on how to protect themselves, sharing lifehacks, positive stories and films. Although in March the Moscow “product excitement” was also provoked via social network users, as we already talked about.

New influencers – doctors and nurses – appeared (it is confirmed by the latest sociological studies). For example, the video “Call to stay home” of an ambulance doctor from the provincial town of Vyborg Victoria Shutova was watched by twelve million people in a few days.

It seems, that such civic media activity (I defined it as “a civil daily anti-crisis horizontal media solidarity”) will remain for a long time and will develop.

In official media, the crisis only clarifies the well-known features of the Russian media system mainly state-corporate by definition.

Also, new points of growth have appeared. For example, a rather low percentage of Russians trust official media. But now the audience begins to watch state television channels that give a more common agenda, especially growth comes from younger people. So, in May, the President’s appeal took the lead in viewing, the rating was almost ten percent higher than that of the most rated TV shows.

In Moscow, new IT tools such as the Social Monitoring app appeared (one has to connect to it if it is sick or at risk).

New communication tools will be invented on a regular basis. And in all cases, it is important that our new civic media solidarity remains the key paradigm.

As a Professor, journalist, and member of the scientific community, how do you evaluate the communication flow about the coronavirus handled by the Government and by the media? Have some bias or positive details caught your attention?
In Russia, the media system, as we said, is mostly state-corporate, media and journalists are integrated into this system and broadcast the official point of view.

In self-isolation, the system continues to work effectively in this particular paradigm. In the early stages, reporting on the COVID crisis was fairly calm. However, the increasing number of infected people, especially in Moscow, showed that many people do not take the danger seriously. Then the rethoric has changed. The information is supplied rather rigidly. Anti-COVID communication is on all possible channels: from TV to the underground and shops.

Two-way communication such as public-to-media, public-to-media-to-authorities has been practiced only recently. Let’s mention, that historically, since its appearance in the 18th century, Russian media were a source of state influence and vertical power support, not a tool of political and economic competition and authorities and active citizens communication tool.

During the crisis, the media continue to work according to the traditional model, and the news flows and the media landscape have not changed dramatically, in my opinion.

Let’s talk about risk communication. Has the exchange of information and advice between experts, people, government and media happened in real time, enabling Russian people to make the right decisions and protect themselves?
An ordinary citizen, like me, has a lot of opportunities to get information about the COVID crisis on different channels and platforms. In the crisis, special websites and new resources for obtaining information on COVID-19 appeared. Statistics on sick people, local data on people-on-the-streets are daily updated in real-time. A bot called me to tell what measures should be taken in different situations and where to call in different urgent cases. Many experts’ opinions appear almost every day. Anti-crisis headquarters work.

In official media, the coronavirus is constantly at the first place on the agenda. Now, of course, the news panorama is expanding due to other topics.

However, the media are trying to help people. In Moscow, there are direct lines on TV with the mayor and officials. Mayor Sobyanin speaks to Muscovites via his blog. I remember the Dozhd TV channel marathon, it took place in April to raise money for doctors. In April, Russia Today / Sputnik opened on their website “An assistance card” project to help anyone who needs it.

However, in most cases, official communication, even in real-time, is mostly one-way by definition.

Paradoxically, many independent journalists and bloggers who gathered large audiences in the pre-crisis time were not able to work out the hot news quickly and shape the audience demanded agenda.

Throughout the centuries Russian people have overcome many wars, persecutions, dictatorship and other tragedies, with great courage and strength. President Putin said that “the situation is under full control. All of our society is united in front of the common threat.” Based on your expertise and on the media storytelling about people’s expectations and fears, which values Russians will rely on to get through this crisis?
The so-called “Russian Soul” as a value has always attracted the world with its mystery. Historically, the values spoken by the 19th century Russian literature geniuses were primarily Orthodox: love for one’s neighbor, gratitude, sacrifice. In difficult times, the communal spirit of mutual assistance and collegiality was important. In the USSR, a heightened sense of justice was cultivated and the collectivism spirit was really strong.

Post-Soviet Russia is a transit economy and society. Values are also transforming. Also, modern Russian society, like any post-modern one, is atomized. The post-modernity situation does not imply the importance of values as such.

Current isolation does bring both physical and mental atomization to a higher stage.
The COVID crisis exposed the problem of values: for the first time, alienation and lack of social solidarity are literally deadly, not only for a person, a family but for a country, for the world. And it is surprising that, according to polls, economic problems worry people more than even a threat to life.

Moreover, this is not only in Russia but in many countries.
So, is it a problem or a diagnosis for a person, for a society?
It’s a social breakdown when someone works for days in hospitals to save people, while others go out for a walk and dance in the square because they are bored of sitting at home, and other covidiotes praise them on social networks.

Nowadays, doctors, medical workers, volunteers give society the opportunity to remember and take on main values – humanity, responsibility, compassion and dedication. For the first time, in Russia and all over the world opinion leaders are not great writers, state leaders, politicians but ordinary doctors and volunteers.

In the COVID crisis, the state dictates the rules of isolation and becomes the initiator, guarantor and observer of social isolation – and solidarity. This will radically affect the values as a personal responsibility zone. This is the main paradox, I should say.

Eternal values are returning in a new global order. And, perhaps, at the new post-COVID stage, a society of “compulsion to values” will be formed. In any case, the paradigm of modernity will be destroyed and the preconditions of “post-COVID modernism” as its antagonist will arise.

However, national peculiarities and values remain. They are quite similar. Thinking about voluntary isolation and spiritual values, I want to recall the example of hieromonk John (Giovanni Guaita) from the Saints Cosmas and Damian in Shubin Church next to the Moscow City Hall. Giovanni Guaita – Italian, born in Sardinia – has been living in Russia for many years and eventually became an Orthodox clergyman. He got COVID and now is recovering. Father John says that we all somehow get sick bodily and spiritually. The epidemic and self-isolation in life, as in literature, always mean a new opportunity to think about the main thing. Father John recalls the moral searches of the characters of “The Decameron” by Boccaccio, “The plague” by Camus, “A correspondence between two corners” by Ivanov and Gershenzon, “A journey around my room” by Xavier de Maistre. He talks about the importance of this kind of inner pilgrimage, deep inside, to the inland. Despite the disease, Father John collected his own 40 stories helping to understand our time and this exactly time coincided in Catholic Italy and Orthodox Russia with Easter and 40 days of Great Lent. And it’s interesting that in Italian Lent and quarantine (Quaresima and quarantena) share the same linguistic roots.

On May 18 in Italy lockdown has ended. But our world common COVID-crisis did not end. We will fight and go ahead. And look for new answers to this new challenge. They definitely should not be from the past, but from the future.


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Russia and COVID-19. An interview with Marina Shilina ultima modifica: 2020-05-28T15:50:01+02:00 da ANNALISA BOTTANI

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