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I had a pretty robust preconceived view of Siberian life

By Michael Oliver-Semenov
26 March 2013

In my mind Siberia was a place where bears outnumbered people ten to one and the words summer, sunshine and sunbathing weren’t even in the Russian dictionary as it was winter all year round and people lived in small huts made of mud and hay.

Having recently moved to central Siberia from the UK, I now see it as my duty to dispel the Siberian stereotype that had me so fooled, hence I have joined forces with The Siberian Times to write this blog. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

This was partly due to how Russia is portrayed by Western media but if I’m honest, it was largely due to my own ignorance. 

Having recently moved to central Siberia from the UK, I now see it as my duty to dispel the Siberian stereotype that had me so fooled, hence I have joined forces with The Siberian Times to write this blog.

Saying this, I have no intention of covering anything up or ignoring those things that can be seen as a negative; I plan to document everything, from the delicious cakes at the local bakery to the wild Siberian hounds, that according to my wife, you’re never supposed to look directly in the eye.

The point of this, you may have wondered is to offer some kind of perspective on Siberian life to would-be travellers and future expats/immigrants (Why British immigrants require the special title of ‘expats’ I’ll never know, perhaps something to do with an outmoded sense of power and ‘ye olde empire’). 

As a relatively new addition to the population of Krasnoyarsk city, you will be able to see just how well I do (whether I find a job, rise above the ranks, become an oligarch and take over the world) and should therefore be able to make an educated decision on whether this life would suit you also. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov and wife Nastya

'I have a wife Nastya, who is native Siberian. When she wants to she can be very scary; there’s an old saying in Russia that goes something like: 'a Russian woman can stop a running horse in its tracks'. Picture: Michael Oliver-Semenov

It is my intention to update this blog weekly or at the very least fortnightly. This should be easy as I am (or was at least) a professional writer. 

However, I can’t promise any kind of regularity or even a second blog entry if my father-in-law (Borya) has his way. 

During the past three days he has asked me more than five times if I want to go into the taiga with him to build a new hut. 

You see, Borya likes to go hunting; he is a hunter from birth. At any and every opportunity he disappears with his rifle, home-made 10ft skis and a 50 kilo rucksack into the Taiga to hunt Caribou and is normally gone for a month at a time. This morning he told me that the hut he is accustomed to bunking down in (that he built himself from trees cut down on his own with a small hand saw) has gone a bit wonky and needs replacing. 

Naturally I’d love to oblige him, but there are several factors that, when given serious consideration, terrify me.

For one, I have a wife (Nastya), who is native Siberian. When she wants to she can be very scary; there’s an old saying in Russia that goes something like: a Russian woman can stop a running horse in its tracks. 

While this may not literally be true, all these old sayings have to come from somewhere and so I think it’s best not to test my wife’s patience. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov


Michael Oliver-Semenov

'It’s hard to imagine now but in just 3 months’ time the temperature will have increased by 40 degrees,  all the crops will be planted and Nastya and I will probably be sat on our dachas veranda, eating home-made strawberries dipped in chocolate melted by the sun...'. Pictures: Michael Oliver-Semenov

The other more obvious reasons for not wanting to skip merrily into the taiga are: I don’t speak Russian (how could I call for help if I get attacked by monsters?), I don’t know the area, the forest is full of bears, lynx and lots of other things with big teeth, as a westerner I have NO SURVIVAL SKILLS WHATSOSVER, and lastly, I’m a Welshman with a beer belly that probably weighs too much to go dragging it over mountains. 

My plan is to avoid Borya until his itchy feet get the better of him.

Outside right now (1am Krasnoyarsk time) it’s snowing like billyo. 

As it’s nearing the end of winter the weather has taken to snowing at night and thawing out by day. 

After 5 months of freezing coldness this change is most welcome, however, what you probably don’t know and what I have just discovered is that the transition from winter to spring is actually the most dangerous time of the year here. 

When the sun is up it melts the snow which causes rivers of slush to run down the street, plus all the snow on the roofs begins to melt, forming large icicles on the gutters. Come night time it all freezes again. 

Every morning you have to remember not to walk at speed because the streets are covered in new powder snow on top of sheet ice and you must never to walk directly beneath the buildings just in case an icicle is caused to drop by the thawing brought on by the rising sun. It’s not all bad though. 

As spring is just around the corner it has prompted most Siberians to prepare for the move back to their dachas (wooden summer houses). 

On Sunday just past, Borya and I drove to our family dacha to make sure it’s ready for our return in April. 

Michael Oliver-Semenov


Michael Oliver-Semenov

The other reason for not wanting to skip merrily into the taiga is: as a westerner I have NO SURVIVAL SKILLS WHATSOSVER. Pictures: Michael Oliver-Semenov

When we got there (it’s located 10 miles outside the city), we had to spend hours shovelling snow that had settled in 4ft drifts, in order that we could get the car close enough to drop off our cured meats and various other necessities. 

As the water tank that we use to feed the garden was near empty, I had to shovel snow into it then climb inside several times to crush it down. 

Repeating this process took up most of the day. It was hard work, though it’s likely to have burnt off some of my beer belly so I don’t really see it as a negative. 

It’s hard to imagine now but in just 3 months’ time the temperature will have increased by 40 degrees,  all the crops will be planted and Nastya and I will probably be sat on our dachas veranda, eating home-made strawberries dipped in chocolate melted by the sun....


Michael Oliver-Semenov is a professional poet and writer from Wales, the small but stoic country parked next to England.

After serving as the first poet in residence for Blown, the British magazine for cultural intelligence, Michael emigrated to Krasnoyarsk, Siberia to live with his wife and translator Anastasia Semenova.

When he is not growing vegetables at their family dacha in summer, or avoiding the wild Siberian hounds of winter, Michael is a freelance English teacher, editor and contributor to The Siberian Times.

His forthcoming expose on Siberian life ‘Sunbathing in Siberia:'A marriage of east and west in Post-Soviet Russia’ is due for release in spring 2014 and will be available online and in all book stores worth anything.

Comments (23)

hello greetings from Canada .i would first like to introduce myself ilija gacesa . i immigrated to Canada with my family in the late 90s. since iv lived here and grown to a mature person i can only thank my parents for raising me well .when i read your story i could not believe my eyes it is as some one has taken my dream and made it a reality . for many years i have been searching for a path , i believe this is it and i will follow it to make it reality . you can finde me at Ilija Gacesa on facebook or illijagacesa88@outlook.com
ilija gacesa, torontofo
07/06/2015 14:16
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Sounds like a Wisconsin Winter -

Dont then ruskies know that if you vent and insulate their attic you wont get the big icicles?
Alias, Wisconsin, USA
02/03/2014 17:12
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2
Hi, Interesting article. So, have you learned the local language? I can imagine that that would be the most difficult part of your transition. Is the food a lot different? Good luck to you!
Cathy Dahl, Oregon, USA
26/01/2014 06:44
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Hi Mao, its me, loved the photos, you both look well and happy. Can we skype? XX
Susan Evans, Abertridwr, Wales
09/11/2013 18:33
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My fiancee lives in Siberia, 500 k's from your home. I have been in Siberia (Kemerovo) for a month holiday and also a month in July with my lady, I will back in January 2014 for a 5 week stay with my lady ! You are right about how different Siberia is compared to the pro Western media ! Most media outlets still think the cold war is happening !There are some great places and great people, enjoy your life there !
Craig, Perth, Western Australia
10/10/2013 18:27
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having made =regular trips to Siberia to stay with friends, (one of my family ancestors goes back many generations to Western Russia) I can understand how he feel in love with Siberia- first time I went I had tears in the eyes and felt I had come home- i love the people - culture- the scenery- the vastness- the feeling in my heart- the as a poet it inspired me to write one of my favourite poems about the Birch trees..I hope to return next year...2014
trevar , sydney australia
23/08/2013 11:42
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Yours is a truly cool story. Someday I hope to migrate like you have done to Siberia.
Peter, Maryland
14/07/2013 13:13
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Good luck. The Russian soul is indeed magical - the people are amazing - the winters are long and the future is bright.
Anonymous , Krasnoyarsk
08/06/2013 11:04
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What a wonderful story and changes my perspective of the Siberia I thought I 'knew', especially when our people were sent there for 'misdemeanours' or even speaking out. Asking my father once why I was not born in Ukraine - he said that with my 'outspokenness' and questioning everything I would have been sent to Siberia.

I really regret not visiting Siberia when I was much younger and I know I would have fallen in love with it and stayed, as I myself love the uncorrupted and unpolluted aspect of Siberia. As a Ukrainian woman, I am not afraid of hard work and know I would have been part of that beautiful land.

So glad I 'found' the Siberian Times and love to read everything in it.

Congratulations and hopefully all will go well with the Semenov family and may their children grow strong and also love and respect their homeland.
Valentyna, Perth, Scotland
02/04/2013 12:17
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Excellent profile of Siberia, snow and fathers-in-law from the perspective of a transplant - and of a man who wants to keep his wife happy! LOVED THIS!
Amy King, New York, NY
01/04/2013 05:41
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@Dave @Mao regarding your heating conversation, actually it's a remnant of the good old Soviet system. In a nutshell, it's taking throwaway heat from power stations which is a waste there, adds it to what heating plants produce by means of burning gas, and then scalding hot water runs under pressure to all the houses.

Upside: relatively low cost and compatible with large-scale construction implemented by Soviets.

Downside: some parts of streets where pipes are running don't freeze in winter.



Once we get it all insulated properly, there's nothing better. When in Europe I have to _remember_ that full-on cheap heating is not a must.
Andy Dean, Moscow
30/03/2013 17:17
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Good luck to him. Makes a change from the disaster stories we read from ex-pats in Ibiza, Majorca, Turkey etc. As long as he is in employment and is integrating that is all that matters. Mind you he does look like Gary Barlow in one of the photos.
jo, Bristol
29/03/2013 19:20
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Hi Dave... I was only playing. there are several heating factories near here. they run on coal and gas. I don't know of any nuclear heating sustems nearby. Yeah, in winter the heating comes on and that's that. There's no turning it off - but you wouldn't want it off. It's all very affordable anyway. I can't imagine what it would cost me to turn the heating on ALL winter in the Uk and leave it on for 6 months.... I remember I left it on once all night and it cost me £7. Imagine if I did that every day and every night !!!
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Krasnoyarsk
29/03/2013 19:12
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Thanks for that Mao. I guess I meant what heats the water? Coal, oil, gas, nuclear? Also, interesting mix (from a UK perspective): CH and rubbish (plus other) from same agency. Sounds like a local authority run 'district heating system'. Hmmm! We could do with some of that post-Soviet planning here!
Dave Guppy, London, UK
29/03/2013 17:28
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Haha of course we have central heating. It's powered mainly by....um.....water !! and....um...radiators. The monthly bill for unlimited hot water and heating, and refuse collection and......well everything except electricity is 2000 roubles a month (£40).
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Krasnoyarsk
29/03/2013 09:49
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