SIBILYAKOVO, Russia – Uminur Kuchukova, 61, could have retired years ago, but she continues to teach at this dying Russian village’s once bustling school for the sake of its last pupil, a 9-year-old boy. When she leaves next year, the school will close.
Like thousands of villages dotted across Russia, the remote Siberian village of Sibilyakovo emptied after the closure of its state-run collective farm following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet planned economy. Jobs dried up and people left in droves.
In its heyday in the 1970s, Sibilyakovo’s primary school had four classes, each of around 18 children, and a population of 550. Kuchukova has taught at the school for 42 years.
Nowadays her house looks out onto abandoned homes on all sides. The village’s population has shrunk to 39 and Ravil Izhmukhametov is the school’s only pupil.
Kuchukova has bought a home in the town of Tara about 30 miles away. She plans to retire there with her husband at the end of the school year when she thinks Izhmukhametov will be old enough to travel to the neighboring village for lessons.
The nearest school then will be a 30-minute boat journey across the choppy Irtysh river followed by a 20-minute ride on the school bus.
“I feel sorry for him. His parents don’t want to leave (Sibilyakovo) yet and it’s scary to send a little boy like him over the Irtysh, there are such big waves,” she said.
The village is mainly inhabited by Tatars, a Turkiс group that is one of scores of ethnic minorities in Russia.
Izhmukhametov’s parents are farmers and have livestock but they don’t want their son to stay in the village when he grows up. “Our eldest children live in the city and we’re happy about that,” said Dinar Izhmukhametov, 48.
The son, Ravil, says he has no interest in moving to the city, but that he realizes he will have no choice one day.
He was nonplussed when asked what it was like to go to school without any classmates. “I’ve got nothing to compare it to, but of course I’d like to have friends so I’m looking forward to going to the main school.”
Looking back on her decades-long career, Kuchukova is sad that the school where she worked for more than four decades will soon close its doors for good.
“Now it’ll stand there just like in the neighboring villages, not needed by anyone, while people in the city can’t find places for their children at kindergarten and are queuing up from the moment they’re born,” she says.
And even when she herself finally goes to live in Tara, she won’t leave her past behind.
“My parents are buried here, a part of me is here. We’ll spend every remembrance day here when people come to remember those who have passed away… We’ll come to look after the graves.”