Young Russians are partying again, seeking a return to normal life and willing to risk a coronavirus surge. "We are people, not robots, and want to have a life," said a bar patron (and doctor).
When Nest, a cramped Moscow cocktail lounge, reopened for business in late June after more than two months of lockdown, it offered free masks and antiseptic lotion at the entrance to help calm any fears drinkers might have about sitting just inches from each other around tiny round tables.
It needn't have bothered.
"Nobody could care less so we quickly stopped offering," said Roman R. Pometkov, the head bartender and a coronavirus survivor. He became infected soon after the pandemic first hit the Russian capital with full force in March and now, after recuperating in isolation at home for 28 days, is back at work.
Like everyone else in his packed bar on a recent evening, Pometkov was not wearing a face mask. "Everyone just wants to get back to a normal life," he said. "Cocktails and masks don't really go together."
Following a path taken by many people in Florida, Texas and other parts of the United States in early summer, Moscow and most of Russia in recent weeks have thrown caution to the wind.
Even restrictions that technically remain in force, like mandatory mask- and glove-wearing in the Moscow subway and on city buses, are mostly ignored. The authorities are making little effort to enforce them, though a few random people have been fined.
"That's not my department," answered a gruff turnstile guard Monday when asked what the rules are.
The Moscow city government led the way in sounding the alarm over the pandemic in Russia and imposed draconian controls in late March, which were largely observed, at least at the start.
Muscovites were ordered to stay at home except to buy food and medicine or to walk their dogs within 100 metes of home. All restaurants and bars were shut down, and masks and gloves were mandatory for anyone venturing out, a rule the police enforced with vigour.
Too close for comfort, and the virus, in Russia's communal apartments
But July 24, the city hosted a party in Gorky Park for recently graduated high school students. More than 10,000 young people attended, virtually all without masks, for a long night of dancing, hugging and boisterous close-quarters celebration.
Schools across Russia have been told to reopen for the new school year Sept 1. Traffic on the Moscow subway, which plunged by 85 per cent at the peak of the crisis, has bounced back to near normal levels, with more than 5.4 million passengers riding trains Tuesday, a post-lockdown record.
Unlike the Sun Belt in the United States, however, Russia has so far seen no surge in new cases, at least according to official statistics. The daily infection rate nationwide has hovered between 5,000 and 6,000 cases ever since President Vladimir Putin last month declared the battle against the pandemic won.
Putin pressed ahead with a huge, mask-free military parade in Red Square on June 24, and seven days of nationwide voting through July 1 on constitutional amendments that allow him to stay in power until 2036.
Kremlin critics say the figures are being massaged to avoid exposing Putin's confidence as premature. And there are some small signs, even in the official numbers, of possible trouble ahead.
The daily number of new infections in Moscow, after falling steadily to 530 in mid-July, has started inching up, rising to 695 on Friday. This is a big improvement on the more than 6,000 cases reported each day in the Russian capital at the peak of the outbreak in May — and a far cry from the more than 50,000 new cases reported each day this week in the United States — but the upward trend in Moscow, if it continues and accelerates, could quickly undo progress.
The Moscow city government Friday warned of stiff fines for not wearing masks on public transport and in shops.
The mayor of Norilsk, an industrial city in the Arctic, resigned recently after accusing regional officials of underreporting coronavirus figures. He said the real number of cases was more than twice the official count.
But others are more sanguine, and in a country long accustomed to calamity, any worries Russians have of an American-style fiasco have been far outweighed by delight at the end of restrictions.
Recent reports of a rash of infections among celebrities prompted more jokes than cries of alarm. Eljay, a popular rap musician, described his own infection with the coronavirus over the weekend with a gleeful message to his more than four million followers on Instagram: "I have a corona so I am the king. And if I am king we have a future."
While not politicised as it has been in the United States, mask-wearing is seen as seriously uncool among young people and by many older men, whose often reckless disregard for health warnings, public health experts agree, is reflected in their average life expectancy of 67 years. Some hip restaurants popular with youth have even started banning masks.
When Kristina Orbakaite, a Russian pop star, posted a photograph of herself wearing a designer mask on Instagram, she incited a storm of protest from fans who accused her, variously, of spreading panic, empty virtue signaling and pandering to the "herd instinct of Russian show business."
The criticism became so vicious that Orbakaite, whose mother, Alla Pugacheva, is an elderly but still hugely popular Russian singer, posted an audio message to her "dear subscribers and haters." In it, she expressed dismay that her fashion statement in favor of good hygiene had prompted "such a violent reaction" and explained that wearing a mask might not save the wearer but does protect others from infection.
"Frankly, I am discouraged," she said.
Russia's macho leader, Putin, while avoiding health hazards like guzzling vodka that have traditionally been seen as marks of manliness in Russia, has outdone even President Donald Trump in shunning the face mask. The only time he has appeared in public with his face covered was in March when he visited a Moscow coronavirus clinic wearing a respirator and a hazmat suit.
Polina Fedotova, a 27-year-old customer at the Nest cocktail bar, said she has many friends in the United States, so is well aware of what she called the "hellish" situation there. While not entirely confident Russia won't end up in the same place, she has decided that the benefits of having a normal life far outweigh any potential risks.
"It is better to get out and live normally and perhaps even get sick than to stay at home forever doing nothing," she said.
Fedotova's companion for an evening of cocktails was a 28-year-old doctor who works at a large Moscow hospital and who contracted the virus, but barely had any symptoms and has now recovered.
"It was not so bad," said the doctor, who declined to give her last name. "We are people, not robots, and want to have a life."
Younger Russians, often highly skeptical of all official claims, have been the most eager to embrace the idea that the danger has passed or at least that, whatever the risks, they are worth taking.
Yuri Kravchenko, manager of Pod Mukhoi, a popular basement bar in central Moscow, said "people are frightened deep down but the desire for a normal life is just too strong."
He wears a mask himself and has had all his serving staff tested for the virus, one of whom found out that he had had the virus without knowing it.
None of his customers on a recent weekend, packed on stools at the crowded wooden bar and huddled should-to-shoulder around tables in the dining area, had a mask.
Among them was a group of students from the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. They were celebrating the end of their course work, done mostly online for the past three months, and the chance to meet face-to-face for the first time since early spring.
Elizaveta Kolesnik, 21, said she had been in France when the pandemic arrived in Europe and been so frightened that she rushed back to Moscow just before Russia closed its borders. After more than two months cooped up at home in Moscow, however, she has put aside her earlier fear, deciding that "fate will decide what happens now" and "if you are afraid you only lose what life has to give."
Francesco Spatola, an Italian-Russian classmate, said he has no faith at all in official statistics but is happy to go along with authorities' rosy story line. He also sees no point in trying to resist the forces of nature.
"It is sad to say," he said, "but it is natural that people die."
Written by: Andrew Higgins
Photographs by: Sergey Ponomarev
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES