The idea of Siberia is simple – an endless space and winter. Its integral elements appeared in a countless number of jokes. There is a quip where the conductor meets a passenger traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway without a ticket. The ticket inspector decides to beat the traveler up because of lack of a station and biting frost. The conductor sees the fare again after two days and does the same. The disturbed passengers ask him: “where do you go?” The man answers: to Vladivostok.

The Iron Curtain disappeared, the Berlin Wall came down, The Soviet Union does not exist anymore, but barriers in the human minds survived. A myth of Siberia combines a fascination with an exotism and fear of the unknown. According to the Western societies, the land seemed to be a perfect place for the free spirits and those who want to improve their status. Another myth concerns favorable conditions to women’s emancipation. As a result, these matrimonial plans ended with a death of husbands, while the fortune found the way into the hands of wives. The attractive opportunities for social advancement were an effect of lack of skilled human resources. The history of Siberia is not just a tragedy of exiles, but also astonishing discoveries and extraordinary personalities. The character of the place presents the origin of its name. ‘Sibir’ means a ‘dormant land’ in the Tatar language. Mongolian ‘siber’ means ‘beautiful.’

Siberia is not a frequent guest in the mass media, especially in a positive context. A dubious reputation of this land, even today, confirms, among other things, a case of a Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has spent more than one year in the Krasnokamensk prison camp in Zabaykalsky Krai. The associations related to this land are usually unambiguous. Some selected epithets are the ice hell, inhuman land or land of silence and horror. However, there are also slightly different representations. Siberia is there an area of unrestrained freedom and equivalent of the Wild West. The endless space is notorious, but it became a destination for many expeditions and space for self-realization.

Polish people like Stefan Batory’s soldiers, the king Stanisław Leszczyński’s supporters, participants of the Kościuszko Uprising, the November Uprising, and the January Uprising, Napoleon’s soldiers after the defeat in 1812, conspirators and revolutionaries took part in the colonization of Siberia. A narrow circle of the exiles includes Piotr Wysocki, the priest Piotr Ściegienny, Józef and Bronisław Piłsudski, Benedykt Dybowski, Jan Czerski and many others. At the turn of the 20th century, a significant part of Poles was looking for a better life in America. The others, mainly peasants, counting on the new grounds and welfare payment went in the opposite direction. The emigrants from Lesser Poland and Dąbrowa Basin colonized Siberia. Wierszyna village was famous for a preservation of Polish language.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Memoirs from the House of the Dead has presented Siberia as a place where people appreciate the tradition; the climate is wonderful [sic!], merchants – rich, women – comely, and caviar – delicious. The author of Demons was impressed with a surprising bumper crop and described this place as blessed. Siberia – the land of paradoxes? Although the words of the novelist seem to sound sardonically, they are different. The territory of frost is a picture the writer wanted to see. Unfortunately, he could imagine that in response to the isolation and solitude. The reality was much more complicated. Dostoyevsky in a letter written after the return from the exile complained about a questionable beauty of Omsk and blizzards. According to him, the city was a hotbed of debauchery. Infamous real Siberia turned out to be more convincing than the land from the novelist’s dreams.

There were three religions officially accepted at the end of the age of Tsarist Russia: Eastern Orthodox Church, Buddhism, and Islam, which spread thanks to the Muslim merchants. The expansion of Buddhism spread throughout Transbaikalia and Baikal region. Lamaism domesticated already in Mongolia, became popular in the 17th and 18th century. The natives believed in ghosts, worshiped the ancestors and nature. An important role in a part of animistic beliefs played a shaman. His help was necessary when the attempts at establishing a contact with supernatural powers have failed, for instance, in a case of a serious disease.

The cult of nature seems to be the most understandable form of belief on the territory ruled by the classical elements. Chilly winds, ice, fabulous clouds in the boundless sky and mysterious lake determined the conditions of a human life.  According to the German philosopher Georg Hegel, Siberia is beyond the history because the land does not enable a normal life.

A bottomless source of amazing stories and fairy tales remains magical Lake Baikal that is considered by the Siberian people to be a sacred place.  The Buryats know a story on a Khoridoi, who met three swans in Olkhon Island. The birds changed into three pretty maidens. Khoridoi approached them and took clothes belonging to one of them. The goddess could not fly anymore and married a man. They became the founders of the House of  Khori and brought up eleven sons. When the couple became old, the wife asked her husband for the wonderful clothes that he stole long time ago. She put it on and changed into the swan.  The descendants of the House of Khori still have respect for these birds.

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Olkhon Island is the largest island of Lake Baikal and a sacred place. We can reach this place by ferry. The tourists leaving the bus came from Irkutsk and other cities. They must have patience. Waiting for transport for three hours at the beginning of January offers much more than an opportunity of hypothermia. A group of tourists is crowding on the shore. A majority of them is from Asia. Europeans are on the defensive. They prefer the Siberian summer. Despite a severe frost and a chilly wind, the bravest tourists have not caps.

A famous saying by Coco Chanel – fashion passes, style remains – changes its meaning in these conditions. Some ladies seem to ignore the severe winter. Their eccentric outfits (the short, fancy jackets or wedge-heeled shoes) make those who chose a comfort confused. Jumping, a vacuum flask or extra pair of gloves may be helpful. Anyway, nobody will come through this situation unscathed. Everybody is shivering, and nearest cafe is far away. Leaving the queue, we may miss our turn and enter the board later. The staff of the ferry deals with winter professionally.  The crew observes the crowd on the shore with mercy and amusement and does not pay attention to the chilly wind. The lake is already partly frozen.

The way to Khuzir resembles a lunar landscape. Bluish Lake Baikal is on the left, on the right – the hills covered by snow. The telegraph poles enliven a monotonous view. Some of the wooden houses in the settlement are distinguished by the great ornaments. The integral elements of the beginning of January, especially in Russian cities, are ostentatious celebrations of the New Year and endless toasts. Olkhon Island seems to be an unworldly place and an oasis of calm. The symbol of this area remains Shamanka (Burkhan Cape). According to the native inhabitants of Olkhon Island, this place belonged to the deity, and they did not live nearby. The sharp wind moves the colorful ribbons on the trees. The sky looks like a rippled surface of the lake. Ideally clear ice resembles the clouds reflected in the frozen water. The sun or fog change the island beyond recognition. The sky sparkles like water; it may be pink, orange or bluish; the shades are countless. Lake Baikal is a joy to behold.

The tourists who are lucky (and have an imagination) say that they have seen the nerpas (the Baikal seals) in their natural environment. Those who want to see the animals with their own eyes (not in their mind’s eye) may meet them in the nerpinarium in Irkutsk. The seals present the circus acrobatics and dance with paddles. What is more, the animals paint the pictures that are bought by the parents of enthusiastic children during the auction at the end of the performance. The audience does not disdain the gargantuan nerpa-mascots. Only a few persons leave this place without any souvenir.

Irkutsk as the capital of Eastern Syberia is important not only because of nerpinarium where three seals live. Now it’s time for a few remarks on Buryatia. It is not difficult to notice that Ulan-Ude is more Asian than Irkutsk. A visit to a Buryatia Museum confirms this observation. The exhibits – the dresses, furniture, sculptures, images of the Buddhist Deities and old books – bring to our minds Tibet, India, Mongolia or China. Ulan-Ude is famous for a large community of Buddhists. The source of Lamaism in Zabaykalsky Krai and Buryatia was Mongolia.  Stalin’s terror was cruel for the followers of this philosophy. They were sent to the prison camps. In most cases the temples were destroyed, and lamas had to give up their religious practices and were forced to study Marxism-Leninism.

The first Buddhist monastery in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was found after World War II in 1945 in the location Verkhnaya Ivolga, nearby Ulan-Ude. Stalin offered this opportunity in reward for the participation of Buryats and Buddhists in the war. The visitors walk a clockwise path around the sacred place, moving the prayer wheels. The monks sit on two long paralleled pews in the temple and recite a prayer.  The resonant sounds of horns interrupt monotonous melodies. People put coins on the altars. The tourists buy the souvenirs at the entrance. A person entering the temple seem to bow to pressure from the colors, sounds and the scent of candles. The Siberian frost and snow outside make us think of Russia.

Last but not least – Lenin statue in the Sovetov Square in Ulan-Ude. It is the largest monument depicting a head of the revolutionary leader. The height of the sculpture is 7,7 meters, and the weight is 42 tons. It was created in 1970 for the centennial of the Soviet leader’s birth. Lenin looks at New Year ice sculptures and winter Hyde Park. The visitors often say that the snow layer on his head looks like a yarmulke. Regardless of the season, the tourists and newlyweds visit the monument with pleasure.

A winter travel in Siberia may seem to be a surreal idea. Polish people usually think about this land as an ice desert (or in a more extreme version: hell). It is still more reasonable to count on the help of Siberian people than access to the Internet. In contrast to the cyberspace, they do not fail.

Text: Urszula Furmanowicz

Photos: Krystian Furmanowicz, Urszula Furmanowicz


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