Siberian Genetics, Native Americans, and the Altai Connection

The GeoCurrents series on Siberia concludes by looking first to the future and then into the distant past: the preceding post examined the possible consequences of global warming on the region, while the present one turns to much earlier times, exploring the position of Siberia in human prehistory and especially its crucial role in the peopling of the Americas.

Mainstream anthropological thought has long assumed that the first settlers of North and South America derived from Siberia, moving over the exposed land-bridge of “Beringia” during the last glacial episode and then spreading south once the continental glaciers began to recede. Alternative theories, however, have proposed additional migration streams originating from Europe or passing from eastern Asia through the north Pacific by watercraft. Genetic studies, however, strongly support the Siberian hypothesis. Y-chromosome DNA analysis, for example, reveals that a substantial majority of Native American men belong to the otherwise fairly rare haplogroup Q, which also happens to be common in Siberia, especially among some of the smaller indigenous groups.  Haplogroup Q reaches an astoundingly high 95 percent frequency among the Ket, but this could represent genetic drift, as the Ket population is very small (around 1,500).

The Y-DNA Haplogroup R1 is the second most important haplogroup among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Its frequency is highest in the Americas among the Algonquian peoples of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Although rare in eastern Siberia, R1 is widespread among certain south-central Siberian groups. Whether haplogroup R1 among certain Native American groups came from south-central Siberia or is a result of recent European admixture remains uncertain.

The third major Y-DNA haplogroup found among Native Americans is haplogroup C, which is also relatively widespread in Siberia. Haplogroup C is even more common in the Pacific and among indigenous Australians; some scholars associate haplogroup C with the first out-of-Africa migration that took a coastal route along Southern Asia and into Southeast Asia and Australia some 50,000 years ago. However, American Indians (especially some Na-Dené-, Algonquian-, or Siouan-speaking populations), Siberians, and Central Asians share the more restricted C3 sub-haplogroup, while many Pacific groups have the C2 sub-haplogroup and Australians Aborigines the C4 sub-haplogroup.

Several relatively recent genetic studies seek to clarify the relationship between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and those of Siberia. A 2007 report, for example, located an American “north-to-south gradient of decreasing similarity to Siberians”: the closer the location of a given Amerindian group to Siberia, in other worlds, the closer the genetic connection. As specified by the authors, “Genetic similarity to Siberia is greatest for the Chipewyan population from northern Canada and for the more southerly Cree and Ojibwa populations. Detectable Siberian similarity is visible to a greater extent in Mesoamerican and Andean populations than in the populations from eastern South America.” The fact that western South American Indian populations have closer genetic affinities to Siberians than those of eastern South America is offered as evidence that the original human migration to South America occurred along the Pacific Coast. The greater linguistic diversity along the Pacific Coast further supports the theory that the initial peopling of the Americas proceeded north to south along a Pacific coastal route.

The movement down the Pacific Coast could have been relatively rapid. Another 2007 study, for example, found evidence that the ancestors of the Native Americans lived for many thousands of years in relative isolation in Beringia, during which time they experienced a number of genetic changes. Some of these people evidently migrated back into Siberia, where their genetic signatures can be seen today, especially among the Evenks and Selkups. The authors go on to argue that “after the Beringian standstill, the initial North to South migration [in the Americas] was likely a swift pioneering process, not a gradual diffusion, … [and] was followed by long-term isolation of local populations.” This long-term isolation further contributed to linguistic diversification in the Americas.

The initial peopling of the Americas from this ancestral Beringian population appears to have been only the first of three “Siberian” migrations to the Western Hemisphere. Linguistic and other lines of evidence have long suggested that the Na-Dené people (those who speak Athabascan and related languages) came in a second wave, perhaps around 8,000 BCE. Intriguingly, the Na-Dené languages have been linked to the Ket language of central Siberia by linguist Edward Vajda. This Dené-Yeniseian hypothesis remains controversial, although it has received stronger support than the wildly speculative “Dené–Caucasian” theory, proposed by Russian scholar Sergei Starostin, which posits a macro-family encompassing “the Sino-Tibetan, North Caucasian, Na-Dené, and Yeniseian [Ket] language families and the Basque and Burushaski languages.” Most linguist continue to treat Ket, Basque, and Burushaski as isolates; Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dené as separate language families; and North Caucasian as two (or even three) separate language families. Genetically, the Na-Dené show some particularities that also indicate that their “migration occurred from the Russian Far East after the initial Paleo-Indian colonization.” A third migration stream from Siberia to the Americas, that of the ancestors of the “Eskimo-Aleut” peoples, seems to date back to around 4,000 BCE, according to both linguistic and genetic evidence.

As mentioned above, some Y-DNA markers show a closer connection between Native Americans and the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Siberian than those of the northern or eastern parts of the region. The same is true for certain mitochondrial DNA markers, which show descent along the maternal line. A major study published earlier this year specifically indicates strong genetic linkages between American Indians and the indigenous inhabitants of the southern Altai Mountains, a rugged area situated near the intersection of southern Siberia, western Mongolia, and eastern Kazakhstan. As the authors argue, “The Altai region of southern Siberia has played a critical role in the peopling of northern Asia as an entry point into Siberia and a possible homeland for ancestral Native Americans.”

The genetic linkage between Native Americans and the peoples of the Altai Mountains may seem surprising, as the Altai Range is located far from Beringia. But as has been explored in previous GeoCurrents posts, mountains often act as refuges, places where old patterns, cultural and genetic, are able to persist. In more open landscapes, mass movements of people are more easily able to introduce new elements and rearrange preexisting configurations. Relatively isolated mountain valleys, such as those of the Altai, were often largely bypassed by such movements.

Yet such isolation was rarely if ever absolute. Turkic languages, for example, eventually spread through the Altai Range, displacing languages of other families. Some scholars have suggested that the Turkic linguistic family itself originated in the Altai region, and the linkage of the region to the putative language family* that includes Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic is reflected in its very name: Altaic. The Altai Mountains may even have played a role in the history of the Indo-European language family. In the Bronze Age (circa 1500 BCE), horse-riding nomads originating near the Altai seem to have spread their burial sites over a huge region extending from Finland to Mongolia. Although this so-called Seima-Turbino Phenomenon is still widely regarded as a cultural enigma, some scholars have argued that its carriers were Indo-European speakers. A 2009 Human Genetics article further contends that in “the Bronze and Iron Ages, south Siberia was a region of overwhelmingly predominate European settlement,” inhabited by “blue (or green-) eyed, fair-skinned, and light-haired people.” Perhaps that was the case across much of the lowland belt of south-central Siberia, but a different situation would probably have obtained in the hidden valleys of the Altai Mountains.

*As discussed in a previous GeoCurrents post, “Altaic” is probably not a genuine language family derived from descent from a common ancestral tongue.


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Global Warming and Siberia: Blessing or Curse?

GeoCurrents has recently emphasized the forbidding cold of the Siberian winter, stressing the obstacles that such a climate presents for the development of the region. Unmentioned in these posts is the possibility that Siberia’s climate will significantly change over the coming decades due to global warming. If the predicted warming occurs, could the change prove beneficial for Siberia, and Russia more generally? Many Russians think so. Such optimism, however, might prove unwarranted, as climate change could also generate significant problems for the region.

Regardless of Russia’s potential gains from global warming, the country has incentives for downplaying the severity of the crisis. The Russian economy rests heavily on the export of fossil fuels, and if climate-change concerns result in a wholesale switch to renewable forms of energy—as unlikely as that might be—Russia would suffer a major blow. Any major restrictions of carbon dioxide output would also hamper the Russian economy. Although Russia’s carbon emissions are surpassed by those of China and the United States, they are growing rapidly, and some analysts suspect that Russia could be the top emitter by 2030. Not surprisingly, skeptical reports about climate change often receive prominent coverage in the Russian press. In 2010, Time Magazine quoted a Russian environmentalists who argued that, “Broadly speaking, the Russian position has always been that climate change is an invention of the West to try to bring Russia to its knees”. Such paranoid views of climatic change as hostile machinations of the West are not uncommonly held by the Russian public. More recently, a Voice of Russia article showcased the position of Nikolay Dobretsov, Chairman of the Earth Science United Academic Council, who contends that a 40-year cycle of cool and warm periods is currently driving the global climatic regime, and that a change to cooler times is imminent. As a result, Dobretsov argues, global warming is a non-issue.

Russian experts who accept the reality of global warming, moreover, often welcome it for the advantages that it could bring the country. In September 2003, Vladimir Putin noted that global warming would help Russians, “save on fur coats and other warm things.” Other Russian politicians have focused more on the damage that climate change could do to Russia’s geopolitical rivals. The ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, for example, is reported to have “publicly pined for the day when global warming takes its toll on the West, gloating that London will be submerged by the Thames and “Britain will have to give freedom to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Possible economic benefits of a warmer world for Russia are spelled out in recent article by Serge Korepin. The displacement of the Siberian permafrost zone, which could retreat by more than 100 miles (161 km) by 2050, would facilitate the extraction of mineral resources. The reduction of the Arctic ice pack, moreover, would promote mining and drilling in offshore areas. By the same token, the retreat of the pack ice will ease maritime transportation in the far north, allowing the full realization of the long-envisaged Northeastern Passage, shortening shipping routes between the north Atlantic and the north Pacific. Actually, such changes are already occurring. As reported last year by the New York Times:

The Russians, by traveling near the coast, have been sailing the Northeast Passage for a century. They opened it to international shipping in 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But only recently have companies begun to find the route profitable, as the receding polar ice cap has opened paths farther offshore — allowing larger, modern ships with deeper drafts to make the trip, trimming days off the voyage and saving fuel.

Most importantly, warming could also enhance Russian agriculture, says economist Svetlana Soboleva. Although drier conditions might damage farming in southern European Russia, warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons would be beneficial in the north and east, especially in Siberia. Governmental reports have already noted enhanced agricultural production in some parts of Russia due to warmer conditions. The general consensus of climate-change specialists is that farming will be enhanced in high-latitude belts—of which, Russia holds the lion’s share. Indeed, worst-case scenario maps, such as that posted to the left, show the world’s main food-production zones moving to Canada, Siberia, and northern European Russia. In such an eventuality, Siberia would actually have a large advantage over North America, as most of the soil of northern and central Canada was scrapped off by the continental glaciers during the Pleistocene “ice age” and then re-deposited in the fertile plains of the American Midwest. Siberia, in contrast, was spared extensive glaciation during the same period, and in some areas saw the development of fertile, wind-deposited loess soils.

Prediction of the complete transformation of global agricultural and settlement patterns due to climate change are highly speculative, as specific changes of both temperature and precipitation are impossible to forecast with any accuracy. In actuality, the map posted above (“The World, 4 C Warmer”) is an alarmist fantasy, depicting as it does the vast expansion of “uninhabitable deserts” across most of the tropics and subtropics, even though a warmer world would almost certainly be a wetter world, as higher temperatures enhance evaporation over the oceans. (Note as well that the densely populated western Antarctica portrayed on the map would only be possible after catastrophic Antarctic deglaciation, which would result in a sea-level rise much greater than what the map depicts.)

Even in the short-term, the local effects of global climate change defy prediction, thwarting the development of reliable scenarios for agricultural adjustment. If the main consequence for Russia is the lengthening of the growing season in Siberia, the agrarian ramifications for the country could well be positive. But many experts foresee major climate fluctuations, marked by extreme weather events, as the Earth warms, which could result in marked increases in droughts, heat waves, and even cold-snaps. For some, the brutal heat experienced in European Russia in the summer of 2010, which caused an estimated $15 billion in economic losses, seems a harbinger of things to come. Global-warming skeptics, not surprisingly, regard the heat wave of 2010 as merely an outlying natural event, unconnected with human-induced climate change. A recent scientific study argues for a middle position, suggesting that, “global warming set the stage for, but did not directly cause, the deadly heat wave.” But it is noteworthy that that the 2010 heat wave was not felt across Russia. While European Russia was baking, most of northwestern Siberia was cooler than usual.

Even if global warming was not the direct cause the 2010 drought and heat wave, it may still be influencing Russia’s climate. A recent report claims that Russia has experienced a more warming over the past 35 years than any other country: “In the last 35 years, the average temperature in Russia went up by 1.5 degrees, while the average figure across the world is 0.8 degrees.” Such warming is not evenly distributed. The most significant temperature changes have been registered in eastern Siberia, with south Chukotka and the Kamchatka region seeing increases, “1.5 to two times more than in the rest of the country.”

Many experts expect global warming to accelerate, in part due to processes underway in Siberia itself. The permafrost is melting over a vast territory of Western Siberia—the size of France and Germany combined—which could soon turn some 360,000 square miles of peat bogs into a watery landscape of shallow lakes, releasing billions of tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Scientists are also concerned about the potential thawing of yedoma, or frozen loess deposits, in eastern Siberia. As the Wikipedia explains, “the amount of carbon trapped in this type of permafrost is much more prevalent than originally thought and may be about 500 Gt, that is almost 100 times the amount of carbon released into the air each year by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Concerns about permafrost melting are heightened by most global climate change models, which predict larger than average temperature increases in high-latitude areas. Different climate-change models, however, produce different results. Such differences are apparent in the two maps of predicted precipitation change posted here. Note that the first map forecasts reduced precipitation over most of western and southern Siberia, whereas the second shows enhanced precipitation over virtually the entire region. If the former predictions were to come to pass, agricultural gains that would seemingly be realized from warmer temperatures and a longer growing season could be cancelled by moisture deficiencies.

Another problem with the predicted positive consequences for Siberia’s agriculture concerns seasonal distribution of the overall warming. In many areas, warming has affected only winter temperatures, with temperatures during the growing season remaining stable or even declining. Russian scientists who examined trends in the “degree of continentality”—that is, the difference between average summer and average winter temperatures—showed that the Siberian climate in general has become less continental. Winters, in other words, have been growing milder more rapidly than summers have been growing warmer. For instance, the average summer temperature in Krasnoyarsk actually fell by 0.4 degrees between 1940 and 1990. In the far northeast, however, the opposite trend is observed: a widening of the seasonal gap over the period between 1950 and 2000.

Russia’s other potential gains from global warming could also be matched by losses. The thawing of permafrost, for example, could cause havoc with oil and gas pipelines, as well as with other industrial and residential structures. In cities such as Norilsk and Irkutsk, such gradual destruction of building foundations is already happening. The retreat of the Arctic pack ice also presents problems as well as opportunities. As the ocean becomes more accessible, it could also become more insecure. As a result, Russia is contemplating stationing more troops into the far north. A 2011 article quotes Anton Vasilev, special ambassador for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as arguing that “Our northern border used to be closed because of ice and a severe climate. But the ice is going away we cannot leave 20,000 kilometres unwatched. We can’t leave ourselves in a position where we are undefended.”

The warming of Siberia’s climate may even harm the health of Siberia’s residents. The expected increase in weather variability, marked by more frequent anomalies and extreme events, could compromise the human immune response, especially among Siberian indigenous peoples. While it may not appear dangerous to inhabitants of warmer climes, studies show that a rise of summer temperature to 29° C and above causes increased mortality among peoples of the Far North. In addition to autoimmune disorders, other health consequences of global warming in Siberia would include a rise in enterovirus-caused infections, gastroenteritis, parasitical diseases, botulism, and rabies.  Already in the last five years reports have been appearing of infection-spreading ticks and mites emerging earlier in the season in south Siberian regions of Omsk and Novosibirsk.

Such health concerns, however, are unlikely to sway public opinion in Russia. In all likelihood, the Russian government will continue to simultaneously deny and welcome global warming.


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Sakha (Yakutia) Since the Fall of the Soviet Union

The past several GeoCurrents posts have examined the history of the Russian Republic of Sakha, formerly and informally referred to as Yakutia. We have focused on Sakha due both to the region’s intrinsic interest and to the fact that it is one of the most widely ignored sections of the Earth’s surface. Today’s post concludes this series within a series by examining Yakutia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Several additional posts later this week will conclude the larger series on Siberia.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, Sakha, like the rest of the vast country, underwent a wrenching transition. The leaders of the Republic tried to take advantage of the confusion to realize their long-standing desire for independence, and therefore declared Yakutia’s sovereignty in 1991. Such a declaration had little significance, but during the rest of the decade Sakha did achieve an unaccustomed degree of political and economic autonomy. By the late 1990s, John Tichotsky could write that, “In the area of regional sovereignty, Sakha is the leader among all of Russia’s political units” (p. 227).

The post-Soviet transition also brought major economic changes. Industrial production plummeted; according to Tichotsky, of all Soviet regions only Kamchatka experienced a greater decline. Personal income dropped as well, and the average life expectancy slipped by three years. As state farms were broken up and herds privatized, livestock was slaughtered with abandon, temporarily increasing meat consumption. But as Tichotsky also specifies, Sakha experienced a more rapid economic recovery than the other parts of the former Soviet Union. Driven mainly by diamond mining, the republic matched and then surpassed its previous level of economic output. In 1995, almost half of its industrial production derived from diamond mining. Currently, Sakha is considerably richer than Russia as a whole on the basis of per capita GRP (Gross Regional Product), with 2009 figures of $18,955 and $12,339 respectively. But such apparent wealth by no means benefits all the people of Sakha. As is true elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the end the communist system generated both winners and losers. Pensioners in particular have suffered, as their allotments have failed to keep pace with inflation.

The end of the Soviet system also resulted in the demographic transformation of Yakutia. In 1989, the Sakha were a minority within their own republic, accounting for thirty-three percent of the region’s total population, as opposed to the fifty-seven percent constituted by Russians and Ukrainians. As can be seen in the Wikipedia graph posted here, the Russian population dropped sharply after the political transition, as large numbers of Russians abandoned the harsh land of Yakutia in favor of larger cities and milder climes. At the same time, the Sakha  ethnic population continued to grown, due mainly to a relatively high birth rate. This trend continues: according to the 2002 census, the Sakha then numbered 432,290, constituting 45.5 percent of the republic’s population; in 2010, they totaled 466,492, coming in at 49.9 percent. Other indigenous ethnic groups also expanded in the same period; the Evenks, for example, increased from 18,232 to 21,008 and the Yukaghirs from 1,097 to 1,281. Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars, on the other hand, all registered population declines in the republic from 2002 to 2010.

Although the Sakha population increased during the post-Soviet period, most rural areas of the republic witnessed significant declines during the same period. The Soviet government had subsidized life in the villages, and when the state farms were discontinued and the subsidies came to an end, rural life became less rewarding. Transportation links to rural areas also deteriorated, due especially to the end of subsidies for aviation fuel. As a result, the Sakha began moving to Yakutsk and the republic’s other towns in significant numbers. Bella Bychkova Jordan and Terry Jordan-Bychkov specify how such changes played out at the local level. In the village that they studied:

It is the younger people who leave, seeking economic opportunity in cities such as Mirny and Yakutsk. Young women emigrate in grater numbers than young men. The number of weddings fell from twelve in 1992 to only one in 1995 and two in 1998. As a consequence, Djarkhan’s population is increasingly elderly. P. 89

As Yakutia is once again becoming a primarily Yakut region, Sakha nationalism shows signs of revival. As previously noted, nationalism in the region is nothing new, dating back at least to the early 1900s. It was also deeply repressed for most of the 20th century. As Tatiana Argounova-Low argues in a new book, The Politics of Nationalism in the Republic of Sakha (Northeastern Siberia) 1900-2000, “the concept of nationalism was a force used by [Soviet and Russian authorities] to suppress thought, particularly in Sakha…” Accusations of natsionalizm, she argues, were used to target and scapegoat certain individuals, and to “disguise and prevent discussion of a range of complex social, political and ethnic issues.” With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the threat of continued devolution in the 1990s, the “national question” in Sakha gained new urgency. Local leaders have continued to push for more autonomy, and the desire for independence has not disappeared.

As Anna Stammler-Gossmann argues, efforts have been made to develop a new “Yakutiane” identity that could unite the various peoples of the republic within a single group, but success has been minimal. As she further specifies, Russian-speakers in Sakha frequently refer to themselves as “Siberians,” whereas the Yakuts and the other indigenous Siberians almost never to do so, preferring instead their own ethnic designations. National identity is obviously a fraught subject in contemporary Sakha, yet in general terms, relations among the republic’s various ethnic groups have remained reasonably peaceful.

Through the 1990s, Sakha Republic remained averse to foreign investment and the development of large-scale private enterprise. The economy remained under the domination of the state, which focused on the mining sector, and especially on diamonds. As Tichotsky noted in 2000, “Any sector of the economy that that is considered essential to the region is controlled completely or partially by the Sakha government” (p. 227). Tichotsky described the republic’s government as highly inward looking, almost proud of the fact that that foreign investment in the region was negligible.

More recently, such anti-global policies and attitudes have changed to a considerable degree. According to Yakutia Today, “The Republic is second after Sakhalin Oblast among Far East’s regions by volume of foreign investments.” The same article trumpet’s Sakha’s rapidly growing international trade, noting that it has established commercial representation in a number of other countries, including China, South Korea, Japan, and Germany. Connections seem to be strongest with South Korea. Outside of the former Soviet Union, Yakutia Airlines flies regular, non-seasonal routes to three cities: Ulan Bator (Mongolia), Harbin (China), and Seoul (South Korea).

Recent news reports seem to bear out Sakha’s tentative transformation to an open, forward-looking economy. Its government, for example, recently announced that it was seeking venture financing to help establish a “tech park” in the center of Yakutsk. Such a facility would focus on the “venture capital company Yakutia, the center for protection of intellectual property of the Academy of Sciences of the republic, as well as consulting and servicing firms.” Any such developments would be facilitated by the presence of the North-Eastern Federal University, formerly Yakutsk State University, which is noted for its technical and scientific faculties. North-Eastern Federal University is also seeking to enhance foreign language instruction, especially of English. To this effect, it has recently partnered with the University of Tromsø in Norway to establish a teaching program based on distance learning, E-learning, IT technologies, and social networks.

Long-distance, “virtual” social interaction and mediation are increasingly popular in the lightly populated and vast republic. Even Sakha’s major beauty contest is now an on-line event: Miss Virtual Yakutia. The contest has not been without problems; in 2007, “scandal hit the Miss Virtual Yakutia contest this year, when it was revealed that one of the finalists… was a man.” Judging from a more recent YouTube “tribute” to the pageant, the contestants seem to be relatively evenly divided between ethnic Russians and Sakhas.

Non-Internet Sources

Argounova-Low, Tatiana. 2012. The Politics of Nationalism in the Republic of Sakha (Northeastern Siberia) 1900-2000. Edwin Mellen Press

Jordan-Bychkov, Terry and Bella Bychkova Jordan. 2001. Siberian Village: Land and Life in the Sakha Republic. University of Minnesota Press.

Granberg, L., K. Soiniu, and J. Kantanen, eds. 2009. Sakha Ynaga: Cattle of the Yakuts. Academia Scientarium Fennica.

Stammler-Gossman, Anna. 2010. “’Political’ Animals of Sakha Yakutia.” In Good to Eat; Good to Live with: Nomads and Animals in Northern Eurasia and Africa, edited by F. Stammler and H. Takakura. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

John Tichotsky, 2000. Russia’s Diamond Colony: The Republic of Sakha. Harwood Academic Publishers


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The Yakut Under Soviet Rule

At the time of the Russia Revolution in 1917, the Yakuts (Sakha) were organizing on a national basis and pushing for autonomy and even sovereignty. Yakutia at the time was dominated by the Sakha, with Russians comprising only about ten percent of the population; even Yakutsk was a mainly Yakut town. The Sakha elite were relatively well educated and politically aware—due in part to the tutelage of Russian intellectual exiles. In February 1918, Yakutia formally declared its independence.

But rather than gaining a country, the Yakuts found themselves embroiled in the Russian Civil War. Devoted nationalists wanted to join with parts of far eastern Siberia to form a state under Japanese protection, but others Yakuts supported either the Bolsheviks or the anti-communist White Army. The political and administrative control over Yakutia also shifted back and forth like a pendulum. In the summer 1918 Bolshevik soviets were established in Yakutsk, Vilyusk, and in other towns across the region. But in November 1918 Yakutia fell into the hands of the White Army headed by Admiral Alexander Kolchak, the “Supreme ruler of Russia.” About a year later, the White government in Yakutia was liquidated and the Soviet power re-established. In September 1921 an anti-Bolshevik uprising broke out in Yakutia; insurgents called for—and received—help from the Russian émigrés in Harbin. In late March 1922 the White Army retook Yakutsk. Although the Russian Civil War supposedly came to an end in 1922, the last White forces in northern Siberia were not vanquished until the fall of 1923. A joint Evenk-Yakut ethnic uprising continued fighting until it was crushed by the Red Army in August 1925. According to Forsyth, this seven-year struggle left much of Yakutia “in a state of devastation” (p. 257).

Once the struggle was over, the transformation of Yakutia began in earnest. Moscow had created the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, in accordance with Lenin’s nationalities policy. But as was the case elsewhere, its “autonomy” proved largely illusory. Moscow primarily looked to Yakutia to supply resources necessary for industrializing the country, and when major gold deposits were discovered in 1923, a rush ensued.* Mining brought a demographic transformation. Most of the miners were Russian and a few were Korean or Chinese, but the number of Yakuts was negligible. The government of Yakutia did, however, have a certain degree of cultural authority. It helped create a formalized, literary Sakha language, based on traditional Yakut folklore, which was originally written in the Roman script, replaced in 1939 by a modified Cyrillic alphabet. Education was greatly enhanced, and journalism, theater, poetry, and fiction in the Sakha language were encouraged.

Many of the more traditional aspects of Sakha culture were not valued by the Bolsheviks. As early as 1924, Moscow outlawed Shamanism, although the practice persisted in surreptitious form. Stalin’s regime went so far as to ban the summer solstice festival (Ysyakh), the Yakut’s major annual event. As horses play a major role in Yakut culture, they are also central to the celebration of the Ysyakh, which involves the consumption of fermented mare’s milk, tethering a horse to a pole and circle dancing around it, as well as horse (or reindeer) racing. The holiday was much beloved among the Yakut, and after Stalin’s death it began to revive.

In the late 1920s, Yakut intellectual leaders were pushing for restrictions on Russian immigration. The newly formed “Young Yakuts” society agitated against Soviet power under the slogan “socialism without communists.” Not surprisingly, the Russian government reacted harshly. As Forsyth explains:

 The conclusion drawn … by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Moscow was that the Yakut provincial committee had been too tolerant toward the national intelligentsia, and must in the future maintain a more consistent policy of class conflict by cultivating the support of the rural poor and squeezing the upper and middle classes out of positions of authority, as well as depriving them of their lands.

In the 1930s, the Soviet government mandated agricultural collectivization in Yakutia, disrupting the rural economy. Enforced grain production was particularly damaging. Guided by the irrationally optimistic ideas of Trofim Lysenko, the state insisted on arable agriculture even in such impossible environments as that of frigid Verkhoyansk. As plowing advanced in central Yakutia, hay harvests were compromised, increasing livestock mortality and in some locales generating a human subsistence crisis. Some scholars have argued that hunger and malnutrition resulting from the period resulted in a decline in the Yakut total population from 240,500 in 1926 to 236,700 in 1959 (see Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan, p. 65).

Collectivization was resisted in Yakutia, as elsewhere, but resistance generally proved futile. Many Yakuts, it is essential to realize, supported the regime and its policies, especially those without land or herds who benefited from those policies. In 1933, almost half of the membership in the Communist Party of the autonomous republic was ethnically Yakut. Many Yakuts, moreover, had major leadership positions—although many of those leaders would be purged later in the decade.

Improvements in education continued through the pre-war period, and the development of infrastructure made some progress. According to the 1939 census, 54 percent of the Sakha people over age nine were literate, a marked improvement from earlier times. Roads, although seasonally impassible, were constructed and electricity was brought to Yakutsk in the 1930s. Hamlets and homesteads were amalgamated into compact villages to enhance education and social services—and to maintain the state’s eye on the population. Such aggregation hampered hay cutting and firewood gathering, as longer trips to meadows and woods were required. Deforestation eventually became a problem around such amalgamated villages.

After WWII, Russian settlement in Yakutia intensified, propelled by diamonds and other valuable natural resources. The Sakha, who had constituted a commanding majority of the Republic’s population in 1922, were reduced to 46 percent in 1959 and 33 percent in 1989. Yet they remained the major group outside of Yakutsk and the mining towns, and Yakut leaders continued to push for genuine autonomy. In the early 1950s, an official Soviet campaign targeted the “ideological faults” and “bourgeois nationalism” of prominent Yakut writers, although after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, such strictures were relaxed. The ruinous agricultural projects also came to an end with Stalin’s demise. In the area studied by Terry Jordan-Bychkov and Bella Bychkova Jordan, grain fields in the early 1950s had yielded a miserable 196 pounds per acre, one seventh the amount necessary to break even. They provide a revealing anecdote: “Viewing a dead grainfield, the villagers reputedly indulged in a sarcastic verbal tribute: ‘Comrade Stalin is a great agronomist.’” (p. 73)

Conditions improved in Yakutia in the 1960s and 1970s, a period that Terry Jordan-Bychkov and Bella Bychkova Jordan call a “golden age.” Infrastructural development proceeded, machinery became more widely available, and wages rose. In central Yakutia, greenhouses were widely adopted, allowing the cultivation of cucumbers and other warm-season vegetables. Efforts to increase milk-production by replacing the native cattle with more productive breeds, however, was at best partly successful; although yields did improve, the new breeds of cattle were difficult to maintain, as they lacked adaptation to the cold. By the end of the Soviet period, the native Yakutian cattle were almost extinct.

One sign of improved conditions in the late Soviet period for the Yakut was a population surge. In the republic overall, the rural population grew by twenty-five percent between 1972 and 1989. Increasing numbers of Sakha also moved to the regional metropolis of Yakutsk. But at the same time, ethnic Russians continued to stream into the region. Yakut activists responded by agitating against Russian immigration, sometimes with force. In 1979, “race rioting” in Yakutsk required the intervention of Soviet troops. The Yakut were also angry at the fact that their republic still housed prison camps for European Russians. As Forsyth notes:

“The continuation of friction between natives and incomers was illustrated by a complaint from a Yakut writer that his native land was ‘under the sway of transients, scroungers, poachers, alcoholics, and drug addicts, who are brought here from the central provinces of the country although we already have more than enough drunkards of our own to cope with.’” (p.411)

* Later gold strikes in the far northeast led the Russian government to carve out a new territory for its Dalstroy slave-camps, reducing the size of Yakutia.


Non-Internet Sources

Forsyth James. 1992. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. Cambridge University Press.

Jochelson, Waldemar, 1933. The Yakut. The American Museum of Natural History

Jordan-Bychkov, Terry and Bella Bychkova Jordan. 2001. Siberian Village: Land and Life in the Sakha Republic. University of Minnesota Press.

Granberg, L., K. Soiniu, and J. Kantanen, eds. 2009. Sakha Ynaga: Cattle of the Yakuts. Academia Scientarium Fennica.

Okladnikov, A.P. 1970. Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State. Translated from Russian, and edited by Henry N. Michael. McGill-Queens University Press.

Stammler-Grossman, Anna. 2010. “’Political’ Animals of Sakha Yakutia.” In Good to Eat; Good to Live with: Nomads and Animals in Northern Eurasia and Africa, edited by F. Stammler and H. Takakura. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

Takakura, H. ed. 2003. Indigenous Ecological Practices and Cultural Traditions in Yakutia. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

John Tichotsky, 2000. Russia’s Diamond Colony: The Republic of Sakha. Harwood Adacemic Publishers

The Yakut Under Soviet Rule Read More »

The Yakut (Sakha) Under Tsarist Rule: Subordinate Partners in Empire?

As we have seen, the Sakha people—called Yakuts by outsiders—dominated the crucial country of the middle Lena Valley, dotted with islands of fertile grassland, until the 1630s. Russian empire builders, spearheaded by Cossack bands, then pushed down the Lena and built three forts in the Yakut heartland, one of which would become the city of Yakutsk. As was true in the rest of Siberia, the Russians demanded yasak, or tribute in the form of fur, from the indigenes. The Yakut resisted, but they were divided into feuding clans and hampered by outmoded military technology. Resistance also provoked devastating Cossack raids on the scattered hamlets and homesteads of the vulnerably semi-sedentary Sakha. Although the Yakut were able to seriously besiege the Russian fort at Yakutsk on several occasions, they lost the war and subsequently submitted to Russian rule.

Possession of Yakutia proved crucial to the larger Russian scheme for subjugating central and eastern Siberia. Not only is its location key to huge Lena River Basin, but it was also the only place outside of southern Siberia with abundant fodder, essential for maintaining a Russian cavalry presence. Russian colonists even managed to grow rye and other crops in the short but intense Yakutian summer, although with only meager success. Yakutsk thus became the pivotal Russian post of central and northern Siberia, and remains so to this day. As can be seen on the map, Yakutsk is the only Siberian city—other than the gargantuan mining town of Norilsk—outside the southern and coastal margin of the vast region. It is also the oldest city in the area, as both Norilsk and Magadan were built by Gulag prisoners.

Although Yakutsk was the main node for projecting Russian power across much of Siberia, it was not a primarily Russian settlement until the Soviet period. Previously, most resident of the town were Sakha, and by a considerable degree. But the Yakut in general worked with the Russians, almost as junior partners in empire-building—or at least the elite members of their society did. Unlike the other peoples of central and northern Siberia, the Yakut were divided by class; from their earliest days in the region, some had large herds and others had no animals of their own. Under Russian rule, social stratification intensified. As James Forsyth explains:

 [T]he native rulers allowed themselves to be coerced or bought over, and came to terms with the occupying power. Their status as native lords was therefore enhanced by Russian laws of 1677-8 which defined their responsibilities in respect to yasak collection, the preservation of order and the administration of justice. The elevation of Yakut clan chiefs to the status of a hereditary aristocracy was accompanied by the corresponding abasement of the ordinary members of the clan to the status of serfs—a process which Soviet Russian historians refer to as the feudalization of Yakut society. (p. 62)

The Yakut were not, however, simply divided into “lords” and “serfs” by the Russian authorities. Clan structures remained intact to some degree, and other options were available. Some ambitious men became merchants, operating over much of central and northern Siberia. Partly as a result, the Sakha language became the lingua franca of a huge region. Russian settlers often spoke it, even in formal settings—an unusual arrangement, to say the least. Likewise, the Yakut elite learned Russian, and as early as the end of the seventeenth century most Yakuts had adopted Russian names. Conversion to Christianity, however, was a much slower, and never completed, process.

Not all the Yakuts were willing to submit to Russian rule. Many fled to the west, along the Vilyuy River, or to the north, into the valleys of the Yana, Indigirka, and Kolyma rivers, with some even reaching the Arctic coast. Eventually, Russian rule was established over those areas as well, but as a result of the movement the territory of the Sakha was greatly expanded. Those who pushed into the tundra zone of the far north could not maintain a cattle- and horse-based economy, and instead had to turn to reindeer herding and fishing.  In the process they interacted—and intermarried—extensively with the peoples of the far north. The Yukaghirs, who had once occupied a huge swath of northern Siberia, were largely absorbed by the Yakut newcomers; today the Yukaghirs number only 1,500, and most of them speak Sakha rather than their original language. Another far northern group, the Dolgans, abandoned their own tongue altogether in favor of Yakut. However, due largely to influences from the Evenk language, Dolgan developed into a distinctive speech variety, which most linguist consider to be a separate language rather than a dialect of Sakha.

Although the core area of Yakutia near the great bend of the Lena River remained the hub of Russian power in central and northern Siberia throughout the Tsarist period, it was still a remote and little-governed land. The round-trip between Yakutsk and Moscow generally took three to four years. Not surprisingly, lawlessness pervaded much of the region, and those without the protection of the more powerful often suffered grievously. Native women in particular were often victimized by sex-hungry Cossacks and other Russian interlopers. James Forsyth again provides details:

One of the more complicated cases in this traffic in women involved a certain Mynik of the Betun clan who was first sold by her Yakut family to a Russian trapper for 50 kopeks, a cooking pot, and ten strings of beads. She was then passed on for 1 rouble to another trapper, who sold her to an Orthodox priest for 2 roubles. The petition presented by the latter after his “wife” had been taken away by a Yakut resulted in the priest’s possession of her being legalized by a deed of purchase, and the woman’s declaration that she did not want to go back to live among the Yakuts, but to be baptized as a Christian. (p. 68)

Baptism as a Christian was a two-edged sword for the Yakuts of the 17th and early 18th centuries. On the one hand, converting to the new religion removed the obligation of the yasak; as a result, the Russian state discouraged it. But Christians, unlike yasak-payers, could be enserfed or even enslaved. Evidently, a convert would generally become the serf of his or her sponsor. Cossack slave-traders and Orthodox priests alike thus strove to baptize the Yakut. Although slavery in Yakutia was outlawed by Empress Anna in 1733, serfdom long persisted. Although many Yakuts did accept Christianity in the Tsarist period, conversion was often superficial, with many aspects of traditional shamanism persisting.

Yakutia underwent several major changes during the 19th century. As fur-bearing mammals had been largely extirpated, tax levies were switched to cash, commercializing the local economy to some degree. Russian authorities pushed the cultivation of grain, but success was marginal at best. According to Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan, the Yakut were “reluctant to plow their beloved alases [meadows],” so instead they “cleared birch and larch forests, an activity that they detested” (p. 55). Kitchen gardens, producing potatoes, cabbages, beets, and other vegetables were more readily embraced, although they required laborious watering during dry periods. But despite these new sources of food, the lot of the poor seems to have declined during this period. As the Yakut gentry solidified their power and as commercial exchange deepened, many commoners were reduced to penury. Forsyth claims that by the end of the 19th century, one third of the population was without livestock of their own and in perpetual debt, whether to their own lords or to Russian or Tatar merchants (p. 166). As a result, he argues, Robin Hood-like robber bands emerged, stealing cattle from the wealthy for their own sustenance.

The growing economic divide in late 19th century Yakutia may have nurtured political activism, and the presence of Russian radicals almost certainly did so. Due to its remote location and harsh conditions, the central Lena Valley was a favored place of exile for the politically troublesome. In 1917, it is estimate that some 500 “politicals,” expelled from European Russia, resided in Yakutia. As the Yakuts and Russians were relatively well integrated, the ideas propounded by these opponents of Tsarism readily spread to the indigenous inhabitants. By 1905, they helped inspire the first Sakha nationalist movement. The newly formed Yakut Union denounced what it saw as Russian colonialism, and soon demanded that “all land in Yakutia must belong to the Yakut people; they must govern their own affairs free from the tutelage of the Russian police; they must enjoy civil rights and be represented in the Duma in St. Petersburg” (Forsyth, p. 167).

Such developments were cut short by the Revolution of 1917, as we shall see in the next post.

Note on Sources:

James Forsyth’s superb 1992 book,  A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1990 (Cambridge University Press) was used extensively for this post, as was Terry Jordan-Bychkov and Bella Bychkova Jordan’s 2001 book, Siberian Village: Land and Life in the Sakha Republic (University of Minnesota Press). For other non-internet sources, please see yesterday’s post.


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The Yakut (Sakha) Migration to Central Siberia

As explained in the previous post, the Yakut (Sakha) people have adapted more easily to the demands of the Russian state, and of modernity more generally, than most other indigenous peoples on Siberia. The relative success of the Yakut is best understood historically. Relative newcomers from the south, the Yakut moved into central Siberia with a more advanced technology and a more complex social order than those of the earlier indigenes of the region. Facing the brutal winters of the central Lena River Valley, the immigrants underwent an ordeal that stripped away part of their original material culture. Successful adaptation to their new environment, however, allowed them to expand in numbers and territory, acculturating peoples of diverse cultural backgrounds into their own society.

Yakut legends put their homeland near Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia, an area now occupied by the Mongolian-speaking Buryats. The two people must have interacted extensively, as roughly one-third of the Sakha vocabulary is of Mongolian origin. Relations were not always cordial; the Yakuts tell stories of their ancestors being driven into the northern forests by the Buryats. Scholars have suggested dates for the migration ranging from the early 11th to the 13th centuries. Their exodus was no doubt traumatic; before their displacement, the Yakut raised horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and camels, but only horses and cattle survived the transition. They originally seem to have had knowledge of the Old Turkic script (“Turkic runes”), but literacy was not maintained. Sophisticated metallurgy, however, was, giving the Yakut an advantage over other Siberian peoples (groups such as the Evenks could work iron, but could not smelt it from raw ore). Military knowledge was also retained. The armored Yakut cavalry met by the first Russian interlopers were said by some to resemble the knights of medieval Europe.

Although the Yakuts seem to have struggled against the preexisting inhabitants of the central Lena Basin, they also interacted with them. They adopted many words from the Evenks, particularly those associated with reindeer and other natural features of central Siberia. The also seem to have intermarried extensively with both the Evenks and the Yukaghirs. Some scholars suggest that low genetic diversity in the Yakut Y-chromosome* indicates that relatively few Turkic-speaking men moved north, where they intermarried extensively with the indigenous women. A major recent genetic study shows some affinities between the Yakuts and the Turkic- and Mongolian-speaking peoples of southern Siberia. But it also indicate that:

[T]he Yakuts and Tuva are somewhat removed from the other populations in the Mongol-Turkic MDS cluster in the direction of the Evenki and Yukaghirs. And with Yakut diversity levels that are intermediate to northeastern Siberians and Mongol-Turkic groups from south Siberia, these results may be indicative of some degree of admixture with indigenous groups and/or differentiation after the Yakut migration northwards to the Lena river basin.

The pastoral way of life of the newcomers hardly seemed possible in the taiga of Siberia, where the dark forests offered scant pasturage. The Yakut were saved, however, by their discovery of the meadows and prairies that dot the forestlands of the middle Lena Valley. In the Sakha language—and now in the vocabulary of science as well—such an isolated grassland is called an alas. In its stereotypical form, an alas is centered on a small lake that is surrounded by concentric vegetation zones as the soil becomes drier as one moves away from the core. The inner belts are marshy, while the intermediate rings support seasonally lush grasslands, offering ample forage for livestock. The outer zone, on the other hand, is often dominated by wormwood, a tough, drought-adapted plant in the same genus as sagebrush (Artemesia).

Typically oval-shaped, alases were formed by the melting of an area of permafrost, the otherwise perennially frozen sub-soil layers that underlie most of the Siberian landscape. Forest fires or other natural phenomena can lead to an unusually deep summer thaw, which can subsequently result in surface subsidence. The depression so formed fills with water from the melted permafrost. In time, such lakes shrink and sometimes dry out completely, due to sedimentation and the accumulation of organic matter, as well as the semi-arid climate of central Sakha. Under grassland conditions, fertile soil is generated, creating environments much more productive than those of the surrounding taiga.

The alases of the Lena Basin offer more than pasturage. As the late American geographer Terry Jordan-Bychkov and the Yakut scholar Bella Bychkova Jordan explain, the significance of these prairie islands runs deep:

Part of the emotional appeal of the alases and their beauty is provided by the pretty blue lake nestled in the middle. They too are essential for Yakut life. While often somewhat mineralized, the lakes provide drinking water, contain fish, and supply irrigation for garden crops. (p. 33)

The alas pastures proved perfectly adequate for the hardy Yakutian horses, discussed in a previous GeoCurrents post. Despite the frigid winters, horses are able graze outdoors throughout the year. But the Yakut cattle, although more cold-adapted than other breeds, could not tolerate winters on their own. As a result, the Yakut had to cut hay assiduously during the summer, storing it as winter feed for their barn-enclosed herds. Hay cutting is a laborious job, and to this day the Yakut tell stories of their ancestors’ more idyllic way of life in the southern grasslands, where such labor was not necessary. The difficulty of raising cattle is also reflected in the fact that horsemeat is generally much cheaper than beef in Yakutia. But as the main milk-providers, cattle were crucial to the Yakut way of life. Horses were milked as well, but much of their production was fermented into kumyss, a much-loved, intoxicating beverage. Together, horses and cattle have been said to “embody the essence of the Sakha people and their identity” (A. Stammler-Grossman, p. 155).

Pine trees were also crucial to the Yakut immigrants to the central Lena Valley. Forests in general were necessary, as the Yakut burned copious amounts of firewood during the brutal winters. But pines also provided basic sustenance; according to the neighboring Evenks, “where one finds pines, one finds Yakuts.” The crucial pine resource is the inner layer of bark, or phloem. Although many peoples have traditionally eaten phloem, the Yakuts took the resource much farther than most. As Jordan-Bychkov and Bychkova Jordan explain:

In June, the “month of the pine”, women went into the woods and cut down young trees, peeled off the layers of new growth, dried it, and ground the sapwood into  powder. They then mixed it into the milk products as a kind of flour, and the chemical action of the lactic acid broke down the cellulose fibers.  (p. 54).

A variety of wild roots gathered from the alas meadows were another important source of food. They too were often ground and then dissolved in sour milk. Even fish and other animal product—including bones—were sometime dissolved in the mixture. The resulting product, called tar, formed a staple of the traditional Yakut diet. Large blocks of milk tar would be stored as simple frozen slabs immediately outside of the winter dwellings. Russian prisoners exiled to Yakut villages had a difficult time adapting to such fare.

Unlike the other Siberian peoples, the Yakut made relatively little use of berries. In fact, they often mocked the Evenks as “berry eaters.” It has been suggested that the fear of bears dissuaded the Yakuts from intensive berry gathering. The Yakut also traditionally avoided mushrooms, as noted in a previous GeoCurrents post. They did, however, adopt the practice of mushroom eating from the Russians.

Sturdy dwellings were another key to the Yakut way of life. In the summer, they traditionally lived in large, essentially temporary conical structures covered with birch-bark. In the fall, however, they repaired to their much sturdier winter  lodges, timber-framed structures, with chimneys, covered with bark and earth. Sheets of mica or ice were sometimes used as windows, but they had to be small to avoid undue heat loss.

In the early 1600s, the Yakut were firmly ensconced in the central Lena basin, with a population estimated at roughly 30,000. At that time, Russian empire-builders arrived on the scene, as we shall see in the next post.

*In regard to Y-DNA, the Yakut are dominated by haplogroup N, which is widespread across northern Eurasia, and is common in Finland and Estonia


Non-Internet Sources

Forsyth James. 1992. A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony, 1581-1990. Cambridge University Press.

Jochelson, Waldemar, 1933. The Yakut. The American Museum of Natural History

Jordan-Bychkov, Terry and Bella Bychkova Jordan. 2001. Siberian Village: Land and Life in the Sakha Republic. University of Minnesota Press.

Granberg, L., K. Soiniu, and J. Kantanen, eds. 2009. Sakha Ynaga: Cattle of the Yakuts. Academia Scientarium Fennica.

Okladnikov, A.P. 1970. Yakutia Before Its Incorporation into the Russian State. Translated from Russian, and edited by Henry N. Michael. McGill-Queens University Press.

Stammler-Grossman, Anna. 2010. “’Political’ Animals of Sakha Yakutia.” In Good to Eat; Good to Live with: Nomads and Animals in Northern Eurasia and Africa, edited by F. Stammler and H. Takakura. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

Takakura, H. ed. 2003. Indigenous Ecological Practices and Cultural Traditions in Yakutia. Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.


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Yakutia’s Mir Mine: The World’s Largest Hole?

A number of websites provide lists of the “world’s largest holes,” most of which are gargantuan open-pit mines (given the realities of the internet, several of these sites are quasi-pornographic). Although the actual lists differ, several put Russia’s Mir diamond mine, located in Yakutia (Sakha Republic) in the first position. The Wikipedia article on the mine claims that it is actually “the second largest excavated hole in the world, after Bingham Canyon Mine.” But if Bingham Canyon is larger, Mir is much steeper, and therefore seems more impressive to many observers. It is large enough to create powerful downdrafts. According to the Wikipedia, “The airspace above the mine is closed for helicopters because of a few incidents in which they were sucked in by the downward air flow.”

525 meters (1,722 ft) deep with a diameter of 1,200 m (3,900 ft), the Mir Mine follows a diamond-bearing kimberlite deposit of a volcanic pipe. Active from 1957 to 2001, and closed for good in 2011, Mir produced roughly 2 million carats of diamonds annually. Russia’s first major diamond mine, Mir was opened in part for geo-strategic reasons. As explained in a fascinating article by Stephanie (no last name provided), posted in Abazias Diamonds:

 The birth of the Mir Mine came out of Stalin’s desire to retain Soviet independence. After WWII, the Soviet Union required large quantities of industrial diamonds in order to rebuild its shattered landscape. The problem for the Soviets was that the diamond industry at the time was almost entirely controlled by DeBeers. What this came down to was the simple fact that should DeBeers decide to embargo the Soviet Union, whether for economic or political reasons, the Soviets would have to at least somewhat bend to DeBeers’ will.

Although focused originally on industrial diamonds, the Mir Mine was soon producing gemstones in prodigious quantities.  As Stephanie explains:

To DeBeers, the Mir Mine proved to be a strange and puzzling mystery. … DeBeers had been mining diamonds since the beginning of the century and knew a little of the normal production rates of kimberlite pipes. Most kimberlite pipes produce an ever growing quantity for the first few years, followed by a plateau and then a steady decline in diamond production. The Mir Mine seemed to break these rules, as the Soviets were showing ten million carats of diamonds produced a year by the mid-1960s, with two million carats of diamond a year being of gem-quality.


Yakutia’s Mir Mine: The World’s Largest Hole? Read More »

Recent Initiatives in Russia’s Booming Diamond Business

Rio Tinto, the British-Australian mining giant, recently announced that it would begin investing in Russian diamond extraction, forming a partnership with the Russian firm Alrosa. Alrosa, 90 percent of which is owned by the Russian government, is now the world’s largest diamond miner, having surpassed De Beers in 2011. Rio Tinto’s diamond ventures are also rapidly growing. In Russia, the firm is mostly interested in the Lomonosov deposit, located in Arkhangelsk Oblast in northern European Russia. Most Russian diamond mining, however, takes places in Yakutia (Sakha), in north-central Siberia.

The diamond business is currently surging, due in part to rapidly growing demand from China. Production has traditionally been concentrated in southern Africa, with Botswana occupying the highest position as recently as several years ago. Russia, however, is now the world’s top diamond producer, both in terms of quantity and value. Solid information on global diamond mining, however, is difficult to obtain, as different sources give different rankings.

Over ninety percent of the world’s extracted diamonds are sent to India for rough processing. Russian diamonds are currently exported to India through a variety of intermediary channels. Russia and India, however, are now negotiating for the direct export of rough stones from the diamond fields of Yakutia and Arkhangelsk to the cutting floors of Surat in Gujarat state.

Recent Initiatives in Russia’s Booming Diamond Business Read More »

Introduction to Yakutia (Sakha)—and Russia’s Grandiose Plans for the Region

Yakutia, officially the Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation, is a land of extremes. To begin with, it is by far the world’s largest “stateoid,” or political unit below the level of the sovereign state, covering 3,103,200 square kilometers (1,198,000 square miles), as opposed to second-place Western Australia’s 2,527,621 square kilometers (975,919 square miles). More than twice the size of Alaska, Yakutia would be the world’s eighth largest country by area if it were independent, barely trailing India. Unlike most other huge stateoids around the world, Yakutia has some claims to national status, as it was delineated on the basis Yakut (or Sakha) national identity. Although the Yakuts constitute just under half of the republic’s population, they still clearly outnumber the next largest group (Russians), and their sense of political identity is sometimes reflected in a desire for secession from Russia. In August 1991, the Supreme Soviet of Yakutia went so far as to declare the sovereignty of the region. Russia’s central government, however, would never contemplate the independence of Yakutia, as the region is far too large, and far too rich in gold, diamonds, and other vital resources. A recent book on the republic calls it “Russia’s diamond colony.”

Yakutia’s natural resource endowment extends well beyond diamonds. The republic also has more than twenty percent of Russia’s considerable gold reserves, and its substantial oil and natural gas deposits have not yet been fully assessed. Silver-complex ores are now being developed, and Yakutia has most of Russia’s tin and antimony reserves. Niobium, yttrium, and other rare earth deposits are also seen as promising. More than forty percent of Russia’s coal reserves are said to be in Yakutia, and economically recoverable tungsten, phosphate, and iron ore deposits are also found in the republic.

Yakutia is unquestionably a land of environmental extremes. According to a 2008 article in The Independent, Yakutsk, the republic’s capital city, is “famous for two things: appearing in the classic board game Risk, and the fact that it can, convincingly, claim to be the coldest city on earth”* (Yakutsk’s average January high temperature is -35° C [-31° F]). The local inhabitants seem to be proud of their climatic extremes, and even hope to capitalize on the cold for tourism purposes. According to the “Tourism Development” section of (which appears to be the victim of machine translation): “In Yakutia takes place traditional March a festival of tourism “Cold Pole” with Grandpa Frost from Great Ustyung and Santa Claus from Lapland. It aims development of international and inner tourism, and investments.” But Yakutsk is only seasonably cold—admittedly for a long season; its summers are relatively warm, with an average July high temperature of 25.5° C (78° F) and record highs of over 38° C (100° F). Due to summer warmth, central and southern Yakutia support extensive forests.

The Yakut (or Sakha, or Saxa) people themselves are exceptional in several regards. Unlike most other indigenous groups of Siberia, they expanded in both population and territory after being incorporated into the Russian Empire, despite periodically suffering grievous casualties at the hands of Russian troops and officials. They have also been able to absorb other Siberian indigenous groups into their own ethnic formation. As a Turkic-speaking people, the Yakut occupy an extreme geographical position, living far to the north and east of the other members of this important language family. The Sakha were originally a fairly typical Turkic people from the Central Asian steppes, leading an equestrian way of life based on herding cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals. Disputes with neighboring peoples centuries ago led to their flight into the forbidding northern forests. The Yakut’s subsequent adaptation to the rigorous environment of their new homeland is a fascinating story in its own right. Originally settling in the area around the great bend of the Lena River, near-present day Yakutsk, the Sakha people eventually expanded all the way to the Arctic Ocean, encountering new environments that in turn necessitated new adaptations.

 Yakutia today faces a number of challenges, which will be explored in forthcoming GeoCurrents posts. The remainder of this article will focus on the republic’s remoteness, and on the development of the transportation infrastructure that can help overcome it. Transportation limitations are especially problematic for the capital city of Yakutsk, a regional metropolis of more than a quarter million inhabitants. The Wikipedia article on the city stresses the fact that it is connected to the rest of Russia by the Lena Highway, or Route M56. The article admits, however, that the linkage remains incomplete:

The city’s connection to the highway is only accessible by ferry in the  summer, or in the dead of winter, directly over the frozen Lena River, as Yakutsk lies entirely on its western bank, and there is no bridge anywhere in the Sakha Republic that crosses the Lena. The river is impassable for long  periods of the year when it contains loose ice, when the ice cover is not sufficiently thick enough to support traffic, or when the water level is too high and the river turbulent with spring flooding.

Unmentioned in the article, moreover, is the fact that the Lena Highway itself is frequently impassible. Unpaved, in part because of the engineering challenges posed by permafrost, the roadway is reliable only when the temperature remains below freezing. In the summer the road deteriorates, and when heavy rains come, as they periodically do in late July or August, it becomes a morass. Russian roads in general are of notoriously poor quality, but M56 is exceptional, and is therefore not inappropriately deemed by some the “highway from hell.” According to a 2007 article on the subject, the Lena Highway is often considered to be the “worst road in the world.” Photos from the article, several of which are reproduced here, speak for themselves.

As Russia’s economic development plans rely heavily on natural resource exploitation, and as Yakutia contains the lion’s share of several valuable minerals, the improvement of the republic’s transportation infrastructure is regarded as a relatively high priority. According to a recent Voice of America article, the Russian government plans to create a “super agency” to develop the Far East, with Vladimir Putin vowing “to spend $17 billion a year for new and improved railroads.” One of the agency’s first projects will supposedly be the construction of an 800-kilometer rail line to Yakutsk. Russian dreamers, however, hope that this project will merely be the first leg of a gargantuan scheme that would eventually link Russia to North America by way of a Bering Strait tunnel. With an estimate cost of $100 billion, the proposed intercontinental rail linkage could eventually handle three percent of global freight cargo, according to Russian Railway officials. Such a project would supposedly require ten to fifteen years to build. The Voice of America article outlines the potential geopolitical consequences:

 [The rail plan] could fit into the political calendar of … Mr. Putin. On May 7, Mr. Putin will be inaugurated for a new six year term. He has left open the possibility of running in 2018 for another six year term. So Russian Railways may have the political cover for another 12 years. The question is whether oil prices will stay high enough to build a tunnel linking America and Asia. If so, Washington’s diplomatic reset with Moscow could be welded in steel.

But considering the environmental, economic, and political challenges that would first have to be overcome, the project seems quite unlikely.

* In actuality, Verkhoyansk, also in Yakutia, is significantly colder than Yakutsk. But with only 1,300 inhabitants, Verkhoyansk is not much of a city.


Introduction to Yakutia (Sakha)—and Russia’s Grandiose Plans for the Region Read More »

Pleistocene Re-Wilding: Environmental Restoration or Ecological Heresy?

The Pleistocene Park project envisaged by Sergei Zimov and his colleagues calls for an extraordinary transformation of the tundra and tundra-forest transition zones of Siberia. By restocking the region with large herbivores, an ecosystemic shift would theoretically occur, breaking down the current pattern of vegetation and establishing a new equilibrium. The basic idea is to transform waterlogged landscapes, currently dominated by mosses and lichens, into much drier and far more productive grasslands. Doing so, proponents contend, would reduce the threat of global warming by increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of a large segment of the Earth’s surface, bouncing much of the incoming solar energy back into space (albedo is largely a matter of mere color; lighter colored steppe vegetation reflects more solar radiation than darker colored forest or tundra).*

The saturated soils of the tundra zone tend to be infertile, incapable of producing nutritious fodder that can sustain substantial numbers of large animals. According to research carried out by Zimov and his colleagues, the waterlogged nature of the tundra is not a direct result of the local climate, which is still relatively dry: most of northeastern Siberia receives less than 250 mm (10 inches) of precipitation a year. The culprit, they argue, is the blanketing cover of moss. Non-vascular mosses have no roots, and thus do not pull water out of the soil. A thick moss layer is also highly insulating. As a result, both evaporation and transpiration are minimal, maintaining saturation over vast areas during the brief summer when the upper soil layer thaws.

The key to drying out the soil, according to the Pleistocene Park advocates, is breaking up the moss layer. This is best done physically by the presence of concentrated herds of large animals for limited time periods, as their hooves effective cut through the fragile moss carpet. If the moss layer is adequately disturbed, grasses can gain a foothold. It is essential, however, to maintain grazing pressure; otherwise, dead grass stems and leaves will accumulate, insulating the soil and thus reestablishing conditions of saturation. Grasses are highly adapted to grazing pressure, having co-evolved with large herbivores over the past 25 million years, since the beginning of the Miocene epoch.  Grazing, in turn, effectively recycles nutrients, as animal droppings form effective fertilizers, sustaining rapid grass regeneration. Over vast areas of central and northeastern Siberia, moreover, potentially fertile loess soils abounds, enhancing the region’s potential for supporting large herds of herbivores. Overgrazing is of course a prospective problem, which is precisely why Zimov wants eventually to reintroduce lions, tigers, leopards, and hyenas to the park.

Waterlogged soils are also widespread in the taiga belt, although not as common as they are in the tundra. In the boreal forests, thick tree coverage presents another obstacle to the establishment of a diverse megafauna, as the mostly coniferous trees provide little food for large mammals. But once again, the cause/effect relationship is muddled. The presence of large mammals, particularly proboscideans (elephants and their ilk), reduces tree coverage; as we know from studies in Africa, as elephant numbers increase, forests tend to be replaced by open savannahs. Such parkland environments, in turn, are able to support much greater numbers of large mammals than forests. In Siberia’s taiga and especially in the forest-tundra transition zone, large mammals would trample tree seedlings and saplings, thus pushing the ecosystem as a whole toward more open, grassy conditions.

The Siberian Pleistocene Park project is by no means the only proposal for reestablishing vanished ecosystems by releasing descendants of the lost megafauna, or their closest surviving ecological equivalents. Proponents of “Pleistocene rewilding” would like to do the same thing over large areas of North America, even to the extent of releasing elephants into the American southwest. Yet as the Wikipedia blandly puts it, “As of 2011 there are no active plans to reintroduce more exotic megafauna such as elephants, cheetahs or lions due to the controversial nature of these reintroductions.”

Controversial indeed. I find the “Pleistocene rewilding” idea fascinating in part because it reveals deep fissures in environmental thinking, separating those who focus on timeless ecological balance from those who stress evolutionary development. In the United States, such a divide comes into play over the feral horse controversy. To those in the former camp, wild equids (mustangs and burros) are an unnatural Eurasian presence in the North American landscape, descendents of domestic animals brought across the Atlantic by European colonists. Wild horses and burros compete for forage with native mammals, such as bighorn sheep, and maintain heavy grazing pressure on many native plant species; as a result, critics contend, they should be greatly reduced in number if not eliminated altogether. Those in the “evolutionary” camp argue to the contrary that equids are actually among the most native of all large mammals, as the horse family largely evolved in North America. Horses, by this line of reasoning, disappeared from the continent very recently, and probably because of human activity. The reintroduction of mustangs and burros, they argue, thus represents ecological restoration, not degradation.**

Underlying the debate are fundamentally different perspectives on time. Environmentalist opponents of “Pleistocene rewilding” take as their base-line the recent past, the period immediately before humankind began its modern transformation of the Earth. Premodern ecosystems, they generally contend, remained in equilibrium, allowing the perpetuation of the magnificent diversity of life, each species remaining in its proper niche. By the same token, pre-industrial (or, in some version, pre-agricultural) peoples are thought to have remained in harmonious balance with their environments; deeply respecting nature, and firmly ensconced within its intricate webs, they were incapable of causing substantial damage. All of that was to change, however, as modern societies grew estranged from nature, and hence began to engage in destructive practices. Such devastating activities included the transfer of animals and plants from their proper habitats to new locales, place in which they simply did not belong. Exotic species, defined as those that did not live in a particular area within historical time, are thus taken to be unnatural threats to nature’s balance.

Those who follow the ecological balance perspective do not deny the fact that entirely different equilibriums pertained during the Pleistocene epoch, but they generally argue that such deeply geo-historical matters have little bearing on contemporary environments. As the author of the Wikipedia article on “Pleistocene rewilding” puts it:

Opponents argue that there has been more than enough time for communities to evolve in the absence of mega-fauna, and thus the reintroduction of large mammals could thwart ecosystem dynamics and possibly cause collapse. Under this argument, the prospective taxa for reintroduction are considered exotic and could potentially harm natives of North America through invasion, disease, or other factors.

Rewilding opponents also tend to be skeptical of the idea that humans could have been responsible for the megafaunal extinctions, owning to the belief that primordial peoples lived in perfect balance with nature. If the Quaternary extinction event was a purely natural occurrence, such reasoning has it, then attempting to restock the lost animals would constitute unwarranted human intrusion into fully natural processes.

Re-wilding proponents have a different perspective on time. 12,000 years, they argue, is but a moment compared with the 25 million years over which large mammalian herbivores co-evolved with grassy vegetation over most of the Earth’s land surface. Their opponents’ focus on the historical time period, and on maintaining the balance of pristine nature, seems to them misconstrued if not simply perverse. From the perspective of evolutionary time, perturbation and change are the norm; species come and go, continually moving from one landmass to another, retreating in some areas, while advancing in others. And even in the short time scale of mere hundreds or even dozens of years, nature’s harmonies tend to be more discordant rather than perfectly tuned, able to accommodate change—such as the introduction of new species—with little threat of systemic collapse. Yet through all of those transformations, what had remained constant—to the end of the Pleistocene epoch—was the presence of diverse assemblages of large animals on all continental landmasses. Restoring nature, they therefore contend, necessitates restocking those forms of life to the greatest extent possible.

It is essential to realize that the “timeless balance” approach forms the dominant strain of environmental thinking, whereas the “rewilding” school represents a radical if not heretical departure. Most American environmentalists, for example, would be aghast at the prospect of releasing elephants in the Everglades, camels in Death Valley, or tapirs in coastal California, but that is exactly what Pleistocene enthusiasts would like to do. Or consider the attitudes of the two schools to a mossy, wet tundra landscape in northern Siberia or Alaska. To most environmentalists, such an environment is a precious survival of pristine nature in a human-wracked world, intricate in its balance, and highly vulnerable to human-generated disturbances. To ardent re-wilders, the same habitat is seen more as a biologically impoverished wound on nature generated by an episode of mass-extinction—humanity’s original sin. Best to lance such a sore with the hooves of herbivores, trucked in by the contrite descendents of the Pleistocene megafauna’s exterminators.

*Climate change issue can also be used to argue against such a proposal, as the draining of saturated soils would result in the oxidation of peat, releasing carbon dioxide. Discussions of the climatic ramifications of potential landscape change in Siberia quickly become highly technical, focused on the fate of yedoma, organic-rich Pleistocene loess permafrost deposits, which are thought to sequester a massive amount of carbon (500 Gt).

**Admittedly, much of the debate over mustangs has nothing to do with these positions. Ranchers often want to eliminate wild horse because they compete with cattle for forage, while many mustang enthusiasts are simply horse lovers and animal protection advocates unconcerned with ecological and evolutionary arguments.


Pleistocene Re-Wilding: Environmental Restoration or Ecological Heresy? Read More »

Pleistocene Park: The Regeneration of the Mammoth Steppe?

I must admit to having difficulty comprehending winter conditions in central and northern Siberia. From the U.S. perspective, Fairbanks, Alaska seems the epitome of cold, with an average January low temperature of -19 F (-28 C), but Fairbanks is positively balmy compared to Verkhoyansk, Siberia, where the average January high temperature is -44.9 F (-42.7 C). But what really staggers my imagination is the adaptation of mammalian life to such an environment. “How could anything live in such a place?” students often ask when I project the climate table for Verkhoyansk when lecturing on Siberia. Yes, how indeed.

Yet a wide array of large mammals thrive in central and northern Siberia, and do so without recourse to hibernation. Not only arctic creatures like reindeer and musk oxen, but even horses survive easily on natural fodder throughout the long and bitter winters. (Such horses, it is true, are of the cold-adapted Yakutian breed.) Bison also prosper in such an environment, and evidently camels can do so as well (Bactrian camels, not dromedaries). And according to Sergei Zimov, Director of Russia’s Northeast Science Station, lions, leopards, and even hyenas could survive and reproduce through most of Siberia, even in the particularly harsh northeast. As he notes, lions have long been kept outdoors all year with no apparent harm in the Novosibirsk zoo, where the average January low temperature is -4 F (-20 C).

Zimov is interested in mammalian adaptation to cold for a practical reason, as he would actually like to introduce such animals to northeastern Siberia. Although the prospect of releasing hyenas on the banks of the Kolyma River might seem to many an insane effort to engineer nature by spreading exotic species, Zimov would counter that he is rather seeking to restore nature and heal the wounds brought on by the Quaternary (or Pleistocene) extinction event, which took away much of the world’s megafauna (animals weighing more than 44 kg/100 lbs)—a catastrophe in which humans probably played a significant role.

Zimov’s “Pleistocene Park,” situated on the Kolyma River in the northeastern corner of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Siberia, is already well underway. When the project was initiated in the environs of an arctic research station in the 1980s, the region’s large herbivores were mostly limited to reindeer, moose (or elk, as they are called in Europe), and, in the mountains, snow sheep. Under Zimov’s direction, Yakutian horses were successfully introduced in 1988. In 2010, locally extinct musk oxen were brought back from Wrangel Island to the north of Siberia, and in 2011 wisent (European bison) and elk (or wapiti, as they are called in Europe) were released as well. Extant species being considered for introduction to the park include the saiga antelope, the yak, the Bactrian camel, the Siberian roe deer, the Amur leopard, the Asiatic lion, the spotted hyena, and the Siberian tiger. Extinct animals that could conceivably be brought back into existence and then reintroduced are limited to the woolly rhinoceros and the woolly mammoth. Other extinct animals of the region, such as scimitar cats, have no close living relative—or frozen corpses—and are thus lost forever.

The Pleistocene Park proposal is deeply rooted in ecology, pedology (soil science) and climatology, as we shall see in the next post. The remainder to the current post examines its foundations in the geo-history of Siberia and the broader circum-polar realm.

Driving the development of such a park is the idea that the ecosystems of Siberia, like those found in much of the rest of the world, are deeply out of kilter, thrown off their evolutionary trajectories by the loss of megafaunal diversity and keystone species. For millions of years, Siberia, like all other continental lands, had been the home of many large mammal species, which had evolved together along with the local vegetation. Over the ages, many individual species went extinct, but others emerged to replace them, thus maintaining high levels of diversity. The overall system proved resilient in the face of major climatic perturbations. Over the course of the Pleistocene epoch (2,588,000 to 11,700 years before present), cold glacial periods alternated with interglacial times like our own with little effect on wildlife beyond shifting their distributional patterns. During glacial periods, when massive icecaps formed over northern Europe and northern North America, Siberia remained largely ice-free. Although Siberia’s average annual temperatures were lower then than they are today, megafauna of various stripes continued to thrive in the region. During these cold, low-carbon-dioxide periods, sea level was much lower than it is today; as a result, Siberia and largely ice-free Alaska were connected by the exposed bed of the Bering Sea. The resulting landmass, Beringia, supported a substantial number of large mammals, the largest of which was the wooly mammoth.

Although glacial and interglacial periods had alternated for more than a million years with little impact on fauna, the most recent change was a different matter altogether. When the continental ice caps once again began melting away some 11,700 years ago, a megafaunal catastrophe occurred. The disaster was world-wide, but it struck some area much harder than others: in North and South America, something on the order of 85 percent of all large mammals disappeared, but the extinction rate was lower in Eurasia and lower still in Africa. The reason why sub-Saharan Africa is so rich in wildlife today is the fact that it was largely spared from the Quaternary extinction event; throughout evolutionary history, Africa’s megafaunal endowment was similar to those of other large landmasses. Although Eurasia as a whole suffered much less damage than the Americas, the same cannot be said for its higher-latitude regions. Rhinoceroses and proboscideans (elephants and the like), for example, survived in southern Asia, but not in Siberia or Europe.

A common misconception about the extinct creatures of the Pleistocene is that they were somehow not really modern. In the popular imagination, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, and the giant ground sloths of the Americas (some of which were of elephantine bulk) were archaic beasts not fit for the modern world and its contemporary climates. This is not the case. In evolutionary terms, 11,700 years is but a moment. The human beings who lived at the time were anatomically the same as us, and the same is true of other mammals that survived the catastrophe. The climates in which cold-adapted species such as the woolly mammoth thrived, moreover, never disappeared. Instead they merely shifted into higher latitudinal belts as the world warmed, just as had happened in numerous other transitions from glacial to interglacial conditions.

The cause of the Quaternary extinction event has been hotly debated for decades. Many theories have been proposed, as surveyed in the comprehensive Wikipedia article on the subject. In the most general terms, two main camps have offered competing explanations, one based on climatic change and the other on human over-kill. Advocates of the of former school have long argued that new climates emerging with the Holocene transition some 11,700 years ago were not conducive to the survival of many large mammals. Greater seasonal disparities have often been regarded as particularly detrimental. In Siberia, for example, warmer summers led to the establishment of the taiga, or boreal forest, which provides poor forage for large herbivores. Also blamed were the severe climatic fluctuations that marked the transition period, which would have placed extreme stress on large animals. Climate-change theorists doubt that humans could have been responsible for the event, as they would have been too few in number. They also point to the fact that large-game-hunting peoples co-existed with large mammals for millennia in Europe and elsewhere without wiping them out.

Those who favor the overkill hypothesis point to the survival of woolly mammoths well into historical times on two unlikely locales: Wrangel Island off the northern coast of Siberia and Saint Paul Island in Alaska. E.O. Wilson’s powerful theory of island biogeography tells us that we should have expected the exact opposite: the larger the landmass, the more species should have been able to have survive. What made these two islands unique, however, was the fact that they were not reached by humans during the extinction period. When they were finally settled, mammoths disappeared. The same pattern pertains at the global scale. New Zealand and Madagascar suffered huge blows to their unique faunal assemblages (the former dominated by large, flightless birds) not at the end of the Pleistocene, but rather some 1,000-2,000 years ago, when they were finally reached by people. The last of the Quaternary extinctions arguably occurred in the late 1700s, shortly after Vitus Bering and his crew happened upon the Commander Islands, a previously unvisited archipelago between Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. Grazing the kelp forests in the sea around the islands were Steller’s Sea Cows, massive (8-10 metric tons) relatives of the manatee and dugong. Absurdly easy to hunt, Stellar’s sea cows had once ranged throughout the coastal waters of the northern Pacific, wherever kelp abounded.

In regard to Siberia, Zimov’s work challenges some of the basic components of the climate-change perspective. Theorists in that camp often argue that modern Siberia is too humid to support the extensive grasslands on which woolly mammoths and their contemporaries grazed. As their habitat vanished due to climate change, the grazing herds necessarily disappeared as well. During glacial periods, conditions in Siberia were both colder and drier than they are now. As a result, sand dunes and dust-derived loess soils developed in many areas. Nutritious grasses grew well in the cool, semi-arid summers of glacial-period Siberia, supporting large herds of herbivores and the carnivores that preyed upon them. In the wetter post-glacial period, mosses and other non-vascular plants growing on waterlogged soils largely supplanted the grasses that had previously dominated the tundra zone. Such vegetation, however, has extremely low nutritive value, and hence supports little wildlife. Inland from the Arctic Ocean, moreover, the warmer summer temperatures of the post-glacial period allowed the formation of the vast boreal forest, or taiga, that today blankets much of Siberia. The mostly coniferous trees of the taiga also offer little food for large herbivores. As a result, it is often argued, the only large herbivores adapted to most modern Siberian environments are reindeer, which graze extensively on lichen, and moose, which browse on willows and other broad-leaved shrubs that persist in particular habitat zones.

According Sergei Zimov, the scenario outlined above has it all backward. As we shall see in the next post, he argues that the Siberian grassland, of “mammoth steppe,” vanished not because the climate changed, but rather because the mammoths and other large grazers that had maintained it disappeared. Bring back the megafauna, advocates of the Pleistocene Park argue, and you will simultaneously bring back the relatively productive steppe that characterized most of Siberia during the Pleistocene epoch.

Pleistocene Park: The Regeneration of the Mammoth Steppe? Read More »

Introduction to Siberia

For the next month or so, GeoCurrents will examine Siberia. Siberia is an important yet often overlooked region, and hence merits extended consideration. Few parts of the world are so consistently ignored, at least in the English-language media, which  almost always focuses on the western, or European, parts of Russia, particularly Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the troubled North Caucasus. Thus, in most people’s imagination, in the West and even in Russia itself, Siberia looks like an iceberg: big, cold, mostly hidden from view, and inherently dangerous. In this series of posts, GeoCurrents aims to shed new light on this vast and significant place. If Siberia were independent, it would have the largest area of any country in the world—by a significant margin. In terms of population, its position is not nearly so high, coming in 31st or 32nd place. But with roughly forty million inhabitants, Siberia is significantly more populous than Canada, which has about thirty-five million people. A sovereign Siberia would also be a much wealthier place than Russia on a per capita basis: Russia’s economy relies heavily on natural resources, and Siberia has the lion’s share.

The definition of Siberia employed here, it is important to note, is the maximal one, covering all of Russia located to the east of the Ural Mountains, which are generally regarded as the division between Europe and Asia. In Russia itself, this view of Siberia is often considered to be of historical significance only. According to the Wikipedia, “Soviet-era sources and modern Russian ones” usually exclude the Pacific coastal region from Siberia. Watershed boundaries are now often employed, with “Siberia” designating those areas that drain into the Arctic but not the Pacific Ocean. On the western side of “Asiatic Russia”, the area just to the southeast of the Urals, encompassing Sverdlovsk and Chelyabinsk oblasts, is sometimes counted as part of Siberia but sometimes excluded. It should also be noted that the Siberian Federal District, one of eight large, quasi-administrative units of Russia, includes only the central portion of traditional Siberia. Intriguingly, this restricted “Siberia” excludes the region that originally lent its name to the vast region. That name derives from the Khanate of Sibir, one of the successor states of the “Golden Horde”, or Kipchak Khanate, which was itself one of the successor states of the Mongolian Empire established by Genghis Khan. The defeat of Sibir by the Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich in 1582 is generally considered to mark the beginning of the Russian conquest of Siberia.

We have adopted the most extensive definition of Siberia because it remains standard in most English-language sources. Yet we do not intend to cover the entire region, as it is far too extensive. Instead, we will select a number of specific topics focused on various parts of Siberia for extended consideration.

Our first group of Siberia posts will examine the indigenous peoples and cultures of the region. As usual, linguistics and linguistic geography will figure prominently here. After a brief survey of the entire region, more extended consideration will be given to several ethnic groups and their languages. We shall see that many groups struggle to maintain their identity and their indigenous language, with the Itelmen of the Kamchatka Peninsula being one of the most desperate examples. The Sakha (Yakut) will also be examined in some detail, and we hope to look at the historical relationship between the Sakha and Russian exiles. Another post will examine the Chukchi people of the far northeast, taking on the ubiquitous Russian humor genre centered on this ethnic group. As we shall see, “Chukchi jokes” tell us very little about the Chukchi but much more about the joke-tellers themselves (a separate GeoNote will examine the more general phenomenon of jokes targeting specific nationalities or ethnic groups across the world).

We will subsequently move from cultural and linguistic matters to demographic ones. Continuing exploitation of natural resources in some areas of Siberia and the Far East attracts workers, especially men, creating more balanced sex ratios than elsewhere in Russia. But many other regions experience demographic problems of gargantuan proportions: death rates, including suicide and infant mortality rates, are higher than anywhere else in Russia; birth rates are plummeting; and sex ratios are heavily female-biased. Areas of former forced labor camps, particularly Magadan Oblast, are still riddled with crime and depopulating rapidly. Health issues will also be explored in this section, with particular attention given to problems cause by the region’s intense winter cold, as well as pollution from industrial sites, uranium mining, and nuclear accidents, such as the 1957 Kushtym disaster near Chelyabinsk, the world’s third worst nuclear accident of all time. Biological adaptations to low temperatures among the indigenous peoples of Siberia might also be examined.

The next set of posts will turn to environmental and economic issues. We shall see that intensive exploitation of Siberia’s natural resources leads to environmental degradation, which not only destroys the many diverse ecosystems of the region and the natural habitats of many endangered species, but also threatens the livelihoods of more than forty distinct indigenous groups. Here we will examine the development of oil and gas fields off Sakhalin Island, as well as the mining of gold, diamonds, and other minerals in Yakutia (Sakha) and elsewhere. The mines and heavy-metal contamination in Norilsk in northwestern Siberia will also be scrutinized, as will the movement toward sustainable forestry in some parts of the region. The environmental series of posts will conclude with an examination of the ambitious “Pleistocene Park” of northern Sakha (Yakutia), which aims to recreate the long-lost grassland environment of Siberia by reintroducing large herbivores. If all of the plans for this park come to fruition, such large mammals could someday even include wooly mammoths.

The final set of posts will turn to geopolitics. Here we will look at issues of nationalism and regionalism in the region’s autonomous republics, and in Siberia more generally. Russia’s dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands might also be considered. Another possible topic here is the incongruous Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan.

Our schedule of posts remains rather flexible; as we work on a particular issue, we may not be able to resist delving into related matters. If readers have strong ideas about topics that they would like to see covered, their input is welcome.

Introduction to Siberia Read More »

Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel

Sovereignty issues have recently been appearing in Alaskan newspapers. On February 22, the Alaska Dispatch noted that former U.S. senate candidate Joe Miller was lambasting Barak Obama for relinquishing control of several sizable “oil-rich” Alaskan islands, ostensibly because of the Obama administration’s hostility to the petroleum industry. The accusation immediately began to ricochet around the right-wing blogosphere. Gateway Pundit’s headline ran, “Report: Obama Administration Is Giving Away 7 Strategic Islands to Russia.” On many blogs, hyperbole ran wild. One claimed that “the presidents and our elite have given away part of the US,” which it adduced as proof that the United States is “now a dictatorship”; another argued that this maneuver represented nothing less than “the destruction of a nation.”

On some of the larger conservative sites, however, cooler heads urged caution.  Although the comments on Free Republic included such opinion as “TREASON,” and “Is it to appease the Russians or to spite Sarah Palin?,” commentator JSDude 1 provided much needed context, informing readers that the islands in question have never been claimed by the United States and in fact have long been occupied by Russia. Another voice of moderation weighed in with the observation that the islands “don’t exactly look strategic to me unless strategic means cold.”

The lands in question are Wrangel Islands and parts of the DeLong Archipelago, located to the north of Siberia. Every few years someone proclaims that these islands rightfully belong to the United States, but such claims rest on a thin foundation, to say the least. Admittedly, in 1881 an American naval commander planted a U.S. flag, but that is about it. The Russian government officially extended sovereignty over the island in 1911, although it was challenged by a Canadian expedition in 1921. Since 1926, however, Wrangel has been under Soviet and then Russian rule. The United States recognizes Russian control, although a formal treaty specifying as much has never been ratified.  The extreme nationalist group State Department Watch thus claims that the US has a legitimate claim to Wrangel and their other islands, and should thus challenge Russian sovereignty.

Wrangel Island is well known in paleontological circles as the last redoubt of the wooly mammoth. Whereas mammoths went extinct elsewhere at the end of the Pleistocene roughly 10,000 years ago, they survived on Wrangel until about 1,700 BCE. The fact that wooly mammoths held out until the bleak island was first reached by humans is considered by some to be prime evidence that Pleistocene megafauna died out because of human hunting rather than climatic change (more on this when GeoCurrents turns to Siberia next month).

Alaska’s other recent sovereignty issue is domestic, pitting the state against the federal government over the jurisdiction of waterways in Yukon-Charlie National Preserve (a national preserve is administered by the National Park Service, but has a lesser degree protection than an actual national park). The dispute was brought to a head when federal authorities ordered a man to quit hunting moose in the park from the seat of his hovercraft. Although hunting is allowed in the preserve, hovercrafts are not. Alaska has challenged the prohibition, and the case is now going to court.


Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel Read More »

Cannabis Growing and Eradication in Buryatia

Map of Republic of Buryatia, Russia

Map of Republic of Buryatia, Russia
Republic of Buryatia, Russia

A recent GeoCurrents post noted California’s Mendocino County and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley as major centers of cannabis production. They are hardly alone in that position, however. Other areas of concentrated marijuana production include parts of northern Afghanistan and highland Morocco. Another far less likely zone has just come to my attention: the Russian republic of Buryatia, a Mongolian-speaking area in southern Siberia. Russian officials are now complaining that local cannabis eradication programs are behind schedule. A recent article reports that, “3.3 metric tons of drugs were confiscated in Buryatia last year of which cannabis made up to 95 percent. Cannabis covered an area of 3,400 hectares in the republic last year, 150 hectares more than in 2010.”  Wild cannabis supposedly grows freely in the Lake Baikal area, although it is not clear whether these wild strains are potent enough to sell.

Cannabis Growing and Eradication in Buryatia Read More »

Sakha: World Capital of Cold

The attention of the global media usually remains focused on a limited portion of the earth’s surface. Wealthy countries and regions are covered in depth, as are places considered threatening to the developed world, but most parts of the earth are more often ignored.

Consider, for example, Sakha (Yakutia), a vast internal Russian republic spanning three time zones that is roughly the size of India. Sakha has the interesting distinction of being the world’s largest “statoid” (statoids being the highest-order territorial subdivisions of sovereign states [see]). Sakha is rather lightly populated, but it has more inhabitants than 42 internationally recognized countries. Considering as well its sizable mineral deposits, Sakha is a significant place.

The few news reports from Sakha that reach the global media usually focus on diamond mining. On January 7, 2010, however, the BBC devoted much of a story to simply recounting living conditions in the republic ( This unusual article was prompted by bitterly cold conditions in Europe, leading reporters to ask what life is like in truly cold places. In Sakha’s capital of Yakutsk, a city of 210,000 people, the average January high temperature is -36 degrees Celsius (-33 F): farther north, much colder conditions are encountered. Compared to Sakha, central Alaska has a balmy winter climate.

Sakha’s population of almost one million is roughly split between Russians and the indigenous Sakha (or Yakut) nationality, although other indigenous ethnic groups are also present. The Sakha are a Turkic people who were largely converted from their original shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1800s. Their traditional way of life was based was based mostly on raising cattle and horses-–quite a challenge, considering the climate of their homeland. Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Sakha have relatively high rates of education and have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of modern life. Some authors have suggested that they benefited from an influx of intellectuals when previous Russian regimes exiled political dissidents to their villages. From the dissidents’ point of view, being sentenced to Yakutia was considered especially onerous, due to both the climate and the local dietary staple: “milk tar,” a frozen mash of fish, berries, bones, and the inner bark of pine trees conveniently dissolved in sour milk.

Sakha: World Capital of Cold Read More »