Regions

Two Months into the “Special Military Operation:” The View from Siberia

May 9, 2022
Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
Sarah has lived in Siberia since 1992. She was a community development activist for 20 years. Currently, she focuses on research and writing. She has published in The Nation.
Sarah Lindemann-Komarova on how the “special military operation” and sanctions are seen in the Russian provinces and how Siberians continue to live their lives and demonstrate resilience.
On February 24, the Donbas war turned into the “special military operation” (SMO) and the Crimea sanctions operation became a full-blown war. As the conflicts evolve, the reaction to both is similar in the two vastly different environments in which I live (the town of Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk and Manzherok Village, Altai Republic).

There was shared shock but no awe among those for and those against the SMO. As the weeks drag on, the shock has not diminished. Those who oppose the SMO are vehement and vocal. They will bring up the topic. Those who support it are mostly silent and never introduce the subject. Support by the people I have encountered comes with an asterisk. There is no rah-rah. For them, something had to be done. The operation was provoked, as it did not begin on February 24 but in fact eight years ago.

They usually slip it in starting with a description of their connection to Ukraine (e.g. family, friend, where they grew up) and/or to someone serving in the Russian military there. There are no degrees of separation – this is personal. Their heartache is equal to those who oppose the SMO.
First day of Spring festival Manzherok, 2022. @ Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
Early Days

On day one people were very active on social media. The full range of viewpoints was well represented:

  • An independent deputy from Novosibirsk posted: “Five theses: [Be] for Peace, stop military operations, it’s important to keep calm, limit your news time and care instead of fear.”

  • An activist in Novosibirsk was arrested when he protested and posted photos with commentary of his experience from the holding cell to the court.

  • In Manzherok, an elderly woman posted about her “homeland Ukraine” and relatives still in Kyiv: “My heart bleeds… Ukraine is on the border of Russia, historically our peoples are brothers. Artificially separating them was a great sin… now I only rely on the mercy of God.”

  • A programmer who moved his family to Siberia from the Donbas when the war started said: War is always bad. Eight years ago, the Kyiv authorities launched a war against the civilian population. The shells hit my alma mater, there were casualties, people hid in the basements.”
The initial assumption was that hostiles would be concluded in a few days, so when the second week began, a new reality took hold. There was little chatter about it online beyond a lively debate on a Manzherok WhatsApp chat about whether or not it was appropriate to celebrate Maslenitsa (the first day of spring); we did. A neighbor’s son-in-law came over to install security cameras and asked whether we wanted to talk politics; my husband responded in the negative, to which Anton responded, “good.” The Russian government passed a law threatening 15 years in prison for people who publish “fake news.”

The second front, sanctions, kicked in noticeably. Exchanging information and advice about weather, food and now sanctions became part of the Siberian canon. Every day you woke up to discover what else you couldn’t do. It began with Apple/Google Pay, then flights and IKEA. Everyone started backing up data and signing up for Chinese UnionPay cards. They said goodbye to Coke, Pepsi, KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King and began checking the origin of their favorite products. Everyone who did not have VPN got one. Anyone who wasn’t on Telegram or VK moved there. The few Facebook stragglers got off when Meta announced it would relax content moderation criteria in some countries to allow promoting violence against Russians and Russian soldiers and death to Putin and Lukashenko. The Russian government blocked Meta platforms.
Food court at Mega Mall Novosibirsk, 2022 @ Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
Then, a new type of sanctions appeared, with announcements about where Russian artists, athletes and students were not welcome. When the stakes couldn’t be higher, the sanctions jumped the shark as Russian cats were barred from the international cat circuit.

The exception is IT specialists, who are not only welcomed but enticed abroad. At one Novosibirsk AI department, two out of 80 programmers decided to leave, though one returned after a week. Another working for a US start-up with a wife and two kids was given the option. “I am not in physical danger, I have an apartment…why go?” But young people without families, offered the opportunity to travel and work remotely, fostered by the Covid pandemic, have responded: “why not?” Meanwhile, the Russian government fast-tracked a law providing special benefits to the IT sphere, including no army conscription until 27, low-rate mortgages and a profit tax holiday for IT companies for three years.
Horse rental stand on the way to Aiya, 2020 @ Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
Two Months In

The Western sanctions have done nothing to foster a negotiated settlement. There is an occasional announcement about a donation drive for refugees in Novosibirsk. Graduates of Novosibirsk State University launched an antiwar petition that has attracted 1,298 signatures, representing classes from 1964, with 84% providing public signatures and a few indicating they are living in the US.
Zs are not ubiquitous. I have only seen one billboard, one giant sign at a horse rental business and fewer than 20 Z cars. I saw Z t-shirts for sale but only a single person wearing one – a young girl.
Cheese master from Tyumen at the Edem Mall Akademgorodok, 2022. @ Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
The Siberian calm is rooted in two things. The first is the Russian character as described in a Perestroika anecdote – a pessimist is someone who believes things can’t get worse and an optimist is someone who knows they can and will. The second is the experience of three previous economic shocks (early 1990s, 1998 and 2008), when all aspects of life were drastically transformed overnight. In addition, the 2014 Crimea sanctions demonstrated that there is opportunity for those ready to take advantage of it. The cheese niche is now being filled by people like Alexei the cheddar cheese master from Tyumen.

After the initial jump, the ruble-dollar exchange rate is lower than it was before the SMO. Forty-two brands in Novosibirsk remain closed but some, like IKEA and Zara, continue to pay their workers and are waiting for an opportunity to return, citing supply chain issues. McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are still operating. Coke is available – just no more investment or marketing by the company. At the Mega Mall, the “unfortunately, we are temporarily closed” signs hang like “back in 10 minutes” signs, with fully dressed mannequins and full shelves and racks in the stores. On a recent Sunday, there were plenty of shoppers, many flocking to the French holdouts Leroy Merlin and Auchan.
There have been several runs on products, including sugar and Xerox paper. The latest is female hygiene products and some stores are limiting three to a customer, besides sugar and kasha rationing. Despite some hoarding, the shelves remain full of these and most other products.

Inflation is real but fluctuating. A Novosibirsk newspaper project monitors the costs of goods at 10 of the most popular supermarkets. In the last week of April, the average cost of most products listed are down weekly (sugar by -3.91%, salt by -2.54%, tea by -10.11%, macaroni by -11.34%, bread by -4.60%; rice climbed +4.90%, buckwheat by +2.28% and vodka +1.25%).

I met an interior decorator who has never been busier – “people can’t invest abroad so they are investing here.” Round-the-clock work on the massive Sberbank Manzherok Resort has continued, but there are concerns over a potential pause because the interiors were from Italy, meaning a substitute may need to be found. Many people in Manzherok are building guest houses to take advantage of what is expected to be a blockbuster season, since it is hard to travel abroad. However, Turkey has just made that easier by creating a new airline, Southwind, to accommodate Russian tourists.

Anyone with strong ties to the West, financial or personal, is having a harder time. The UnionPay salvation card crashed when China stopped negotiations with Russian banks due to fears of secondary sanctions. One friend and her daughter lost jobs that were connected to Western business; it is clear that more layoffs are to come.

Nobody needs to wear a Z for the war to be felt – the sanctions have ensured that it is a shared experience: the teenager who can’t make income from Instagram, the babushka worried about cooking oil, the beautician who can’t see American movies in the theater, the mini-oligarch who doesn’t have access to his Swiss bank accounts, the middle class family waiting for IKEA to open or a car part to arrive.

One acquaintance told me she hoped this inspired people to take more responsibility for their country and especially government. There are some signs of this in the village. For the first time, the chat has hosted detailed, hours-long discussions about improving the quality of life. A protest over illegal deforestation gained traction on social media and was picked up by regional news.
Manzherok Town Hall, 2022. @ Sarah Lindemann-Komarova
The Manzherok House of Culture was full for a town meeting that included not only the heads of the district and village, but representatives from the prosecutor’s office and healthcare, pension, and tax departments. There are also indications the government is getting serious about corruption with March 6 amendments authorizing audits of officials and their families who have assets greater than their total income for the previous two years.

CONCLUSION

The trend with the SMO is not good, as no one is backing down and everyone arming up, while the information wars are out of control, making sure everything is dumbed down to heroes and villains. The situation is complex and none of that complexity is presented in most of what you find in mainstream Western media. Thirty years after the new Russia was born and the anticipated peace dividend celebrated, we have arrived at the worst-case scenario. There are only three certainties now: anyone who makes a prediction about what will happen should be ignored, the world will never be the same and the people of Siberia will not weaken.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy
  • Privacy Policy
  • Contacts
Made on
Tilda