Out of Russia: Neighbourly spirit helps boost survival in Siberia

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TARASOVKA - The first question about Siberia in the winter, and often the only question for thousands of exiles, convicts and settlers, was: How to survive? In temperatures low enough to crack steel, with the ground frozen solid and the winds so cold they felt burning hot, the mere survival of a human organism seemed to defy nature.

Having learnt how not to die of Siberian cold, the second question was how not to die of boredom in the long, snow-bound winter months.

Provisioned with fur hats, boots, heavy coats, vodka and various varieties of sausage - distinguished only by their fat content - two Russian friends took me north from the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok into the wild snow-covered forests of Siberia last week. We were to stay in the village of Tarasovka, population 308, where one of my friends owned a cottage.

We drove and drove, on main roads, minor roads, and for the last 30 minutes along a farm track. The taiga, the forest wilderness of conifers and birches of Siberia, stretched out as far as the eye could see: 'Only the migrating birds know where it ends,' wrote Chekhov. The farmers we asked for directions certainly had little idea.

Siberia, which comes from the Tartar word Sibir, or sleeping land, covers 5 million square miles. As the sun sets over western Siberia, it is already rising over the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Siberia the next day.

The village of Tarasovka, when we finally arrived, revealed its charms to us only slowly. Several dozen wooden cottages were built along a wide mud road: dogs barked, chickens pecked optimistically at holes in the snow, and the odd cow stared out from its

winter pen.

Each house had a large woodpile to supply the big metal ranges inside that served as cookers and heaters. Water came from the communal well, complete with chain and bucket, and instead of shopping bags the villagers pulled small sleds with their loads of potatoes, wood or water.

But the famous Siberian hospitality revealed itself after we had dug through several feet of snow to get into the empty cottage where we were to stay, only to find there was no firewood and that inside the building was even more unbelievably cold than outside.

'I suppose you will want to borrow some of our wood,' said the old lady from the neighbouring cottage. She was Galina Gravchuk, a sprightly 71, and after watching disapprovingly our efforts to light the stove, she took over the job herself. She then invited us to dinner that night, probably convinced that three 'city boys' would starve to death if not fed properly by someone.

Sergei Ivashenko, a youthful 65, was sitting on his woodpile outside, and called us over. It was warm that afternoon, he said cheerfully - a balmy minus 10C - and it was nice to sit out in the sunshine. In the middle of the winter the temperature dropped to minus 40C - and even that was not bad for Siberian standards: further north it could reach minus 50C or minus 60C.

He had been to Moscow once, but didn't like it much: 'People are rushing around and no one else knows where they are going. And on the subway people will stand in front of you reading a newspaper, with not even a greeting.' Besides the air smelled of oil and fumes. Better off in Tarasovka with its one car and two tractors.

How did he get through the winter? 'Samagon,' he chuckled - homemade moonshine, average alcohol content, 70 per cent, compared to the mere 40 per cent of commercial vodka.

And the cold? 'Eat well, with plenty of fat,' Sergei said. 'Smoke if you are a man - it strengthens the lungs. Work hard, but don't break into a sweat outside. And make sure you have enough wood for the stove.'

After dark Galina and her husband, Nikon, called us for dinner. Everything on the table had been prepared in the previous summer and autumn, when there was no snow, and stored below the cottage floorboards for the winter: pickled tomatoes and cabbage, preserved mushrooms, potatoes, slices of pork fat, fried pork and onions, and stewed pears. Nikon said he went to the shop once or twice a month only, to buy canned fish or salt and sugar. Galina kept serving food, as innumerable toasts were drunk.

Finally we took our leave, with more toasts, embraces and backslapping. Outside it was cold and silent. From the kitchen window of each cottage, light shone out over the snow. Our stove was still warm, and sleep came soon. A Siberian night survived.