By Polina Ivanova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – For some elderly Moscow residents, the coronavirus lockdown has a familiar feel – they lived through something like it during a dramatic Soviet-era smallpox outbreak six decades ago.

That crisis, in 1960, was accompanied by emergency measures that were at times more draconian than this time round.

Moscow’s rail, road and air links with the rest of the country were partially suspended, and anyone who came into contact with an infected person was traced and quarantined.

“Immediately in Moscow a special headquarters was set up, which led the hunt for people who had been exposed,” Victor Zuev, 90, a laboratory worker at the time, told Reuters.

“Thousands of people were isolated … they were taken off trains, brought back from abroad,” said Zuev.

This time round, authorities are also tracing and quarantining people.

Smallpox, vanquished worldwide thanks to a vaccine, is a highly infectious disease with a mortality rate of 30%. The Soviet Union officially eradicated it in 1936, but a traveller brought it back to Moscow from India in the final days of 1959.

Self-isolating at home in Moscow now, Vladimir Petrosyan, son-in-law of the traveller who was patient zero, remembers the smallpox emergency.

Petrosyan, 80 and now a professor of chemistry, spent two months in compulsory isolation after contracting the disease.

He was quarantined in Moscow’s Infectious Diseases Hospital N.2. Today it is one of the city’s few centres where patients with the new coronavirus are isolated and treated.

“It was one enormous hall … beds were lined up one after another,” Petrosyan recalled. The hospital was surrounded by a police cordon.

Some Russians question official coronavirus data now. But back then, with Nikita Khrushchev in charge, there was no information.

“There were no announcements in the press, nor on the radio. As always, the government kept people in the dark,” Vladimir Golyakhovskiy, then a doctor at Moscow’s Botkin hospital, wrote in a 2006 memoir.

“So rumours spread around Moscow, each scarier than the last,” he added.

This time, with the official number of coronavirus cases in Moscow still relatively low compared to other European capitals, at 5,181, rumours of unreported cases have swirled online, prompting authorities to introduce penalties for spreading false information.

And whereas in 1960 life in Moscow continued much as normal, this time mayor Sergei Sobyanin has imposed a strict quarantine, shutting cafes and bars and telling residents to remain at home.


Smallpox was brought to Moscow in December 1959 by a sole carrier, а renowned painter of Soviet propaganda posters, Alexei Kokorekin. He had contracted it in India after visiting a city where funeral pyres were held, including of people who had died of the disease.

Petrosyan, who later married Kokorekin’s daughter, said he and his wife were at the artist’s bedside when he died that month.

“He was buried in a lead coffin, because they suspected he had some sort of infectious disease, but they did not know what,” Petrosyan recalled.

Petrosyan and Zuev told Reuters that Moscow’s way of dealing with the new coronavirus, focused on isolating patients and suspected carriers, echoed what was done in 1960.

But with one crucial difference: there was a vaccine against smallpox but there is none yet against COVID-19.

Within weeks of Kokorekin’s death, smallpox vaccines were shipped to Moscow from across the Soviet Union.

“The mass vaccination of 7 million who live or work in Moscow … was carried out in one week,” an article in the New York Times archive, from Feb. 3, 1960, reads.

Moscow’s 1960 smallpox outbreak caused three deaths. The capital’s new coronavirus outbreak has, according to official figures, led to 31, a figure that increases daily.

(Writing by Polina Ivanova; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Giles Elgood)