TRAVELLING to Russia, a country the British government regularly brands a menace to all things good and decent, is inconvenient enough at the best of times. Nevertheless, at the risk of earning myself the most damning of modern monikers – the dreaded ‘Covidiot’ – I recently decided to break free from my government-mandated house arrest and board a plane to Moscow.
Before coronavirus hit the scene, going abroad had long been stripped of any vestige of glamour it once possessed. Even during the halcyon days of the Old Normal I struggled to suppress feelings of diabolical rage as I was subjected to the indignities of modern travel, exemplified by the mild humiliation of being paraded through an X-ray machine while being ogled by a cast of humourless airport enforcers. Under the regime of the New Normal there is one additional hurdle to clear: the Covid-19 test.
In a pharmacy just off the Euston Road I was handed a self-testing kit. It’s not an experience I would unreservedly recommend, especially not for the princely sum of £150. Stabbing the back of your throat with a cotton bud and the concomitant gag is just the start of the fun. The true pleasure comes as you shove the bud deep into the recesses of your nose, allowing it to tickle tenderly a few millimetres shy of the brain stem. Spin it around five times. Let it linger there a while. Meanwhile, enjoy the ambience of the strip lighting, the litter-strewn floor and appreciate the fact that the soap at the sink has run empty. No washing your hands thoroughly while singing Happy Birthday twice here.
A few days later and a negative test result in hand, I make the dash for the airport. Like the announcements that blare out phraseslike ‘We Strive For The Glory Of Marxist-Leninism!’ in some Soviet gulag, the terminal’s tannoy demands the maintenance of social distancing whilst travellers are herded about like livestock. Masked and dancing awkwardly around your fellow passengers to maintain the mystical Two Metre Rule, all one’s efforts seem redundant once wedged elbow-to-elbow between two strangers on a plane, one of whom has repurposed his face mask as a chin strap.
Once in Russia, however, things rapidly seem different. Not in terms of national policies – they’re fairly alike. The Russian government has suffered from similar levels of Covid-mania as ours. A much harsher lockdown was imposed in Moscow than we suffered in the UK. The Kremlin decided to restrict foreigners from entering the country on 17 March: a whole three months before the British government decided to enact their quarantine on travellers, long after the Covid horse had bolted.
The difference lies in the public’s response to the virus bogeyman. The contrast between the average Brit and Russki could not be greater. Travelling out of Euston after my aforementioned Covid-19 test, my carriage had two other occupants. At least 12 feet separated us from each other. Nevertheless, they spent the entire journey fully masked, dutifully obeying government fiat. Russian attitudes are – to put it mildly – more blasé. While every second seat on the Moscow metro has been emblazoned with signs forbidding their use, these are usually obscured by Muscovites sitting on them. Invariably, they are not wearing masks; despite needing one to enter a metro station, the percentage of those wearing muzzles rapidly decreases the moment they hit the escalator. By the time they’re on the train, no more than a fifth of people are wearing a mask. Of those who do, few do so properly.
Likewise, going to the supermarket in the UK has become a high-stakes operation to be planned with military precision: merely touching the same packet of Dairylea Dunkers as another member of the public is a probable death sentence. It is also the law to wear a mask in shops in Russia, but perhaps one in ten does. The mask-wearers are the odd ones out. Security guards generally ask you to don one on your way into a shopping centre, but as long as you mime vaguely towards your bag as if to get one out they seem satisfied. Where in Britain the non-masked is little short of a murderer, the average Russian’s stance towards the whole thing lies somewhere between ambivalence and total disregard.
Why the difference? Certainly not in the number of cases. Russia, in absolute terms, has had three times more Covid cases than the UK (although curiously less than half the total deaths). Instead, the national psyche of each country has informed its reaction.
Russia has a long history of self-appointed ‘experts’ governing society. Technocrats and experts ruled the Soviet state, declaring that each new Five Year Plan would bring untold wealth and riches so long as everyone tried their Stakhanovite best. Of course, history showed their attempts at controlling every aspect of society to be an impossibility. Long before the USSR fell, those living under its control knew that the system was dysfunctional. Government diktat was to be paid lip-service where necessary but ignored otherwise, just like the seats on the Moscow underground.
Britain, in contrast, is a nation with a personality disorder. While loudly proclaiming the ancient pedigree of its hard-won liberties and democracy, the freedoms enjoyed by Britons have been given up without so much as a whimper. Follow the science,we are implored. Who would dare do otherwise? After all, the scientific advice has been so flawless and our experts so above-board in their own behaviour. Led by the knee-jerk policies of government, the populace tiptoe fearfully into each dawning day, quietly muttering ‘better safe than sorry’ to themselves.
It’s odd to be the citizen of a country which prides itself on its commitment to freedom, yet which abandoned it at the drop of a hat and has shown little desire to win it back. One which claims that it is a land of liberty – the mother of all parliaments, don’t you know – but whose draconian government policies have not come under an ounce of political scrutiny. One in which it is claimed that every man’s house is his castle, but where few have dared murmur a peep of opposition now that they find themselves locked inside its keep.
Russia’s repeated dalliances with absolutism have inured its citizens to the overbearing announcements of a self-appointed, omnipotent ruling caste. Yet, despite the obviousness of the situation – that we are not living through a new Black Death – we in the UK remain compliant with the executive’s forever changing and rapidly U-turning announcements.
We often hear about ‘modern Britain’. The phrase is invariably used in the positive: more diverse, more multicultural, more progressive. However, as time goes by, it becomes clear that ‘modern Britain’ is losing touch with the values that made us the nation we are. Strangers to freedom and alienated from the historical tradition that gave meaning and colour to our nation’s past, we slide ever more rapidly down the path of least resistance, forfeiting our ancient rights for the comforts of short-term safety.
As Benjamin Franklin rightly noted: ‘Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ It’s a shame it took a trip to Russia to remind me just how bad things have become.