Dec. 29, 2020

The New York Times


MOSCOW — After months of questions over the true scale of the coronavirus pandemic in Russia and the efficacy of a Russian-developed vaccine, the state statistical agency in Moscow has announced new figures indicating that the death toll from Covid-19 is more than three times as high as officially reported.


From the start of the pandemic early this year, the health crisis has been enveloped and, say critics, distorted by political calculations as President Vladimir V. Putin and Kremlin-controlled media outlets have repeatedly boasted of Russian successes in combating the virus and keeping the fatality rate relatively low.


The new data, issued on Monday by the state statistics agency Rosstat, would raise Russia from eighth to third in a ranking of countries by the number of deaths from the pandemic.


But the release of the data received little coverage on state media and the news was crowded out by upbeat reports ahead of a lengthy national holiday to celebrate the new year. State television focused on what it said was the eagerness of foreign countries, especially Belarus, to roll out a vaccine developed in Russia.


The government, ignoring the new figures from the statistics agency, has left unchanged its low Covid-19 death count. There was no sign Tuesday that the new numbers would create a scandal in Russia, as would be expected in many countries following a sudden, threefold increase in the number of dead.


The official death count, which undercounts coronavirus fatalities, is based on a narrow definition of who has died from the virus and has frequently diverged from the real number reflected in figures issued by the statistics agency.


Russia has reported more than 3 million cases of infection, making it the world’s fourth-hardest-hit country, but only 55,827 deaths, fewer than in seven other countries. A demographer at a government agency who questioned the official fatality figures, dismissing them as far too low, was fired over the summer.


The data issued by Rosstat, however, indicated that the demographer was right and the real number of fatalities is far higher than previously reported. The agency reported that the number of deaths between January and November was 229,732 higher than over the same period last year, an increase that a senior official blamed largely on the coronavirus.

Tatyana Golikova, a deputy prime minister leading Russia’s efforts to combat the pandemic, told a government briefing on Monday that more than 81 percent of the increased number of deaths in 2020 was “due to Covid,” which would mean that the virus had killed more than 186,000 Russians so far this year.

This is still far fewer than the more than 334,000 deaths caused by Covid-19 in the United States but means that Russia has suffered more fatalities as a result of the pandemic than European countries like Italy, France and Britain, whose poor record has been regularly cited by Russian state media as proof of Russia’s relative triumph. As of Tuesday afternoon, the web page giving Rosstat’s new data was inaccessible.


The gap between the official death rate and the real one is largely explained by Russia’s practice of recording a death as coronavirus-related only in cases where an autopsy has confirmed the coronavirus as the main cause. Critics say this has allowed the authorities to massage the numbers.


Instead of comforting the population, however, juggling with statistics has only fed the deep mistrust that many Russians have toward their government, even among those who vote for Mr. Putin, and its reassuring statements.


Russia in August became the first country to register a coronavirus vaccine, a feat hailed by Mr. Putin as evidence of his country’s superior science, and began a nationwide inoculation campaign in early December. But a recent survey found that only 38 percent of Russians intend to get vaccinated despite assurances that it works from Mr. Putin, who won nearly 77 percent of the vote in a presidential election last year.


Russia has a long history of world-beating scientific achievement. But the credibility of its vaccine, named after the world’s first satellite, the Soviet-era Sputnik, has been dented by the fact that Mr. Putin announced it was ready for use before normal clinical trials had been completed.


Suspicion of what the authorities say is so widespread that there was little shock or even surprise earlier this month when an investigative news outlet, Proekt, reported that Mr. Putin, contrary to reports on state television, had not spent much of the year working at a government residence near Moscow but had been relaxing part of the time at his vacation home on the warmer shores of the Black Sea.


Images of Mr. Putin holding video conferences with officials from a sparsely furnished office have been a staple of news bulletins on state television, sending a message that the president was keeping safe but still hard at work near Moscow.


Proekt reported that Mr. Putin had in reality divided his time between his residence near Moscow and a villa in Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea, building two identically appointed offices for video linkups to disguise his whereabouts. The Kremlin denied the report.