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11 Jun, 2010 05:14

Yenisei River: Siberia’s blessing and curse

Russia’s Southern Siberian republic of Khakassia is home to more than 300 rivers, including one of the world's largest – the Yenisei.

It has been a source of life for locals for centuries, and Khakassians still rely on what they call their “Father Yenisei”, but they know its unpredictable anger can always put them on the edge.

It has been a ritual for more than twenty years. Come rain or shine, every Sunday morning you will catch Nikolay Tretyakov with a rod in hand. In Siberia where a man's character is judged by whether he prefers fishing or hunting, Nikolay is an old hand with lures and bait.

Imposing and unhurried, the Yenisei River is known for its cruel disposition. Its rocky bed and treacherous undercurrents created a legend of a formidable spirit that preys on unsuspecting trespassers. While Nikolay casts it off as superstition, a wooden cross on a nearby mountain is a reminder of just how close he came to being fished out.

August 2009 became a watershed in the lives of many in Khakassia. An accident at Russia's largest hydropower plant killed 75 people, and threatened to flood villages and towns downstream.

The catastrophe caught Nikolay at work. A safety controller, he had just reported in for his morning shift when he saw water in the turbine hall.

“There was a strong vibration. I got up to look around and saw the upper lead of the turbine thrust forward by the water,” Nikolay recalls. “When I came down, the water was up to my chest and I was simply washed off.”

It was a close call. Left at the mercy of the raging waters, he says he managed to survive because, as a child, the Yenisei River taught him how to swim.

“Once I was washed off I could only think about how not to be killed by the electric current as the power was still on. It was when I got out of the water that the fear struck me. I could literally feel death breathing down my neck,” he says.

Despite his fear, Nikolay saved five other people, eventually helping to stem the flood of water into the plant.

The accident led to not only a thorough overhaul of safety standards all across the industry, but it also infused locals with fear of the gigantic structure they had always been proud of.

As for Nikolay, he says the accident taught him the true meaning of what it is like to be let off the hook.