Perfect Choice

 Farewell monologue from Julia Hanske, head of the Goethe Institute in Novosibirsk  09/17/2013, 15:17

Elena Stern
translator and teacher of German
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Perfect Choice
Photography by Sergei Mordvinov

Julia Hanske, the first director of the German cultural centre Goethe-Institut in Novosibirsk, has finished her work in Siberia — as yet, it’s unknown whether she’ll ever return. Since the late 2000s she has curated dozens of exhibitions, workshops, conferences and festivals, while eminent European figures from the spheres of culture and science visited the region. On Hanske’s last day at work, Sib.fm publishes her thoughts on life in the snow and cold, Russian patience, the local circus and ethnic roots.

I was eight years old when I went to a Russian school and started to learn Russian. I arrived in Moscow in 2001 and that was my first contact with Russia. Four years later, I came back to the Goethe Institute in Moscow and began studying the language in earnest. That was when I first heard of Novosibirsk. At that time, my work was linked to a distance learning project, through which teachers of German in Russia could improve their qualifications.

I visited loads of cities in the next couple of years — from Blagoveshchensk to Omsk. I went everywhere, except Novosibirsk.

When a trip there had finally been planned in 2007, I was transferred to Beijing. A year passed and, having already resigned myself to the fact that Novosibirsk would never be a part of my life, I was offered the chance to launch a third Goethe Institute office in Russia. I agreed immediately.

It was easy to imagine Novosibirsk before arrival as I’d seen it in photos. It looked very green, modern, bright and friendly. I was under the impression that it’s a really energetic, big city — I probably wouldn’t have considered any other place in Siberia. If I were asked today where a Goethe Institute office should be opened, I would say only in Novosibirsk: nowhere else east of the Urals has such educational and cultural potential.

20 countries have diplomatic and consular missions in Novosibirsk


I arrived in frosty February 2009. By March, my colleagues from Moscow and I had already opened the office. There’s no greenery in February, but I remember how beautiful everything looked. There was snow all around, which is why the city seemed so bright and clean. I was so inspired by this snow-white view when March and April, the most difficult time of the year, came along. It takes a lot of patience just to survive them. Not only in Novosibirsk, mind you, but everywhere in Russia. Even in Moscow I noticed that as soon as the snow melts, all sorts of rubbish appears and lies around on the streets. Then spring comes somewhat unexpectedly, it starts getting light earlier and earlier, and things aren’t really so bad any more. The strength to live comes from the fact that the weather has changed and that means that the difficulties of winter are behind us. Siberians have such patience, I admire them enormously. People here don’t complain, they go and heat up the banya (Russian sauna).

Our family motto in Novosibirsk was: «We’re going to live here like real Siberians.» In other words, do everything like the locals, live according to the seasons, taking into account the time of year and the cycles of nature. I remember in our first March we brought home boxes, poured earth into them and planted seeds. For a few years, we planted seedlings, weeded the garden, watered, harvested, canned vegetables and made jam. I’ve still got a few jars of these «supplies» now. In summer, we collected mushrooms and swam. We don’t go too far, by the way, we don’t want to run into bears. It’s well known that Germans are cautious people, it’s important for us not to overdo it.

I never had the feeling that my Russian colleagues and friends see me as a foreigner.

Beijing is one of the four ancient capitals of China

This is natural: the differences in the cultural code of Germans and Russians are not as big as between, say, the Germans and Chinese. I can speak Chinese and conduct business negotiations, but it’s almost impossible to fit in and become an «insider». Beijing is a giant metropolis, where there’s no place for a different rhythm or world-view, but in Novosibirsk you have the opportunity to live the country life, in the best sense of the word. Many leave the city in the summer for their summer houses, no matter how big or well-equipped they are. Everyone invites guests and neighbours round for a barbecue together. If you have a banya — all the better.

My family and I went to Russian bathhouses so often that it’s now my dream to build a banya. Don’t confuse it with a sauna! It should have a wood-burning stove and birch twigs, no other way.

That’s why Novosibirsk isn’t right for Germans who prefer an exclusively urban life. This is a place for those who feel affection for nature and wandering around the woods, compass in hand. It’s paradise for them here. There’s a lot of wild forests in Siberia where you won’t meet a single person. It’s different in Germany, with its meticulously developed routes and special signs. To be honest, I’m a fan of that and I miss these «forest paths» with cafés and all mod cons. There’s simply no infrastructure like that here. But if you’re not one for clear-cut routes and want untouched forest near the city, then Siberia is for you, and Novosibirsk is an absolutely perfect choice.

Over these four years I realised that it takes time to understand and truly discover Novosibirsk.

Again, in Beijing you get information about the city very quickly, whereas here it’s accumulated gradually as you talk to friends, write to people and get newsletters. For a long time, you just don’t know about a lot of cool things.

Cedar barrel saunas are harmful for women during the second half of pregnancy

I really regret that I just recently heard about your cedar barrels! (mini-saunas that heat up the body in a barrel-shaped cedar chamber — Sib.fm comment) Each year we discovered something new. In the winter, I was constantly surprised by how many people of all ages go to ski in Zaeltsovsky Park and to what extent they’re cheerful and sporty. We were the slowest!


There’s little that bothers me in the local everyday life. Probably just the traffic. And the inability to pay attention to others. That isn’t a problem within your circle of friends, but is usually the case in public spaces. People who’ve never seen you before can call you every name under the sun on the street. Social motivation has nothing to do with it: a businessman and tramp could both act like that. Then you stand and think about how inhuman it all looks. Here, everyone is focused on themselves and pays little attention to the world around them. For the most part, they just don’t care about it. It’s probably connected with the search for identity: the city is only 120 years old, how could it have roots and traditions? They don’t appear that quickly.

The circus frustrates me more than anything in Novosibirsk. I have to visit it quite often because my kids love the circus, but I get really angry every time because of the high ticket prices and low quality of performances. I miss the «show». You sit in a chair that’s falling apart and watch animals being hit. In my childhood, the circus was a magical place and I loved it very much.

2300 the capacity of the Novosibirsk circus

I remember that we visited a circus festival in one of the parks when I studied in Amsterdam. Not all the small tents had acrobats and animals, by no means all of them had something incredible going on inside. But all sorts of tasty things had been made according to old recipes and you could try them there and then. It was a celebration for the soul, a beautiful holiday.

The ballet is very good in Novosibirsk. The dancers are at the highest level and have brilliant technique. Who knows, maybe my oldest daughter will be on stage at the Opera and Ballet Theatre in 10-15 years.

She’s four and loves going to ballet school, and I must say that it’s a great school. They have the right balance of discipline and freedom. On the whole, Novosibirsk offers many forms of children’s education, which is, by the way, another thing that we’ll miss.

The opera makes less of an impression on me, but I’m not a fan of opera per se. Favourite place in town? Probably the «Pobeda» cinema.


25 thousand Euros was the maximum Goethe Institute grant as part of the Year of Germany in Russia

It is difficult to make a portrait of a typical Novosibirsk resident, they’re all very diverse. Even from an ethnic point of view, there are a lot of immigrants, many families of scientists or exiles. As far as I know, most people have mixed ethnic roots — Ukrainians, Belarusians, Yakuts, Tatars, Kazakhs. For this reason alone, any average would be questionable. If anything unites locals, then it’s patience and optimism. And enterprise — there aren’t many lazy people. Although many can be a little single-minded. They say «that’s the way we’ve always done it and always will». But it seems to me that those who are now 20-25 are more open. They are the hope of Novosibirsk. I often see them myself and they really are great.

Read this interview
in Russian

I’m very interested in how Novosibirsk will develop over the next ten years. Something tells me that the changes in this part of the world will be faster and more intense than anywhere else. It’s so typical of Siberia, you know. We’ll just have to wait and see!

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