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Documentary pick- Siberia: The good, the bad and the freezing

When T.S. Eliot said April was the cruellest month, he clearly hadn’t endured a Scottish February- where a badly heated student flat offers little protection from the wind and rain forcing its way through rickety single-glazed windows.  If, like me, you find yourself wistfully craving the summer, I recommend you indulge in a little Schadenfreude and explore the internet’s fascinating offering of Siberia-centric documentaries. 

We all know a few things about Russia: it’s big, cold and (according to 1950’s stereotypes), full of vodka-drinking Bond villains. Few people, however, could tell you much about Siberia- the expansive Russian subregion characterised by extreme temperatures, untouched natural beauty, and a sparse population. Geographically Asian and politically European, the landmass constituting over three quarters of Russia is a fascinating study in interculturalism. While much of the region is broadly unreported on, some documentaries have shone a light on the tough reality of life in Siberia, from freezing temperatures to dire poverty.

If your grandparents are the types to complain about how hard their route to school was, I recommend you show them Free Documentary’s segment on Oymyakon in Siberia- where children regularly risk freezing to death in order to attend school in the winter. The documentary follows the lives of several school children in a village of less than five hundred people which records average temperatures of -40 C, making it the coldest inhabited place on earth. It is so cold that even bacteria cannot survive, eliminating the need to do laundry, and car break-down usually means a quick death. The resilience of these children is incredible, although the undisputed star of the show is Gregori the school bus driver, who risks his life providing transport on a daily basis in return for a heated garage to sleep in. The documentary portrays the hardships of Oymyakon’s extreme living conditions alongside some beautiful shots of the vast tundra. 

In another fascinating short documentary: Surviving the Siberian Wilderness for 70 years, Vice makes an excursion into the Siberian taiga to interview the remaining members of the Lykov family- a group of Russian Old Believers who fled Stalin’s persecution in 1936 to raise generations in the isolated Siberian wilderness. The family had remained so cut off from civilization that they only recently became aware of the Second World War. Although slow at times, this documentary provides a unique insight into a phenomenon that is usually reserved for post-apocalyptic cinema: extreme temperatures, deadly wilderness and complete separation from the rest of the world. It is gritty and at times disturbing but may renew your faith in humanity’s survival abilities. As an added perk it makes Scotland look positively tropical, which is reason enough to watch it!

Both documentaries are available on YouTube along with a wealth of others that will crop up as you jump down the rabbit whole of life in Siberia. So, if you find yourself with a free afternoon, why not delve into one of the world’s more unreported regions?

Image: ugolga via Pixabay