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18:21 | May 11 | 2012

An old granny

The world’s oldest woman lived in Yakutia.

Recently I read that the world’s oldest woman had died in Brazil. Maria Gomes Valentim died only several days before her 115th anniversary. However, few know about Varvara Konstantinovna Semennikova, a woman that lived in Yakutia until recently, who prior to her death had unofficially been recognized as the oldest living woman on Earth. Representatives of the Guinness Book of World Records even promised to visit Yakutia and have a personal meeting with Varvara Konstantinovna, but never could make it. Why?

In the face of nature
In Soviet times Yakutia was famous for its long-livers. In 1950s the Republic was third by the number of long-livers – behind Dagestan and Azerbaijan. By 1970s it even became second and remained inferior only to recognized “aksakals” – dwellers of the Northern Caucasus. Back then scientists invested a lot of time and effort trying to understand this phenomenon. While it was easy to explain in the case of mountain-dwellers - fresh mountain air, healthy food, mild climate, - the situation was completely different in the case of Yakutia natives. The Nature itself seemed to be against the Yakut long-livers: harsh winter, deficit of vitamins, fat food, – these were only few factors out of many that, to say the least, did not contribute to long living. The Chukchi, who live under roughly same climate conditions, provide a good evidence of that: the average life duration among them is less than fifty years.
That trend remains in force today. We are still in the second place, as before, being inferior only to long-livers from the Northern Caucasus.

Justified by documents
Existence of Varvara Konstantinovna Semennikova (nee Diakonova) was brought to specialists’ attention in 2006 by Valentina Ivanovna Kirillina, at that time member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. No-one believed that the world’s oldest woman could be living in Yakutia. Vice President of the Gerontological Society of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vladimir Khavinson requested that Varvara Konstantinovna’s age be documentarily justified. In response to that request a birth record was found in the book of the Bulun Church of the Savior confirming that on May 10, 1890 (under the old style) a girl Varvara was born unto “a native of the second Khatylinsky nasleg of Zhigansky ulus of Vilujsk district Konstantin Stefanov-Diakonov, his lawful wife Maria Konstantinovna, both of the orthodox religion”. Copies of these documents were sent to Mr. Khavinson, and it was only after he saw them that he finally believed that a 117 years old woman was living in Yakutia…

Approaching the Guinness Book
Not only did Vladimir Khavinson believe the fact that the world’s oldest woman was living in Yakutia, he decided to give her this status officially. This is what he wrote in his letter to Valentina Kirillina:
«Dear Valentina Ivanovna! I am glad to inform you that the information you provided about a centenarian woman in Yakutia has drawn a lot of international attention. We forwarded a copy of the archive record to the Supercentenarian Research Foundation, USA. In response to that we have been requested to provide the following documents:
— a photo (preferably color) of Semennikova Varvara Konstantinovna;
— Certificate of Marriage, if available, or an archival certificate;
— copy of passport;
— brief family history / genealogical tree (date of marriage, children’s dates of birth, husband’s date of death, etc);
— health declaration.

This was happening in 2007. At that time our centenarian woman seemed to be only one step away from international fame. Not only would Varvara Konstantinovna Semennikova make it to the famous Guinness Book of World Records, she would bring fame to the whole Yakutia – the region that was home to the world’s oldest woman…

One thousand per year
As to Russia, here Varvara Konstantinovna had been officially recognized as the country’s oldest living person. At the European Congress of Gerontology she was awarded a Certificate of Honor from the RF Federation Council and a cash prize in the amount of one thousand rubles per each year of life. Remarkably, only two people in the country have ever been honored in such a way – a world famous academician, main architect of Gorbachev’s “prohibition law” Fiodor Uglov, and our compatriot woman. Varvara Konstantinovna received 117 thousand rubles – one thousand for each year of her life. By the way, these were by far not the first awards she ever received for her long-living. In 2003 she was the first person in the Republic to be awarded a special long-liver’s “Uj’e Sahas” badge of honor; in addition, she received 100 thousand rubles and a necklace with 36 diamonds as a gift.

Mistress of the tundra
Varvara Semennikova is Evenk. She spent almost her whole life in tundra. At a pretty considerable age (58) she mothered four children, who regarded her as their mother throughout their whole life.
It is interesting to look at her workbook. There are only four records in it. Since 1908 - almost 10 years before the October Revolution, - i.e. since the age of 18, she, according to the document, “had been leading a nomadic life and engaged in domestic deer breeding”. In 1940, one year before the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, at the age of 50, she joined a collective farm named after Chelyuskin located in Bulunsky district. She worked as a reindeer-breeder hunter. In 1954 she quit it and joined a collective farm named after Lenin located in the village of Khalgannakh. And there, too, she was a reindeer-breeder. The last record in the workbook is dated 1961. The year of Yuri Gagarin’s flight she was employed as a tent maid by “Anabarsky” state farm in the Saskylakh village. And it is where she was working until 1980, i.e. till the age of ninety. According to people in Anabarsky ulus, she was a mistress of the Anabar tundra and for many years regarded as the main advocate of the nomadic lifestyle.

What have I done to deserve this?
Despite her age of 117, Varvara Konstantinovna was of sound mind and memory. This is evidenced by a screening examination of Semennikova, which was made at the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) Healthcare Ministry’s Russian Academy of Medical Sciences Yakutia Scientific Center in 2007.
What immediately stroke the eye were her physiological parameters. Her height was only 140 cm, and her weight was as low as 35 kg. An old biddy, as they say. Varvara Konstantinovna had been smoking since the age of twenty and gave up only when she was one hundred years old. Ten years before that, at the age of ninety, she stopped drinking alcohol. When asked about the factors that contributed to her long-living, Varvara Konstantinovna always gave a clear-cut answer: “A healthy lifestyle and the physical labor”.
The aforementioned 117 thousand rubles and the RF Federation Council’s Certificate of Honor were brought to her by Alexei Serguchev, who at that time headed the Committee on Family and Children Affairs attached to the President of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).
- Varvara Konstantinovna was very delighted with the presents: the Federation Council’s Certificate of Honor bearing Sergey Mironov’s signature and a tea set with the national emblem of the Russian Federation, - Alexei Yegorovich recalls. – During the conversation Varvara Konstantinovna demonstrated that she was of sound mind, distinct memory, she could spend hours telling stories about her life. She was very well informed about the developments in Yakutia, in the country and in the world. The only thing is that she was hard of hearing. One had to speak very loudly, almost shout. 117 years old is not a joke. At the same time, she gave very clear and detailed answers to all questions. During the conversation she kept wondering: “Why are you congratulating me? What have I done to deserve this? I am an ordinary person, I live an ordinary life, and I have always been working”. After I told her that she was the oldest living person on Earth, it took her long to believe it, and she kept saying: “Am I really the oldest person in the world?” At that time Varvara Konstantinovna was looked after by her daughter Elena Alexeyevna. A retiree herself, she had a private business at the time. Her shop was located not far from her mother’s home, and she visited her mother from time to time.

Were it not for the cold...
Unfortunately, by the autumn of 2007 Varvara Konstantinovna’s health got worse. Earlier that summer she was still walking easily, eating without anyone’s help, taking care of herself. But in August she visited her daughter in the Orto-Kuel area in tundra and caught cold.
The fact that Varvara Semennikova had not been officially recognized as the world’s oldest person and did not bring fame to herself and to the Republic by making it to the Guinness Book of Records is a pity, but that is however not the most important thing. What is more important is realizing that there was a person living next to us who set unbelievably high standards we can look up to.
Varvara Konstantinovna’s example shows: despite all the challenges, a person can live a long and happy life.