"Our Tiksi is extraordinary, and the Northern Sea Route development is a federal task. Soon, we will have direct flights to Moscow, St. Petersburg, as soon as we upgrade the runway," Bulunsky District’s head Igor Kudryashov notes
MOSCOW, September 17. /TASS/. Communication is next to none here, and Internet bills may be 15-20 thousand rubles a month ($206-275). Getting to the town in summer is by sea or by plane from Yakutsk. In the cold season travelers get another option – to drive along the so-called winter road – the ice-covered snow, pressed by heavy vehicles. TASS correspondent spent a few days in Tiksi to learn how people live in the town, which former was known as the Arctic’s capital.
“Whenever you want to collect berries or to get an animal in the tundra, or to fish in the sea, ask Bayanai for it. Then treat the tundra: with a slice of bread or a candy – whatever you’ve got,” a Yakut, Vasily Burtsev, living in Tiski told me. Bayanai is the Yakuts’ spirit, the owner of nature, the saint patron of hunters.
Together with Vasily we stand amid the real tundra. To the left is the endless Laptev Sea embraced by black shores. The shores are black in color because of the rocks: they say, the stone is stronger than granite, but the time and water anyway have broken the stone into tiny pieces, almost the sand.
To the right continues the endless tundra – colorful mosses, lichens, berries, mushrooms and flowers. Whoever said that the tundra has no colors was absolutely wrong.
Only 30 minutes ago the sky was clear and sunny, and now the clouds are heavy, and it drizzles. The air is still incredibly clean – breathing it is like drinking pure spring water.
Tiksi’s past and present
We go to the tundra to “hunt” cloudberries. It’s a traditional occupation for the locals. Tiksi – the town where Vasily lives – is a regional center and Russia’s northernmost port. The town is in the tundra. We drive off-road just a few kilometers to collect berries.
In the Soviet times, Tiksi was called the Arctic’s capital. Scientists, well-educated specialists, the youth came here to develop and study the North. The Perestoika put an end to those dreams.
The current population is about 4,500. A few military units and a port are located here. Any studies have been practically stopped. The town takes about 14.5 square kilometers, comparable with a big district in Moscow.
“The biggest disaster here was 20 years ago,” Vasily said. He is 36 now. Vasily is the head of a local leisure and sports center: it is both a fitness center, a movie theater and a public space facility.
In the late 1990s – early 2000s on many occasions the town remained cut off electricity, and robbery in the streets did not surprise anyone. Many houses are abandoned nowadays – people simply used to run away from the town.
At the same time, housing costs do not fall, they even rose a little in the past year – the locals say a two-room apartment’s price is around 2 million rubles ($27,500), and monthly maintenance fees would be about 6-8 thousand rubles ($100).
“That’s because life has improved here, almost no drunkards. I think, this is due to our complex, which appeared in Tiksi in 2012,” Vasily said.
Anyway, it’s not the best idea to be walking here: not because of people, but because of the weather: winters are eight – ten months long.
“We have facilities for leisure, culture, sports, a gym, a work-out facility – that is we are the center of life, and everyone who wants to spend free time comes here. Kids and adults learn to dance or to sing. Almost all lessons are free,” Vasily said.
“Ecologically clean” children free from YouTube or Instagram
A true problem in the town is the lack of communication. Maximum available are only messengers, though not always. Thus, spending hours on social networks, or uploading pictures on Instagram, or surfing YouTube is practically out of question. The town is amid the taiga stretching for hundreds of kilometers. Laying any cables is top expensive.
The locals come to the leisure complex to get the Internet access. Ten minutes are free, and then – a few hours could be 150-200 rubles ($2 – 2.7). The speed could be sufficient just to exchange a few pictures or to read the news.
“Having the Internet access at home is a luxury! For private clients, tariffs are beyond limits and the speed is extremely slow. Costs depend on the time, no unlimited options are available, and it is not a rare occasion that people may be charged 15-20 thousand rubles ($206-275), they are unable to pay, cancel the agreement, and thus the due payments are deducted from salaries, and they have to settle fines – endless problems, thus it’s easier to come to the club,” Vasily said.
Svetlana Fedorova, a teacher of young school students, with work experience of 30 years at the Arctic school (the biggest in the region, with more than 350 students), says she is happy to an extent that the town does not have the Internet.
“Our students are ‘ecologically clean’, they do not see trash on the Internet, they do not kill hours staring into gadgets. They do not drink alcohol, they go in for sports, only a few smoke. We do not have drugs at all, and besides, our kids are very kind. At times, when I talk with other teachers, they would say how students may insult, or throw something into a teacher, or to shout. Nothing of the kind happens at our school – if a kid walks by without saying good morning – that is an exception which proves the rule! A teacher may in such a case even invite parents,” Svetlana said.
Drawbacks are also to be mentioned. During the pandemic, students could not have remote classes, and teachers had to prepare tasks for every kid, and every day those tasks were handed over to the parents, who in exchange returned prepared works. Any problems or questions could be discussed only over the phone.
Movies and popcorn
The town has a movie theater, which is also in the ‘point of attraction’ – the cultural-sports complex. Movies are on from nine in the morning to midnight. Even if only one ticket is sold, the movie will be on. The movies are not different from those shown on the mainland.
Next to the entrance to the movie theater is a kiosk with popcorn and beverages. Right now, however, its work has been suspended, as the owner has left for holidays for a few months.
Caviar instead of tangerines, and who are Sakhalyars
“That’s not the way to eat caviar! Look how it’s done!” Sargylana (the name means “dawn”), a Yakut beauty, tears a piece of bread from the loaf, scoops with it the Arctic cisco caviar right from a bowl and passes it over to me. The taste is beyond my words.
Sargylana, her friends and daughters are cooking lunch for the town – together with the Clean Arctic volunteers all the local residents have gone to the Laptev Sea shore to remove from there the waste, pipes and scrap metal left from the past industrial life. After the work, the cleaning team will enjoy fish soup.
“This is what we usually eat. We have fish, caviar, berries from taiga, venison – for us it is like eating potato for you. At the same time, potato is not affordable here – could be 300 rubles ($4) a kilo. And tangerines, if close to New Year, could be 800 rubles ($11). But we do buy them, to make kids happy,” she said with a smile.
She is 45. The mother of eight kids. Practically without wrinkles – joyful laughter and bright eyes. She happily shares the beauty hack. “This is due to the frosts. In winter even minus 40, and non-stop snow storms. We are frozen up, and we enjoy it,” she laughed.
This magic hack works for anyone here, regardless of origins.
“It’s hard to tell my ethnicity. The locals name us the Sakhalyars, that is Metises. My father is a Polish from Ukraine, and my mom is a southern Yakut. Dad came to serve here, met my mom, and changed the native town for this town. However, every other year he visited Ukraine. Now, regretfully, connections are lost, and in the current political situation we are not traveling there,” said Svetlana Fedorova, who at the age of 56 looks as if she is about 35.
Lessons at the local school are in Russian, and in addition to regular subjects the students study the Yakut language and culture.
“In fact, here, the indigenous people are the Evenks, but they are very few – only the elderly in far-away villages still speak the language. Thus, their kids hear only Russian and Yakut,” the teacher said sighing.
Dream town, houses with tunnels and co-working
Yet, despite all the problems, practically every person, with who we managed to speak, believes in Tiksi’s good future. The Bulunsky District’s head, Igor Kudryashov, said – give us time, and Tiski will develop into a dream town.
“Our Tiksi is extraordinary, and the Northern Sea Route development is a federal task. Soon, we will have direct flights to Moscow, St. Petersburg, as soon as we upgrade the runway. Right now, together with volunteers we are cleaning the coastline, where we will make a park – the first park in Tiksi, I hope it will be ready next year. Besides, we have a plan to make transparent tunnels between houses – they will be with lighting. First of all, it will be easier for the locals to leave houses for work, for kids to go to school even in snow storms, when the harsh wind is 50 meters per second. Secondly, we hope to attract tourists, who are not many now – before the pandemic, we welcomed about 1,000 guests a year, while now – not more than 300,” the official said.
The local authorities rely on active residents. One of them is Artem Oslopov. He is a local celebrity – was born in Tiksi, studied in London, worked in IT in Moscow, but returned to Tiksi after his mother died to support father.
He now runs the Arctic Lighthouse newspaper, managers making souvenirs, and hopes to open a training school here. Artem loves Tiksi – says he is tired of the Moscow posh style. On the other hand, the local slowness irritates him.
“Our biggest problem is in human resources. Employers hire people hoping they will get trained while working. But, for example, being an economist is not easy without training. We want to open here distance education courses to train various skills. This is doable if we put together such courses, have them recorded and delivered here. The training terms will be between a few months to one year – for school graduates and for older people. We have been working on the courses with an educational institution on the mainland,” Artem said.
Tiksi’s another activist is Ilya Kravchenko. He lives in Crimea, but, as he puts it, is “overwhelmed with” Tiksi, and comes to the town every year.
“My first trip here was as a cameraman in a popular-science project, when I realized: the Arctic is something super interesting. Together with my friends and partners I have worked out a concept to develop Tiksi. We’ve given to the concept the local newspaper’s name – the Arctic Lighthouse. We see the Arctic as a platform to mobilize and unite active people, technologies and relations to organize an international dialogue and to make a quality breakthrough in the country’s development. We see Tiksi as a location, from where it is easier and quicker to start this route,” Ilya said.
They also plan to organize in Tiksi a space for modern researchers – something like co-working, and, besides, to build a modern hotel. Presently, visitors have to ask the locals for accommodation.
Vasily and I were lucky in our tundra trip: within about 20 minutes we filled a jar of tasty and ripe cloudberries. The berries are juicy and slightly fermented, heady – like the great plans to develop Tiksi.
Nobody doubts the result will be positive – the Arctic people can do a lot. Meanwhile, I have to return. What a bad luck: the weather is getting worse, the harsh wind, the rain, and the flight is delayed for more than 24 hours. “Bayanai, Bayanai, let me go,” I whisper and put a candy for the taiga god, hoping to come here once again.