I hope you’ll forgive the slight detour into the realm of the somewhat light-hearted this week as I explore the topic of “similarities between Siberia and Australia”.
Although this post is generally light hearted, I also believe that thinking about the similarities we share with others, rather than focussing only on our differences, can foster solidarity and empathy. Especially as Russia is often held up as the enemy in western discourse, and the west is often portrayed as the enemy in Russian discourse. It’s an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality on both sides of the fence (just think what ‘we’ could achieve if we worked together, not against ‘each other’.) A word of warning though: these are not all similarities that we should be proud of.
From an Australian point of view, Siberia is about as far-away and mysterious as we can imagine. It conjures up images of bears, guns, vodka and unfathomably vast, snowy landscapes. I was lucky enough to spend three and a half months in total living in Tobolsk, Western Siberia. Tobolsk has a population of around 99,700. As the seat of the Governor-General of Western Siberia until the early 1800’s, it was once a town of importance in the region. It’s significance dwindled in the 1980s when it was left off the Trans-Siberian Railway, which headed instead for the closest city, Tyumen, today a 4 hour drive by car from Tobolsk (if you drive like a Siberian that is. Longer if you don’t). Today Tobolsk is largely propped up by an important polymer plant. When I first went there in 2013, all Google Maps had of the city was a name. Today, there’s even streetview of its major streets.
I managed to experience full-blown Western Siberian culture in Tobolsk – as the only non-local living there you don’t really have any other option (there are European workers at the polymer plant but they keep to themselves, even living in a different area to the local population. I never met one of them, and neither have most Tobolskians). So, in the spirit of listicles on internet sites all over the world, here are in my semi-professional opinion 10 Similarities Between Siberia and Australia.
1. They’re both really remote
Australia and Siberia are both really far away from everything else. They’re both vast stretches of largely uninhabitable land that are well removed from other places. Of course it’s a matter of perspective in a way. Siberia wouldn’t really be considered ‘remote’ to someone in, say, Kazakhstan.
2. They both have a convict history
That remoteness earned us another thing in common: our convict histories. England sent its petty criminals far far away to Australia, Russia sent its criminals, intellectuals and dissidents to Siberia, well out of sight. The Romanov family were one notable example. They were sent to Tobolsk before they were executed in Yekaterinburg. Dostoevsky spent time in Tobolsk prison after a last minute reprieve (literally) from death by firing squad in St. Petersburg. Some of the Decembrists were exiled to Tobolsk where they were forced to eke out a new, cold existence for themselves. You can still find their graves in one of Tobolsk’s cemeteries.
3. They both exist on lands taken from native inhabitants
Like I said, some of our similarities aren’t ones we should be proud of. Both Australia and Siberia were wrested from the native populations of the land, violently. Numerous indigenous groups in Siberia continued suffering under soviet rule, and the plight of many continues today. In Australia, Aboriginal people continue to suffer from the effects of invasion with little recognition or effort on the part of the invaders. Could there ever come a time when we manage to learn from our collective mistakes and try to make reparations for them?
What is the one sport every Australian knows how to do? Surfing of course. (Note: irony). Similarly, every Siberian knows how to ski and loves it. I don’t know how to surf or ski, but I’m going to put it out there: skiing is like surfing on the snow. In fact, this is related to another thing Australia and Siberia have in common, extreme weather. In Australia extreme heat (highest temperature ever recorded +50.7 °C), in Siberia extreme cold (lowest temperature ever recorded -68 °C).
5. Dangerous wildlife
What about some of the dangerous animals you might encounter whilst partaking in one of these national sports? In my opinion, some of the most terrifying animals on earth call Australia and Siberia home. I mean of course sharks and bears respectively. Not to worry though – a drunk guy from one of the villages near Tobolsk told me he would show me how to punch a bear in the face if it attacked me while I was skiing. I didn’t take him up on his offer, but I imagine it’s much like how Australian surfer Mick Fanning recently punched that shark in the back. (Note: please don’t go punching any sharks or bears. They’re terrifying, but they’re beautiful.)
6. People are always getting their names wrong
In 2007 George Bush thanked John Howard for visiting Austrian troops in Iraq. When people met up with me after one of my stints in Tobolsk, someone would invariably ask me “how was your trip to Serbia?”
7. The double shift
Popular discourse would have us believe that gender equality has been achieved in Australia. While feminism is a dirty western word in Siberia, women there are usually expected to work. This is in part, I believe, a hangover from soviet times when work was not optional, and gender equality was, technically, part of soviet ideology (though soviet women continued to face gender inequalities). I wasn’t in Tobolsk long before someone recited a popular part of a Nikolai Nekrasov poem to me:
A Russian women is unique.
She will save you when you’re in trouble.
She can stop a running horse
and jump into a burning house.
On the one hand, it’s a lovely way to describe someone, in this case a woman: strong, brave, selfless. On the other hand, to me it also captures the expectation of Russian women: that they do everything. In Australia and Siberia (now and in soviet times), despite a denial of inequality, women continue to carry out ‘the second shift’ of work. That is, women work in paid employment, but in general they are also the ones responsible for domestic work and child care and rearing. There are some important statistical differences between the two places here around prevalence, male carers, the wage gap and the types of jobs women in Australia might hope to have compared to women in Siberia. Nonetheless, the overall pattern of women’s double shift still holds true in both locations.
8. Men’s Work
Men in Australia go to the West to work in the mines, because it’s where they can make good money. Men in Western Siberia go to the North to work for the oil companies, because it’s where they can make better money.
9. Fashion and beauty
There’s a huge emphasis on beauty and fashion for women in Russia (see Maria Davidenko’s work for more on Russian women’s daily beauty rituals, cultural capital and the illusion of beauty-power). Would I be wrong to suggest the same of Australia? In Berlin, my current city, I can go clubbing in jeans and a t-shirt. In Australia I wouldn’t be let in without a cocktail dress and a full head of makeup. High heels are also standard fare for women in both Siberia and Australia. Emphasis on appearance for women is, in my opinion, really apparent in both places.
Russia is a pretty religious country, and Siberians are pretty serious about their religion. Estimates place the amount of Christians in Russia between 46.8% and 76%, with Islam, Buddhism and Judaism also playing important roles in the country. Russian Orthodoxy is the major religion in Russia though. Australia is officially a secular state, but privately Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism claim the largest followings. That’s right, the major religions of each country are all forms of Christianity. Different forms, certainly, but in the end they’re all different branches of the same club.
We like to focus on the things that divide ‘us’ from those we perceive as different to us, or ‘other’ to us, or our ‘enemy’. I think there’s something to be said for considering whether our similarities might actually be bigger than our differences.