The popular image that many Americans hold of Russians are of dour, hardy people who are tough, self-reliant and able to live completely in spite of the total inhospitableness of the rightly infamous and greatly feared Russian winter.
Like many popular tropes, it has its own strands of truth woven through it but is still not always applicable. But there exists one place where the popular conception does indeed live up to reality, and that place is Siberia.
Siberia is a region in Russia that spans the vast majority of the Asian continent, and is the largest in the Russian Federation.
Known and infamous as being a massive and sparsely populated land full of natural wonder and resources but also many natural dangers (not the least of which being an extremely low population density), and a winter that is ferocious even by the standards of the rest of Russia.
Though Siberia has several large and prosperous cities that are analogous to others found elsewhere in Russia and the rest of the world, huge swaths of the population live in small hamlets or even singly, scattered throughout this mostly desolate and untouched land.
It is these inhabitants of this frozen and sprawling landscape that could teach us comparatively soft Westerners a thing or two about survival and self-sufficiency. In today’s article, we will share some of those lessons with you.
Siberia and Its Inhabitants
Geographically, Siberia is absolutely massive, and as mentioned it is mostly unpopulated, with the vast majority of some 33 million inhabitants living along or near the Trans-Siberian Railway.
With a total area of 5,100,000 square miles, that breaks down to only about seven people per square mile. That, my friends, is indeed a sparsely populated place!
Siberia extends eastward from the Ural Mountains all the way to the watershed bordering the Arctic and Pacific Oceans. Siberia by itself accounts for over 77% of Russia’s land mass, but less than a quarter of its total population.
Siberia itself is dotted with mountain ranges throughout, and its biomes are predominantly taiga in the central regions with various other types of forest, and even some steppes to the south along with bitterly cold tundra and polar desert to the north.
Despite the popular imagination attributing only rough, utterly frozen wasteland scenes to Siberia it is actually a place of considerable diversity environmentally and home to natural scenes and wonders that can rival any other place on Earth.
But despite this biodiversity and incredible natural beauty, there is no other way around it: Siberia has a legendary and justified reputation as an incredibly cold place in the winter time.
The majority of Siberia has a subarctic climate, and in the middle of the winter time, the average temp is about 13 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
Not cold enough? Well consider the town of Oymyakon, famous for being the world’s coldest permanently populated place…
This tiny town that numbers just a hair over 500 permanent inhabitants routinely dips down to 50 degrees below, and as far as has been officially recorded, the temperature has never risen above 0 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter season.
Just a couple of years ago, the temperature plummeted to a thermometer-killing 88 degrees below zero! That is colder than the surface of Mars!
It is true that, despite its reputation, in the West as a frozen hellscape Siberia hosts several major and prosperous cities, including Vladivostok, Novosibirsk and Khabarovsk, and the southern climates even allow for excellent farming to accompany its mind-boggling mineral and timber wealth, wealth and plenty that is today unshadowed by its somewhat sordid past as a place of incarceration and political exile.
But there is simply no other way to square it: for those who live outside the TSR “beltway” Siberia is a cold and largely inhospitable place where one is tough and smart or dies, a place that will neither tolerate nor spare the foolish.
Just below, we will look at some of the survival lessons these hardy Russians can teach us, lessons that, to them, are just “life” lessons!
1. Take No Unnecessary Risks
The lack of people, remoteness and environmental harshness of Siberia means that mistakes or mishaps made in such an inhospitable place that would otherwise be inconveniences or only mildly troublesome elsewhere in Russia can become absolutely fatal.
So much of life in the modern world is made possible, and so many grievous mistakes can be corrected or undone only because of modern technology, modern society and abundance of safety nets in various places.
It is a simple thing if your car breaks down here in America in most places; you can simply wait for someone to come passing by, or chances are you’ll even be able to summon help yourself using your cell phone, such devices being completely ubiquitous and service being almost ever-present.
If worse comes to worst chances are you can walk for help with little risk in most climates. The temporary loss of your vehicle for that matter is also not such a big deal, with the preponderance of dealerships, garages and technical expertise to be had, so long as you have the money your four-wheeled conveyance will be purring like a kitten again in no time.
The same scenario will oftentimes end in total disaster and tragedy in Siberia. Many of the inhabitants live in places so remote they may see their neighbors but once a year if that frequently.
There are certainly not mechanics or tow trucks available to be summoned and cell phone service to say nothing of radio reception should be expected only near the largest settlements or the most traveled routes.
Two men from the town of Oymyakon mentioned above once experienced a breakdown on the road in the middle of a particularly harsh winter, even by that frozen village’s standards. Upon leaving to walk to their nearby farm, they promptly froze to death.
You might find yourself surviving in a climate or just in a situation where life could, unbeknownst to the unwary, be dangling by a single, gossamer thread, one that will be severed by the slightest lapse in judgment or concentration.
There is no do-over and no cavalry coming in some survival situations, and while you might not ever be able to completely ameliorate the risk, you should never, ever take an unnecessary one. The good residents of Siberia would certainly tell you as much.
2. Be Adaptable
To outsiders and people who might charitably be called sane Siberia, at least the bulk of it, is probably written off as completely and utterly inhospitable to human life. A place so cold, so harsh, and so remote as to be virtually on a different planet.
But these people, no matter how reasonable they are, would be wrong. Siberia’s some 33 million inhabitants including the portion that live well outside the most populated zones have shown conclusively that grit, determination and acceptance of what is turns even the most austere places into residences for human life.
How did they accomplish this? Is this some superhuman feat, some secret of Russian genetic lineage that makes their survival possible where others would perish?
While perhaps a little bit of the latter could indeed be true, the rest of it is no secret: the Russians survive in Siberia because they adapt to the place they are in, no matter how brutal and unforgiving it might be, instead of trying to bend such an elemental place to their will.
It does not do any good to whine and cry, and wish for warmer temperatures when you live in a place that by any other standards experiences 12 straight months of blistering winter cold. Instead, you must take it as it comes.
If you must live dressed for winter inside your own home and dressed for a polar expedition whenever you leave it, then that is what you must do, or else you’re going to have a very bad time, and probably die in the long run.
Even if you do not physically perish, the mental and emotional toll such a place can take on a human being is extreme if you do not embrace it.
The residents of Siberia have done exactly that, and the vast majority of them are proud of their legacy and the near mythic status afforded their homeland even among the annals of Russians typically and rightly proud of their hardiness.
If that is not a clue to outside observers about their sang-froid then nothing is. This is attained by an acceptance of what is, and a willingness to bend only themselves to the task and the environment, not the other way ‘round.
3. Sometimes the Old Ways are Best
Tradition and heritage runs strong in Siberia as with much of the rest of the world, but in Siberia the old ways of a distinctly practical nature still remain fresh, vivid and practiced even in the areas where the fabulous new has penetrated this old and almost eldritch place.
From traditional lodging and building practices to old world survival skills including shelter construction, land navigation and even cultivation of what plants and animals will grow and prosper and a varied and oftentimes harsh climates of Siberia, tradition in particular remains surprisingly strong: that of primitive medicine.
There are many advocates for holistic and natural medicine the world over today, and even in the medically advanced and lofty perches of Europe and North America it is fashionable in some quarters to rely on the old ways…
Herbalism, acupuncture and other treatments do have a degree of proven efficacy and it is here that the residents of Siberia might surprise even the most devout adherents to these ancient ways.
Medicinal plants grow all over the world, but so many biomes in Siberia prevent the growth of many species of medicinal plants entirely. But in keeping with the tenant of adaptability, native Siberians made do with what they had in abundance: tree bark.
Barks from various trees along with the ash generated from the burning of various types of woods will be turned into poultices, tinctures, teas and other medicinal remedies that can handle everything from upset stomach to poisoning and even dandruff.
If this sounds like kitschy folklore, you might stop to consider that doctors from the rest of Russia, even Moscow, regularly launch trips and expeditions into the remote places of Siberia to learn from institutional practitioners of this traditional medicine that have passed down, on and on through the years, the secrets of the craft to see what they might learn and supplement our modern medical practice with.
We can learn from their example, if only we divorce ourselves from the idea that we are helpless without our gear, our factory prepared medicine and other modern contrivances that are too often associated with skill and capability.
The Siberians can teach us that it is knowledge, first and foremost, and the application thereof using what is at hand that so often makes the difference.
4. Suffer Long and Gladly
There are many times in many parts of Siberia where, when the onslaught of winter begins in earnest, there is not much to do except wait it out.
With conditions outside so blisteringly cold that travel even by automobile is made virtually impossible and business as usual is almost a memory, many Siberian residents will retreat indoors in a sort of hibernation to wait out the winter.
Almost all of us have felt what we would call cabin fever before, but very few of us have actually experienced it. Even in the midst of a pandemic or some other socially enforced lockdown keeping people in their homes, you’re still able to go outside, get some sunshine, catch some rays.
You’re even able to move about in town to a greater or lesser degree. Unlike the residents of Siberia in the middle of winter, you are not facing almost certain death by freezing if you should step outside for more than a handful of unprotected minutes.
Their choices in such a situation are few: stay inside with your companions or family and entertain yourselves, or at the very least cohabitate peacefully, or go completely mad and potentially kill each other.
It never fails that, despite some periodic bad attitudes and a correspondingly glum outlook on life (at least as perceived by outsiders), Siberians continually emerge time and time again from their winter incarceration when the temperature goes from “lethally cold” to merely “extremely cold” no worse for the wear.
We would do well to learn from this example, since we have to only consult stories of survivors just in the past couple of decades who were forced to endure extremely lengthy waits- at sea, in the desert, in the mountains, even underground in a collapsed mine- before they were rescued, and often had to do it alongside other people.
As it turns out, bad attitudes and despair are both contagious, but so is hope and a positive attitude. It might fall on you to be the one link in the chain that holds, and in doing so holds the rest together.
Be prepared to maintain good cheer, or at least a decent attitude in the midst of a situation that seems so horrible, unending and otherwise unendurable.
5. Community is Everything
More than most other places, the Siberians that are fortunate enough to have legitimate communities even if it is only a tiny hamlet or a small village understand how crucial your neighbors and fellow residents are.
When you are hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the next “major” settlement, if you wind up in a jam the only people you can rely on besides yourself are your neighbors.
If you get hurt, lose something, break something or just need help with some vital tasks can you rely on the people to your left and your right, even if they are several miles away via a scrawny dirt road? Were you there for them when they were in your shoes, or did you selfishly let them figure it all out themselves?
Those decisions get made an untold numbers every single day in large cities, and there are so many other people to replace them it really matters. But way out in the deep cold of Siberia that decision will likely be remembered for the rest of their, and your, life.
You might not need anything else from your neighbors besides their attention and their knowledge, but it could be the only source of either you have in a survival situation, and for that reason incredibly precious.
Do not forget to cultivate this precious resource and, more importantly, do not squander it. You might feel even colder still in the middle of winter should you be shunned by a neighbor that you shunned previously.
Siberia is a place of almost mythic proportion, at turns incredibly beautiful and indescribably harsh. Inhabitants of its more remote regions experience life that is difficult, and conditions that will break the unprepared and the foolish.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, these rugged folks survive and truly thrive, and though we may never live full-time in such a trying place, we can learn from their life lessons to help us survive.