I was born and grew up in Siberia. You may know me well enough by now to conclude that Siberian women don’t all carry Kalashnikovs, they don’t all have square heads or square chins and they can produce a smile occasionally.
The village where I was born is in Western Siberia. It is called Kargasok. Population 12,000 people. Kargasok has two schools: school Number One and school Number Two. As for myself, I studied in school Number One.
Education is very strict and intensive in Russia. Its purpose is to cram children with as much knowledge as possible on maths, literature, history, chemistry, biology, physics, foreign languages, military affairs and geography. Lots of homework to do, you don’t get the luxury of choosing your subjects, and you are assessed every single day. We also had 4 hours a week of intensive physical training: cross-country skiing in winter, running, jumping, gymnastics, basketball and volleyball in summer. Timing and results were extremely important.
Our schools would be closed in winter if the temperature dropped below -33° with high wind. In the morning we used to listen to the radio announcements and happily jumped on the beds if school was closed.
A couple of years ago most schools in Norfolk were shut as the temperature reached -3 degrees. Incidentally, I talked to my cousin that day and she reported that it was -32° in Kargasok and my nephew Danil was at school. “It’s ok,” she said, “Danil normally runs to school if it’s cold.”
In April layers of snow begin to melting and in May, the first leaves sprout. July is the hottest month, with temperatures between 26-32 degrees. Kargasok is surrounded by a type of woodland called taiga, where every summer and early autumn we would go wild berry picking: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries and pine nuts.
I have never seen a bear or a tiger myself, they don’t walk in the streets but many people as you can imagine did see them face to face in the wild. Some of those people survived. Men often go fishing; their catch provides dinner for them and their family. Every household grows their own potatoes, carrots, carbides, beetroots, marrows, cucumbers, tomatoes and of course flowers. Fresh still warm milk was a treat I was fond of.
Frosty nights are back in September and in October the ground is covered with a solid layer of snow.
When I was 15 to prolong my education and prepare for university, my family moved to our nearest city Tomsk. Tomsk is 500 km away from Kargasok or more than a 10-hour drive via unsurfaced road. Another option for commuting was a two and a half hour flight on a single engine plane Antonov 2, capable of carrying 12 passengers and designed for short flights through extreme cold environments. Once on Antonov 2, you couldn’t hold a conversation due to the extraordinary noise levels, but you could enjoy the spacious views of taiga under the wings as a concession.
Tomsk was founded more 400 years ago on the picturesque bank of the River Tom.
You already know, don’t you, that the cartoon character Wimbledon Tomsk, the athletic dumb one, was named after my city for his low IQ. What you are about to discover is that Tomsk is a prominent academic and scientific centre. Low temperatures don’t prevent people from living full and vibrant lives.
There are 6 universities, 20 higher research institutes and many specialised colleges and schools training specialists in engineering, medicine, education, art, etc. 1 out of 6 people is a student. Tomsk holds the Guinness World Record for the “most scientific street in the world” owing to the highest number of academics living on one street.
For me, Siberia is a place of unconditional love.
People don’t question the weather, the harsh living conditions; they don’t ask why life is unfair to them. They get on with life, enjoying and celebrating what they have. Kitchen cabinets are choc-a-bloc full of food in case ready for a friend’s unannounced visit. We lay the table for any guest with the best food we have to offer.
I have never heard people complaining of having depression. I am not saying that everyone is continually and ecstatically happy, no. Vodka and more vodka is an easy solution in Siberia for unspiritual people who numb their feelings with drink in order to feel warmer and merrier for the briefest of moments.