Weekly 30 May 2020

Russia plans mass events in June

Hello! This week our main story is about Putin’s plans to hold mass events nationwide at the end of June amid some evidence that the coronavirus peak has passed. We also look at why Russia decided to hold high school leaver exams despite the epidemic, and what the SpaceX launch in the U.S. means for Russia and its space program.   

Putin plans mass events as coronavirus peak passes

President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia has weathered the worst of its coronavirus outbreak. And this was immediately followed by confirmation that two mass events would take place in June: a military parade to mark the end of the Second World War, and a remembrance procession usually attended by millions of people. A constitutional reform referendum could also happen at the same time, according to media reports.

  • Russia traditionally holds a military parade in Moscow on May 9 to mark the Soviet victory in the Second World War, and this year it was supposed to have been a lavish occasion for the 75th anniversary with 15,000 soldiers and 300,000 pieces of military equipment. But the pandemic forced cancellation of most events, with the exception of fireworks and an air display (during which 500 million rubles ($7.1 million) was spent (Rus) on cloud seeding). ‘Immortal Regiment’ marches – in which relatives take to the streets with portraits of ancestors who fought in the war — did not go ahead. 
  • Few expected Russia would cancel the Victory Day celebrations. The victory over Nazi Germany is a key part of Kremlin ideology, and the only event of the 20th century that unites all Russians — the violence touched every family.   
  • The rescheduled military parade will be held on June 24, likely to be made a national holiday, and the Immortal Regiment will take place on June 26. The only open question remains the date of the constitutional reform referendum, although some media reports (Rus) suggested it will also be held on June 24. Putin needs a positive result to allow him to change the constitution to remain president until 2036. While scientists are concerned the Immortal Regiment event could fuel a spike in coronavirus cases, the referendum is seen as safer as Russia recently passed (Rus) a new online voting law. 
  • Russia is currently ranked third worldwide for the number of coronavirus cases, after the U.S. and Brazil. And, even if the infection rate is slowing, there are still more than 8,000 new cases reported every day. Whatever future developments, it looks like Russia will take steps to ensure that the official coronavirus figures drop. The Ministry of Health published recommendations this week altering the criteria for classifying infections — now, people who are asymptomatic but test positive will not be included in the official count. They currently account for (Rus) about 30 percent of total cases in Russia.
  • At the same time, lockdown easing is well underway. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced a loosening of the capital’s lockdown this week in a video call with Putin. From Monday, everything in Moscow will be able to open except theaters, museums, beauty salons and gyms. However, people will only be able to go outside in masks and gloves (previously this was just a requirement in shops). The most important new rule is that Muscovites are allowed to go for walks, but only at certain times. City Hall even published a special map (you click on your apartment building to see at what times you can go outside), but many couldn’t access it. 

Why the world should care 

The state-sanctioned walking schedule prompted a wave of jokes on social media as Muscovites compared themselves to criminals walking in circles around a prison yard. But the truth is that lockdown is being widely flouted, and an online index (Rus) shows there are already many people out on the streets. This isn’t surprising when you remember almost 25 percent of Russians believe coronavirus doesn’t exist. Either way, officials have to create the illusion that the situation in Moscow is under control so Putin can have his military parade. In Russia, politicians construct one reality, and ordinary people exist in an entirely different one. 

SpaceX launch is a blow to Russia’s wallet 

The launch of Elon Musk’s crewed spaceship, expected to go ahead this weekend, will be a big blow for Russia’s ambitions in space. The issue is not just the loss of a $300 million annual contract for space corporation Roscosmos, but some see this as a moment demonstrating how Russia has fallen far behind the U.S. in the space race.

  • Since the end of crewed flights from the U.S. in 2011, U.S. astronauts have travelled into space aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. The average cost of transporting one astronaut to the International Space Station averaged $55 million in this period and Roscosmos earned up to $300 million a year from these contracts. Now, the company must do without these lucrative agreements, and the U.S. will earn geopolitical points for once again being independent of Russia’s space rockets. 
  • While the crew of the SpaceX Dragon capsule was preparing this week, Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin said (Rus) on television that Musk’s idea of bombing Mars with nukes was “monstrous” and is “cover for putting nuclear weapons into space”. It is not the first time Rogozin has taken a swipe at Musk: he previously called (Rus) Musk’s successes “exaggerated”, and said (Rus) Musk was “not a specialist”.   
  • Rogozin has many reasons to envy Musk. At the same time as Musk began working on getting humans into space, Russia began the development of its piloted interplanetary spaceship Oryol (literally ‘Eagle’). From a technical perspective, Oryol could be more advanced than its U.S. counterpart, but Oryol is far behind in terms of development. Tests were originally planned for 2015, but have been repeatedly delayed. The new deadline is 2023. 
  • And it wasn’t just the spaceship that ran into trouble. The plan was to launch Oryol with Angara rockets, which have been in development (Rus) for 25 years. Eventually, it was decided to switch (Rus) to the mid-sized Soyuz 5 rockets, but even they only have their first test flights scheduled for 2022.   
  • On top of this the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome, from which Oryol was supposed to be launched, has run into serious problems. Building began in 2011, but was hit (Rus) by corruption scandals and criminal lawsuits totalling 10 billion rubles. Construction is still underway, and the launchpad for heavy rockets, including those needed for Oryol, is scheduled (Rus) for completion in 2023. 
  • The U.S. spending on space dwarfs that of Russia. The entire budget (Rus) of Russia’s space program between 2016-2025 was about $21.2 billion, compared to the $22.6 billion NASA spent in 2020 alone. Similarly, it will cost (Rus) just over $800 million to build the first pilot prototype for Oryol, while NASA gave SpaceX $3.1 billion to develop the Dragon capsule. The salaries paid to the scientists working on Oryol and Angara are modest: they work (Rus) because of a passion for space, not because it is lucrative. 

Why the world should care 

One might get the impression Russia’s space program is falling apart. But this is not entirely the case: in 2019, Russia completed almost 30 incident-free launches, including the Russian–German high-energy astrophysics space observatory SPEKTR-RG that has traveled further from the earth than any Russian or Soviet spacecraft. The trouble begins when it is time to invest in new projects. Minimal funding means it is unwise to expect any breakthroughs from Roscosmos in the near future. 

 

Russia greenlights exam for 700,000 schoolchildren 

For 700,000 high school leavers, the main issue during the pandemic has not been a military parade, but the status of the Unified State Exam (USE) that is required by all Russian universities. The USE usually takes place in May, but was suspended this year. Officials have been terrified that allowing it to go ahead could cause a spike in the infection rate, and dithered for two months. Eventually, Putin had to interfere. This story shows how government works in Russia, and how Russia’s education system differs from its Western equivalents.

  • The USE is a standardised exam required for university admission. It was made compulsory in 2009, and has been fiercely debated ever since. Some say the USE reduced corruption in universities (they previously had their own exams), and made the system fairer. Others argue that written tests are a bad way to assess ability, and that they are still corrupted by unscrupulous teachers.  
  • The date for this year’s USE was set as May 25 at the end of 2019. But in March it was postponed, and months of uncertainty followed. The three government departments responsible for education could not agree on how to proceed. The deadlock meant Putin got involved, “carefully studied all the options,” and made a decision, according to one education official. The exam will now be held in early July.
  • Holding the USE in the midst of a pandemic is a scary prospect. The USE is a written exam for which pupils from different high schools are mixed and assigned to different buildings. As a rule, each pupil sits between 2 and 4 exams, which means each pupil comes into close contact with up to 80 others. This year, exam desks will be 1.5 meters apart and the examiners will wear gloves and masks. But there are no rules preventing students gathering in front of schools or on public transport. 
  • Why did the authorities decide to hold the exam? Apparently, they had no other option. Postponing the USE until the end of August was unreasonable, according to one official, who said that students would never sit at home all summer. According to him, online exams were also impossible. And key players in the online education market agreed, pointing out that about a third of Russian families don’t have computers at home. Finally, the format could not be changed. “Society expects the authorities to guarantee an honest exam. It is impossible to do this in a different format,” the official explained.
  • Analogous exams exist in many other countries, most of which have been replaced. For example, in the United Kingdom, A-Level exams have been substituted with grades calculated by teachers. In Russia this would be impossible: the curriculum in the last two years of high school differs a lot from what the USE requires. Indeed, many pupils complain that the system means they have to do double work (even if many don’t take their high school grades very seriously). The grades awarded internally by high schools are not standardized in any way, and are different across the country.  

Why the world should care  

The USE has exposed the problems of Russian secondary education: both chaotic and difficult to digitalize. It will become clear by the end of July whether these problems will result in a spike of COVID-19 cases. Scientists surveyed by The Bell said this could be avoided, but only if there are no crowds. So far, nothing suggests that this will be the case.