Part II: Non-work Week #1 in Manzherok, Altai, Russia Sunday March 29- Saturday April 4
By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
On Sunday, the start of Russia’s official Non-work Week #1, I saw only one woman (a neighbor across the street) and one child (a tourist at the ski resort) wearing a mask. This attitude was not rebellious or irrational, 480 people had been tested for COVID-19 and the Altai Republic remained one of a small group of Russia’s 85 regions that did not have a case of the virus. The child was heading towards the family car for the drive home to Kemerovo either as planned or in response to the mandated closing of all tourist and other non-essential businesses by the end of the day.
Governor Khorokhordin pushed back on more conservative forces announcing he would not shut down the border,“We can’t completely close the Republic, that is for a state of emergency and can only be introduced by the top leadership of the country”. A week later Chechen Republic President Kadyrov challenged this authority and lost. The Altai Republic’s COVID-19 wall would consist of closing down tourist facilities and tightening control over who enters. Moscow and other flights would continue but the Governor asked his fellow Governors to please discourage their people from coming to the Republic.
Most kids in Siberia were home for another week so schools could figure out how to organize distance learning. In the Village of Manzherok there was an almost universal tinge towards considering this a vacation. Still, a vacation for people in the village just means less work as there is always something that needs to be done whether it’s chopping wood or preparing the greenhouse. Working remote is not an option for people here. Tourism is the primary industry and little by little the number of people in the Village who started small tourist services businesses has grown considerably. Most visible are the small cabins with signs for rent that have popped up everywhere and are mostly only available in the summer.
Another source of income for many is the Open Air Market that sells souvenirs and homegrown produce and canned goods to the over 2 million tourists that pass through or stay in our village. The latest statistics from 2018 indicate this is double the number that came a decade earlier and an 11% increase over 2017. 64.1% of these tourists come between the May holidays and September with between 10–15% in May. Everything shut down just as the income generation was set to begin. The ripple effect was felt immediately even by those who could work. A local handyman said four clients had cancelled jobs.
Just before the shutdown the government coronavirus hotline reported 86 calls, 72 of them wanted to know why and how this non-work week worked. This sudden economic disaster hit just when there was the potential for a good kind of exponential leap to take place. Not only was there the increased investment from Sberbank, but the new Governor did his Kandidatski dissertation on “The State and Small Business: Interaction to Develop Cadre Potential”. And yet, it still looked like a typical Sunday. Up at the ski base 3PM there were a few people getting in their last runs and no one was shopping but tourists usually leave by lunch so they are home by evening.
The range of emotions went from shrug to laughter during the last hours of the open air market. The shrug was from from Irina, Queen of the souvenir stands and wife of the horseback riding business king. She was sitting in her Renault Kaptur, an unusual car for around here. We did not observe social distancing as she gave me a really good deal on some camel socks and tapochki, said they will live on their reserves and shrugged, “the important thing is to be safe”. Four women were chatting by the more communal booth section where they sell goods from their gardens and colorful, homemade cloth and wool rugs. When I asked what they were going to do, they laughed, “We are going to relax and concentrate on planting our gardens”.
The same was true for my neighbors who supplement pensions and other incomes with small guest houses, calm, no anger or complaint, better to be safe. One man stacking wood outside his empty guest house said, “Life is easier without the tourists”. Nadiya (one of four Nadiyas on the riverbank) sold me fresh eggs saying she was still getting calls from people wanting to come but she and her husband don’t think it is worth it to cheat. Better to be safe and the government was conducting raids to insure the regulations were being observed.
The larger hotel at the end of the street had a quarantine sign on their gate. One new quest house was clearly accepting customers. A bright green out of region car was parked in front of the high fence as a youngish couple were shown a second floor suite and returned to the car removing numerous bags from the trunk and carrying them in.
The four food stores (one chain, three locally owned) were fully stocked as were the two home/hardware stores (one chain, one local). The cashiers all said they preferred working since the government support would be less. It was 8PM and the only complaint came a woman with two children, “It would be good if we could at least shorten our hours”. Walking home the bright lights still blazed from the “essential” beer supermarket.
As the people were down shifting, the government was doing the opposite, at least on the regional level. They were gearing up to work harder than ever, this was the ultimate test. There had been other tests with a major flood in 2014 and a 7.3 earthquake in 2003. But, this was not only a different magnitude in terms of potential casualties, it was a universal challenge and their performance would be judged and compared to other regional administrations. Governing for measurable quality of life results is a weak point in Russia. Now is when all those short-cuts and cutbacks and kickbacks could come back to haunt.
Or to be discovered by Oleg Leonidovich Khorokhordin, 48, who celebrated his one year anniversary as Governor by cancelling all mass culture events in mid-March. He grew up in a neighboring region and moved to Moscow in 2002. He never lived in the Republic until Putin tapped him to take over from the problematic previous Governor. Khorokhordin is not a charismatic politician or ideolog.
Tall and very slim he wore a suit and wide tie at his fall election campaign town meeting in Manzherok. He appeared to be a good listener, no nonsense get the job done kind of guy. When I asked the middle aged man sitting next to me what he thought of him he responded, “His name has two “X”s, a lower case and upper case and that is like a cross and that means energy and the “d” symbolizes Slavonic strength, these are all good signs”. I was most impressed by his note taking.
On Tuesday, I had another chance to see the Governor in action when my friend, a Deputy in El Kurultay (the Republican Parliament), texted me a link to watch a live stream of their session. 37 of 41 deputies were listening to reports and voting. Around seven of them were wearing masks. During the session, the Head of Parliament coughed old style into his hands. I tuned in during a detailed report about farm and domestic animals, why aren’t Mayor’s who do not control stray dogs being fined? The Human Rights Commissioner was asked why a relative was working for him. Another deputy asked the auditor to summarize the situation. She said there are abuses at every level and they need more staff to keep up.
After one hour and twenty three minutes of business as usual the Governor took over to facilitate the COVID-19 update and questions that lasted an hour. The Health Minister reported there are 110 specialized beds prepared, 60 are outfitted with oxygen, 6 are intensive care and there are 25 ventilators currently assigned to this unit. Overall, there are 44 ventilators n the Republic. Kholohordan provided the big finish when he became the last Siberian Governor to launch the shift from “heightened awareness” to “self-isolation” starting at 8PM. It was a Moscow cut and paste definition of “self-isolation” meaning people were supposed to stay home except for medical emergencies, work, shopping at the nearest store, and dog walking maximum 100 meters from home.
As the week meandered on none of this was being observed but the expanse of the riverbank allowed for a natural social distancing among groups if not the individuals among them.
The unseasonably warm and sunny weather was too tempting so teenagers were out throwing rocks through the remaining chunks of snow covered ice on the river, a family stripped down to sunbath, kids rode their bikes, obvious non-locals were barbecuing while most locals did something to prepare their garden. Never ones to let a crisis go to waste, the nascent local healthcare insurance community asked regional heads to cooperate closely with them, “Our task is to guarantee the right to affordable and high-quality medical care for all patients, all insured in an epidemic”.
On Thursday, Putin announced the “non-work week” would become a “non-work period” that would end on April 30. Another vacation home owning neighbor Nadiya arrived from Tomsk and said no one stopped her at the border and that she will observe the quarantine. That plan was obliterated around 10PM Friday night when her banya caught fire.
By the time I got there a bucket brigade of neighbors were holding the flames back until they were joined by three trucks of firefighters. This public/private partnership fought on for another two hours until the last whiff of smoke was gone. Life in the village, even during a pandemic, some things never change.
By weeks end, my one mask wearing neighbor was joined only by people working in shops. 296 people had been or were officially self-quarantined. 260 were under medical observation, and another 224 people were tested for the virus, all negative.
Part Three, “Non-work Week #2”: Raids, Fines and Trying to Calibrate the Economic and Public Health Equation (coming soon)
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.