Weekend Warm-Up: Two Decades of Siberian Solitude

What causes someone to retreat from society? It’s an age-old question reignited whenever a storyteller’s pen or camera brushes up against these voluntary Crusoes. The latest example is filmmaker Kuin B’s short documentary about Samuil, a Yakutian man eking out a solitary existence in a small cabin in the vast Siberian forest.

For Samuil (pron. SAM-oy-ill), the routine is simple but grueling: He gathers firewood several times a day, chips and melts ice for drinking and bathing water, listens to the radio, plays music, and cooks food. That might not seem like much, but northern days are short, and everything takes longer in Yakutia’s crushing cold.

“I found it quite boring living in the village,” he says in a voiceover.

a man plays the accordion for a dog

Samuil plays the accordion while one of his dogs sings along. Photo: Screenshot


Because he built his cabin himself and seems to have chosen his life voluntarily, it’s tempting to draw comparisons to Henry David Thoreau. But the sage of Walden Pond didn’t have to contend with temps that plummet to -70˚C or brown bears trying to eat his food. And while 27-year-old Thoreau’s experiment in self-reliance lasted a little over two years, 66-year-old Samuil’s has been rolling for 20 years.

a man uses a hand tool to chip ice with a sunset in the background

Chipping ice for water. Photo: Screenshot


His windows are plastic sheeting

Kuin B, also the film’s narrator, indicates that Samuil retreated into the woods because he lost his family at an early age. But it’s unclear how much of the poverty the man clearly lives in is intentional.

For instance, Samuil’s “windows” are nothing more than crumbling plastic. It’s tempting to write this off as an affectation. But later in the film, Samuil mentions his window situation is the reason for much of his backbreaking daily tree felling and wood splitting — his house doesn’t hold heat.

When the film crew later gifts him with food, he’s appreciative. But this viewer, at least, couldn’t help but wonder how much the gift of a window would have helped instead.

a hand adds fuel to a wood stove

Samuil heats his house and cooks his food with a wood stove, a task made more difficult by a lack of properly insulating windows. Photo: Screenshot


Kuin B’s video is part of a larger series of stories chronicling daily life in Yakutia. Her oeuvre is worth exploring, focusing as it does on the minutia of existence in such a challenging place. It’s a body of work that recalls the earliest days of documentary filmmaking when the records of day-to-day activities in unusual locations were looked upon with wonder.

As for the question of why, exactly, Samuil is living in the woods, it remains vague. Perhaps Samuil himself doesn’t even know.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).