MOSCOW -- February brings bone-chilling temperatures to the windswept expanse that surrounds Tyumen, an oil-rich Siberian city 2,100 kilometers east of Moscow.
But for 144 Russian travelers, many accustomed to warmer, more westerly climes, it’s home for the next 14 days as they wait in state-ordered quarantine for confirmation that they’re clear of the deadly coronavirus that’s raging across swaths of Asia.
On February 5, government-commissioned military jets landed on a snow-covered airstrip in this region carrying the group of passengers evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the growing epidemic in China.
The preplanned repatriation was one of a series of measures the Russian government has taken to try to curb the epidemic’s spread across its borders. Last week, Russian officials reported the country’s first two cases: one in a Siberian region near Lake Baikal; the other in the Tyumen region, where the evacuees from Wuhan were flown.
The group from Wuhan was met with an army of medical workers in masks and protective gear, wearing light-blue overalls fluttering in the chilly breeze and equipped with thermometers to check for symptoms of the highly contagious disease.
Not long after arriving, they were transferred in a fleet of minibuses to a doubly fenced-off sanatorium about 30 kilometers outside the city, for a two-week period of quarantine and medical tests.
Russia’s chief medical officer, Anna Popova, insisted that the virus, if detected, would not spread beyond the walls of the sanatorium.
"The necessary measures have been taken so that nothing happens beyond the building, no matter how the situation develops,” she told the state news agency TASS on February 6.
Russian state media ran reports praising the Defense Ministry’s repatriation mission, which was ordered by President Vladimir Putin amid fears the virus could spread in Russia.
In an interview with Russian media, comedian Pavel Lichman said that he was contacted by diplomats while he was on a work visit to Wuhan on February 1 and told that transport would arrive within three days to take him and other Russians out of China.
He said he was permitted to take luggage not exceeding 30 kilograms and was picked up at his accommodation in Wuhan by a minivan organized by the embassy.
“This was good, because a taxi trip poses extra risk of infection since the driver interacts with various people while he works,” Lichman said in a post to the social-media site VK.
Even before they boarded the aircraft in China, many of the passengers took to social media to share details of the journey and what they faced on arrival in Russia.
Many were critical of the conditions during the flight.
Marina Zaitseva, a biology student from the Yaroslavl region northeast of Moscow, said in an Instagram post that the group did not know they were going to Tyumen until they had boarded the plane.
In a video taken during the 10-hour flight, Zaitseva complained about the noise, the hard benches, and what she said was a lack of seat belts and adequate sanitation. One photograph she posted showed the interior of a cargo plane, with two small camping tents erected, she said, to serve as toilets during the flight.
Another passenger, who gave her name only as Nadezhda K, told the news site Meduza that after hearing of the coronavirus outbreak during a trip to Wuhan, she contacted the Russian Embassy and the local consulate to learn of evacuation plans.
She corroborated Zaitseva’s claim that the destination was unknown even after transport had been arranged.
“Until the last moment, no one knew we were going to Tyumen,” she said. “But the quarantine didn’t faze me. I wouldn’t want to place other people at risk.”
Isolation in the middle of the Siberian winter was one of the more extreme measures the government has taken to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
With a 4,000-kilometer border with China, the country has been on high alert in connection with the outbreak that has thus far claimed more than 600 lives. Control points along the entire stretch of the border were closed on January 31, and all passenger rail links with China suspended four days later.
The outbreak has also been the first major test for Russia's new government, with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin taking a lead role in coordinating the response. On February 3, he announced plans to deport foreigners diagnosed with the illness.
For Russians exposed to sensationalist state TV coverage and the conspiracy theories it has peddled about the epidemic, the news of more than 140 fellow citizens being repatriated from the Chinese city where it began was not met with enthusiasm.
In social-media posts, many slammed the government for what they saw as a move that put others at risk.
"Let them stay there,” one user wrote on Instagram of the evacuees. “Why the hell would we want them spitting out their contagion here?"
"They've crawled out like rats from various cities," another person wrote.
Many of the comments were collected and shared as screenshots by Marina Turkina, a Beijing-based Russian who criticized her compatriots’ attitude in her own Instagram post.
“What’s the worst thing about the Chinese coronavirus? It’s not the unpaid quarantine for a month, or the canceled flights, or the lack of masks for sale,” she wrote. “The worst is…how people react to a real epidemic.”
Popova said on February 6 that none of the Russians quarantined outside Tyumen had been diagnosed with the illness.
But authorities were taking no risks. Russian media showed clips of the two Ilyushin jets used for the repatriation being hosed down and disinfected prior to their onward journey.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said an estimated 600 Russians remained in China’s Hubei Province, which includes Wuhan.
If Turkina had wanted to take the next IL-76 home, Moscow had bad news for her. On February 5, the Russian Embassy announced that all those who asked to return home had been offered transport.
More air evacuations were not immediately planned.