April 23, 2020

Russian Epidemics and Riots

Russian Epidemics and Riots
An incident at the cholera barracks. Ivan Vladimirov (early twentieth century)

The world's novel coronavirus emergency response is, it turns out, not so novel.

Russian history has examples of quarantines and social distancing being used as a public health measure to combat mass epidemics. And yet, when those good intentions were badly implemented, aggressive mass protests fed by fear and anger sometimes followed. It was hard to convince the uneducated and suspicious narod that quarantines were vital to combat epidemics.

The Plague Riot of 1771

The bubonic plague came to Moscow with soldiers returning home from the Ottoman-Russian War. The infection began spreading fast, and by July 1771, about a thousand people were dying daily. Officials imposed strict quarantine measures, closed down markets and public bathhouses, destroyed contaminated property without any compensation to owners, and implemented other restrictions on the general public, not planning however on following their own rules. Then they simply fled the city, fearing for their own safety.

The Moscow riot that followed was sparked by rumors. An icon of the Virgin Mary was proclaimed as capable of stopping the epidemic, so crowds started gathering near the Kremlin and literally attacked the icon, which hung above Varvarsky Gates, beseeching the Virgin Mary for help and, climbing a ladder to kiss the icon, which of course spreading the plague more and more.

Archbishop Ambrosius, trying to stop the uncontrolled gathering, decided to hide the icon inside the Solyanka shrine and remove a donation chest, giving all the donations to an orphanage. This upset the narod and on September 15 the riot began. The next day, Archbishop Ambrosius was found hiding out in Donskoy Monastery and killed by a furious crowd. City mansions were robbed. Plague hospitals were raided in order to set free “forcibly detained” patients infected with the plague.

In an attempt to restore order, Catherine the Great dispatched General Pyotr Yeropkin (and thousands of troops) and, later, Grigory Orlov (when Yeropkin’s attempt failed). Orlov achieved plenty, setting up new infection hospitals, setting higher wages for doctors, and encouraging people to obey the quarantine and paying people to undergo voluntary self-isolation.

By October, the number of new plague cases began to fall. On November 15, Catherine the Great declared the epidemic officially over.

Tsar Nicholas at the Cholera Riots
Tsar Nicholas at Sennaya Square during the Cholera Riots.

The Cholera Riots of 1830-31

In 1830 and 1831, a worldwide cholera pandemic reached Russia (brought by Kirghiz nomads). It spread up from the South and soon reached the capital, St. Petersburg.

Government offices, schools, businesses, theaters, and other public places were closed and put under quarantine. Rumors started spreading, this time blaming authorities and healthcare providers for deliberately spreading the disease. When doctors recommended liquid antiseptics, like chlorinated lime solution or vinegar, for cleaning hands and faces, conspiracy mongers called them poisons. Doctors, and those who followed their recommendations, began to be brutally attacked.

On June 22, 1831, crowds gathered in St. Petersburg’s Sennaya Square, intent on breaking into the main cholera hospital. The crowd destroyed interior spaces and furniture and beat up medical staff. In a historical event, Tsar Nicholas I made a personal appearance before the public and successfully calmed their rage, convincing them to stop rioting. But unfortunately, the people were not finished, and eventually, military units and cannons had to be brought in.

In the Novgorod region, the military settlement of Staraya Russa was ravaged by riots in July 1831. Again, they arose from misconceptions regarding the cause of the growing cholera spread. When Commander Rosenmayer forced his solders to temporarily evacuate their base and sleep outside, as a cholera-prevention treatment, some fell sick, sparking a number of murders of military supervisors and medical staff. The local senior physician was killed in his bed.

The following week, protests reached settlements near the base. The local military chief, Nikolay Leontiev, dispatched armed units to Staraya Russa, but he was himself attacked and killed. In total, more than one hundred doctors and military officers were killed. On August 7, military units were forced to open fire on the crowd to bring the riot to an end. The investigation that followed the incident put more than 3,000 people on trial.

While the epidemic took the lives of many in the upper classes, including generals, dukes, duchesses, and the tsar's brother, Prince Konstantin (whose role in the succession six years earlier had sparked the Decembrist riots), its impact was most severely felt among the lower classes, killing some 100,000.

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