Russians run for Black Sea sun as country faces up to record Covid surge

Kremlin criticised as most Russians reject vaccination and hospitals face huge strain

People across Russia now hear alarming statistics every day, as coronavirus cases and deaths soar and hospital capacity and oxygen supplies dwindle, but one particular number has put the Black Sea city of Sochi on alert.

More than 110,000 holidaymakers have arrived in Sochi and nearby resorts as most Russian workplaces closed for the first week of November, despite government calls for people stay at home to halt a record-breaking surge in Covid-19 infections and fatalities.

Sochi hotels say guest numbers are now close to peak summer levels, even as medics warn that about 90 per cent of the region’s Covid-designated hospital beds are taken, and one in three of their current occupants came here as a tourist.

What officials call the country’s fifth wave of the pandemic is feeding on the key failings of its overall response to the crisis: the Kremlin’s refusal to impose unpopular restrictions or carry the financial burden of strict lockdowns, and its inability to convince enough Russians to trust domestically developed vaccines.


Only about one-third of the country’s 144 million people are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, and the Kremlin’s determination to keep the economy open while providing relatively little support for most businesses has prompted many Russians to prioritise paying the bills over taking health precautions and sick leave.

The country is now reporting about 40,000 new cases of Covid-19 and 1,000 deaths each day from a virus that government figures say has killed 240,871 people in Russia; the state statistics office puts the number at nearly twice that, however, and the nation’s excess death toll for the pandemic reached 723,350 by the end of September, according to a Moscow Times analysis of official data.

Black Sea holidays

Yet despite the bleak picture, many Russians have crammed into cars, planes, trains and buses to head for Sochi and the surrounding area, where there are resorts and accommodation to suit every budget, from villas and yachts on the Black Sea to cheap apartments in and around the fifth-fastest-growing city in Europe.

"More than 110,000 guests are now in Sochi," city mayor Alexei Kopaigorodsky said on Monday.

“At the same time, the city is operating on high alert. All public events have been cancelled. To visit cafes and restaurants, as well as when checking into a hotel, you must present a [digital] QR code showing vaccination . . . Now monitoring groups are checking compliance. As widespread checks over the weekend showed, 99 per cent of establishments are abiding by the rules.”

Officials say the introduction of QR codes in Sochi and the surrounding Krasnodar region sparked a rise in demand for vaccinations, which are freely available across Russia, but medics here are still concerned by the influx of tourists.

"The statistics show infections rising," Igor Lyulin, deputy chief doctor of one of Sochi's infectious disease hospitals, told local media.

“The influx of holidaymakers we are seeing now is almost equal to that of summer. Naturally, there are fears of a quite serious burden on the health system.”

The concerns and anger of some city residents were expressed by Vladimir Nemshilov (71), a Sochi native and Olympic medal-winning Soviet swimmer.

“I’m outraged by this. What is the [city] leadership doing? Everywhere, everything is being closed and banned, but in Sochi people are glad that 85 per cent of hotels are booked, and they’re boasting that they’ve put up prices by 20-25 per cent,” he told the 360 television channel.

“If you need to close the city because of this [virus] situation, then just close it. What kind of holiday can this be?” he asked, before summing up his view with a Russian saying: “For me, this is a feast in a time of plague.”

‘Non-working week’

Yet many other residents of this city of 430,000 people – not to mention visitors from colder Russian climes now swimming and sunbathing on the Sochi coast – are happy to view this “non-working week” as an extra holiday before the long winter ahead, and they are willing to take their chances with the virus.

“It’s like a different planet here,” says Andrei, who works in IT in Novosibirsk, a Siberian city where it is already to minus 20 at night.

“We didn’t have much of a summer holiday so we took this chance when it came up. We’re vaccinated and have QR codes so we can go into cafes and restaurants,” he says of his family.

“I feel like it’s quite safe in our hotel, because they are checking everyone’s vaccination status. But I know that tourists who are renting apartments aren’t being checked at all, so if I lived here I might be a bit worried about that.”

Walking beneath palm trees near the waterfront with their Wheaten terrier, Anzhela and Yuri say they put their trust in positive thinking and breathing exercises to fend off Covid-19.

“I understand that people want to come to Sochi – look how good and healthy the life is here. We work remotely so the new rules don’t really affect us,” explains Anzhela.

"We survived the summer season here and we even went to Moscow, so we should be alright this week," adds Yuri. "But because of the pandemic we haven't been able to see our daughter in Canada or our parents in Ukraine for a long time. That's been tough."

Sochi’s summer season was disrupted by heavy rain and floods, so hotels and restaurants are glad of the chance to boost their autumn income before much of the region’s tourist trade switches to the ski resorts of the Caucasus mountains, just one hour’s drive from a city that hosted the Winter Olympics in 2014.

Vaccine scepticism

Yet there are grave fears for what winter may hold for Russia, unless the authorities can belatedly convince more people to take Sputnik V and other domestically produced vaccines.

The Kremlin declared in August 2020 that Russia had beaten the world to register the first coronavirus vaccine for public use, when national regulators approved Sputnik V amid great fanfare and a major international PR campaign.

The developers of Sputnik V say it has now been authorised by 70 countries, but it is yet to secure clearance from the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the EU's drug regulator.

Russia complains that international approval for Sputnik V is hampered by political bias, a claim rejected by the WHO and EMA, which have both requested more data from Moscow to complete their evaluations.

A peer-reviewed study in the Lancet medical journal suggests Sputnik V is safe and effective, but a survey published this month by independent pollster the Levada Centre showed that 45 per cent of Russians are still unwilling to be vaccinated, and half of the nation is not worried about catching Covid-19.

This is despite figures from the Rosstat state statistics agency showing that Russia just endured its deadliest September since the second World War, with 44,265 people dying from causes linked to Covid-19 – almost double the number given earlier by the government’s pandemic task force.

According to independent statistician Alexei Raksha, Russia's natural population shrank by 997,000 from October 2020-September 2021, in the country's biggest peacetime decline on record.

Raksha analysed official state data to reach his conclusion about the pandemic’s impact on Russia’s natural population, a number calculated from registered deaths and births but excluding the effect of migration.

“It’s pretty simple, the deaths caused by Covid-19 are the biggest reason for the decline witnessed. Most other factors have stayed the same,” said Raksha, who left Rosstat last year after criticising its coronavirus figures.

“I don’t see how the situation can improve given the current trajectory of vaccine hesitancy and a lack of restrictions,” he told Bloomberg.

Kremlin criticism

Critics of the Kremlin say it has been timid in its response to the pandemic, avoiding tough measures that could hurt its popularity in a referendum on constitutional changes last year to allow Vladimir Putin (69) to remain president until 2036, and ahead of parliamentary elections last month.

During 21 years in power, Putin has centralised authority in the Kremlin and cultivated a macho reputation with a series of carefully managed photo shoots, yet he passed the buck for imposing most coronavirus restrictions to regional leaders and insisted on being vaccinated away from the cameras.

"Now, after downplaying the threat of rising infections for months, Russian officials have suddenly acknowledged the severity of the crisis on their hands," writes Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Putin, too, has been part of the problem. For the bulk of the pandemic, he has remained intentionally aloof and largely isolated from the management of the public health crisis . . . This is not surprising. Authoritarian leaders around the globe have tried to skirt responsibility and delegate difficult decisions to their underlings.”

It fell to one of those underlings – deputy speaker of parliament Pyotr Tolstoi – to admit some of Russia's failings in its fight with Covid-19 last month.

“Unfortunately, we ran the whole information campaign on coronavirus wrongly in Russia and completely lost. There is no trust from people to go and get vaccinated, that’s a fact,” he said.

Russia reported 39,008 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday and a record daily figure of 1,178 deaths from the virus.

With strain mounting on the health system, army medics have been deployed to help overworked doctors and nurses, and Russia’s military, heavy industry and even its space rocket agency have redirected oxygen supplies to hospitals.

Sochi is hoping to come through its current tourist surge unscathed, ahead of what is likely to be a busy and challenging winter season – with 250,000 visitors expected to visit the coast and mountains for the New Year holidays.

Not for the first time in its history, Russia appears to be relying less on the competence of its leaders than the stoicism of its people to see it through a national crisis.

“We’ve had vaccinations and even booster shots, we’ve got QR codes and we take precautions – we’re outside a lot, we wear masks and keep our distance from others where necessary,” says Sochi resident Galina, during a morning walk beside the Black Sea with her friend Valeria, another 70-something local.

“Let other people come here and enjoy Sochi too,” adds Valeria. “Let them be in the fresh air and the sunshine, and be healthy.”