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Russia’s River Villages: Art and Science Still Reign

Having hitchhiked our way down the Lena River (or up it, if one looks at a map and sees it flowing north), we at last reached the Sakha communities we had traveled so far to visit in eastern Siberia. Everywhere we had gone, we were consistently impressed with the focus on education and the arts. Nowhere in...

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The carved detail on this AK-47 gives an idea of the important role art plays in this region. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Having hitchhiked our way down the Lena River (or up it, if one looks at a map and sees it flowing north), we at last reached the Sakha communities we had traveled so far to visit in eastern Siberia. Everywhere we had gone, we were consistently impressed with the focus on education and the arts. Nowhere in Russia did we see art on walls that was not worthy of gallery presentation, and we were often amazed to discover the artist might be a high school student or younger. On the ships, the art we admired may have been created by deck hands or other crew members.

The strong art component is obvious in the cities and the smallest communities across Russia, and seeing this—alongside the dedication in each community to top-notch education—we were constantly impressed as we toured the schools we visited. We learned that around 95 percent of students in the region continue on to complete university. Algebra and calculus equations dominated blackboards, and images of Einstein and other mathematical, scientific and literary geniuses occupied prominent places on classroom walls.

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These students were amazed to see so many similarities between life on the Lena and on our Yukon River. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

While some of the school buildings we visited may be in need of maintenance or serious upgrades and repair, it’s clear that they are filled with passionate educators who focus solely on enriching the minds of their students, even when outside temperatures drop beyond 50 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Teachers and students laughed as they shared stories of a cold front last year which dropped temperatures to -64 degrees F. I must say that hearing the event described by giggling third graders, like it was no big deal, kind of made us hang our heads in wimpy shame!

Another unexpected visit arranged for us while in one community was with a children’s center that functions essentially as a safety net for children who reside in unstable home environments—mostly due to issues of alcohol. As is sometimes the case in parts of Alaska and other remote communities, alcohol can play a negative role in a culture.

However, these fortunate children seemed happy and well-adjusted and we quickly realized this was due to an amazing program director. She treated each child with love and respect, as did her small team of assistants. Thanks to these amazing adults, the young minds who benefit from their positive attention here are thriving and developing as they should, even while living in the shadow of a debilitating reality.

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We were fortunate to visit to a local children’s center where the kids are healthy and well-cared for. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

As far as the science of the Lena River, instead of setting up one location to be sampled as originally planned, three communities came out to join us—and we learned as we were nearing the end of our journey in Russia that several more groups and locations are waiting to join.

We were thrilled to see such exuberance in the numerous communities who want to understand and preserve the health of this river and its water quality. And when you stop and think about it, why wouldn’t they be? This is their river. It sustains them on practically every level. It’s their highway and their grocery store—the true core of the world they inhabit. Because our system of sampling is so clean and simple, it’s easily accepted and implemented by NIK participants.

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Valentin, a budding photographer, and I. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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We introduced Valentin to National Geographic (the Russian version)—he and his classmates had never seen this and were astounded by its magnificent photographic content. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
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Valentin happily holding his National Geographic issue in front of his school. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Kids of all ages along the Lena grasp its important role in their own lives, and we were essentially handing them a badge of honor when it came to the sampling technology we entrusted to them. That fact, combined with the eager participation of teachers, scientists and community leaders with whom we met will all but guarantee great success for the Lena’s scientific data collection. Even though we have just begun our efforts on this massive river, we are already very pleased with the results. We should start receiving the Lena’s scientific data in November.

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Students learning about the system they’ll be using to collect water samples from the Lena. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Next: Sakha Celebration

Previous: The Rough, the Gruff and the Friendly

Read More by Jon Waterhouse

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Meet the Author

Jon Waterhouse
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river." Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.