Village Life, Trying to Calibrate the Economic and Public Health Equation, and Game Over
Part III COVID-19 in Siberia: Village Life
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
Our second week of “non-work self-isolation” began on Sunday April 5 but there are no weeks any more. There is a block of time with intervals marked by the sun rising and setting, at least until April 30 or Putin decides to “recommend” Governors prolong or shorten the period.
The spring snowmelt causes the Katun river to also rise a little more every morning, as do the number of Coronovirus positives in Siberia, except for in the Altai Republic. Here, 778 people have tested negative. It is taking on the feel of a TV reality show competition or sports event as we made it to the semi-finals, the final four regions (of 85) without the virus. In addition to us, moving west to east, the COVID free regions are the Nenets Okrug in the Far North with a population of 44,000, many of them reindeer herders. Then our neighbor the Tuva Republic with just over 300,000 people. It is famous for throat singing and as the locale for the picture of shirtless Putin on horseback. Finally, back up to the Far North on the other side of the country to Chukotka, population 50,000, some of whom live on an island 4 km from Alaska.
Traditional throat singing from Tuva, Russia
Two regions dropped out on the same day. One case was registered in Nenets purportedly thanks to a visitor from St. Petersburg. Tuva went down hard with 8 cases, all at once, all in one family (4 kids and 4 adults). The culprit was a man who had been on a business trip to Moscow, then home to Krasnoyarsk before traveling to his native village for a visit. He said he should not be fined since he was never given an official document to self-isolate, adding, “Still, I understand how hard it is and I want to apologize to the villagers, let my lesson be for the future to everyone else”. Five days later Chukotka was out when a man who had been in Moscow and was self-isolating tested positive.
This added some notoriety to our very small region as news outlets started to print stories about the last remaining COVID-19 free region. The big question, why? What is so special about Altai? One resident said it is because people are taking natural antiviral agents “onions, garlic, ginger, and Ivan-tea which has twice as much vitamin C as in lemon”. A woman from the capitol city Gorno Altaisk suggested “Maybe the shamans or maybe because our air is so fresh”.
Republic Parliament member Erzhanat Begenov’s different take was picked up by national news, “There is no one infected in the region, because the Republic is protected by Princess Ukok. The Altai people worship her very much, they are very dear to her.” Princess Ukok or the Siberian Ice Maiden is a 5th century BC mummy who died when she was about 25. She has been controversial since her 1993 discovery by Siberian archeologists digging in burial mounds located in Plateau Ukok. According to some, the 2014 flood is the latest manifestation of misfortune triggered by outraging the Princess’s spirit by disturbing her burial place. “She guarded the gates of the underworld keeping out the monsters that feed on people’s fears and destroy the existence of harmony”. Those that believe this point to Yeltsin’s attack on the Parliament in the fall of 1993 as the beginning of the trail of woe that would go on to include the Altai earthquake in 2003 as well as two Chechen wars, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria and Ukraine. After 19 years in a Novosibirsk institute, the Siberian Ice Maiden was repatriated to her homeland. This was only a partial victory for the people of Altai as her remains are kept in the Republican National Museum. She has yet to return to her sacred resting place.
The only noticeable change in street life is less kids playing outside during the day. School is back in session that means Internet at home for 34,000 schoolchildren in the Republic and weekly home assignments for 2,000 of them who do not have Internet or are in special needs programs. 20,000 children in the free or discounted school lunch programs are being provided food packets at home during this period.
In the evening, the teenage cliques continue to patrol the village and the Moms push their baby carriages along the riverbank. Work continues to prepare the garden for planting and you know it is Saturday when there is smoke from all the banyas as people clean, steam, and sweat away the sludge of life. No one wears masks except for the sales clerks in the stores. The chain supermarket posted a sign on the door asking people to stand one meter apart but no one does. In the Yandex self-isolation daily average chart (based on number of people on the street), Gorno Altaisk registered a 1.5 out of 5 tied for second to last in Russia.
Small businesses in Manzherok are navigating ways to generate some kind of income. For a few this involves risking a fine because they do not fit the profile of an essential business (two clothing kiosks in the entryway to the legally opened hardware store). For others, it requires innovation. Outside the bright pink and yellow “Altai” café stands a life-size blond female figure in an apron carrying a “Take Out” menu. But, Ludmila the owner says that no one here wants take out because there are no tourists. She signals for me to move closer and whispers “I will let locals in and lock the door so everything is safe.”
Sergey, the first and last to introduce an international flair to the food available in the village with his Uzbek restaurant, was ready to open another place at the ski resort when the pandemic hit. He is calm about it “This is a leap year, that means something bad was going to happen.” He gave me his card and invited me to take out. When we called to order lagman soup and “ploff” he said “We don’t have any of that, we can boil some “pelmeni”. Instead we agreed on lagman and “ploff” the next day. When we arrived to pick up, six people were waiting for us.
On the counter there was a basket of plastic packets with fashion masks to fit any taste (jeans, camo, and polka dot). 200r expensive. We bought one of each.
Marina at the meat store is still getting fresh cuts but she is limiting the inventory since there are no tourists. Friday there will be shashlik and chopped beef. Calmly she adds, “We will be okay if it ends by June 1 but after that we may face bankruptcy”. The electronic and appliances delivery guy told me what local people are buying “We have lots of business, tablets and games. People are sitting at home all the time, they need to do something”.
Several weeks in now and I still don’t hear bitching about the economic consequences of COVID-19. I think that for people in the village it is palatable because being broke is familiar. They were just starting to get in the plus column after two and a half decades of desperation. Harder than having no money is not being able to drink tea with friends and losing the sense of purpose from having somewhere to go every day. But here, in the village there is always the garden. Forbid people their gardens and the revolution begins.
It is clear everyone is improvising in a situation not just unprecedented in relation to the pandemic, but in the lack of dictate coming from Moscow. The ultimate test, Moscow is not telling the Governors what to do, they have to figure it out themselves. If they fail, they will be judged and there will be no way to hide it COVID-19 is the ultimate test for Putin and his legacy. 20 years in, can the constitutionally mandated federal republic system respond at least not worse than America and Europe without being dictated to by Moscow? This leaves Governors across the country trying to calibrate what is evolving into a balancing act between public health and the economy. There is no debate about the strategy and goal. Stats are everywhere. In addition to National Government sites, all government and press sites have special coronavirus sections detailing not only the numbers but what the regional government is doing to respond. The key is in the tactics and the courage to be flexible. This is the final exam for all levels of the Russian government.
In the Altai Republic the daily report includes the number of people home quarantined. The numbers are going up because the Governor decided to expand the requirement beyond those who have been abroad to include people coming from other regions by plane. Then he ordered the planes from Moscow stopped. A couple of days after that, flights from all neighboring regions were cancelled. Now, there is only one way in, car. Locals can quarantine at home, non-locals must serve their time in a specially prepared facility. For a short time, people arriving by car from any region were required to let officials know where they were staying. Now it is only people from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
There are numerous hotlines for people to call with questions. A typical day there were 79 calls. Most people want to know about movement around and outside the region, when businesses are going to start working again, and COVID-19 tests. That same day the disinfection hotline received 108 calls. There are weekly pictures of I assume men in hazmat suits disinfecting playgrounds and other facilities. There are also raids to monitor compliance with the anti-epidemic regime for businesses and other functioning enterprises. One report described inspections at 45 facilities in three districts with violation protocols filed for seven of them, another day it was 94 inspections in different districts and 9 violations.
Another regular feature is volunteer activities such as the all-Russian “People’s Front” organization sewing 100 sets of PPE for medical personal in partnership with the teachers at the Polytechnic College. Another big volunteer organizer is the United Russia party. The Republic is United Russia territory. 58% of the Parliament Deputies represent the Party. Their volunteers wear Party gear distributing government food packets with buckwheat, rice, pasta, sunflower oil, flour, sugar, oatmeal, condensed milk, and black leaf tea as well as toilet paper, soap, and cleaning products to pensioners. First priority were 2,000 people whose pensions are less than the monthly minimum subsistence living of 10,041 r ($135).
There was initially some tension between groups but now volunteer centers are manned by all factions. There are up to 300 volunteers. Deputies take turns covering the hotline and coordinating response. I talked to my Deputy friend on her day. It was slow, only three calls, two days earlier there were eight. When I asked what people need she said it is mostly pensioners who need us to bring food or medicine. However, she continued, “Some people do take advantage. A man called who was under quarantine because he had just returned from abroad and he wanted us to bring him cigarettes and wine”.
There is the relentless “stay at home” reminder on every site, poster, and program. One day there were 60 calls reporting people not observing self-isolation, five of them were confirmed and the names turned over to law enforcement.
Neighboring regions have started to not only collect but increase fines for people breaking quarantine. In Krasnoyarsk the current Siberian infection leader, fines increased from 1,000 to 3,000 rubles for regular people, from 4,000 to 30,000 thousand rubles for officials, and legal entities from 30,000 to 200,000 rubles. Here, they are going a kinder, gentler route. Recently Deputy Viktor Romashkin, Head of the Legislative Committee described their position, “It is worth considering that large fines can cause a backlash. At times, in our country fines are applied not only to the guilty, but for those accused. So far, we believe our measures are adequate. Our Region is small, it is easier to control violators. We are one of the few regions where there is no coronavirus”. Beyond the threat of fines, the virus, and increasing pride in our now being the only region without it, a new tactic appeared, tick warnings. As tick season begins, ticks here can carry lethal encephalitis, articles started to appear saying there were a lot of ticks this year (in 45 minutes in one district an expert collected 30) and yet 4 times less tick bites thanks to self-isolation.
There is no doubt that the local businesses allowed to operate are still taking a major hit because of the edict banishing tourists until June 1. However, all I have to do is look out my window to know there are tourists here. They are the people snapping pictures of themselves in front of the Manzherok rapids. Another giveaway can be the clothing. No grown up man in this village would wear jean shorts and sunglasses. License plates are another tell, I have seen Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Kemerovo, and lots from our neighboring region with the same name, Altai Krai. The supermarket checkout woman told me she has seen adds in VK (the Russian Facebook) and someone called us to see if we would rent.
It was clear the cheaters are not the larger hotels or guest houses, but the smaller unregistered family “green tourism” businesses. When the first public complaint was made by a neighbor about tourists being housed in Manzherok, the follow-up interview established they were relatives of the owner. They all received a warning to observe self-isolation. The next day I saw a police car pull up to the house where a week earlier I saw tourists check in.
OPENING UP ECONOMY
Since Putin won’t tell the Governors what to do, some are following the lead of neighboring regions. For us that is Novosibirsk. On April 6, Novosibirsk announced they would allow factories and construction to resume operations as long as they observed strict anti-virus measures. Soon after the list grew to include farming, fishing, IT support, dry-cleaning, and hairdressers. A few days later our Governor Khorokhordin released his list of businesses allowed to operate. This includes hairdressers and sun-tanning parlors but clients must sign up ahead of time and no more than three at a time. Also dentists, veterinarians, eyeglass stores, repair shops (shoe, cars, computers), and nurseries selling plants, seeds, and fertilizer.
Help to businesses followed Federal aid guidelines. The money has to come from somewhere. There is a long and complicated list of what is available that includes delaying loan payments, cancelling rents, Sberbank is offering some businesses with up to 100 employees 0% loans, other banks are reducing rates, restructuring, and giving credit holidays. The government is extending deadlines for some tax payments. Businesses continuing to pay employees will have their taxes cut from 30–15%.
The numbers for agencies responsible for implementing the various programs are well publicized. It is too early to tell how efficiently or broadly this will all be provided.
MEANING OF LIFE IN THE VILLAGE
14 sunrises ago, there were a total of 144 registered cases of COVID in the 13 classic Siberian Regions. Today there are 825. Two of them are in the Republic of Altai. After several false rumors followed by perpetual reminders not to believe fake news, the official channels made it official, and then there were none. On April 16, a woman in the Ongydai District tested positive followed the next day by her husband. Their daughter came to visit from a neighboring region. On that same day officials called 78 people quarantined at home. 36 are observing, they could not reach 42 of them.
Princess Ukok can still be credited for a victory in a different recent battle, this one against the state. After years of protest by the Altai people and grassroots environmental groups the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline route that was scheduled to go through the sacred Plateau of Ukok UNESCO World Heritage site was changed. Instead of going straight to China, it will now go through Mongolia.
Manzherok village life goes on with its victories and defeats, tragedies and joys. There are no COVID-19 cases but a young man died at 3AM on Sunday in a car crash by the Manzherok memorial to Soviet writer and Altai Explorer Vyacheslav Shishkov. One of my four Nadiya neighbors thinks they made up the positive COVID-19 result to scare people.
When we first built our house here almost 20 years ago, I chatted every day with the oldest woman in the village. How old, 103, 109…no one knew because she was born in an even smaller village even further from the middle of nowhere than here. Despite these humble beginnings, she lived through Tsarist Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, Stalin’s industrialization and repression, the Great Patriotic War, the Cold War , Khrushchev’s thaw, Brezhnev’s stagnation, Gorbachev’s perestroika, Yeltsin’s democracy and oligarchic capitalism and 2 years of Putin’s first first term as President of Russia. Every day I asked the same question, “You have experienced Tsarism, Communism, democracy…compare and contrast, do you have a preference?”.
She never had much to say. Her only reference points for this extraordinary history were how the fish were running, how much milk the cow was providing and the garden was producing. Day in and day out her answers were always the same, Tsars, presidents, communism, capitalism no difference, good fishing that year= happy, cow’s not making enough milk = bad. There was really only one true power in the realm of this Babushka’s world, nature. That is hard to forget when living in a village on the Katun River surrounded by mountains.
Sarah Lindemann-Komarova has been a community development activist in Siberia since 1992. Currently she is focusing on research and writing about civil society in Russia.