Off-campus study programs are renowned for bringing together people with no previous connections. This is most obvious when a group of five girls are sent into the wilds of Siberia for a week-long trip surrounded by twice as many guys twenty-four hours a day. In this instance, the program director (Diana Osipovna) is our only adult female companion—a fortunate circumstance considering that certain situations could otherwise be rendered extremely awkward.
As was already mentioned, our program director is a woman, which means that we occasionally receive special treatment. The gender relationship itself guarantees a stronger connection, and the inequality of numbers only strengthens that tie. Bathroom stops are as frequent as we need them to be; requests for chocolate are met with laughter and a bag of the desired snack; and rooms are assigned with the best view going to the girls.
For example a day-long drive across the upper half of Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal requires several stops along the way for bathroom breaks. After piling out of the two vans Diana Osipovna sent the men off in one direction while the women turned in the other, where she gathered us into a human wall for some personal privacy while we did our business. As an added bonus, we were free to ask all the grammar questions that had been pestering us during the trip. Just the other day, she explained to us the difference between liking something and having a good impression of it.
As part of our exposure to the Siberian customs and traditions, we enjoyed the health benefits of the Russian banya. Since we were the girls and there were so few of us, we obviously had first access. Inside the wooden building, you take off your clothing in the first room, wash up in the second (warmer) room, and then enjoy the steam and heat of the innermost room. Wet, green birch branches are provided to thrash each other in order to increase circulation and open up your pores even more than the extreme heat has already opened them. Once you have trouble breathing from the heat, you return to the washing room and pour cold water over your steaming body, closing your pores and rinsing away the dirt and leaves. After about an hour of repeating this process we toweled off and dressed, leaving the banya for the men to enjoy.
Lake Baikal is not only the deepest and purest body of freshwater in the world, but it is also considered to be a sacred site for the native peoples who live nearby. A Buryat legend holds that each swim in Lake Baikal adds one year to your life. For the men this means that it is a test of one’s masculinity to dive into the freezing waters. However, the women have much greater freedom to refuse the adventure, but also receive much more respect when they do immerse themselves.
Another famous Buryat legend is the one that explains the origin of the various Buryat tribes. A group of swans flew down to a mountain stream, where they transformed into women and began bathing. A passing hunter stole the clothes of an especially beautiful girl and refused to return them to her after her companions flew away in their original forms. Hunter and girl married and raised eleven strapping young boys before the maiden finally ventured to ask for her original clothes back. However, on putting them on, she immediately turned back into a swan and flew into the distance, never to be seen again. Her eleven sons became the tribal leaders of the future Buryat peoples.
Contrary to the almost-universal religious attitude that relegates women to a position of inferiority, the Siberian religion of shamanism allows females to hold the most powerful position: Shaman. Those who received the honor of this post were selected by the spirits themselves, and as a result of this strong connection with the spiritual world they enjoyed first place in the tribal hierarchy. Shamans were sought for medicinal cures, guidance, blessings, and any other needs of their followers.
The oldest group of non-indigenous Russians to make their home in the Siberian steppe were the Cossacks and Old Believers. The Cossacks appeared before anyone else but were quickly disgruntled by the lack of eligible women in the entirely male settlements. The arrival of Old Believer families—exiled after the Great Schism to provide women and farm labor—quickly remedied the situation, while bringing out the distinctions between the roles of men and women. The greatest separation was the splitting of the house itself into male and female sides; families were expected to adhere to this rigid boundary regardless of their marital status. Women also spent a large portion of their time sewing bright clothing for themselves and their families, as well as teaching their children the traditional songs passed down through the ages.
The wives of the Decembrist revolutionaries also left their mark on the Siberian landscape. Mostly noblewomen who chose to renounce their wealth and social position in European Russia to follow their exiled husbands, they brought with them the culture and education severely lacking in a land of wooden huts and labor camps. Their independence and strength refused to desert them even under the harshest conditions, and they succeeded in building up a relatively sophisticated city without the help of husbands or other strong male leaders.
During our travels through Siberia, we were inspired to find an area where women were, and are, respected and regarded as important patrons of culture and religion. They were required to break out of the traditional roles of mother and housewife; for example, the wives of the Decembrists had to endure severe deprivations while their husbands served prison sentences in the labor camps. Under these circumstances, the women had to grow closer to each other and hold each other up, just as we formed a closer bond in our group and with Diana Osipovna. Siberia is a land of delicate balances, and we were fortunate to be able to experience the gender balance in this area.