The 800-km train ride from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk may be long, but it least it is stuffy. It departs at one a.m. and in the early morning hours we wake in a more northern, hillier region of Siberia. The fir and pine trees are more numerous, and the forests seem denser, stretching well beyond the visible horizon. And of course there are miles and miles and miles of birch trees. And then more still on top of that.
Krasnoyarsk – Siberia’s third largest city, with over a million residents – sits on hills and lowlands astride a broad split in the Yenisei River. Chekhov called the city Siberia’s most beautiful, and it is certainly very notable for having a huge island – literally a massive island – of green space in the center of things, easily reached by a pleasant pedestrian bridge from the city center (where there is a statue to the remarkable explorer Nikolai Rezanov, he who was once governor of Russian America and who died here en route to seeking the tsar’s permission to marry Conchita, the beautiful young daughter of Spain’s commandante of San Francisco, Don José Darío Argüello). And there is no lack of nice restaurants and coffee shops.
In short, this bustling metropolis lies at the center of Siberia, but is rather far from the image of this realm that one conjures up from novels and history books: prisoners in chains plodding along an endless trakt; religious exiles hiding out in forests; hunters following the tracks of their prey through deep snow banks. In this Siberia there is Academia Kofe, welcoming Georgian restaurants, pleasant pedestrian zones, comfortable hotels, and cozy wine bars. Chekhov would be impressed, and would probably have lingered far longer than we did.
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At least three times Marfa Konechnikh cheated death. She jokes that it is because she changed her birth name at an early age and, since on all her official documents she was named as Maria, Death simply couldn’t find her. But likely it has more to do with her abundance of grit and determination.
The first thing Marfa says to us when we enter her apartment is “I don’t want to die.” No centenarian has yet said this to us. They may have felt it, but Marfa was the first to come right out and say it.
Restless and spry, Marfa moves around her apartment like a 70-year-old, worrying about whether this or that should be attended to, for example if we have enough tea. She has small, narrow features and piercing blue eyes, yet her limbs and fingers are long and slender, with no sign of arthritis or other serious ailments, other than the loss of sight in one eye.
For over an hour, with no sign of tiring, she regales us with stories from the earliest days of her tragic childhood. Her father died on the day of her birth. He was a smuggler and trader and happened on that day to find a large fish (a taymen), but choked on a bone while eating it and died. When she was nine, her brother was playing with a hunting rifle and it went off accidentally, killing their mother.
From that point on, for several decades, Marfa’s life was one of incessant work. She was taken in by her sister’s family and compelled to be a nanny, yet her sister did not allow her to go to school, while her nieces and nephews did. “And so I remained a fool,” she said sadly.
She soon transitioned to work outside the home, and had a long working life of very physical labor. “I worked in the wood processing plant doing every job from A to Z,” she brags. “When I retired, I was in the first position on the board of honor at work.” (A place of recognition for those with the most impeccable work and attendance records.)
Except when Marfa “retired,” she didn’t, really. She kept working at different places, always distinguishing herself for her indefatigable persistence.
What, we ask her, as we do many of our centenarians, is the secret to her long life?
“Don’t eat fatty foods, don’t smoke or drink. Eat little and move a lot,” she replies.
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If the first time Marfa cheated death was surviving against the odds of orphanhood and living into maturity, the second time she cheated death was when she licked kidney cancer when she was about 50.
The third time was when she overcame pneumonia a few years later, well into her retirement. The doctor was sure that Marfa was dying and stopped by their house to ask, “Why have you not come by to pick up a death certificate?”
“What death certificate?” her daughter Tatyana replied. “Mama is cleaning the windows.”
Then, 20 years ago, at 80, Marfa fell and broke her hip. The doctor said it would take a few months to heal, that for younger patients such a break usually heals in two months. But the ever restled Marfa insisted that they make an X-ray of her just a month after the break. The doctor reported a phenomenal outcome: her bone had already healed, and quite strongly at that.
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