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"A Siberian Winter" An English Story in Short

"A Siberian Winter" An English Story in Short

learning English by story

It was only minus 28 degrees Celsius when we landed in Irkutsk. But that was cold enough to make breathing an effort - the air felt like ice as it scraped the back of my throat. Five minutes later, I needed a second pair of gloves and pulled my scarf tight over my nose and mouth. I was obviously a beginner at this.

At the petrol station, Mikhail the attendant laughed when we asked if he wasn't freezing. He'd spent the whole day outside with no more than his fur hat and a sheepskin coat for warmth. It was mid-afternoon and icicles were hanging from his moustache like Dracula's fangs. He said he never drank to stay warm - unlike many others.

Vodka

There's a belief in Siberia that enough vodka will insulate you from the cold. It's been proved tragically wrong in the past few weeks. Dozens of bodies of the homeless or men walking drunkenly back from the pub were hauled out of the snowdrifts, frozen or so badly frost-bitten that many will never walk again.

The local hospital in Irkutsk is overwhelmed. Ironically, it's the burns unit that's taken all the frostbite victims - 200 of them in just two weeks in one town. Even here, icicles are hanging down on the inside of the windows, though the heating is on full power. The doctor was too busy performing amputations to talk to us.

Shortages

But we could hear the screams from the operating room. They'd run out of anaesthetic after performing 60 amputations that week. The other patients could hear it too, and one girl in the corridor, clinging to her mother for support, was near to tears.

Nastya is only 16. Last week she missed her last bus home, so she walked instead - seven kilometres through the snow, in temperatures of minus 40. She had no gloves. Now her hands are bandaged and hang down uselessly. She'll find out soon if they need to be amputated.

She was far from the worst case. In one bed, Nikolai Dobtsov lay quietly staring at the ceiling. Underneath the sheets, blood was seeping through his bandages, from where his feet and hands had been amputated the day before. He was a truck driver, he explained, with a good job delivering wood - and recently there'd been a lot of demand. So he'd set out to deliver a last load upcountry. The weather forecast - just minus 25 in Irkutsk - seemed to suggest that the journey was safe. It wasn't. His truck broke down miles from anywhere, and for 6 desperate hours he fought to repair the axle. He even greased his hands for protection, and finally managed to get the truck going again. Somehow he found the strength to drive himself back and straight to hospital, but it was already too late.

I asked Nikolai what would happen to him now. He just laughed, and shrugged. Nikolai has no wife or family in Irkutsk - and invalidity benefit is a pittance. Life in an institution may be the best he can hope for, and he'll almost certainly never work again.

Resilience

That incredible stoicism is everywhere. In Irkutsk at least, people seem simply to accept that winter is harsh - and this one especially so. It is without doubt the cruellest Siberian winter in living memory. Yet outdoors, everything appears to function normally - even schools re-opened as the temperature rose briefly to minus 25.

The trams and buses are back on the roads, though everyone drives slowly to avoid skidding on the layers of ice below the grit. The main street bustles with people wrapped in layers against the cold. But even indoors, the chill is inescapable. After her shift as a tram conductor, Natasha Fillipova comes home to a freezing house. She shows us the bedroom - where ice has built up on the inside walls. She scrapes it off with her fingers, but that has little effect. One night, Natasha says, she washed her hair before going to bed. When she woke up, it was frozen solid to the wall. The children are doing their homework in the bathroom - the only room warm enough to sit in. Natasha doesn't want to complain. But she is angry with the state and the architects for building shoddy houses.

The flats here are supposed to withstand up to minus 40 degrees. They don't, and her children are ill with coughs and colds. Natasha's anger is brief, and she seems faintly embarrassed about it. Siberians are used to cold weather, she explains. Here, she tells us, people prefer to rely on themselves - and the knowledge that eventually, spring will come.

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