With average highs of –40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, the Siberian city of Yakutsk, Russia, is one of the world’s coldest continually inhabited places. In 2008 a visiting journalist wearing multiple layers of winter clothing managed to stay outside in January for just 13 minutes before beginning to experience “severe pain” across his body and retreating indoors.
“The first place to suffer is the exposed skin on my face,” the journalist said, “which begins to sting, and then experience shooting pains, before going numb, which is apparently dangerous, because it means blood flow to the skin has stopped. Then the cold penetrates the double layer of gloves and sets to work on chilling my fingers.”
Who would want to live in such an inhospitable place? About 200,000 people, as it turns out, among them photographer Alexey Vasilyev, a lifelong Siberian who intends to be buried in the permafrost. (Digging graves in the Siberian winter requires first thawing the frozen earth by burning a fire for several days.) Many of Vasilyev’s friends decamped for Moscow or St. Petersburg as soon as they grew up—and Vasilyev once dreamed of doing the same. “Life in Yakutsk seemed boring and monotonous,” he recalls. “Six months of snow and ice—not everyone wants that kind of life for themselves. But for many people, including me, Yakutsk is a comfort zone.”
Vasilyev’s latest photography series is a love letter to his hometown, showing how life goes on even in the most extreme weather. It’s a heartwarming collection of images of children ice skating on Schorsa Lake, outdoor markets where vendors hawk meat and fish in the middle of winter, factories that makes reindeer fur shoes, and commuters huddling for warmth at bus stops. “It’s cold outside, but all the homes are nicely heated,” Vasilyev explains. “As long as you dress warmly outside, you’re not in danger.”
The series also documents the creative ways Yakutsk residents manage the cold, including building their houses on stilts so the central heating doesn’t melt the permafrost—in Russia, Yakutsk is known as “the city on legs”—and placing all sewage, water, and utility lines aboveground to keep them from freezing. But even this far north, the weather doesn’t stay cold all year. In June and July, temperatures rise into the 90s and it stays light for 20 hours a day.
Vasilyev says working as a photographer has helped change the way he understands his hometown. “I see the city differently now,” he says. “I realized that this place isn’t boring—you just have to look closer.”
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