On a deserted night in St. Petersburg, a few distinct knocks on a row house door gets you into an underground world that appears to have more in common with 1920s Chicago than modern Russia.
Inside it’s the Apotheke bar, where bartenders in tweed caps mix drinks in cocktail shakers against a backdrop of dark panelled walls and soft jazz music.
It feels like a scene straight out of Prohibition — but the real crime here is violating Russia’s strict two month old COVID-19 lockdown.
Some pandemic restrictions are expected to be lifted on Monday, but a crew from CBC News discovered a thriving subculture of bars, gyms and other services that have been operating clandestinely for months.
“We don’t have customers right now, we only have ‘friends,'” bar owner Sidney Fisher said. It’s a distinction meant to paper over the fact that his commercial establishment is supposed to be closed and not serving liquor to anyone.
But without meaningful support from Russia’s government during the imposed quarantine, he says he and other business owners have been driven to break the rules.
“Here in Russia, it’s most clear they are not going to support small businesses. They are not interested in that,” he said.
Russia’s government imposed a sweeping lock down at the end of March to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus, requiring all but essential businesses in cities such as Saint Petersburg and Moscow to close until further notice.
In the capital, residents have even needed a special pass to go out and buy groceries.
Starting Monday, the lockdown will be eased and more businesses — though not bars — will be allowed to reopen, according to Moscow’s mayor. But the damage to Russia’s economy has been devastating.
The official unemployment rate has already increased by 30 per cent. The Kremlin’s top auditor has suggested as many as eight million Russians could soon be out of work in a nation where unemployment had been near-record lows.
Anemic government support has compounded the financial pain for Russians who have lost their livelihoods — roughly $200 Cdn per month for individuals out of work, despite the fact the Kremlin is sitting on a “rainy day” fund worth several hundreds of billion dollars.
The preference of the government appears to be to use the money for large-scale “nation building” projects after the pandemic.
Another St. Petersburg bar, Depeche Mode, was also jammed with people socializing and drinking on a recent weekend night.
There was no physical distancing and not a face mask or bottle of hand sanitizer in sight.
“The [virus] fear is somewhere on the back burner,” said bar owner Danya Lipovestsky. “For people, it’s easier for them to come here to this underground bar to chat and forget the fear that we’re all going to die.
“Even me, I come here even though I am totally in the risk zone with asthma,” he said. “I’m scared but to hell with it. It’s just better to be here.”
Russians are famously self-reliant, especially when it comes to getting around government rules and regulations. For decades under communism, a thriving black market gave Soviet citizens access to Western clothing and consumer goods that were officially banned.
Depeche Mode customer Yegor Barbinkin suggested the same mentality is at play with circumventing the COVID-19 lockdown.
“We have this opposition to power and we have a special term for these people — it’s like ‘COVID dissent,'” he said.
“The illegal laws they impose on us are illegal, so opposition is growing day by day.”
It’s impossible to know how widespread the covert operations are. But in a single weekend, a Russian crew from CBC Moscow visited five establishments — three bars and a gym in Saint Petersburg, along with a hair salon in Moscow.
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A report in mid May in the business paper Vzglyad suggested police in St. Petersburg have been forced to close some rogue businesses multiple times during the pandemic, although the owners of all of the establishments CBC News spoke to said so far police had not visited them.
The maximum fine for defying quarantine is about $10,000 Cdn, as well as losing the business licence. The fine doubles if someone dies as a result.
It may be that there are simply so many illegal establishments police can’t keep up — or that authorities chose to turn a blind eye.
“I do understand the risk. I am definitely afraid of them [the authorities] coming,” said Sidney Fisher of Apotheke.
Self isolation index
The businesses defying the lockdown are clearly outliers. Despite the financial challenges and inconvenience, Russians have generally adhered to restrictions put in place because of coronavirus.
Russian tech giant Yandex has launched what it called a “self isolation” index to measure how well people are complying. The index uses Yandex apps on people’s smartphones to track their movements around the capital and compare the activity day by day.
Yandex claims the quarantining peaked in late April and has consistently lessened ever since as fatigue set in and the Kremlin fast-tracked efforts to get some sectors of the economy back to work.
Another clandestine business visited by CBC News was a martial arts fitness club in St. Petersburg.
Boxing coach Alex Dodonov had a class of roughly a dozen people, practicing punching and sparring drills — again, without any masks or physical distancing provisions.
“They’re telling me not to work. I’m telling them I’m working,” he said.
“I need to feed my family. I have two daughters. Where am I supposed to get the money when no one is helping?”
Russia has officially registered more than 360,000 COVID-19 cases — among the highest total number of cases in the world — with approximately 9,000 new cases a day for the past 10 days.
That’s an improvement on the 10,000 to 11,000 new cases per day the country recorded at the pandemic’s peak.
The virus has also taken an especially devastating toll on the country’s health care system, with independent media reporting up to 3,000 doctors and medics may have been infected in St. Petersburg alone.
When challenged on the health risks that come with opening his gym and that the fitness classes could be making the spread of the virus worse, Dodonov disagrees.
“The first thing is, they [clients] are building up their immunity,” he said.
“If he is stronger on his feet, he will be more confident in life. And what does confidence give us ? Psychological strength for our body so we won’t get sick.”