20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late April, Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service published new COVID-related mortality data. The figure of 249,700 deaths unexpectedly compromised the previous official tally of 110,000 deaths reported by the Russian government to the WHO. Analysis of the new data shows that the country’s epidemiological situation is far from favorable despite official claims: the real number of new cases is clearly growing.


Rosstat's new data on COVID-related mortality rate show that despite the Russian government's victorious claims, the real number of infections in Russia is growing. Photo: Konstantin Ventslavovich.


In the last days of April, Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) released  new information that caused a stir among analysts, but was seemingly ignored by most ordinary Russians. According to the new data, the COVID-19 mortality rate for 2020—April 2020 through March 2021—amounts to 249,700 people, with more than 166,800 dying directly due to the new coronavirus, and additional 82,800 as a result of related issues. Therefore, the officially reported number of 110,000 deaths for that period, which the Russian government routinely communicates to the World Health Organization, has been openly compromised.

The bureaucratic logic seems clear: most people in Russia either believe the pandemic to be already over or about to end. The Kremlin’s propaganda is now focused on the benefits of the Russian vaccine and the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign. The fears seem to be long gone: according to polls, only eight percent of Moscow and six percent of St. Petersburg residents acknowledge significant anxiety about contracting the virus, even despite the fact that as of May 1 these two cities and their larger metropolitan areas had reported 51.3 percent of Russia’s total COVID-19 cases. The dead have been mourned for; the pain of loss has been numbed. Therefore, now is the time to gradually reveal the truth. And the government should be credited for being rather quick about it: after all, it took the authorities 45 years to recognize the loss of 26.6 million of Soviet lives in WWII, rather than seven million, as initially claimed by Joseph Stalin. However, time is speeding up, and so are the official reactions. 

Russia’s skewed statistics have been repeatedly questioned by experts, but there was little doubt that, in due time, the true numbers would leak out. As such, I would like to focus my analysis not just on the sustained losses, but rather on the immediate repercussions, especially since, despite the glorious official reports, the virus has not been eliminated yet. If in 2020 Russia’s mortality rate grew by 18 percent (+323,800 deaths) compared to 2019, the Q1 2021 rate has already shown an increase of 26.9 percent (+123,700 deaths). Although early this year saw record monthly rates for infection and mortality, the statistics for March and April do not differ much. Therefore, there is good reason to doubt the official claims that the dire times are behind.

Evaluation of the new statistical data requires that one constantly ask difficult questions that undermine a whole set of “politically correct” rhetoric about the pandemic. If Rosstat’s new “excess mortality” numbers are correct, it means that as of May 1 the COVID-19-specific mortality rate was not 757 per million, as officially reported elsewhere, but 1720. The second figure is much more believable, as it is slightly higher than corresponding rates in France and Spain, practically identical to the U.S. rate, and 20 percent lower than the Brazilian one. As such, there arises a discrepancy with Russia’s officially registered number of cases: if for the entire pandemic period Russia has reported fewer than five million cases, its ratio to mortality becomes the second largest in the world, exceeded only by Mexico with its 5.18 percent, which is 2.9 times more than the figure for the U.S. (1.78 percent), 2.8 times more than France (1.85 percent) and 1.9 more than Brazil (2.75 percent), whose current COVID-19 situation is truly catastrophic. As the Russian saying goes, “either put your boxers back on or take off the rosary”—that is, officials either must admit that their COVID-19 infection data are a pile of baloney, or wholeheartedly agree that Russian healthcare is indeed among the world’s first rated, but only if counted from the bottom. We will soon see which option our government chooses to pursue. But for now, let me address a more pressing topic.

The officially reported number of 110,000 deaths, which the Russian government routinely communicates to the World Health Organization, has been openly compromised.

Another look at the official data reported in the last few months reveals that Russia’s operational unit dealing with the pandemic has claimed that in January-April the number of new cases declined from 627,000 per month to 251,000. Meanwhile, the deviation from the monthly average for April was 5.2 percent for all of Russia and 10.2 percent for Moscow. I can conclude with full confidence that these rates are statistically impossible. For any country reporting a high number of cases, the typical deviation from the average for April has never gone below 18 percent (in Turkey, for example, it is more than 27 percent).

The tall tales of Russia’s coronavirus struggles become even more dubious if the new case numbers are compared to mortality rates. According to official data for in January–April, the number of new cases in Russia decreased by 2.7. This does not look surprising per se: over the same time period, the Czech Republic reported a decline by 2.9, the U.S. by 3.1,and the UK by 15.4. Russia looks worse, but not catastrophically so, considering that in Germany, for example, the number of new cases remains unchanged, while in some European countries, it actually went up. The problem for Russia lies in a different dimension: while its number of new COVID-19 cases has dropped dramatically, the mortality rate has only decreased by 30.4 percent—from 16,200 in January to 11,300 in April—while in the Czech Republic this figure is down by 2.4, in the U.S. by 3.8, and in the UK by more than 20. Russia’s average daily deviations do not look convincing either: in April, the number of new deaths in Moscow wavered between 50 and 59 per day, with an average deviation of 6.1 percent (in January, these numbers were between 61 and 84, with an average deviation of 7.3). Also, the number of daily new deaths in all of Russia in each third of April was mysteriously consistent—397, 398, or 399—which contradicts all laws of probability. In the other aforementioned countries, such consistency was never observed; daily bouts of 50-60 percent were pretty routine. 

This dubious consistency, in my opinion, points to something rather unpleasant. If the mortality rates are not declining even according to official data, despite medical technology improving all the time, the real number of COVID-19 cases in Russia is most likely still growing. In Moscow, for example, regardless of the skewed local statistics, in March through April 30, the number of new cases increased from 1,291 to 2,662, or by 106 percent. Even officials raised concerns about the situation. Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, one of Russia’s most sensible politicians when it comes to evaluating pandemic-related threats, repeatedly spoke about this dangerous dynamic. Still, the overall level of infection across the country has remained paradoxically unchanged. If we account for Rosstat’s latest mortality rate “adjustment” and factor in the percentage of deaths in the number of new cases, which is typical for the most impacted countries, today’s 8,000-9,000 new cases in Russia will turn into the 25,000+ that were reported in early 2021. Additional, albeit indirect, evidence of the dire situation includes the suggestion (officially made by Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s Federal Service on Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing) to extend the May holidays, and the claimed goal of “maintaining the trend of curbing the spread” of COVID-19 in the follow-up presidential decree.

Recently, the Russian government sought to refute Bloombergs reports that Russia is on the verge of a new COVID-19 wave. That is understandable: this year, its economy is set to bounce back much slower than those of the more developed countries, and the Russian people may simply not understand the new pandemic limitations. Over the last year, the Kremlin has faithfully followed its favorite slogan “We can do it again!” (a reference to Russia’s victory in WWII—ed.), dismissing the medical casualties in the same way as the Soviet marshals did the combat ones when ordered, for instance, to take Kyiv by November 7 or Berlin by May 1. The Kremlin is not planning to shut down the economy again, although the risks could be much more real than it seems.

Russia is now entering the summer season, with its typical upturn in travel and mass tourism. We have already seen new pandemic waves rise almost instantly: in Turkey, for example, the daily number of new cases went from 20,400 to 62,800 in just 25 days—from March 21 to April 14; and it took only 29 days, from April 2 to 30, for India to rise from 89,000 to a world record-breaking 402,000 daily cases. No matter how accustomed Russian officials are to tweaking a figure or two in their daily coronavirus reports, the reality could become increasingly less manageable. Publishing true statistics on the situation in the country is the least that they can do now. This way we will save more lives, boost vaccination rates, and ensure that our fellow citizens’ behavior patterns in the coming months is more reality-based. Now may not necessarily be the right time to start investigating who ordered the cover-up last year—suffice it to simply end the ongoing bacchanalia of lies…


* Vladislav Inozemtsev holds a PhD in economics and is the director of the Center for Research on Post-Industrial Societies (Moscow).

Translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.