MOSCOW — In a shamanic ritual last month in the Siberian hamlet of Shuluta, fermented milk was sprinkled on a fire, a sheep was killed and boiled to make a rich broth, and prayers were offered to ancestors.
What happened next left Shuluta isolated and ensnared in a drama — in a far corner of Siberia — that tugs on the deeper threads of a world in crisis: authorities under pressure, defiance by rule breakers, neighbor turning against neighbor, and questions over just how far to go to stop the spread of the pandemic.
On June 27, the local administration sent tractors to dig two trenches around the village to seal it off after the first confirmed cases of coronavirus infection appeared in the village, population 390. Many believed the virus was linked to the rituals and gathering held by one Shuluta clan.
Relatives traveled 280 miles from the city of Ulan-Ude — near Lake Baikal — for the sunrise ceremony June 9.
Roadblocks to regulate access had been set up in March, but authorities imposed the full-scale blockade after last month’s outbreak in a region where a paucity of medical facilities adds to the anxiety over the arrival of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“We were told they dug the trenches so that no one could leave and no one could come,” said resident Bayarma Balbanova, 28, a librarian. “How could you close the village if there is no money and no work? How could people live?”
Shuluta’s closure — set to last until the end of July — is as singular as it is severe. No similar village closures have been reported elsewhere in Russia.
But it touches on wider trends in Russia’s difficult fight against covid-19.
Spread from cities
The hot spots have moved from Moscow to some of the nation’s remote and vulnerable regions, where health facilities are ramshackle and staff and equipment are in short supply. Russia, with more than 750,000 cases by its official count — the fourth-largest national total globally — is recording more than 6,000 cases daily. (Russia’s total is still much lower than the U.S. count of more than 3.6 million confirmed cases.)
Almost 10 percent of Shuluta’s population, 37 residents, contracted the virus, and 15 were flown to Ulan-Ude in helicopters. A 62-year-old man died.
The crisis tore at Shuluta. Accusations flew. Many blamed those who held the shamanic ritual that drew in outsiders. There was anger at district authorities. Other residents flat-out denied the existence of the virus — even some who had pneumonia.
Local authorities, doctors from Ulan-Ude and community elders had to use all their tact and persuasion to calm the situation.
Shuluta lies on a bank of the Irkut River, on a plain at the foot of the Sayan Mountains, which are sacred to the Khongodor and Terte tribes, according to Dora Khamaganova, the press secretary at the Tunkinsky district administration, whose mother is from the Khongodor tribe.
Dug a deeper trench
Famed for its natural beauty, it is home to farmers raising dairy cattle and sheep on the fertile river plain. The village is the gateway to the Tunkinsky National Park, an area with rugged peaks, mineral springs and waterfalls that is popular with tourists, off-road SUV drivers, campers, kayakers, fishing enthusiasts and white-water rafters.
In March, the head of the district, Ivan Alkheyev, an epidemiologist by profession, saw the risk of a major outbreak in the narrow valley. He set up roadblocks to limit access to Shuluta and established a database of people from the region who were allowed to travel through the village up into the mountains beyond.
“At the beginning, it was very hard. We could hardly hold back this attack of tourists because this place is very popular,” said Khamaganova, the press secretary.
“They would simply drive around the roadblock,” she said, calling them “extreme drivers” heading up into the mountains.
“People kept doing it, of course not openly, but at night when no one was around,” she said. “That was happening all the time.”
Even the trenches dug on June 27-28 were not enough to deter such enthusiasts. People simply drove through them in off-road vehicles.
“Then we decided to dig a third trench, much deeper,” Khamaganova said.
Shamanic rituals such as the one performed by an extended family in Shuluta are common in the late spring or early summer.
“The ancestors are considered to be benevolent protectors of the families and tribes. People pray when the grass is as long as the tongue of a cow,” Khamaganova said.
About 60 people attended the clan’s rituals, and around 95 participated in the feast that followed, she said. The visitors from Ulan-Ude stayed about three days.
According to Khamaganova, people who came to the village from Ulan-Ude had no symptoms of covid-19, but some were likely to have been carriers of the coronavirus.
Ablaze with blame
In the tightknit community where all know one another, many blamed the family that held the ritual.
“Some blamed one family member,” said Balbanova, the librarian. “Others blamed another.”
The total lockdown was ordered after doctors arrived from Ulan-Ude. They also brought a team to disinfect the village, Khamaganova said.
Balbanova said most people in the village, including her husband, are unemployed. The only way to make money is to travel to the town of Slyudyanka, nearly 40 miles away, to sell milk. People also buy food and goods more cheaply there than they can in Shuluta’s one shop.
“Of course they did not like the idea that they were locked in their village,” Khamaganova said. “So they objected.”
Doctors tested and X-rayed everyone in the village. Authorities confined people to their houses and identified some for hospital treatment. Not everyone followed orders.
“Some of them did not want to go to hospital because they did not believe that they had covid-19, even though they had pneumonia. They did not believe in the virus at all, so there were problems with them,” she said.
As the mood in the village soured, elders intervened. It could easily have been outsiders — perhaps tourists — who brought the virus to Shuluta, they argued.
“Our elders and our grandparents started to say that we should not blame anyone. Then our parents told us not to blame anyone,” Balbanova said. “Then we all agreed we should not blame anyone, because it’s good that it came in the summer. It’s easier than if it came in the winter.”
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.