My firsthand experience with crime has been minimal, thank God. My first experience with it was when my sister and I were young. We were waiting for our dad to pick us up from church in a somewhat secluded spot in front of my dad’s office; the office was right behind the church. A man walked up to us and started trying to make casual conversation. When we shied away from him, he grabbed my sister’s arm and yanked off the two gold bangles that she had worn since she was a baby, then he took off running. We were so stunned that I can’t even remember now if we said anything to each other at first. I think we probably debated going back across to church to get help but my dad pulled up a couple of minutes later. As I recall, he drove around trying to find the guy but never did.
That was probably the day that my sense of personal safety and situational awareness was born.
Fast forward about thirty years for my next firsthand experience with crime. By that time, I had spent my life in a country where crime is the foremost topic on everyone’s mind. In fact, crime is such a serious issue that I had a security system on my house. One night while I was fast asleep, two burglars broke into my house. The alarm went off but they knew that it would take a few minutes for the security team to get there so they still entered the house and managed to make off with a laptop. Thank God I had the security system and that the security company was highly responsive, or they may have done worse.
That was the night I changed my perspective on having a gun in my house. In fact, I never slept peacefully in that house again.
I’ve been living in Yakutsk for just over two months now and I can say without reservation that it’s the safest place that I’ve ever lived, at least as far as robbery goes. Let me give you a few examples of why I say that.
Right now, before people start putting their cars away for the winter, whenever they’re popping into a building, they leave the car running. Right there on the curb. I’ll be ambling along and walk past an empty car with the engine running. Totally empty! Nobody in the passenger seat keeping an eye on things while the driver pops in. Engine running, car empty! People here do it so that the car keeps warm while they handle their business. In most other places in the world, that would be a stolen car, not a warm, idling car.
At work, we have lockers in the teachers room. They’re not really for our personal stuff; they’re for us to keep our supplies and class material. There’s no space for handbags and other personal items. So we leave our bags on the chairs in the room while we go about our day. My purse is in that handbag, with my cards and cash, and I have zero concern that someone is going to rifle through my things while I’m not there to watch over them. A couple of other westerners take their bags with them to their classes but I don’t and neither do the local teachers and most of the other international teachers.
A few weeks ago when I went Latin dancing, for the entire two hours that I was on the dance floor, my bag was left unattended on a chair. My work colleagues were also on the floor and their bags were also left unattended so it wasn’t a situation where someone was the designated bag watcher or we took it in turns to get off the floor and watch the bags. No one interfered with our things all night. People left their drinks on their tables while they were dancing! No spiking!
At least one night every week, I work until after 8 pm. When I leave school, it’s dark outside and there aren’t many people around, especially now that it’s colder. I walk the short distance home with absolutely no trepidation or fear that someone is going to jump out of the darkness and attack me. I’m still aware of my surroundings because I’m not stupid, but I’m not gripping my stuff like someone is going to tear it away at any moment.
I think there’s a basic psychological reason for this sense of safety that permeates the atmosphere – it’s the winter. Winter lasts for more than six months here and it’s deep and harsh. The focus is on survival. People need to live around each other knowing that they can keep their attention on being safe and don’t have to waste precious resources on ensuring their safety. People are focussed on the important things that will ensure that they continue to survive and thrive, and aren’t at each other’s throats.
I understand that there was a murder here about four years ago, and it was gruesome and brutal, as murder always is. But on a day-to-day basis, as far as I can tell, petty crime isn’t that major. For this reason, I’m calling Yakutsk not only the safest place I’ve ever lived but also the most civilised.