I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up in Canada, Siberia had a certain notoriety about it. It was the sort of place where bad people ended up. Or it was the sort of place where good people ended up if they tried to expose bad things.
It all depends on which side of the Hammer & Sickle you fell I suppose.
In any case, the Siberia in my mind’s eye was full of dissidents and exiles and political prisoners and all manner of ne’er-do-wells toiling away in gulags; fighting each other tooth and nail in the streets for morsels of bread and spoonfuls of borscht.
If they even had streets that was.
Their only solace being bootleg vodka to stave off, as well to fuel, the unimaginable depression.
It was eternally frozen and abysmally dark and dreary, but one thing was entirely certain — no one ever, EVER, went there of their own free will. It’s not the sort of place you “summered” — like the Hamptons or Cape Cod — it was the sort of place you were summoned, sentenced, or sequestered.
In short, it was the last place on earth you’d want to find yourself in.
I went to Siberia (for the record, of my own free will) as part of First Team with the Follow Up Siberia campaign — a cultural exchange program aimed at dispelling stereotypes about the region. The brainchild of nickel giant Nornickel, there are 5 tours in total taking international participants to various locales around Siberia in a colossal undertaking to jazz up the global perception of Siberia. It’s all part of the lead-up to the 29th Winter Universiade Games taking place in Krasnoyarsk in March 2019.
It’s still not too late to enter — check out the Follow Up Siberia Facebook Page or their nifty website for more info. If you look closely, you can see my smiling mug dotting the pages here and there.
To say that the tour dispelled some of the stereotypes of Siberia I had would be putting it mildly. In fact, I was oddly disappointed that the Siberia I witnessed was nothing like what I had in mind.
I didn’t see any gulags.
I didn’t see any dissidents.
And I didn’t see any prisoners in the streets toiling away at whatever prisoners in Siberia are supposed to toil away at.
Granted, I only visited two cities in Siberia — Norilsk and Dudinka, and by most estimations, these are not the “sexiest” of Siberian cities. Still, I was flabbergasted that I had so much wrong for so very long.
Here are some of the key takeaways:
There are No Gulags
First of all, we’ve been getting it all wrong all these years — GULAG is an acronym for the agency that oversaw the Soviet forced labour camps. GULAG stands for Glavnoye Upravleniye LagerejI — or Main Camps’ Administration. So to be more precise, those political prisoners would’ve toiled away at a GULAG labour camp, not an actual gulag. Make sense?
The GULAG agency closed in 1960, although some prison camps were still operational until 1987. And they were scattered throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Siberia.
There are, however, many well-cared for memorials to the people who lost their lives in the GULAG system and other labour camps through the years.
In a pretty ballsy move by the organizing committee, it was the first site that our group was taken to when we landed in Norilsk. A sort of “you know what, let’s get this out in the open right now. Yes, we had some bad times, and we did some bad things, but we’re self-aware enough that we’re doing our darndest to make amends, so let’s tackle this ugliness right out of the gate.”
So kudos to the FOLLOW UP SIBERIA team and Nornickel for addressing that straight away. For some reason it reminded me of that Oscar Wilde quote: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
The People are a Lot More “Smiley” Than I Thought
I came expecting dour expressions at every turn — people obviously hating their cold, miserable existences eager to share tales of woe and neglect with outsiders.
That didn’t happen.
They were eager to share a smile even if I couldn’t understand a word they said. Like this chap above, who drove out of his way to swing by to take a selfie with me.
There’s More to the Food Than Just Bread and Borscht
I grew up thinking, “Those poor Siberians, how do they live on borscht and bread all day, every day for the rest of their days?” Well, I can’t say I went hungry during my time in Siberia. Meals are an event here. Reindeer and fish are staples, but and all manner of meat and fruits and veggies are readily available.
What did surprise me though was that there wasn’t more of an obesity problem considering how plentiful and varied (and tasty!) the food was.
It Has a Lot More Sunlight Than You Think
I Googled “sunset time today” one day and this is what I was greeted with: “NOT TODAY.”
Not today? What do you mean “NOT TODAY?” Maybe it’s a glitch in the system? After all the KGB is spying on me right? I am in Russia after all. They’re feeding me what I want to hear.
If half the year much of the region is covered in eternal darkness, then it follows that for half the year much of the region is eternal daylight. That was my experience in May. Yes, there was snow on the ground. And yes the thermometer dipped below zero Celsius much of the time. But there was beautiful, glorious daylight. Even at 3 o’clock in the morning. It took some getting used to, but it also took some of the edge off that chill in the air.
Siberia is a Lot More Cheery than Dreary
There’s a certain beauty even in the bleak. So I’ll let these pics speak for themselves. The colours. Oh my the colours!
Siberians (and Russians in General) Are Not All That Different From You and Me
There’s a certain comradery among residents of harsher climates. I should know, I’m from Newfoundland which lays claim to the windiest, the rainiest, and the snowiest place in Canada. It’s also the foggiest place in not just Canada, but all the world.
As in Siberia, much of the conversation there revolves around the weather. But it’s generally not the “woe is me” attitude most would assume comes with such extremes. Instead, there’s a shared humour in the pleasantries — an “it could be worse” type resolve that permeates the conversation. I allow because many Siberians remember a time when it was.
Just like many Canadians have stereotypes of Newfoundlanders, I think much of the globe has a preconceived notion of what it is like to hail from Siberia.
I know I certainly did.
I came convinced I’d find the worst: pained miserable faces of people resigned to their miserable lot in a miserable wasteland. That’s not what I found at all. I found the best of a much-maligned region.
I went looking for the stereotype, but in the end, I realized the only stereotype was me: The Judgmental Foreigner.
So it’s time to trot out another stereotype — that of the apologetic Canadian — and I have to say this from the bottom of my heart:
“Sorry Siberia, I had you pegged all wrong. You’re so much better than the world thinks you are.”
NOTE: I was a guest of #FOLLOWUPSIBERIA and Nornickel during my time in Siberia, but all the glowing recommendations are clearly my own doing. (Or are they?) 😉