A chilly Lenin addresses the frozen city

Dreaming of la dolce vita in the deep freeze

A cultural renaissance is underway in a region once synonymous with Stalin’s brutal gulags

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

As a lover of the cold, I’d wanted to go to North Far East Russia for a long time. For anyone who grew up reading Gulag memoirs — Solzhenitsyn, Eugenia Ginzburg, Shalamov and his short stories — this area was Ground Zero, the almost unimaginable abroad where lives reached some limit of human endurance. It was a place that maimed and killed. 

Ginzburg — an innocent Kazan schoolteacher sent to a northern labour camp in the Terror of the thirties — spoke of “the ferocious wind, the forty-degree frost, the appalling weight” of the “picks and iron spades, with which we attacked the frozen soil”. Solzhenitsyn’s breakthrough novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) featured another leading character alongside the eponymous Ivan: the Siberian cold. It chaps faces, cracks lips, burns you through your clothing, steals indoors like an enemy bent on pursuit. It is there throughout Solzhenitsyn’s book, its icy fingers tapping on the window panes. 

Yakutsk shrouded in icy fog

Wanting to experience something of these temperatures myself — just once — I set off in early January for Yakutsk, capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic, and the coldest major city in the world. It’s in an area few have heard of, but is one of the country’s most intriguing. Yakutia, a vast tract of Northern Siberia covering an area as large as India, is home to just one million people and is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the planet.

Yet what it lacks in people it makes up for in resources: a third of the world’s (and nearly all of Russia’s) diamonds are mined here and gold, too. A 3km bridge is being built across the River Lena and there are firm plans for a railway link to the city. I am one of the last visitors, perhaps, to find it so splendidly isolated.

Frozen fish al fresco at the central market

Not that tourism is ever likely to afflict Yakutsk much, except in summer. Temperatures routinely drop to -50°C in a winter which lasts at least five months of the year. The residents — Asiatics who might pass physically for Korean — have to build their entire lives around the weather. They’re unimaginably tough and independent, living on diets enlivened — for want of a better word — by raw fish, frozen horse blood, and uncooked pony liver. 

Yet they’re also peaceful, philosophical, plugged in to nature. Their religion — mediated by Shamans — is one of pagan animism. It involves a worship of the elements and the natural environment with numerous gods and demons, laughing, scowling, singling them out for punishment and willing them on benignly through the climate rollercoaster of a normal year.

Arctic temperatures turn clusters of twigs on trees into gnarly white reindeer horns

I arrived in Yakutsk a seven-hour flight and several time zones from Moscow — at 9am. As we flew in, I watched the sun rise over the Siberian taiga from the aeroplane window. This is not a sight many will forget — the white sea of tundra, the pink of the horizon, a blazing cherry-red sun. The Tannoy informed us the temperature on the ground was  -43°C, with a light fog.

When I step out of the airport, everything seems frozen to stillness by the cold — dry and almost deliciously free of wind. The phrase “winter wonderland” is now hackneyed, meaning anything from Santa’s tourist village in Rovaniemi, Finland, to your local suburban funfair. But for once the phrase applies. 

Yakutsk’s immediate and eerie atmosphere of silence, immobility, suspension makes you think of Disney films such as Frozen or Narnia’s eternal wWinter. Whiteness is everywhere, coating the roads and pavements. Houses and cars seem blasted by the snow and ice. Arctic temperatures turn clusters of twigs on trees into gnarly white reindeer horns. Eaves and drainpipes are treacherous with icicles, like something out of Grimm. 

Then there’s the fog. Throughout the day, the city is suffused in it. Buildings float and loom, and traffic lights hover in the air like planets. As cars and buses pass, the cold does something to their exhaust fumes, so that they billow out in clouds of dry ice.

Whiteness everywhere: Icicles on a wooden house, reindeer-antler branches, an ice-covered bench and swaddled cars

The writer Anna Reid, visiting 20 years ago, called Yakutsk a “total dump”, but it must have changed. On the surface it’s a Soviet city like many others: population 300,000, the same brutalist tower-blocks, the statue of Lenin, the institutes and official buildings with unfathomably long and po-faced Cyrillic names. 

The Communist past is everywhere if you want it, but now plexiglass shopping-malls are rising up all over. There are numerous cafes and restaurants, some of them world class, serving anything from pizza to pony steak, and from pelmeni (the Russian ravioli) to pine needle jelly with sirloin of reindeer. 

Living here is a constant battle to outwit these extremes

The sunshine of my first day there moderates the temperature, and I’m given a gentle start. The next day — sunless — the cold is ferocious. I try to take pictures, but my metal camera is painful to hold. Within a few seconds its battery is failing and my hands are numb, frozen claws. I’m reminded of those warnings Yakutians issue not to wear metal glasses in this weather, as carelessly removing them will tear off chunks of your face. 

Walking through Yakutsk old town — a clutch of gingerbread wooden houses blasted by ice — I feel my balaclava, moistened by breath, freezing to cardboard around my mouth, and my eyesight is plagued by bobbing grey blurs. It’s only when I get to a shop window that I understand why: I’ve got Yakutian eyelashes, a heavy ice-layer forming pendulously on each of them. I remember a photo from school history books, of a Siberian man with an icicle sprouting from his moustache. It’s such images that have brought me here.

Living here is a constant battle to outwit these extremes. Though the brief summer brings terrible mosquitoes and, this year, even more terrible forest fires, it’s the winter that tests them most. YouTube is full of Yakutsk videos showing you how to layer clothing (a rule of three, it seems, with many of the layers padded) to avoid frostbite or worse. 

Liquified bear-fat is sold at pharmacies to protect against chapped skin. I’ve come to Yakutsk with all the necessary gear: sheepskin coat, thermal underwear, muskrat hat, balaclava and galumphing arctic boots (a boot within a boot). There’s a long, quilted fur jerkin I’m proud of, too. But Yakuts laugh at me. I’m told that in it I look like a zek, a Gulag prisoner, or a bomzh, a tramp. One of them says I dress like her grandfather. 

The need to go through laborious self-swaddling to pop out for some milk is tedious. But young locals make it look easy and seem to have solved the problem of fashion, wearing thick down jackets, woolly hats and knee-high, patterned reindeer boots. I covet the boots, but they’re a life’s investment at £400 a pair. 

Ice sculptures in the Museum of Permafrost

In such temperatures, everything must be rethought. Engine batteries freeze solid, and a common sight is cars swaddled in insulating quilted covers. Timers are designed to start the engine at regular periods through the night to keep the battery electrolyte from turning to ice. Outdoor stairways are carpeted against accidents — all dusted with snow — and the permafrost makes underground plumbing impossible. 

Throughout the city vast overground metal pipes carry water and heating from block to block, giving you the feeling of living in the innards of an enormous factory. Villages outside the city don’t even have this luxury — they have no heating and no running water, hot or cold, and rely on large blocks of ice chopped out of the river and thawed  in huge plastic tubs. 

At Yakutsk Central Market (a lovely place) frozen fishes stand to attention outside in solid ranks, and blocks of meat are hard and heavy as rocks. There’s no need for refrigerators in winter; many residents simply using their balconies (or in the villages, an unheated room) as a deep freeze. But even under these conditions, needless human effort survives. 

Outside the market I meet a 50-year-old man who’s been out jogging — balaclaved and puffer-jacketed — and tells me this is “real living”. A local teacher describes being woken daily by the sound of heavy tools wielded outside. It’s a neighbour breaking the surface of rhe river each morning to go ice-bathing with a gang of friends. Such masochism doesn’t tempt her: “Who needs to make life more difficult?” I enquire which season she prefers. “March. It’s quite warm then, a perfect temperature.” I ask for specifics. “Minus 20,” she says airily. 

In such prolonged sub-zero temperatures one of the local art forms, inevitably, is ice sculpture. The town is dotted with sculptures of cows, birds, reindeer, kings and queens which last throughout the winter. The Yakutsk Museum of Permafrost — the only one such in the world — is a series of underground tunnels filled with these frosted creations: horses, thrones, and figures from Olonkho, their local, epic folk poetry. The surfaces of the sculptures are so smooth you assume they’re frozen in moulds, but this turns out to be quite wrong. They are blocks of ice sculpted with chisels, chainsaws, power drills. In international competitions at the artform, Yakutians often win. 

Other arts are also emerging from Yakutia now. Sakha music is a hypnotic mix of jaw-harps — an ancient, unearthly sound winding up from the unconscious — and strong rhythms, with birdsong, horse-neighing, wolf-howls produced by the human voice. Appearing on Britain’s Got Talent in 2018, Sakhan singer Olena Uutai was told gushingly by a shocked panel, “I have no idea what that was, but amazing … It’s like you’ve come from outer space or the heavens.” 

Another phenomenon on the rise is “Sakhawood” — Yakutia’s local film industry. It produces high quality arthouse offerings on rock-bottom budgets, with parts often played by non-professionals, with actors pitching in to build sets or provide costumes. Subjects include immigration, alcoholism, Russian rap. One film, Scarecrow (2020), about a woman healer — “a hermit, a holy fool and a drinker” — cost a mere $20,000 to make, and was shown at the Tromsø International Film Festival. Massive and remote it may be, but Yakutsk is certainly aware of the rest of the world. Here in Asian Russia, at the very lowest limits of inhabitable climate, I’m struck by the ghost image of Europe. The local theatre is running a New Year’s show called San Remo, full of old love songs by Italian chanteuses given a Sakha spin. There are regular shops with names like “Italica” or “Roma”, as though Yakutians sit dreaming of Vespa scooters and La Dolce Vita amid the tundra.

The author with a wrapped-up local

Given the profound difficulties of life in this part of the world, given there are so many alternative cities in Russia and beyond where the living is easier, I asked a pair of middle-aged Yakutian sisters why they and their friends stayed. “This is normality for us,” shrugged one. “Other places would feel strange without these problems, incomplete.” “Всякая птица свое гнездо любит” goes the Russian saying, which here is tested to the limit: “Every bird loves its own nest.”

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