Out of the pandemic that’s hit Russia, through a fog of government disinformation and failure, a stunning new weapon has emerged. And she is taking on President Putin.
As Anastasia Vasilyeva works from a laptop on the kitchen table of her fourth-floor Moscow apartment, she’s never far from danger.
The young doctor heads a medical trade union that’s accused Vladimir Putin of lying about coronavirus. It’s made the single mother-of-two an unlikely enemy of the state.
Through the union’s website and social media channels, she’s exposed false government assurances that the health system is coping and frontline health workers are well protected from the rampantly infectious virus.
“The situation is not under control,” says Dr Vasilyeva. “In some hospitals, patients are dying without any help.
“The state takes care of the President to avoid him getting sick. But why doesn’t the state want to take care of a doctor to avoid him getting sick?”
Authorities have reacted with fury to her criticism, having her arrested and branding her a crook and a liar on pro-Kremlin media. But she says there is only one way the Russian government can silence her.
“They can only kill me but they have no chance to shut me down,” she says.
A ‘fake news’ pandemic
Months ago, as coronavirus started to spread around the world, the Kremlin insisted Russia would be fine. President Putin dismissed reports of an epidemic as “fake news” spread by foreign enemies.
He even announced a national referendum for April 22 to pass constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in power until 2036.
Dr Vasilyeva was horrified, accusing Putin of putting political ambition ahead of people’s safety.
“The danger was clear back in February,” she says. “And it was clear that our healthcare system is not ready.”
She’s in touch with doctors across Russia, raising funds for personal protective equipment (PPE) — the masks, gloves and equipment they need for protection as they treat their desperately ill COVID-19 patients.
At night, Dr Vasilyeva edits the website and social media accounts of the Alliance of Doctors, a medical trade union she founded. One minute she’s appealing for more government help, the next she’s exposing the dire state of many of Russia’s public hospitals.
In one video critical of health system cuts, Dr Vasilyeva walks through an abandoned hospital: dilapidated, run-down and now empty in the middle of a crisis.
“If you think I’m in a war zone, in Syria or Somalia, then you are mistaken,” she says.
“I’m in Hospital No.6 in the very centre of Moscow.
“Six years ago, it was closed as unprofitable, doctors were reduced, patients were sent to other facilities.”
When coronavirus infections began mounting in March, Putin switched tack, acknowledging the danger but insisting Russian hospitals were well prepared to deal with an epidemic.
“They have all they need and effectively use the available equipment and means,” he said, after visiting a COVID ward in a yellow hazmat suit and full-face oxygen mask.
But a different story was emerging from within the hospitals.
Later that month, as the virus took hold, doctors and nurses began posting videos about the stress they were under.
In Dagestan, sick nurses were filmed being housed in a laundry room while they waited to be tested for the virus. At a hospital in Saint Petersburg, patients could be seen spilling out into the corridors and staff pleading for protective equipment on social media.
State media responded by showing hospital management calling the staff’s claims fiction. Dr Vasilyeva’s union featured their pleas and videos on its website and social media accounts.
“At each conference the management claims that we do have personal protective equipment, that we have everything we need, that everything will be fine, that we are ready for anything,” says one anaesthetist from Volgograd in a video published by the Alliance of Doctors.
“This is a lie. We are not ready.”
As doctors across Russia contacted Dr Vasilyeva to say they didn’t even have masks or gloves, she decided to take action. Her union set up a fund-raising appeal to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers and deliver them directly to hospitals.
Taking much-needed PPE to frontline medical workers during a global health crisis might seem like a plan few could oppose. Dr Vasilyeva would soon feel just how determined the Russian state was to stop her.
Anastasia Vasilyeva has appeared in many videos since becoming one of Russia’s most prominent advocates for change in the country’s health system. She’s a photogenic and savvy promoter for her doctor’s union.
But there’s one video that’s still too painful for her to watch.
“It hurts me for our country — not for myself — that such a horror could happen,” she says.
On April 2, Dr Vasilyeva and her colleagues drove out from Moscow with 500 masks and boxes of gloves, disinfectant and hazmat suits.
Halfway to their destination — a provincial hospital in the town of Okulovka — they were stopped by police and accused of violating the Novgorod region’s self-isolation rules during the lockdown.
Dr Vasilyeva insists they all had documents allowing them to travel. She eventually met with grateful doctors, who found her at a police station to pick up the delivery.
But Russian authorities weren’t finished with the doctor. That night she was separated from her colleagues and cornered by police.
The moment Dr Vasilyeva was arrested has been viewed over half a million times online, but she still finds it hard to watch.
She has no memory of losing consciousness and collapsing on the pavement.
“They were dragging me and I remember it got dark. I opened my eyes and I was in the car.”
“I can’t look at this situation.”
She was held overnight in a cell without access to paramedics or a lawyer, in seeming contravention of Russian law.
“They had an order to shut me down,” she says. “They don’t want us to show that medical workers have no PPE.”
An accidental activist
Dr Vasilyeva, an ophthalmologist, might have simply continued treating people with eye conditions but for a chance meeting with one of Russia’s most famous political figures — opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
“Three years ago, honestly, I was not interested in politics at all, I thought Putin was a great president. I did not know who Navalny was.”
The controversial politician sought her professional treatment after he was attacked with a painful antiseptic thrown in his face.
But a year later, with mass sackings of medical staff at the eye hospital, she turned to Navalny for help. He advised her on strategies to fight the cutbacks and provided free office space for her nascent Alliance of Doctors. But in the Kremlin’s eyes, she was turned into a public enemy.
While nominally a democracy, any real threat to Putin’s authority is viewed as traitorous.
State television and Putin’s media allies are demonising Dr Vasilyeva across Russia. Vladimir Solovyov hosts a national television program with two functions — praising Putin and attacking his critics. In a recent rant on his YouTube show, he directly targeted Dr Vasilyeva.
His delivery turns to fanboy when he co-hosts his show with Russia’s official spokesman on coronavirus, Dr Alexander Myasnikov, who assures the audience COVID is little worse than flu.
“Please give the doctor likes,” Solovyov orders the audience. “There are only 717 likes. How dare you!”
Often when Dr Vasilyeva goes online now, an unsolicited advertisement pops up called “Nine Fakes of Anastasia Vasilyeva.”
“Navalny’s personal ophthalmologist actively creates and distributes fakes amid the pandemic,” it claims.
It’s been confronting for Dr Vasilyeva’s 14-year-old daughter Katya to see the attacks on her mother.
“I understand that she is doing the right thing, she’s helping people as much as she can,” says Katya.
Dr Vasilyeva shares the care of her daughter and 12-year-old son Alexei with her ex-husband, a doctor now working 12-hour shifts in a coronavirus ward.
She admits the daily battles are taking a toll.
“I’m really very tired with this, with the crying of medical workers and just trying to resolve their problems. It’s really very hard,” says Dr Vasilyeva.
“I don’t know if she sleeps at all,” says Katya. “There are a lot of people calling in despair and saying they don’t know what to do and my mother is trying to help everyone. I think that is very commendable and very cool.”
At times Dr Vasilyeva’s charity must be given covertly, evoking memories of the Cold War and its bevvy of spies.
A Monday morning PPE delivery takes place on a Moscow street rather than at the hospital’s front door. A driver sent by the hospital to collect the much-needed supplies watches nervously as boxes of protective equipment are loaded into his car.
Fear of the authorities has forced the delivery to take place out here but they don’t escape watchful eyes. A man in a black coat pokes a smartphone through the bars of an iron fence, filming the transfer before walking away.
Dr Vasilyeva presses on. In the absence of any tally of health worker deaths, the Alliance of Doctors believes that more than 200 medical workers have died in the line of duty.
As Russia’s lockdown eases, the official virus statistics are being questioned internationally. Russia claims over 400,000 infections but is reporting fewer than 5,000 deaths — less than one eighth of the world average.
Despite the threats and harassment, the young doctor plans to keep up her deliveries and fight for a better health system. And she’ll keep taking on the Russian strongman.
“Sometimes it seems so horrible I’m not able to handle it,” Dr Vasilyeva says.
“But on the other hand, I understand if not me, then who? Who would do this? If I give up, everything would collapse.”
Watch The Doctor vs The President on Foreign Correspondent, tonight at 8pm on ABC TV, iview and streaming live on Facebook and YouTube.
- Reporter: Eric Campbell
- Digital Producer: Matt Henry
- Photography: Arthur Bondar
- Russia producers: Eva Hartog and Anastasia Tenisheva