The doctor in a flowing white dress risking her life to stand up to Putin

Published by The Mail on Sunday (25th April, 2021)

There are not many doctors who visit patients in a flowing long white dress with a big red sash tied around their waist and surrounded by a swarm of photographers. But Anastasia Vasilyeva is no ordinary doctor. 

For this brave and media-savvy medic has become a thorn in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side as she fought to save the life of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny during his hunger strike inside a penal colony hospital.

Two weeks ago, Vasilyeva dressed flamboyantly like a figure of Liberty to draw attention to her friend’s plight.  Last week, she returned to the prison gate with three other doctors in a desperate bid to see Navalny as his health deteriorated.

Once again, they were denied entry after waiting for hours outside the prison in the city of Vladimir, almost four hours from Moscow. ‘It’s a show of disrespect and mockery of the doctors,’ she tweeted later.

Her stand has made her a potent symbol of the fight for freedom in Russia. For like Navalny – who lost more than 40 lb before ending his 24-day hunger strike on Friday amid dire concerns that his life was in danger – Vasilyeva knows the power of publicity as a weapon against dictatorship.

Pictures of the leader of a medical union being arrested by burly officers spread around the world, driving home the message that doctors in Putin’s Russia are detained by police when trying to treat a sickly dissident patient.

Earlier this year, a video of Vasilyeva went viral after it showed her calmly playing Beethoven on a white piano as security forces entered her Moscow flat with an arrest warrant. She carried on with her rendition of Für Elise, ignoring officials as they read out demands to seize her computer and phone, then imperiously suggested to the goons that they might care to applaud when she concluded her performance.

Little wonder this ophthalmologist has become a symbol of resistance to Putin’s regime.

‘She is another one of our heroes,’ says Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion turned human-rights activist. ‘Who knows if it will help Navalny, since his life is in grave danger? Dictators simply cannot tolerate any opposition.’

Navalny was jailed following his return to Russia in January after recovering from a near-fatal poisoning suspected to have been carried out by people close to Putin.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people were arrested in protests across the country after the Kremlin moved to outlaw groups linked to Navalny and round up allies.

Vasilyeva, a 36-year-old single mother-of-two, became one of the highest-profile figures defying Putin after exposing his government’s chronic failures to protect frontline staff during the pandemic and accusing him of covering up the scale of deaths and illnesses in Russia.

Yet her activism began almost by accident three years ago. ‘I was not interested in politics at all,’ she said. ‘I thought Putin was a great president.’

But then her mother – also an ophthalmologist – and colleagues were suddenly fired from their posts at a leading medical research university and offered low-paid jobs as cleaners or laboratory assistants instead.

Vasilyeva launched a fight for their rights and reached out for help from her patients. The only one to support her was Navalny – she had treated him the previous year when his eye was injured after assailants threw green antiseptic dye in his face.

Their success in winning back her mother’s job inspired Vasilyeva to set up a union to help other medical workers – which placed her in the spotlight when Russia’s government responded badly to the pandemic. 

‘It’s hard not to be political when you see what’s happening with our healthcare system,’ she said.

Putin initially claimed ‘enemies of the state’ were spreading ‘fake news’ about Covid’s dangers in Russia, then acknowledged the gravity of the situation but insisted that the nation’s medical system could cope.

But while the president retreated into his virus-free bubble, with visitors made to quarantine for up to two weeks before meetings, desperate doctors pleaded for basic protective gear and exposed the decrepit state of hospitals.

Vasilyeva quickly became the leading medical critic as head of the Alliance of Doctors. As part of her campaign, she was videoed walking through an empty, rundown hospital. ‘If you think I’m in a war zone, in Syria or Somalia, you are mistaken,’ she said. ‘I’m in Hospital No 6 in the very centre of Moscow.’

She soon became a Kremlin target. Driving with colleagues to deliver supplies of gloves and masks to a provincial hospital, she was stopped by Novgorod police, arrested, beaten, dragged along the ground and put in a cell overnight.

With the government still seemingly downplaying the impact of the pandemic, doctors are in the middle of an increasingly bitter battle between the president and his political opponents.

‘There is a growing paranoia in the Kremlin,’ says Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security. ‘You are either for or against the president – and the medical profession is caught in this.’

Galeotti pointed to events at the Siberian hospital where Navalny was taken last summer after his poisoning, saying it was made clear to staff who refused to participate in the state cover-up that they had no future there.

A senior physician who claimed Navalny’s pain was merely caused by a ‘metabolic disorder’ was promoted to health minister for the region, while his deputy, who briefed reporters on the possibility of poisoning, has moved to a private hospital.

Vasilyeva has, with grim inevitability, been targeted by Putin’s propaganda machinery. She has been accused of spreading lies, while her medical union was branded a foreign front organisation. 

She was detained by police for several days in January in a crackdown on the eve of mass rallies against Navalny’s arrest. Yet she vows to carry on her fight in what is a life-and-death struggle for both her patient and her nation.

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