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Russia, Explained

Failed Sputnik vaccination — Poisoning Siberia —Unchecked VIP poaching

13:18, 23 июня 2021«Новая газета», редакция
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13:18, 23 июня 2021«Новая газета», редакция
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Photo: Arden Arkman / "Novaya Gazeta"

Here what’s in store for you this week:

  • As Russia is engulfed with the third Covid-19 wave, we explain how the collapsed vaccination campaign helped to aggravate the situation. Also we expose the authorities vaccinating Russians with the controversial EpiVacCorona jab against their will;
  • We bring back a dispatch from a ‘chemical Chornobyl of Siberia’;
  • VIP poaching is becoming a massive problem in Russia, with elite figures often acting in breach of the very same hunting regulations that indigenous communities are penalised for;
  • Plus, we explain how remnants of Russian colonial laws used to opress gay people in Central Asia.

Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian.

Russian Covid Wards are Overrun Amid Vaccination Collapse

Russia hasn't seen Covid wards so badly overrun since last fall. A new wave is engulfing the country amid collapsing vaccination efforts. Russians just don't want to get vaccinated by Russian-made vaccines. Recent acknowledgment by the Russian government that those vaccinated by Sputnik might need additional revaccination jabs. But there is a dark side to these vaccinations. This week our Irina Tumakova exposed officials giving many Russians a different and possibly ineffectual vaccine without their knowledge.

EPIVACCORONA SECRECY. According to our newest investigation, Russian doctors have been secretly substituting the Sputnik vaccine for the untested and unverified EpiVacCorona – which we wrote about in-depth a couple of weeks ago. Most of the patients got the vaccine without their permission and learned about it only afterward. Novaya's sources reveal and corroborate evidence of having been deceived about the vaccine they were receiving. In one of these cases, we interviewed Igor (he asked to remain anonymous) in Russia-annexed Crime. He was at first assured by doctors that he would be receiving the Sputnik vaccine. He was handed a consent form that did not state the name of the vaccine. "Only by the time I had already arrived for the second vaccine shot did I learn that I had been vaccinated with EpiVacCorona. They deceived me," Igor told us. Many Russian citizens across the country had a similar vaccination experience of their patient rights brutally violated this way.

NEARLY 20,000 NEW CASES A DAY. Meanwhile, a third Covid wave is sweeping Russia. According to much-contested official figures, almost 17,400 new Covid cases and 440 new Covid deaths were reported on Monday alone. This is the worst spike since October last year. This is not the worst situation compared to Russian neighbors, but it clearly defies the trend as new cases have been falling in surrounding countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that the situation in Russia's regions has been deteriorating, and a new revaccination drive may be on the cards. "In many regions, the situation has even got worse," Putin told Russia's lower house.

Photo: Vladimir Gerdo / TASS

THE WORST IS STILL TO COME. Our newest data analysis warns that the ongoing third wave might easily top the previous one in size in the coming weeks. "Looking at this data, I can say that it is growing more rapidly than the two previous ones. This may be due to the arrival of more contagious Covid-19 variants, almost complete abandonment of pandemic restrictions by the officials, and total disregard by Russians to sanitary measures and vaccinations,' an independent analyst Alexei Kupriyanov told us after examining our data analysis results.

WIDE REOPENING WAS PREMATURE. Russian authorities canceled most of the pandemic restrictions months ago (except those willing to express their anti-government criticism in public.) Following the start of the vaccination campaign at the end of last year, many foreigners would marvel at life getting back to normal in big Russian cities. But that reopening push by the government turned out to be highly premature. Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin acknowledged the ongoing surge of new cases in the nation's capital as "explosive." Over the past two weeks, 40 percent of all new cases in Russia were detected in the capital. He added that restaurants and bars would only admit people if they have already had Covid or been vaccinated. The new restrictions are set to come into force on June 28.

BACKSTORY. EpiVacCorona was registered in Russia in October 2020 and is one of two new Russian vaccines developed in response to the pandemic after the rollout of Sputnik-V (the other being CoviVac). All three vaccines have been pushed before the completion of international phase 3 clinical trials. Russia was the first country in the world to roll out a Covid-19 vaccine. But according to official statistics, only 10 percent of the country's population are fully vaccinated. Russia's last remaining independent pollster Levada Center recently found that the vast majority of Russians are not willing to be immunized against COVID-19. In Russia, some 128,000 people have died from Covid-19, according to official figures. However, the actual number is likely to be much higher. Our investigations have exposed the government "doctoring" both mortality and vaccination rates linked to Covid-19. There is also a high death rate among doctors and a general shortage of personnel in hospitals. Doctors are sacrificing everything to save people.

Read our detailed data analysis modeling the future of the third Covid wave in Russia here and our exposé on secret EpiVacCorona jabs here.

‘Chemical Chornobyl’ of Siberia, Explained

Our reporting crew has just returned from the epicenter of what locals call ‘a chemical Chornobyl of Siberia.’ For three years now, inhabitants of a small town, Usolye-Sibirskoye north of Irkutsk, have been plagued by mercury poisoning. Novaya’s Riza Khasanov and Arden Arkman visited the contaminated region to find utter environmental devastation and total indifference from the authorities.

IF YOU WANT TO LIVE LONGER, DON’T EAT THE FISH OR DRINK THE WATER. “Previously, the catches here were excellent. I had never seen so many fish anywhere, ever,” say local residents Andrey and Konstantin. “In just 30 minutes, you could catch some 15 grayling and minnow; it was delicious. We made sprats, cutlets. Now, these fish have disappeared from the rivers and the ones you can find, you can’t eat — they are toxic,” local men tell us. A strange haze envelops the plants and animals in the region, and when temperatures get warmer in the town, the mercury starts to evaporate.

Photo: Arden Arkman / "Novaya Gazeta"

AFTER MOVING TO THE AREA, RESIDENTS NOTED THEIR HEALTH GOT WORSE. Once Andrey and Konstantin conducted an experiment. “We bought eight piglets, four were given drinking water, and the other half — water from the Angara [river]. The ones who drank clean water grew up and even today live in a pigsty. But those who drank river water were ‘immediately welcomed’ [to the afterlife],” they told Novaya euphemistically.

HOPES FOR NEW LIFE TURNED INTO AN ECOLOGICAL NIGHTMARE. The environmental horror of Usolye-Sibirskoye started as a Soviet development fantasy — all too familiar for many industrial cities across the former empire. Once a colonial outpost, the town became one of the key locations for the Soviet Gulag in the mid 20th century. The slave labor of political prisoners helped launch one of the largest salt mining operations globally. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, local factories started falling apart and poisoning the surrounding environment with mercury and chlorine, among others.

ENVIRONMENTAL NEGLIGENCE DATING BACK DECADES. Locals have been living surrounded by deadly rates of chemical waste for almost three decades now. But the government rolled out a state of emergency only three years ago. Local salt factories dumped more than 1,000 tons of heavy metal pollution into the environment. The concentration of mercury in the air here is 367 times above the safe maximum. Activists and journalists found traces of mercury in the bodies of locals as far back as 2002, but the government closed local salt factories only in 2017.

Photo: Arden Arkman / "Novaya Gazeta"

INSTEAD OF CLEANUP, MORE POISON IS SHIPPED TO THE CITY. After years of failed attempts to manage a growing ecological catastrophe, the government now wants to turn the location into a dump for mercury waste from all over the country. Every tenth resident signed a petition against the newly-developed mercury processing plant. The current mayor, Maxim Toropkin, tells Novaya that the town is a hostage of its situation, and nobody wants to receive waste from the region to the detriment of the city. “I do not have enough funds to support the city because most of the enterprises that operate here are bankrupt or environmentally polluted,” Toropkin says.

BACKSTORY. Environmental degradation remains an ongoing, nationwide issue in Russia, especially as the Kremlin continues to dismantle Russian environmental regulations to maximize the country’s profits from natural resources. Residual problems from Soviet-era plants exacerbate the ongoing issues while mining companies such as Norilsk Nickel create new ones that the local indigenous populations are forced to deal with, notably in the Arctic, which has recently been suffering the impact of fuel spills. These policies provoke more and more man-made ecological disasters and further abuse vulnerable indigenous communities. Growing environmental damage inspiring numerous grassroots eco-movements all across the country — from Shiyes to the Bashkir uprising.

Read our dispatch from a ‘chemical Chornobyl of Siberia’ here.

Unchecked VIP Poaching, Explained

Russian monstrous income inequality comes in one package with the ultrarich and ruling elites living by their own laws. A good illustration of this is VIP poaching, a favorite hobby for the Russian wealthy and powerful. Russian “VIPs” hunt birds and deer en masse, even as the Kremlin cracks down on indigenous communities’ own hunting for mere subsistence and survival. But one viral picture has brought the ugly side of Russian inequality to full display.

150 WATERFOWL KILLED AND PHOTOGRAPHED AS TROPHIES. Some weeks ago, we obtained a haunting picture of a man with a rifle posing with dozens of slaughtered animals. Dead geese, ducks, and cranes, morbidly spell out the phrase “Chukotka 2021”, suggesting the mass murder happened in the easternmost Russian region bordering Alaska. The sheer size of the pictured hunt meant severe violations of environmental regulations. The photo was already making viral turns on social media. We made a public call to help us to identify the poacher.

THE PUBLIC HELPED US TO ESTABLISH THE POACHER’S IDENTITY. It is Aleksandr Kramarenko, a vice-speaker of the Magadan City Council in the region’s capital. He is also a key figure within the regional ranks of Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Following the public fury, the Kremlin banned local officials from releasing any information or statements surrounding the event. Officially local police have also refused us to verify the poacher’s full name. Apart from being an influential official, Kramarenko is also rich — as it often happens within the Kremlin ruling elites. He is the owner of four apartments, a plot of land, 15 non-residential properties, two Lexus, and one Land Rover.”

A pyramid of killed birds. Another photo with Aleksandr Kramarenko

ONE RULE FOR YOU, ANOTHER FOR ME. The rules for issuing hunting licenses clearly stipulate some restrictions — and in Chukotka, only for a window of 10 days. But in this situation, it seems to be more a case of “do as I say; not as I do.” The rules are often selectively enforced and harshly when it comes to indigenous communities’ hunting rights, especially among populations that have historically relied on hunting for survival. While hunting rules allegedly do not apply to people who live a “traditional way of life,” they are often unfairly enforced against them. Meanwhile, this poacher has obviously breached restrictions.

A RICH HISTORY OF VIP POACHING IN MODERN RUSSIA. While some Russians barely have access to clean drinking water or indoor plumbing, others use their packs of dogs and private aircraft to access remote regions for wide-scale hunting excursions. Local governors’ bear hunts, shootings, and even one callous incident where a wolf was killed with a snowmobile have all been widely documented. Take Denis Khakhalov, a United Russia’s deputy from the Kurgan region whom we recently implicated in a particularly vicious incident. “They shove the barrel of a rifle into the bloody mouth of the wolf and giggle as they watch him grip the metal with his teeth,” our reporter Alexey Tarasov described in April. Khakhalov was later acquitted. Another recent story illustrated how a former security official was involved in an illegal elk hunt. The incidents are seemingly endless, but somehow the perpetrators never face justice.

BACKSTORY. The Russian government keeps expanding the industrial harvesting of natural resources deep into previously protected nature reserves. All of this development takes place to the detriment of local indigenous communities, which have long had a contentious relationship with the Russian state. For centuries, Moscow has been erasing indigenous culture and denied these populations their rights. There has also been a recent spike in tensions between federal authorities and indigenous communities. The Russian government has frequently denied them their ancestral land rights, including sustenance or religious hunting. Some of these nations mobilize against an over-centralized state, government-backed environmental assaults on their sacred lands, and claim back their autonomy.

Read our special coverage on VIP poaching here.

Other Top-Stories We Liked This Week:

  • 10 MONTHS IN PRISON FOR BEING GAY. Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan are still exploiting archaic Soviet laws surrounding homosexuality — nefariously deploying them against activists and asylum seekers abroad. Overground colonialism under Stalin saw large swathes of Europe and central Asia adopt the centralized Soviet legal system, and an article criminalizing voluntary sexual contact between men appeared in the criminal codes of the republics of the Soviet Union in 1933. This dark legacy keeps haunting former Russian colonies. This week we publish two different testimonials from gay Uzbek citizens who have suffered at the hands of both the state and the general public regarding their sexuality and the vestiges of this old colonial legislation. After being granted asylum in an EU member state, one man was tricked by authorities to return to Uzbekistan to check on his reportedly ill mother. “It turned out that it was a lie, that the secret services asked the doctor to tell me this, to lure me to Uzbekistan. “There I was beaten, tortured,” he recalls. He ultimately had to spend 10 months in a local prison. Our second interviewee also recalls being tortured by Uzbek police for being gay. In both cases, the Uzbek authorities used old colonial laws as an excuse for terrorizing these gay men.
  • RUSSIA’S SUPER RICH OWN 40 PERCENT OF NATION’S WEALTH. According to the latest data, there are just about 500 ultrarich Russians out of 146,000,000 million Russian citizens, and they own almost half of the country's financial assets ($ 640 billion). Russia's current ruling elites tend to whitewash extreme inequality by promising the public to guarantee the so-called 'trickle-down economics' effect — when the wealthier the ultra-rich become, the more they share with the rest. In this week's op-ed, our economy columnist Dmitry Prokofiev reminds us how shallow these promises turned out to be in the last two decades of Putin's rule. "There can be no cooperation between the 'world of the rich' and the 'world of the people' because they simply have nothing to offer one other and nothing to discuss." Simply put, the few financial elites have zero interest in raising the living standards for the many. "An increase in the wellbeing of Russians will mean a smaller slice of the pie for the oligarchs."

THANKS FOR READING!

To keep up with Novaya Gazeta’s reporting throughout the week, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram. Our video content is available on Youtube, and don’t forget to visit our website for the latest stories in Russian.

— The Novaya Gazeta Team

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