SAMARA, Russia -- Deaths in Russia last year were 28% higher than normal, a New York Times investigation shows, belying President Vladimir Putin's claims that the country has confronted the coronavirus better than most.
Between April and December 2020, there were 57,002 COVID-19 deaths in Russia, according to government statistics.
However, an analysis of historic mortality statistics shows that 362,302 more deaths than normal occurred during the pandemic last year, The New York Times reported April 10.
Figures from January and February this year show the number of "excess deaths" since the start of the pandemic is now well above 400,000, according to Russia's official statistics agency, Rosstat, which tallies deaths from all causes.
Those "excess deaths" include deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, but it shows that much of the pandemic related information coming out of the Kremlin cannot be trusted.
"It's hard to find a worse developed country" in terms of coronavirus mortality, said Aleksei Raksha, an independent demographer in Moscow. "The government is doing all it can to avoid highlighting these facts."
Propaganda over people's lives
For much of the past year, the Kremlin has been more focused on winning the public relations aspects of the pandemic -- with a massive propaganda effort pushing the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine -- than on fighting the virus itself.
The minimisation of the coronavirus death toll has kept the public in the dark about the dangers of the virus and the importance of getting a vaccine, critics say.
It also has undermined the public's trust in any information coming out of the Kremlin, including on the efficacy of Sputnik V.
"People didn't know the objective situation. And if you don't know the objective situation, you are not afraid," said Olga Kagarlitskaya, whose father, a paramedic, died after being hospitalised in a coronavirus ward in Samara, a relatively wealthy city in southwestern Russia.
His official cause of death was "viral pneumonia, unspecified".
Kagarlitskaya, incensed by the cover-up, succeeded in having his cause of death changed to COVID-19 after her outrage went viral on social media and Samara's governor intervened.
Samara reported only 606 official coronavirus deaths last year but had 10,596 excess deaths in 2020 -- a jump of 25% over the previous year's mortality rate.
Still officials insist the numbers are accurate.
"The published numbers are trustworthy," said Samara Health Minister Armen Benyan.
He acknowledged, however, that most of the excess deaths in his region were related to the pandemic in some way. A heart attack in a COVID-19 patient, for example, would not be counted in the official toll.
'You can't trust anyone'
This fudging of the numbers and the government's deliberate disinformation about the dangers of the virus have contributed to Russians' profound distrust of the Kremlin's messaging regarding the pandemic.
A poll conducted last October by the independent Levada Centre found that must Russians do not believe their own government's tally of coronavirus cases.
Of the 61% of those polled who do not trust the Kremlin's data, 28% say the numbers are too high and 33% say the numbers are too low.
Even with the Kremlin's massive propaganda campaign to market Sputnik V -- celebrating the arrival of the vaccine in Central Asia, Latin America, Africa and even some European countries -- a recent poll showed deep and growing distrust in the vaccine.
The pandemic has left many countries around the world vulnerable to Russian propaganda efforts, especially in neighboring Central Asia, where governments have had to fight considerable poverty on top of the deadly coronavirus.
In August, when Putin announced with much fanfare that Russia was "first" to create a COVID-19 vaccine -- before clinical trials were completed -- 38% of Russians polled said they would take the vaccine and 54% said they would not.
Three months later, rather than increasing trust in Sputnik V, the Levada Centre poll showed the opposite: 36% would take it; 59% would not.
In February, 62% said they were not planning to be vaccinated.
The recent poll also showed that more than half of Russians -- 58% -- are not afraid of contracting COVID-19, the highest rate over the past year.
Russian medics also do not trust Sputnik V, with more than 50% saying they have no plans to vaccinate against the coronavirus, according to a Russian Federation Medics Network poll published by VTimes on December 5.
More than 21% of respondents said they prefer to receive a foreign-made vaccine instead of Russia's homegrown jab.
This distrust of Sputnik V is not only felt in Russia. In Kazakhstan, like many countries in Central Asia and around the world, there was widespread criticism of the vaccine's use.
Inna Pogozheva of Samara said she does not know what to believe about the pandemic.
Her mother, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, died in November after being hospitalised with a COVID-19 referral based on a CT scan. Like many others, her death certificate made no mention of the coronavirus.
Pogozheva is appealing to have her mother's cause of death changed.
But despite experiencing the devastation of the virus up close, Pogozheva said she will not get vaccinated.
"Who the heck knows what they mixed in there?" she told The New York Times. "You can't trust anyone, especially when it comes to this situation."
Kremlin popularity falling
Undeterred by the facts on the ground, Russia is hoping for a geopolitical boost from the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report released by the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) on February 17.
"The Kremlin believes that the pandemic will accelerate two trends that Russia itself is working to promote: a transition towards multipolarity in international relations and declining Western influence on the global stage," the report said.
Putin expects "the global epidemic [to] force the West to focus on domestic policy and economic problems, cause populist and extremist movements to emerge, and ultimately undermine the values-based and institutional unity of Western societies".
"Russia is prepared to add fuel to the flames to encourage these trends," it added.
To fan those flames, the Kremlin has unleashed a massive propaganda campaign to promote its Sputnik V vaccine, in tandem with campaigns smearing Western-made vaccines.
The Kremlin's disinformation campaigns mostly target audiences outside Russia, while at home rising poverty, rampant corruption, extreme inequality and political suppression are fuelling discontent with Putin's leadership.
The Russian regime has also sought to use its political, economic and military leverage to destabilise its smaller neighbours, many of them former Soviet states, and to prevent their integration with Euro-Atlantic organisations, the EFIS said.
These geopolitical games can be seen in Belarus, the territories of Crimea and Donbas in Ukraine -- where Russia is amassing troops, Abkhazia and South Ossetia of Georgia, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and in the political unrest last year in Kyrgyzstan.