We are in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation with 350,000 inhabitants. This is where the first popular uprising in the times of COVID-19 has broken out.
On Monday, from the early hours of the morning, a river of poor people, women and the elderly poured into Shtyba Square, where the headquarters of the government of the republic are located. The demonstrators shouted “Hunger! Hunger!” and called for the reopening of businesses now in lockdown and the resignation of the government. It marked a violent breakdown of the quarantine regime, as seen by the fact that no one in the square wore a mask and no one paid any attention to maintaining safe distancing.
Meanwhile, the rumor was going around—and was later confirmed—that the rebellion had been organized by the Citizens of the USSR group, an informal organization of USSR nostalgics with vaguely Stalinist overtones, headed by Vadim Celdiev, a former opera singer who has turned to politics, who is convinced that the coronavirus does not exist and is simply an invention of the “strong global powers” to enslave the people. As the hours passed, the tensions rose with the arrival of the special police divisions, the OMON, while the demonstrators began to install tents with the intention of occupying the square round the clock. A delegation from the protesters was also invited for negotiations at the government headquarters, but the initiative did not produce any results.
The demonstrators’ demands (the release of the protest leaders arrested in the morning, economic aid for the population and the resignation of the government) were all rejected. Then, within just a few minutes, the police charged in to begin to clear the square. Despite the resistance of the demonstrators, who responded to the attacks and tear gas with a forceful shower of pebbles, the square was finally “cleaned up” by the evening.
According to the Osetia Telegram channel, the clashes continued in other areas of the city, and the police proceeded to conduct raids in the suburbs. All roadways into the city have now been sealed off, and helicopters continue to fly over the roofs of the houses.
For many hours, the main Russian news agencies, whether out of embarrassment or obeying some directive, did not give any information about what was happening. Kommersant, the newspaper of big industry, as if trying to banish even the thought of what was happening in the Caucasus, focused exclusively on the farcical-sounding elements, underlining that the demonstration had been called by a Stalinist and conspiracy group. “The protest of the ‘unbelievers in the coronavirus’ cannot be called spontaneous: it was called about a month ago by a former opera singer, Vadim Cheldiev. Since the introduction of quarantine, he has been calling for rebellion on his Telegram channel against the ‘world conspiracy’ and demanding ‘the truth,’ accusing the doctors who are working in the ‘contaminated’ areas of hospitals of conspiring with the government,” the Moscow newspaper wrote.
In the evening, local politicians avoided being seen on TV altogether. Meanwhile, doctors were being interviewed saying that “the choice to go into the streets was a medical disaster and will cause an enormous outbreak.”
Now, many people are wondering if the spark from Vladikazakaz could spread throughout the country. It’s hard to say. The misery and social despair in Ossetia cannot be generalized to the whole of Russia. Many businesses in that region are engaging in black market activities, and, as a result, neither they nor their employees are able to receive the financial aid passed by Putin. However, as the days go by, more and more signs of a breakdown in social cohesion are starting to appear in various provinces, and the proverbial patience of the Russians may be about to end.