In the summer of 1990, on my second visit to Lake Baikal, I spent time at the northern tip of the lake. While there I became intrigued by a name I found on a map—a village called Holodnia, located about 20 kilometers north of Baikal’s northern shores. Now holodnia, in Russian, means “cold.” I asked myself, “What on earth is it like to live in a place called Cold, Siberia?” I had to find out.
After two days of finagling I managed to get a vehicle and driver to take me and a few colleagues to the village. There we found a charming collection of old, typically Siberian log homes, two small stores, and a biblioteka (library). It was a hot day, with temperature in the high 80s—not the typical picture (or temperature) that most of us associate with Siberia. The streets were lined with lovely old shade trees. Except for a few Russian made vehicles, mostly beat-up old Ladas, and an ancient tractor, this could have been a bucolic town right out of mid-America, circa the 1940s. The only thing missing from the picture was a makeshift stand with kids selling lemonade.
We walked leisurely up one street and down another. On one of those side streets a man stood in his yard behind a picket fence tending a garden. He waved and we stopped to chat. He was incredulous when he discovered we were Americans. Amerikanski! Apparently no one here had ever seen a non-Russian, let alone an American. With great excitement he invited us in for tea. Here was my chance to find out about life in Cold, Siberia.
We sat in his tiny kitchen. The tea was typically Russian—dark, strong, and bracing. He served some small cookies as well. We made small talk. My friend Susie Crate, a Russian scholar, translated for us. He asked many questions about us. Where did we live? How did we get here? He was still astonished that we were Americans—sitting right here in his kitchen! The conversation went on and I was getting impatient. Finally, I could contain myself no longer. When a lull came in the conversation, I asked, “What is it like to live in a place called Cold, Siberia?” Susie translated.
His brow wrinkled and a puzzled look came over his face. Then he realized that I was asking how cold is Cold. He laughed and made an aw-shucks-it’s-nothing wave of his hand. “We sometimes have minus-40 degrees here. It’s not bad,” he said. (Minus-40 degrees Celsius is the same as minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit.) Then, pointing to the north with his finger he said, “Ah, but Pereval [a village 50 kilometers north of Holdnia], they get down to minus-55 degrees” (which translates to an incredible 67 degrees below zero Fahrenheit!). He paused and smiled to let that sink in. You wouldn’t catch him living in a place as cold as Pereval. No sir. Holodnia was a much balmier climate.
The place called Cold wasn’t so cold after all.