She’s survived the Russian Civil War, the Second World War, the deportation of her people in 1944, and the two Chechen Wars. She also says she met Vincent van Gogh when she was a girl. According to the Russian government, she’s the oldest living person in the world, but despite all that time on the planet, she says she’s never experienced a single happy day in her life.
Koku Istambulova, according to her internal passport, is 128 years old and rapidly approaching 129. The birth date listed on her passport is June 1, 1889, though her age cannot be confirmed by more official government documents because they were lost in the Second Chechen War (1999-2009).
In a recent interview reported by the Daily Mail, Istambulova discussed her perspective on her life and how she’s managed to live so long. The insights she offered were grim, colored particularly by all the violence and upheaval she and her strict Muslim family experienced under Stalin’s regime.
“Long life is not at all God’s gift for me,” she told an interviewer, “but a punishment.”
“I have not had a single happy day in my life. I have always worked hard, digging in the garden. I am tired,” said Istambulova.
“I survived through the [Russian] Civil War, the Second World War, the deportation of our nation in 1944 and through two Chechen wars. And now I am sure that my life was not a happy one,” she said.
“I remember tanks with Germans passing our house. It was scary,” she said. “But I tried not to show this. We were hiding in the house. Life in Kazakhstan was the hardest for us. When in exile — we lived in Siberia too — but in Kazakhstan we felt how the Kazakhs hated us. Every day I dreamed of going back home. Working in my garden helped me to get rid of my sad thoughts but my soul always wanted home.”
Raised in a strict Islamic family, she said some of the oppressive cultural codes were lifted after the the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, when she was 27.
“We were brought up with very strict rules and we were very modest in our clothes. I remember my granny beat me and reprimanded because my neck was visible,” she said. “And then Soviet times came and women quickly began to wear more open clothes.”
“Looking back at my unhappy life, I wish I had died when I was young,” she said. “I worked all my life. I did not have time for rest or entertainment.”
On the verge of turning 129, she’s experienced the deaths of all of her children, including most recently her daughter, who died five years ago at 104.
Asked about the secret to her longevity, she said she has “no idea” why she’s lived so long. “I see people going in for sports, eating something special, keeping themselves fit, but I have no idea how I lived until now,” she said.
Partial transcript via The Daily Mail.