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

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.

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.