MOSCOW – Officials from a secret Russian security force seemed to know exactly what they wanted when they contacted Olga Izranova’s company last spring.
They wanted mobile tunnels that flood people with clouds of disinfectant.
“They said it had to be done very quickly,” recalls Ms. Izranova.
He admits that the tunnels have limited effectiveness in the coronavirus pandemic, but for his most important client, every bit counts. The Federal Protection Service, Russia’s response to intelligence, has helped build a virus-free bubble around President Vladimir V. Putin that far exceeds the protective measures taken by many of his foreign counterparts.
In the coronavirus pandemic, Putin’s Russia has often been compared to the United States and Brazil, two other big countries with strong leaders who have downplayed the risk of the disease and seen it spiral out of control. But while President Trump and Brazilian President Jair Balsonaro strove not to restrict his movements, Putin retreated into an intricate cocoon of social detachment, even as he allowed life in Russia to essentially return to normal.
The contrast between Putin’s behavior and that of his people now looms huge as a second wave of pandemic threatens to overwhelm Russia. In Moscow, where people have filled indoor bars and restaurants all summer with few masks in sight, the number of new cases reported daily has tripled to over 2,300 in the past two weeks.
When Russia lifted the lockdown last spring, Putin presided over ceremonial events that seemed designed to exude a sense of normality. Behind the scenes, they were anything but normal.
Dozens of WWII veterans joined Putin on the steps of Red Square in June when he presided over a military parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. But before they could be close to Mr. Putin, the veterans had to spend two weeks in quarantine at an isolated health resort.
“We took walks, got bored, sat and breathed the air,” said Lev Litvinov, a 100-year veteran.
The logistics proved so tiring that Mr. Litvinov didn’t actually make it to the parade. He said that after spending two weeks in quarantine, he fell ill during the tortuous drive across the countryside to Red Square, 80 kilometers away. Instead, he was taken to a health center, where he spent another week.
“More importantly, it’s about their health, the health of the veterans”, Dmitri S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, he said in June of the decision to quarantine attendees.
Putin’s diligence in protecting himself is surprising because in recent months, communicating with the Russian public, his government has widely declared that the virus has been defeated.
“I would like to congratulate you on our latest joint victory,” Moscow Mayor Sergey S. Sobyanin wrote to Muscovites in June, announcing the end of the city blockade. Indoor dining in bars and restaurants resumed only two weeks later.
Critics said Russia was quick to end coronavirus restrictions to lift people’s spirits ahead of the July 1 referendum on constitutional amendments that opened the door for President Putin to stay until 2036. When the Mr Putin announced in August that Russia had registered the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, it looked like the country was giving one final, crushing blow to the pandemic.
“These joint efforts and targeted and, as it turned out, very effective solutions have helped us overcome the peak of the epidemic and create the conditions for further work,” Putin later said in an interview on state television.
Families filled the Black Sea resorts and the adults returned to their offices. Across the country, the children returned to school on schedule on 1 September.
But Mr. Putin remained in solitary confinement. He went on to hold most of his meetings with government officials via videoconference from a room in his suburban Moscow estate, Novo-Ogaryovo.
The residence, like the Kremlin, was equipped with a disinfectant tunnel made by Ms. Izranova’s industrial cleaning equipment company, Mizotty, in the Russian city of Penza. Walking through the tunnel, he says, feels and smells like walking through a cloud of pool water mist.
Mr. Putin’s video conference room: beige chair, walls, telephones; a Dell computer screen, blank except for a photograph of the Kremlin as a desktop background – it became so familiar on state television recently aired a segment about it.
“These are the microphones on the president’s desk,” chanted the reporter on Sunday’s prime-time program, “Moscow. Kremlin. Put in.” “When the indicator lights are red, the sound is not transmitted.”
The fact that a state television reporter went to visit and interview Putin in August was an exception. Otherwise, the Kremlin has cut off reporters’ ability to see Putin in person, even for those who have been doing so regularly since March.
“The work was absolutely remote,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a reporter who has covered the Kremlin for Kommersant, a newspaper, since 2002. “I know for a fact that no text journalist, myself included, has seen the president in all days. coronavirus “.
Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, did not respond to requests for comment on the president’s coronavirus precautions. But Mr. Kolesnikov said he understood that governors, business leaders, and senior officials on Mr. Putin’s agenda have a choice: meet via video link or spend up to two weeks in quarantine for an in-person meeting.
“Since he lacks real-life interaction with people, you would probably have a chance to drink tea with him later,” in the case of an in-person meeting, Mr. Kolesnikov said. “I think, of course, they choose quarantine in that situation.”
Putin’s extreme caution reflects not only his age – he’s 67, which exposes him to a relatively high risk of serious coronavirus-related illness – but also what critics describe as refined paranoia during his previous career as K.G.B. to spy. It made headlines last year when he sipped from his cup at the top of the Group of 20 in Japan, even as the other world leaders gathered drank from wine glasses.
According to the Kremlin’s website, only one person has met Mr. Putin face to face more than once since April: Igor Sechin, formerly of K.G.B. official and close collaborator of Mr. Putin since the 1990s. Now he runs Rosneft, the Russian state oil giant, and has seen the president in August and May.
A Russian investigative newspaper, Proekt, reported Wednesday that authorities had set aside two large spas in the Black Sea city of Sochi for people under quarantine before meeting Putin. In September, 30 nuclear industry workers who had been quarantined in Sochi were then flown to Moscow to meet the president in the Kremlin, according to Proekt.
“Some people are in quarantine for two weeks, some people in quarantine for a few days and some people meet without quarantine,” Mr. Peskov told reporters in response.
Putin’s counterparts in the European Union have begun to cross the continent again, even for leaders in person in Brussels. Mr. Putin, on the other hand, hasn’t gone abroad since January.
Mr. Peskov hinted this week that the president will only resume overseas travel after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine. But he warned that Mr. Putin was not yet ready to take the photo, despite all the outbursts of state media over Russia’s achievement as a world leader in development.
“It is natural that when it comes to the head of state, special precautionary measures are in place,” Peskov told reporters.
Oleg Matsnev and Sophia Kishkovsky contributed to the research.