A wry view of life for the world-weary

Forty Days And Forty Nights – Part Fourteen


The Russian bubonic plague epidemic – 1770 to 1772

This bubonic epidemic accounted for between one sixth and a third (between 52 and 100 thousand lives) in Moscow alone. At the epidemic’s height in September 1771 an estimated 1,000 Muscovites died a day, despite the fact that an estimated three-quarters of the population had fled the city. War and stunning incompetence on the part of those in authority contributed to the disease’s spread. Contracted through exposure to prisoners of war and booty the plague first developed in Russian soldiers in January 1770 serving in Moldova, where the disease was indigenous. The commanding general, von Stoffeln, refused to recognise that there was a plague and even when the outbreak became common knowledge he forbade the evacuation of infected troops. Van Stoffeln himself died of the plague in May 1770 and of the 1,500 of his troops who contracted the disease between May and August 1770, only 300 survived.

The next problem was that though there were quarantine checkpoints in place, the exigencies of the war meant that the movement of troops and supplies took precedence, peacetime measures were overturned. The consequence was that the plague spread through Poland and Ukraine, reaching Russia by August 1770. But Catherine the Great refused to admit that the plague had arrived. By December the first case had reached Moscow. The response of the national government was to send military guards to the hospital to enforce a quarantine but by March 1771 the plague had taken hold and more forceful measures were adopted.

Quarantines were enforced, contaminated properties were destroyed without any compensation or control and public baths were closed. These measures not only caused fear and anger amongst the citizenry but prompted many, fearful that their homes would be destroyed, to hide the bodies of plague victims, compounding the problem. Specially formed gangs of prisoners established to collect and bury bodies were insufficient for the task. The local economy collapsed. Whilst the nobility and the better-off fled the city, the majority of the citizens faced acute food shortages and worsening living conditions.

By September 17th 1771 they had had enough and a crowd of 1,000 gathered at the Spasskaya gates demanding the release of captured rebels and the elimination of quarantine restrictions. Whilst order was restored with the arrest and subsequent trial of 300 of the rioters, a positive response was forthcoming from the authorities. A commission headed by Orlov improved the efficiency and quality of the quarantine process by varying the duration depending the degree of exposure and relative health of the individuals concerned and paying them for the duration of their quarantine.

By November 1771 Catherine was able to announce that the plague was over although deaths continued until early into the next year. But there were significant consequences. The Russian authorities were forced to reduce taxes and conscription quotas, thus weakening the war effort which, in turn, accelerated the move towards the partitioning of Poland. Locally, the authorities banned burials in the traditional cemeteries within the boundaries of Moscow and a ring of new graveyards were built around the outside of the city, some of which are still in use today.

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