By Sam Iravani, for Filter Magazine

It’s been a hell of a month,” said Alesya Shagina, a peer outreach coordinator for Humanitarian Action, of their recent work in St. Petersburg. “But we’re really proud of how we managed to adapt to these circumstances. We distributed 347 harm reduction kits via courier delivery, 208 kits via mobile outreach, and delivered 133 [antiretroviral therapy regimens] just for the last month. Some people are asking for saliva tests so we’re trying to provide them, as well.”

Russia continues to experience severe drug-related problems even in non-pandemic times. While there has been a decrease in opioid dependence in recent years, there has been a rapid increase in the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS). At the same time, in a hostile political environment, harm reduction options—including outreach to drug users and distribution of supplies—have decreased.

In 2010, there were 70 organized harm reduction programs in Russia, already too few for such a huge country. Today, activists estimate that there are only about 20.

The Russian government has instead introduced punitive measures to fight drug use, treating people with addiction as criminals. This puts huge pressure on the small number of remaining NGOs providing essential, life-saving harm reduction services.