Sarah Lindemann-Komarova: Two Months into the Special Military Operation: The View From Siberia

By Sarah Lindemann-Komarova, Echo Siberia Blog, 5/12/22

Sarah Lindemann-Komarova has lived in Siberia since 1992. She was a community development activist for 20 years and currently, focuses on research and writing.

On February 24, 2022, the Donbas War turned into a Special Military Operation (SMO) and the Crimean special sanctions operation became a War. As the conflicts evolve, the reaction to both are similar in the two vastly different environments I live (the town of Akademgorodok, Novosibirsk and Manzherok Village, Altai Republic).

There was unified shock, no awe, among those supporting and those against the SMO. As the weeks drag on, the shock does not diminish. 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, go get em. For them, something had to be done. The operation was provoked because it did not begin on February 24 but eight years ago. They usually slip it in starting with a description of their connection to Ukraine (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.

Early Days

Day one people were very active on social media. The range of Points of View were well represented:

· An Independent Deputy from Novosibirsk posted 5 Thesis: For Peace, Stop Military Actions, It is Important to be 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, “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 assumption was it would be over in a few days so when the second week began a new reality took hold. There was not a lot of chatter about it online beyond a lively debate on the Manzherok What’s App 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, “Do you want to talk politics?” My husband answered, No”, Anton said, “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 became part of the Siberian canon: weather, food, and sanctions. Every day you woke up to discover what else you can’t do. It began with no Apple/Google pay, then fly, and shop at IKEA. Everyone started backing up data and signing up for Chinese UnionPay Cards. They said goodbye to Coke, Pepsi, KFC, McDonalds, and Burger King and checked the origin of favorite products. Everyone who did not have a VPN got one. Anyone who wasn’t on Telegram or VK moved there. The few Facebook stragglers fled when Meta announced it would relax content moderators[1] 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.

Then, a new sanctions category appeared with announcements about where Russian artists, athletes, and students are not welcome. When the stakes couldn’t be higher the sanctions jumped the shark with the banning of Russian cats on the International cat circuit.

The exception is IT specialists who are not only welcomed, but enticed. At one Novosibirsk AI Department two out of 80 programmers decided to leave, 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 for young people without families the opportunity to travel, that was fostered by COVID distance work, the response is “why not?’ The Russian government fast tracked an order providing special benefits to the IT sphere including no Army conscription until 27, low percent mortgages, and IT companies do not pay taxes on profit for 3 years.[2]

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 a petition that has attracted 1,298 signatures representing classes from 1964. 84% provided public signatures and a few of those indicated they are living in the US. ”Z”s are not ubiquitous. I have only seen one billboard, one giant sign at a horse rental business, and less than 20 “Z” cars. I saw “Z” t-shirts for sale but have only seen one person wearing it, a young girl.

Early days there was news from relatives in Kyiv (hunkered down, not happy that weapons were being distributed to everyone) and Mariupol (hunkered down, happy the Russians arrived). Now you hear news about those serving. One friend welcomed her son-in-law home, another, waiting to hear if he will be going, got a call that his friend was killed.

Despite what has been promoted by the White House as, “The most significant and crippling sanctions package…in history” [3], early anxiety has become “what else is new”. So far, workarounds or substitutes have been found or are in the process of being developed. There is no panic or complaint, “We will just plant more vegetables” said one mother.

The Siberian calm is rooted in two things. The Russian character described in a Perestroika anecdote that defines a pessimist as someone who believes things can’t get worse and an optimist as someone who knows they can and will. The second is the experience of three previous economic shocks (early 90s, 1998, and 2008) when all aspects of life were drastically transformed overnight. Also, the 2014 Crimea sanctions demonstrated 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 an initial leap up, the ruble dollar exchange is lower than it was before the SMO. 42 brands in Novosibirsk remain closed but some, like IKEA and Zara continue to pay their workers and are waiting for an opportunity to return siting supply chain issues. [4] McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC are still working. Coke is available, just no more investment or marketing. At the Mega Mall, the “Unfortunately, we are temporarily closed” signs hang on closed gates like “back in ten minutes” with fully dressed mannequins and full shelves and racks. [5] On a recent Sunday there were plenty of shoppers, many flocking to the French holdouts Leroy Merlin and Auchan.

There have been several product panics including sugar and xerox paper. The latest is female hygiene products and some stores are limiting three to a customer along with sugar and kasha. Despite some hoarding, the shelves remain full of these and most other products.

Inflation is real but fluctuating. A Novosibirsk newspaper project monitors costs for goods at ten of the most popular supermarkets. The last week of April, the average cost of most products listed are down (Sugar/-3.91%, Salt/-2.54%, Tea/-10.11%, Macaroni/-11.34%, Flour/.01%, Bread/-4.60% ). The three climbing were Rice/+4.90%, Buckwheat/2.28%, and Vodka, up 1.25%. [6]

I met an interior decorator who has never been busier, “people can’t invest abroad so they are investing it here”. Round the clock work on the massive Sberbank Manzherok Resort continues but there are concerns there may be a pause because the interiors were from Italy so 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. [7] 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”, the sanctions have insured that the war 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 theatre, the mini-oligarch who doesn’t have access to his Swiss bank accounts, the middle class families waiting for IKEA to open or for a car part to arrive.

One acquaintance told me she hoped this inspired people to be more responsible for their country, 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 quality of life. A protest against illegal deforestation got traction on social media and was picked up by regional news.

The Manzherok House of Culture was full for a Town Meeting that not only included the Heads of the District and Village, but representatives from the Prosecutor, Healthcare, Pension, and Tax Departments. There are also indications the government is getting serious about corruption with March 6 amendments that authorize audits for officials and their families that have assets greater than their total income for the previous two years.[9]


The SMO trend is not good, no one is backing down, everyone is arming up, and the info 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 main-stream Western media. 30 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: anyone who makes a prediction about this situation should be ignored, the world will never be the same, and the people of Siberia will not be weakened.







[7] sanctions-fears-242072/?source=russia


3 thoughts on “Sarah Lindemann-Komarova: Two Months into the Special Military Operation: The View From Siberia”

  1. Thanks for passing on that post Natylie. I enjoyed that glimpse into Russian life at this moment of time.

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