The woman believed to be the oldest person in the world has died at age 123 after living a life she described as being characterized by “hard work and optimism” despite living most of it under oppressive communist regimes.
According to the Russian Book of Records and Russian government officials, Tanzilya Bisembeyeva, a Muslim Kazakh whose death was announced Wednesday, was the oldest woman in the world, born before the last tsar of Russia and living a life that spanned three centuries.
Bisembeyeva was believed to have been the third-oldest person in Russia just months ago, but the two women who were reportedly older than her — Nanu Shaovawomen (128) and Koku Istambulova (129) — died earlier this year, leaving Bisembeyeva with the remarkable distinction.
Government-run Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, which first reported her death, quotes Astrakhan region official Nurgali Baitemirov, who said Bisembeyeva “died peacefully” and was buried in a family cemetery, where the “whole village came to see her depart on her last journey,” as reported by The Daily Mail.
Bisembeyeva credited her “healthy” and active lifestyle, as well as her commitment to “hard work and optimism,” for her longevity. The Daily Mail notes that she reportedly won a labor award, didn’t smoke and ate “only natural foods.” She also apparently drank a lot of fermented milk.
“The secret of her long life, surviving the upheavals of the Russian revolution, when she was already 21, and the Soviet collapse, as well the tyranny of Stalin, was ‘optimism and hard work’ – along with drinking kefir, or fermented milk,” the Mail reports.
Her son, Shintas, who is in his 70s — which means his mother had him when she was 53 — described her difficult life under Soviet rule and in largely impoverished conditions. “My mother has seen a lot during her long life. She has lived from Rasputin to Putin,” he said.
“My mother met my father [Musagali Bisembeev] in 1946,” said Shintas. “She was 50 and he was over 60 but he was a strong man. He worked at the collective farm and did as much as two men would do. After the war my parents lived in a soldier’s shelter and their first son died in his babyhood.”
“They were so poor that could not afford a proper house, and probably this is why their baby son died,” he explained. “You could not heat such room properly.” But later they had three more sons.
“Just think about it,” he continued. “I was born when my mother was 53 and the youngest brother was born when she was 59. It still sounds incredible.”
They lived much of their life in poverty, Shintas notes, describing his upbringing as difficult and often characterized by hunger and work in the fields.
Her three boys went on to give Bisembeyeva ten grandchildren and over two dozen great-grandchildren.
As noted by The Daily Mail, verifying the ages of older Russians can be difficult due to a lack of consistent documentation. Skeptics of Bisembeyeva’s claim point to her unusually old age for having her three children as evidence that she may not have been as old as believed.
The previous oldest person in the world, Koku Istambulova, who reportedly reached the age of 129 before passing away earlier this year, offered a similar story of a lifetime of struggle as a Muslim under communist control to that of Bisembeyeva. Rather than a life filled with “optimism,” however, Istambulova described her experience as largely devoid of “happiness.”
“Why did Allah give me such a long life and so little happiness? I would have been dead long ago if not for Allah, who was holding me in his arms,” Istambulova told The Sun in October 2018. “It is hard to live when all who remembered you died long ago.”
One of her worst memories, she said, was the day she and her fellow Chechens were deported by Stalin’s government to Kazakhstan. “It was a bad day, cold and gloomy,” said Istambulova. “We were put in a train and taken no one knew where. Railway carriages were stuffed with people – dirt, rubbish, excrement was everywhere … On the way to our exile, dead bodies were just thrown out of the train.”
The day she pointed to as the one day she felt happiness was when first entered her home. “It was the day when I first entered my house,” she said. “It was very small and I stoked the stove with wood, but it was my home. I built it myself, the best house in the world. I lived there for 60 years.”