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See What Life Is Like in a Hidden Siberian Village

A Russian photographer explores her ancestral ties to a tiny town that has been isolated for centuries—and wants to stay that way.

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In the cold of March, villagers provide food and warmth to semi-feral horses like this pregnant mare. Later in the year, hunters load horses with elk, reindeer, and sable. The photographer’s family has named this mare Tuchka—Small Cloud in Russian.
This story appears in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Fairy tales can come true, but sometimes it takes a few decades.

As a city kid, Elena Anosova heard seemingly tall tales of a village visited by elk and wolves, of a vast forest, impassable roads, and an environment both bitter and beloved. As an adult, the visual artist, now 34, finally visited the settlement founded more than 300 years ago by her ancestors. They were hunters, swept up in the waves of Russians who ventured east to Siberia in search of fur and never left. Anosova’s father was born there, and most of the 120 or so people who call the place home—and don’t want outsiders to know its name or location—fall comfortably into the category of family.

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Elk lips are a holiday delicacy, and five-year-old Dasha waits, candy in hand, for an elk’s upper jaw to defrost. In a few hours her mother will skin it and then boil it with spices as part of their New Year’s feast.
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In the native Tungus (or Evenki) language, the settlement’s name translates roughly to “Island.” That’s a physical representation of what lies at the heart of Anosova’s work: the exploration of isolation and boundaries. To reach this dreamy, landlocked “island” by jeep, there is the winter road that for a time freezes over the swampy, subarctic taiga. The fastest approach is by helicopter, which flies twice a month from the town of Kirensk, 200 miles away. If the chopper is full, it means two more weeks waiting to get in, or out.

Once in, Anosova has discovered much to do and little rush to leave. There are wild horses to wrangle when it’s too warm to hunt on snowmobiles. There are crops to grow in oven-warmed greenhouses and preserve for winter. Cash is rarely necessary, except for trips to the city financed by the sale of sable fur. After visits to the village, city life feels different. “It’s difficult,” says Anosova, “because you need silence.”

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Flying over this area by helicopter, photographer Elena Anosova noticed a pattern of animal tracks on a snow-covered lake. “These steps make another silhouette of an animal,” she says. “Like a drawing.”

Even the cold becomes something to long for. Temperatures in June can dip below freezing. Anosova keeps an image on her iPhone of the reading one recent January morning: minus 53°C (-63°F).

One photograph included in this story shows a man with his face awash in snow. To Anosova, it speaks of how those in the village “are at once overwhelmed and at one with the elements.”

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When the rogue bear entered this house, the residents climbed onto the roof in a panic, says Anosova. The electricity isn’t on at night, so they waited in the dark until morning to shoot it. Its skin is strung outside.
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Snowmobile tracks dissolve into the mist. There are no reliable roads in the area, but between December and March it’s possible to travel over the frozen ground by jeep or on skis or Russian-made snowmobiles.