On November 22, when Tatarstan became the first region in Russia to require passengers on public transportation to produce a QR code affirming their coronavirus-vaccination status, at least one significant fight broke out and hundreds of noncompliant would-be passengers were kicked off buses and trains.
"One female conductor had her nose broken," the chairman of the regional branch of the liberal Yabloko party, Ruslan Zinatullin, said. "Some 2,200 people were not admitted onto public transport. Overall, passenger volume fell by one-third."
Similar stories have been emerging from regions across Russia as some have imposed various QR-code mandates to combat the latest wave of coronavirus infections sweeping the country.
Of course, my words were emotional. But I think that those who buy vaccination certificates and those who sell them…must be dealt with harshly."
-- Vladimir Sidorov, United Russia
In Yekaterinburg on November 19, angry citizens tried to force their way into the regional court where a case was being argued that the region's QR-code mandate for visiting shopping malls and cinemas was illegal. About 50 people made their way into the building before they were stopped by bailiffs who barricaded the door to the courtroom and shut off the lights in the corridor. The court upheld the mandate.
The same day in the southern city of Volgograd, a small group of women forced their way into the local office of Rospotrebnadzor, the agency that issues the QR codes, insisting on checking the QR code of the director of the branch and confirming that masks were being worn properly. The work of the office was interrupted for several hours, and the National Guard was summoned to restore order.
'The Activization Of Protests'
Anti-mandate protests of various types were reported in Kostroma, Kamchatka, Irkutsk Oblast, Novosibirsk, Ulan-Ude, Murmansk, and elsewhere over the last seven weeks.
"QR codes are intended as a way of marking consumer goods," protesters in the Zabaikalye region wrote in an open letter to President Vladimir Putin and Governor Aleksandr Osipov. "We are not consumer goods. It is not acceptable to equate people to goods. Our ancestors paid a huge price so that we could now live freely. But what is going on in this country now threatens to destroy the state."
One online petition against the creation of "a QR ghetto" has gathered more than 330,000 signatures. Numerous other petitions with similar arguments have appeared in regions across the country, aimed at mayors, governors, and regional legislatures.
The simmering unrest comes as Russia battles to contain the latest wave of coronavirus infections, with new infections averaging about 35,000 per day over the last month and daily fatalities ranging from about 1,100 to about 1,250 per day over the same period, according to official figures.
About 268,000 Russians have died of COVID-19, according to government figures that have been criticized as understating the severity of the pandemic. The vaccination rate was about 37 percent as of November 24, even though Russia was the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine.
Roskomnadzor issues a QR code to those who have been vaccinated, who have recovered from COVID-19, or who have a medical excuse that contraindicates vaccination.
The first attempt to introduce mandatory QR codes was a short-lived effort in Moscow in June and July. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin later said that revenues in the capital's restaurant sector fell by 36 percent during the mandate period. The order was revoked after just three weeks, with authorities saying it was unnecessary because vaccination rates were rising.
On November 12, the government published a draft law on a QR-code mandate for air and railway passengers. Other draft legislation includes such a mandate for entrance to public places including restaurants, theaters, malls, and other places. However, according to media reports on November 24, none of the QR-code bills has been placed on the State Duma's legislative agenda for December, leading analysts to speculate that the central government is concerned about the regional unrest.
The Russia-focused news outlet Meduza cited an unidentified source it described as "close to the presidential administration" as saying that any legislation eventually adopted would probably not use the controversial term "QR code," but would instead speak of "health passports" or some other more palatable term.
Another source, described as "close to the Health Ministry," said that Putin’s administration "is concerned about the activization of protests."
Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Mikhalichenko said attention must be paid not only to the protests and petitions but to efforts to skirt the regulations as well.
"For Russians, speaking generally, there is a tendency to find a way around conflicts through gray schemes," Mikhalichenko told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "For instance, when taxes go up, the gray economy grows. We see the same thing now. As mandates increase, fake vaccine certifications will increase as well."
'Fewer People Would Die'
As a result, advocates of stricter measures to contain the pandemic are becoming more strident.
On November 23, Vladimir Sidorov, a member of the Ryazan regional legislature from the ruling United Russia party, said that people who use fake QR codes should be shot to death.
"I would personally serve on the firing squads," he told a session of the legislature.
Later, he told local media that he was emotional about the issue because his wife had died of COVID-19.
"Look around at what is happening," Sidorov said. "Look how people are getting sick and how doctors have to protect themselves. Of course, my words were emotional. But I think that those who buy vaccination certificates and those who sell them…must be dealt with harshly."
On November 24, the chief doctors of many of Russia's largest hospitals published an open letter to a dozen of Russia's leading anti-vaccine figures, including Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov, A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, and Pyotr Tolstoi, a United Russia member who is a deputy speaker of the Duma. In the letter, the doctors offered to give the anti-vaxxers a tour of morgues and of the so-called "red zones" of their infectious-disease wards, where the most severe COVID-19 cases are handled.
"Maybe after that you would change your position and fewer people would die," the letter said.
Actress Maria Shukshina, who is anti-vax, responded almost immediately on Instagram, in turn inviting the doctors to "the green zone of a healthy lifestyle, common sense, psychic well-being, the absence of fear and panic, and elementary prophylaxis against seasonal respiratory illnesses."
Shukshina estimated -- without evidence -- that "80 percent" of the Russian population agrees with her.
"Not only do you have to have your passport all the time, but now you have to reveal confidential medical information," Kazan politician Zinatullin said. "And this is what has made people so angry.”
“People see what is happening and are afraid it will continue,” he said, adding that he believes they fear “the segregation of people into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated."