Over months of the coronavirus pandemic, US President Donald Trump has kept to a busy schedule, packed with campaign rallies and public events. The contrast with Russian President Vladimir Putin could not be more stark: The authoritarian leader Trump admires so much is living in a bubble.
For most of the pandemic, Putin has been following a strict work-from-home regimen, running the affairs of state largely by videoconference. And the Kremlin has taken extreme measures to guard the health of the man who has run Russia for two decades.
Putin’s primary base during the pandemic, according to his press office and extensive state television coverage, has been Novo-Ogaryovo, his residence outside Moscow. As early as April, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov made it clear that new measures had been put in place to protect the president: Everyone meeting with Putin, he said, would be tested for Covid-19, and all appointments with the leader would be held with social distancing in place.
The Kremlin went farther than just social distancing. In June, Peskov confirmed that special disinfectant tunnels had been installed in the Kremlin and at Novo-Ogaryovo as a defense against the spread of the virus. The same month, Putin went ahead with holding a postponed Victory Day parade in the middle of the pandemic. Dozens of WWII veterans who sat next to the president on the stands had to quarantine for two weeks.
More recently, Russian investigative news outlet Proekt documented the extensive rules around contact with Russia’s first person: Even a brief photo opportunity required a visitor to undergo a strict two-week quarantine, regardless of their rank. Whether it was a top manager of a state gas company, or a group of scientists awarded with a medal and a handshake, all had to adhere to the protocol.
Proekt reported that over the summer that the staffers closest to Putin, including secretaries, speechwriters and personal photographers, had been split between residencies in Sochi and Moscow. Both groups had to quarantine in a nearby health resort for two weeks and undergo extensive testing, according to Proekt.
The coronavirus rules affected the media coverage, as most journalists were essentially cut off from getting access to Putin. With very little public events and virtually no press availability since the beginning of the pandemic, even the Kremlin press pool has been significantly reduced in numbers, forcing most loyal state TV reporters to report from home.
On the rare occasion Putin had to attend a mass event, such as a September meeting with Russia’s Senate in the Kremlin, the footage showed a good ten meters of social distancing between the president and everyone else.
Concerns about Putin’s health are legitimate. The Russian president is by all accounts in good health and is known for his temperate habits and vigorous physical-exercise routine. But at 67 years old, he is already past the average life expectancy for a Russian male, and any serious illness for him would set off a full-blown political crisis in the country.
And the virus itself has previously penetrated the Kremlin’s inner circle. In May, Peskov — a trusted confidant and adviser to Putin — was hospitalized with Covid-19. Peskov has since recovered, but at least three Russian ministers have previously tested positive for the virus, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova and Minister of Housing Vladimir Yakushev.
Russia has seen intense speculation about Putin’s possible exposure to Covid-19. Back in March, the Russian president donned a protective suit to visit the Moscow hospital that was monitoring suspected coronavirus patients. The hospital’s head doctor — who appeared in a photo opportunity with Putin — subsequently fell ill with the virus, although there was no evidence to suggest that Putin himself had been infected.
Putin has scored many geopolitical points during the pandemic, even as Russia’s infection rate continued to climb. Back in the spring, the Russian government sent a shipment of medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment, to help American hospitals fight the coronavirus. More recently, Putin announced that Russia had rushed a coronavirus vaccine to approval, even though the vaccine had not undergone critical stage 3 trials, in keeping with standard practice.
Russian officials are hoping to get back to business as usual with the help of the vaccine. Several high ranking officials, including Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, recently got vaccinated to much fanfare from Russian state media.
Even before the vaccine was registered in Russia, Putin revealed that one of his daughters took it during the trials. But the president has yet to try it on himself.
When asked to comment on why the president hasn’t been vaccinated yet, Peskov said that Putin is considering it, but added that “when it comes to the head of state, special precaution measures are in place.”
News that Trump and the first lady have tested positive for the coronavirus will be major news in Russia. Putin has already sent Trump a telegram to wish them both a speedy recovery.
“I am sure that your inherent vitality, good spirits and optimism will help you cope with the dangerous virus,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin readout of the telegram.
Despite abysmal US-Russian relations, Trump and Putin have kept lines of communication open, conferring quite often during the months of the global pandemic. With Trump now in self-isolation, one wonders if the White House will be taking closer notes on how the Kremlin has kept Putin coronavirus-free.