Vladimir Putin bears responsibility for the HIV epidemic facing Russia

Iskander Yasaveev

In recent years, the Higher School of Economics Center for Youth Studies has been studying youth activism in Russia, including HIV activism. In the latter case, sociologists were interested in how the problem of HIV/AIDS is defined by people affected by the epidemic and government officials.

Vladimir Putin has not spoken about HIV during his third presidential term, and is silent about it to this day. Meanwhile, it was during this period in Russia, according to the Federal Scientific and Methodological Center for the Prevention and Control of AIDS, that the virus spread rapidly.

Of the 1.4 million cases of HIV infection registered in Russia since 1987, more than half – about 750,000 – have been registered since 2012, when Putin's third term began.

The early Putin, unlike the late Putin, recognised the importance of the problem. During his first and second terms (2000-2008) he repeatedly defined HIV/AIDS as a "threat", "very urgent", a "very acute problem", an "extremely dangerous disease" and he spoke about an "epidemic", the "collapse of AIDS", the "deadly virus". He called AIDS and tuberculosis the most serious and worrying diseases in the world. Russia was portrayed by the president as a participant in global efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

Putin’s only comprehensive statement on HIV is from the same period, at a meeting of the State Council Presidium on 21 April 2006. His speech abounded with errors: Putin mixed the concepts of HIV and AIDS, spoke about HIV-infected people, risk groups and the need to raise the importance of moral values. But he did acknowledge the alarming situation.

However, the topic of HIV soon disappeared from the public agenda of the Russian president. Since 2010, there have been no presidential statements about HIV on the Kremlin website. The protracted presidential silence coincides with the deterioration of relations with Western countries, which began with Putin's speech in Munich in 2007. This means that Moscow has pragmatically used the issue of HIV/AIDS to portray Russia as a full-fledged member of the international community that is struggling with the challenges of our time.

Putin’s inattention to the problem is one of the factors contributing to the epidemic. In recent years, there has been no “top-down” signal from the established hierarchy of power that HIV/AIDS is important. As a result, even the heads of Russian regions with a very high prevalence of HIV did not address the problem.

Another circumstance that contributes to the HIV epidemic in Russia is the traditionalist attitudes of Putin and his entourage. The government's advocacy of "traditional values" prevents sexual education in schools, the spread of safe sex using condoms, harm reduction programmes for drug users, and the introduction of substitution therapy for drug addicts in Russia.

I witnessed how one of the senior students asked HIV activists: “And if you take birth control pills, but without a condom, can you get infected?” This question is an indictment of the Russian secondary education system, in which nothing is done to reduce the spread of risky practices, in particular unprotected sex. Instead of sexual education, the government suggests young people follow the slogan: “The main weapon against HIV is love and fidelity.”

To date, more than 340,000 people with HIV have died in Russia, and two-thirds of these deaths have occurred since 2012. People are not dying because HIV is fatal; thanks to antiretroviral therapy, HIV infection is no longer a deadly disease. People living with HIV in Russia often die because, in the absence of public discussion of the epidemic, they do not accept their diagnosis, do not believe doctors, and refuse therapy. HIV transmission occurs in the vast majority of cases due to ignorance, lack of knowledge and understanding of risks.

Putin, through his silence and traditionalism, bears a significant part of the responsibility for the HIV epidemic in Russia.

Iskander Yasaveev is a doctor of sociology and senior researcher at the Center for Youth Studies at the Higher School of Economics, St Petersburg