Lessons from Eastern Siberia, by S.P.

Monday, Aug 30, 2010

Lessons from Eastern Siberia, by S.P.

When I was 18, I spent six weeks in the Sakha Republic (or Yakutia) of Siberia. It is roughly three times the size of Alaska yet has a population of less than 1 million. With the Arctic Circle bordering the north of the Sakha Republic and the Lena River winding its way through it is a largely rural population of self sufficient farmers, fishermen, and reindeer herders. My time there was spent living in a soviet era apartment in either Yakutsk (its capital) or Moxogolloch (a small port town along the Lena River) or traveling to nearly isolated villages around the Sakha Republic. It was while living in Siberia that the wool began to be removed from my eyes regarding America’s imperfect government that I once though infallible. While discussing growing up under soviet rule with one person I realized just how effective the propaganda machine can be and how the methods used by Soviets were being used currently in America. But what I really want to focus on is what I learned about survival. The most important things I learned were the values of adaptability and community. The Sakha people had their religion, culture, and language almost entirely stripped away from them during the 70 years of Soviet rule and yet these three things survived. They live in a harsh and unforgiving climate with almost no growing season and manage to raise crops, livestock, and keep warm.

One example of adaptability is the extent to which they use the animals they're able to raise. There is a breed of horse that is able to survive the extreme winter temperatures and in the small villages everyone has at least one milking horse which they use for milk along with making their own butter, cheese, sour cream, whipped cream, a rather interesting fermented milk drink, etc. And when it comes to the meat of the horse, absolutely every part is eaten, some parts of the horse were a little interesting to my standard American palate but I was still amazed at how diverse each horse dish that I ate was. Even the fat is eaten, and is actually a prized part of the horse during the winter months (which lasts from September to May in most parts of the Sakha Republic). The horse bones are then carved into various tools and jewelry and the hide is used the same way cowhide is used in the US. One woman I stayed with after showing me her prized milking mare, brushed its mane and tail, gathered the hair that was brushed out, washed it, and wove it into a bath loofah for me as a thank you gift. It was much more durable than any loofah than any I've ever had. Though this specific breed of horse would be impossible to keep at mine and my husbands retreat because of the climate difference, we have tried to use some of their methods with our livestock, trying to make sure none of the animal goes to waste and trying to accustom ourselves to eating the parts of the animal that don't normally appeal to us because in the end without food there is no survival. Another thing regarding their food is the extremely short growing season combined with permafrost makes gardening difficult, but the people in the villages know that without a garden in the summer they could starve in the winter so they plant. A villagers garden isn't full of exotic vegetables because if a crop fails, they starve. They stick to the basics that they know will grow and everyone is very proud of their garden. With most people lacking electricity and running water canning is difficult so they preserve food in much more primitive ways. One thing you'll find in every Sakha garden is potatoes, they're hardy vegetables and don't need any work to preserve, just a place in the house that doesn't get too cold to store them. All other vegetables are dried or pickled. In fact one of my favorite dishes is a sort of cabbage and carrot kim chee, made by shredding cabbage and carrots, coating with salt and storing for a year.

Another clear example of adaptability is in the construction of their homes. Remember, this is a part of the world where winter lasts for 9-10 months out of the year and schools are closed once it hits -40 because of the danger of children walking to school in such a cold temperature. Along with that extreme winter most villagers have no running water or electricity. Because of this they've had to create houses that will keep them warm throughout the winter, figure out how to store food, use the bathroom etc. basic things Americans take for granted and basic things we'll all have to be prepared for in case of a long term TEOTWAWKI situation. To keep warm the house is built around a large wood burning stove. Those with larger houses will actually seal off any room that's separated from the wood burning stove even if that means moving all bedrooms into the living room/kitchen area. When it comes to refrigeration the Sakha people use the permafrost to their advantage. A simple hole dug below the house provides a well refrigerated cellar. As far as using the bathroom, everyone has an outhouse, nothing fancy, just a plain wooden stall with a wooden floor and hole carved out. During the coldest months of winter an indoor chamber pot is used and emptied into the outhouse regularly, the cold keeps down the smell. When it comes to showers most villagers have built themselves a simple banya (or Russian steam bath). I've used the lessons I learned from them on building their homes to be sure to take into account my climate when working with my husband to design our retreat property. Our retreat is located in a part of the US with extreme summer temperatures so we're looking at how homes were built prior to central air to make sure that we build a home survivable and comfortable during those hot summer months. Remember, your generator won't last forever.

An example of the importance of community I saw was at a wedding I attended, and helped with, in a small village. Weddings are done very differently in that part of the world than in America. The happy couple announced to their community that they wished to be married the following day, immediately everyone got to work. One person took the bride to find her dress while someone else took care of the getting the groom a tuxedo. Everyone else banded together to gather up food and decorations for the wedding feast. On Saturday the church was standing room only as everyone gathered together to watch the couple take their vows. It's also important to note that even though this was 10 years after the Russia's transition from communism the Christian church is still very small, especially in rural Siberia so the community of Sakha believers spans the entirety of the Sakha Republic and guests traveled from all corners of the province just to attend this wedding. After the ceremony was the wedding feast, a variety of food gathered from the pantries of the community and served off of what most Americans would consider disposable dishes (part of my duty as a new member of the community was to help wash the dishes afterward) and then once all the festivities were through everyone once again banded together gathering cots, sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows to set up sleeping quarters at the church for all the people who weren't able to travel home that night. The most incredible part is that throughout the weekend no one complained and no one panicked. Everyone saw that something needed to be done and immediately began working together to make sure it got done. Using that lesson my husband and I have made sure that when working with our retreat group we're all aware of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and do our best to uplift each other and work together effectively.

I also got a lesson in how to make money using whatever (honorable and legal) talents you have which is very important in these current economic times, especially since our economy is steadily getting worse not better. Not a lot of people own their vehicle in the rural areas so anyone with a car immediately adds taxi driver to their resume. Handicrafts, baked goods, and produce are also sold usually by people willing to travel from their village to a slightly larger town to set up shop on a sidewalk. During the religious festivals anyone with a homemade barrel barbecue and a freshly slaughtered animal will be selling shish kebabs.

One of the most important things I learned on that trip though was being able to look at past experiences to move forward with my prep work now. I didn't really become a prepper until my mid-20s but I can still look back on that trip and glean knowledge relating to building up a retreat property that works, being able to pay the mortgage no matter what (not all of us are lucky enough to own our retreat outright), and making sure my family survives no matter what happens. It's important to realize that though you may not have been a prepper when you were in girl scouts, took that backpacking trip across Europe, or spent the summers camping with the family doesn't mean that you can't learn from those past experiences. And even if the SHTF tomorrow and you've just now stumbled upon SurvivalBlog being able to look back on the experiences you've had in life and learn from those will still put you ahead of the game.


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