In one of my German language clubs, I once presented a selection of German public broadcast documentaries about Siberia to the participants. In particular, we went through the opening themes and paid attention to how Siberia was described by the announcers. Fasten your seatbelt, folks:
“Expedition into a hostile world. Since time immemorial, life has resisted the icy cold. Some were successful, others are history. Many secrets remain forever unresolved in this vast land and are the material for fairy tales and myths.” (Siberia – The enigmatic giant)
“Land of promise, land of exile. Eternally wide, bitterly cold. Siberia, a myth. […] A hard everyday life in a dramatic landscape, characterized by a cold that makes your breath freeze.” (The Siberia Adventure)
“There is a country as big as a continent, where there is an unimaginable coldness and a wealth that is unique in the world. That is Siberia. We are showing you this land of extremes. For centuries it has captivated people. […] Some people seem to live here as in times long past.” (Adventure Siberia)
My oh my! You could really think that Siberia is the icy “Death Valley” of the Northern Hemisphere! To be fair, though, there are some elements of truth in these descriptions. On the one hand, Germans most likely do have these kinds of images in their heads when hearing the word Siberia (plus bears). On the other hand, Siberia’s cold and vastness are undeniable ecological realities.
The big question, however, is whether Siberia can be reduced to these realities. To my participants, there is more to their homeland than just snow, taiga and wildlife. They highlighted that they would like to see the industrial, cultural (as in creative-artistic), urban and educational sides of Siberia receiving some recognition. In a certain way, one could detect here a desire to be accepted as a “normal” peer, as a part of the world that is not so much different from others.
If we look at the official city government’s introduction, we can find both these strands of the narrative: first Krasnoyarsk is described as “distinguished by its unique landscapes,” then we read that “today’s Krasnoyarsk is a modern industrial city with unique architecture, a capital of artistic and talented people of Siberia and one of the most beautiful cities in the country.” This is followed by brief examples of the city’s urban, infrastructure and business development as well as cultural, educational and sport achievements. Thus the natural environment is merely the setting, the background to the city’s human-made side that is being promoted. On the tourism front, private tour companies like this one offer a city tour and a tour to the hydropower dam near Divnogorsk but also organize Stolby, Yenisey, Tunguska explosion site and Dacha tours, clearly making use of the city’s natural surroundings.
To my mind, Krasnoyarsk would be well-advised to play its nature card in much better and more effective ways in order to attract tourism, for instance by positioning itself as the gateway to a “real Siberia,” whatever that would include. (Hiking tours? Survival courses in the Taiga? Road trips through Tuva; Chakassia and Altai? Boat trips up the river to Yeniseysk?) Hosting the Universiade 2019 (slogan: “Real Winter”) is nice but does not really amount to much in the long term. I, for one, have never given much about Universiades and to my knowledge this event has hardly made it into world news in the past.
Once that is rolling and Krasnoyarsk is more on the tourist radar, the local government can go for the deeply desired, concerted push to diversify its branding, i.e. highlight its scientific excellence, forward-thinking industries and businesses (and no, fossil energy does not belong to those), provocative arts scene (our museum would be a wonderful starting point), and emerging civil society development sphere. (Me and my girlfriend disagree a bit over the quality of the city’s historic and architectural heritage.)
In the end, I think Siberia and Krasnoyarsk will hardly be able to soon escape the image of an exotic and mysterious corner of the world in which nature rules over humans. While the simplistic depiction of Siberia as a hostile and uninhabitable place in German documentaries is beyond fair, for travelers from Europe like me this “Orientalism” (Edward Said) especially is the very reason to come here, promising an escape from the densely populated and highly developed urban landscape back home.