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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The coldest place in Russia

Braving the elements in pursuit of the ultimate weather story, Michael Hetzer travels to one of the coldest places on earth. In the Russian Far North he discovers a melting pot of ethnic groups and witnesses a lifestyle that is slowly disappearing. OIMYAKON, Far North -- When snow falls on the back of a reindeer, the beast does not shiver. But a human being feels the cold. It drains his strength like asthma, and he pulls his scarf up over his nose and draws his clothes tighter around him. Yet men and women make their lives in such places. Why do they do it? In search of an answer I spent a week in one of the coldest places on earth: The Oimyakon Region of Yakutia in far northern Siberia. It was here, on Jan. 4, 1936, at a newly installed weather station seven time zones east of Moscow that an air temperature of minus 71.2 degrees Celsius (minus 96.8 degrees Fahrenheit) was registered. It remains the lowest temperature ever measured in the northern hemisphere. Only Antarctica is colder. My quest took me to six villages in this frozen patch of mountainous tundra in a part of the world that on modern globes is as blank as terra incognita on a 16th-century map. I interviewed the region's leaders. I ate, played and, in one case, got drunk with its citizens. I was tossed about for days in jeeps. I skied downhill on a mountain range that, until that day, I didn't even know existed. I ate reindeer meat and chatted with a native Eveni reindeer herder. I even sat self-consciously atop a reindeer, posing like a tourist for souvenir photos. I found my answer, but I also learned something else. Against all odds, a melting pot of Evenis, Yakuts, Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Yukogiris, Yevyenkis and Chukhchas have built a life for themselves in one of the least hospitable places on earth. But their life is under siege. This is gold country, and for the first time the region must compete with the world price for gold. Soaring production costs are now threatening to exceed world levels. "If that ever happens," says Anatoly Trifinov, the head of administration for the region, "this place will cease to exist." But places don't become ghost towns overnight. A community is like a living thing: It must have all of its organs to survive. In the Oimyakon region, a two-year-old exodus of talent and critical skills has put the community in the throes of slow death. Exactly 804 people left the Oimyakon region in 1993, according to records in Ust-Nera, the capital. That's the largest one-year total ever, but it still leaves some 36,000 Oimyakoners to carry on. Ust-Nera itself is home to about 11,000 people. It is a typical Soviet frontier town of above-ground pipes that zigzag over roads in tiny pipe-overpasses. Wood-frame buildings, improperly lifted on stilts, sink into the permafrost giving everything a tawdry appearance. A World War II memorial graces the town center, and a chimney at the local heating plant belches black smoke 24 hours a day. Talk at random to nearly anyone on the street and one theme emerges quickly: plans to leave. "There are no perspectives here," said Albina Kiyan, editor of the local thrice-weekly newspaper, Severnaya Zarya. She got her job last summer when the editor of 24 years left. "A year ago I thought I would never leave. Now we're making plans." But 34-year-old Tatyana Goron probably best illustrates how this exodus is siphoning the life blood from the region. Goron is ringleader of Ust-Nera's amateur circus. Children of the local orphanage as well as local kids spend several hours each day in Goron's gymnasium practicing their magic tricks, clown routines and trapeze somersaults. Their quarterly performances at the local House of Culture are packed with beaming parents and spectators. The success of the circus is a source of pride for the entire community. The work comes easily to Goron; she is as natural a ringleader as Albert Einstein was a physicist. On New Year's Eve, she dressed up in a gorilla costume and entertained the local kids in minus 56 degree Celsius weather. Seven days later, on Russian Christmas, she painted her face in rainbow colors, donned a wig and performed impromptu skits. She adores dime-store gags. She has a fake plant that plays music at the touch of a secret button. She has a rubber arm she tucks under her sleeve and offers to guests. "When Tanya is around, there is always a good time," says Kiyan. When the circus' financial support dried up in 1991, Goron started her own commercial shop, U Tatyana, using the profits to keep the circus alive. But now Goron plans to join the other 804 people who said goodbye last year to the coldest place in the northern hemisphere. Where will she go? "Somewhere else," she says. For the orphans of the Oimyakon region, it means the end of their circus and with it part of what made Ust-Nera a place people could call home. This is how a community dies: person by person. The exodus of the Gorons and the Kiyans from the Oimyakon region is the end of a chapter in the region's history. But it is, after all, just a chapter. Historically, the area was populated by Eveni reindeer herders and Yukogiri, a Finnic-Urgic group that lived on what they could hunt and fish. The Eveni lived in the manner of their Mongol ancestors 3,000 kilometers to the south, moving their herds with the changing seasons. In the 16th century, cossack invaders ended this ancient way of life in a series of bloody confrontations which saw the Russians incorporate the land into their empire. The vacuum left behind by the conquered Eveni and Yukogiri opened the door for the Yakuts, who had lived to the south as far away as Lake Baikal. Promising subjugation to the tsar, they were given the land stretching from the Arctic Sea along the Lena River to the Amurs in the south. The area is the present-day republic of Yakutia. Meanwhile, the Evenis and Yukogiris have become the human equivalent of an endangered species. Evenis number 1,000 in Yakutia while Yukogiri have been reduced to about 100 -- one of Russia's smallest ethnic groups. Of the 400 Yukogiri who live throughout Russia, only about 40 speak the native tongue, according to Anatoly Alexeyev, an expert on Yakutia's minorities at the University of Yakutsk. "The traditional ways of life are gone," he said in an interview at the university. "You can't bring them back. Now we try to deal with their current problems." The Evenis have adapted better than the Yukogiri, but the changes to their way of life are startling. I saw this firsthand in the valley of Nizhny Maly Taryn, about three hours overland by jeep from the village of Kuidusun. Getting to the starting point of the journey was itself no easy feat, requiring 10 hours in a jeep over frozen roads. Travel in the Oimyakon region, where roads are few and the distances great, is mostly accomplished in planes and helicopters. When at last we arrived, tired and beaten from the trip, I couldn't help feeling disappointed. We entered a messy camp with about 500 reindeer tended by a lone 24-year-old Even named Kostya. Kostya! Kostya lived in a log cabin, spoke fluent Russian and spent his evenings watching films on a movie projector. This, I asked myself, is what had become of the romantic nomadic life of the Eveni people? Shortly after our arrival, Kostya threw some raw reindeer meat into a pot and about 10 minutes later we were seated around a table gnawing at our lunch. I asked Kostya why he chose to live like this. "Because it is closer to the ancestral way of life," he said without a trace of irony. But by the end of the three hours I spent with Kostya, I began to rethink my initial reaction. Kostya described with passion a year in his life. It goes like this: By the end of March he takes the herd 10 kilometers south from Nizhny Maly Taryn to Verkhy Maly Taryn. He stays there until June when the weather becomes uncomfortably warm for the reindeer. Then goes 90 kilometers into the mountains at Letnik. He remains there until September when he moves the herd down to Khatanakh for one month. Then he returns to Nizhny Maly Taryn. It is a cycle his ancestors would recognize well. Granted, his ancestors didn't spend their evenings watching films. They certainly didn't speak fluent Russian and have first names like Kostya. But in the ways that really mattered, was Kostya's way of life all that different? The rediscovery of cultural roots is going on throughout Yakutia, home to no less than 33 different ethnic groups. The largest by far are the Yakuts. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Yakut people have changed the name of the republic to Sakha (actually the two names have equal status) revived the language in politics and laid larger claim to their abundant natural resources: gold, diamonds, timber, coal and various minerals. For the second largest ethnic group of Yakutia, Russians, that has meant playing a role familiar throughout the former Soviet Union: that of the unwelcome guest. This anti-Russian bias is hard to pin down. Most Russians describe it as a mood. It is clearly more than that. Despite the majority status of Russians in the Oimyakon region, every political leader and collective farm director I met, without exception, was a native Yakut. In listing his qualifications to serve as regional administrator, Trifinov noted his ability "to speak Yakut and Russian fluently." "If you don't speak Yakut, you have no future here," said Kiyan, of the local newspaper. In a small hut about 700 meters up the side of the Chersky Mountains, talk turned reluctantly to another wave of immigration to the area: prisoners of the gulag. I had been invited to ski on a slope built by local geologists "purely on enthusiasm," according to its caretaker, Sasha. As we sat drinking tea in the humblest ski lodge I had ever seen, someone mentioned that most of the roads in the Oimyakon region had been built by prison labor. I leapt at the opening and asked about the 17 gulags which operated here until 1959. The lackluster response was typical -- no one in the region has any particular interest in gulags. Yet it's hard not to notice them; they seem to be everywhere. One is located beside a present-day mining operation. Another still carries a slogan spurring the prisoners to work. But there is little to see. A few bits of barb wire, a fence post, a burned out barracks. Many have crumbled into the earth without a trace. No one here considers it a loss, or even thinks about it much one way or the other. The number of prisoners who perished in the camps may never be known. The prisoners started arriving in the area in 1936 -- the same year the Communists began collectivizing the widely scattered Yakut farmers. By 1940, the people had been resettled into the towns of Ust-Nera, Oimyakon, Tyumeyu, Tomtur and Kuidusun. None existed before collectivization. Atop the ski mountain, one of the dozen people seated around a wood table drinking tea linked the cold weather outside with the talk of gulags and reminded everyone of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's haunting question from "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:" "How can a man who is warm understand a man who is cold?" But the mention of Solzhenitsyn only invited scorn from Sasha. "Nobody cares whether Solzhenitsyn returns or not," he said. "He is a great man, but is anyone so great as to be able to solve our problems?" The problem -- the root of the exodus from Oimyakon -- is the rising cost of gold mining. Ten tons of gold was taken from the Oimyakon region in 1993, by far its most important product. An accountant may conclude that man was simply not intended to mine gold here. Because water, critical for the sluices, is frozen nine months of the year, mining has a very short season. Yet the high costs of keeping a workforce must be paid year-round. Heating, oil and food costs are soaring -- as are the costs of getting them here, two days by truck from Magadan. All this overhead must be built into the price of the gold. "In our region, everything comes back to the price of gold," said Trifinov, head of the region's administration. "We do our best to adapt. But the world price of gold is not something we can control." But what about the weather? The newspaper had sent me here to write the ultimate weather story, and with less than four hours to go before my departure I had not yet visited the site of the lowest temperature ever recorded in the northern hemisphere. This was by design. I chose to save for last my pilgrimage to the hallowed ground. Surely here, before the monument, all that I had seen in the previous week would click into place. It was March 1, the first day of Russian spring, when I entered the village of Oimyakon. The temperature was minus 45 degrees Celsius. Before I left balmy Moscow, I had heard all kinds of stories about such cold. I heard that if you spit, ice pebbles bounce against the snow. Urine, I had been told, similarly freezes on its way to the ground. Well, I spit and I did the other thing and I can report that the physics of the process at minus 45 Celsius is pretty much the same as at minus 20 Celsius in Moscow. But minus 45 Celsius is a virtual heat wave away from minus 71.2 Celsius. What is such cold like? There is only one man in Russia who can answer that question: Lazar Vinokurov, 74, who remembers clearly Jan. 4, 1936 in Oimyakon. I found the frail Yakut in the Oimyakon hospital recovering from a mild heart attack."It was a cold winter in general," he said of the day, speaking in Yakut through a translator. "I have no special impression of that day, myself. But hunters say that they saw ermine dying from the cold." In 1936, Vinokurov was working as the local Committee Secretary in Oimyakon. That means he had been recruited by the Communists to weed out the kulaks and collectivize the peasants -- with force if necessary. "The job was done by 1940," Vinokurov said flatly. Oimyakon itself is just a little knock-about place of 1,100 people. Several dozen wood houses stand on the open plain. There is a theater, a school, a hospital and a sport hall that is under construction. Everyone is Yakut except for one Russian who is the town physician. I had been warned before I came that there was nothing to speak of in Oimyakon. It was surprisingly easy to find people who had been here. According to Anatoly Maximov, head of the local state farm, every year about five foreign correspondents make the sojourn to Oimyakon to write "The Coldest Place" story. Such is the town's tourist industry. So far this year, a Swedish reporter and a Japanese television crew had made the journey to Oimyakon. And that didn't count me. The lowest temperature in Oimyakon this winter was minus 59 Celsius, on Dec. 15. At such temperatures it is difficult to breathe. Air itself freezes into an eerie fog at minus 50 Celsius. Planes do not fly below that temperature, stranding residents. Truck drivers carrying goods from Magadan never turn off their engines for fear of them freezing in the cold. The trucks may run continuously for up to a month. I finished my talk with Vinokurov. It was my last piece of business before visiting the memorial. At last, the time had come. I left the hospital, walking over the planks of the new wing which was still under construction. I strode up the frozen road to the outside of town, past the communications office, past the heated garage where vehicles are protected from the elements, past a pit outhouse and up a small knoll to a fenced-in plot that looked a little like a cemetery. On the site, stood a two-and-a-half meter high post. In big letters it said: "Oimyakon: The Cold Pole." Below that, on a small plaque was written: "Here was registered the most extreme low air temperature in the North Hemisphere." No date was given. Oimyakon had claimed the record for all time.