Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned the success of his country’s COVID-19 vaccine into a matter of personal pride — and national prestige.
In August, Putin announced the registration of the vaccine, known as Sputnik V, by the Russian Health Ministry. Earlier this month, he ordered a nationwide vaccination program. And on Monday, he took part in a meeting where the makers of Sputnik V agreed with British drugmaker AstraZeneca to test a combination of their coronavirus vaccines.
Sputnik V — named after the world’s first satellite, launched by the Soviet Union — gives Putin the opportunity to project Russian soft power. The government researchers developing the vaccine say preliminary tests show it’s more than 90% effective, not unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines approved in the United States.
The Kremlin is counting on Sputnik V to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Russia, where almost 3 million people have been infected — the world’s fourth largest caseload after the United States, India and Brazil. Russia’s vaccination program is free and voluntary, and health authorities hope to vaccinate 60% of the population, or more than 80 million people.
But besides the technical challenges of ramping up production to an industrial scale and transporting the vaccine across Russia’s vastness at the subzero temperatures required to store Sputnik V, Putin faces widespread reluctance among ordinary Russians to get vaccinated. More than half of Russians don’t plan to get inoculated, while only 38% do, according to a recent poll.
Moscow, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Russia, has been the leader in Putin’s vaccination drive. By the beginning of this week 25,000 residents of the capital had been vaccinated, almost half of all vaccinations in Russia so far. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a staunch Putin loyalist, is aiming to inoculate up to 7 million Muscovites.
Right now, anybody in Moscow can get the vaccine who is age 18 to 60, not chronically ill, and working in a wide a range of professions — from retail and manufacturing to health care, education and culture.
Yevgeny Stavinsky, an actor, says he doesn’t plan to take advantage of the vaccine, even though his theater is offering it to him.
“Truth be told, I don’t know anything about the vaccine. There’s no information about its pros and cons; the vaccinations have just started,” says Stavinsky, 45. “I’m indifferent about vaccines, regardless if they’re Russian or foreign.”
Stavinsky says he knows a lot of people who got sick with COVID-19, and even some who died from the illness. He suspects he was down with the disease himself for a few days, though he did not test positive for it.
“If the coronavirus has come to stay for good, then what’s the point of being scared?” he says.
Olga Devitt, 35, out on a frigid playground with one of her three children, says she also doesn’t want to get her family vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I’m not afraid. I believe a vaccine can do more harm than good,” she says. “I hope my immune system, and the immune system of my kids, will be strong enough to get off with a light case, because it’s inevitable that we’ll all catch it.”
Older Russians are less fatalistic.
“My son got sick with COVID. So did his wife and my wife’s brother and sister,” says Vladimir Bayashev, 65, a retired printer out with his grandson. “I wear a mask and avoid places where there are lots of people.”
Bayashev says he plans to get vaccinated as soon as the age limit is raised to include him.
The same goes for Putin, Sputnik V’s No. 1 promoter.
Asked at his annual news conference last week whether he’d already been vaccinated, Putin, 68, said that as a law-abiding citizen, he would have to wait until the vaccine becomes available to his age category.