Turkic Languages

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 YakutiaToday.com (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.


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From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)

Wikipedia map of Ancient SogdianaThe Turkic-Persian historical synthesis found in Iranian Azerbaijan (discussed in the previous post) extends well beyond Iran’s borders. Through much of Central Asia, the dominant cultural framework is perhaps best described as a hybrid formation. In a fascinating book, Robert Canfield and his colleagues go so far as to designate a vast zone in central, southern, and southwestern Asia as “Turko-Persia.” As the Wikipedia describes the concept: “The composite Turko-Persian tradition … was Persianate in that it was centered on a lettered tradition of Iranian origin; it was Turkic insofar as it was for many generations patronized by rulers of Turkic background.” In the modern era, however, national governments have made great efforts to divide “Persians” from “Turks” across the region, creating the modern Tajik and Uzbek nationalities in the process.
Wikipedia Map of Bactria, with Sogdiana addedTurkic and Persian traditions have long been deeply intertwined in a region once known as Sogdiana, centered on the Zeravshan Valley of what is now eastern Uzbekistan. Sogdiana has played an important role in world history for millennia. Fertile and well-watered alluvial fans along the foot of the Pamir Mountains provided the agricultural foundation for an urban civilization stretching back almost 3,000 years. The Sogdians were renowned merchants, plying the routes of the so-called Silk Road that linked China to western Asia. In the process, they transmitted a number of religious practices and cultural ideals across much of Eurasia, including those associated with Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Manichaeism. After the Muslim conquest in the late 600s, the Sogdians gradually deserted their pluralistic religious heritage in favor of Islam. They also abandoned their own language, which belonged to the Eastern branch of the Middle Iranian grouping, in favor of a language from the Western branch that eventually became what is known today as Persian/Farsi (although a dialect of “neo-Sogdian” is still spoken by the Yaghnobi people, some 12,500 strong, of Tajikistan). Despite the loss of their distinctive ethnic identity, the Sogdians’ descendents continued to be an important mercantile people, noted for the wealth and beauty of their cities, particularly Samarkand and Bukhara. With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the early 800s, a powerful and explicitly Persian state, the Samanid Empire (or Samani Dynasty), arose in the eastern Persian lands, with its capital in Bukhara. The Samanids made a concerted and largely successful effort to convert the Turkic-speaking nomads living to their north to Islam.
Map of Samanid Empire With the downfall of the Samanid Empire in 999 CE, Sogdiana came under the political domination of these same Turkic-speaking peoples. Over time, significant numbers of Turkic speakers settled in the region, intermarrying broadly within the local population. As a result, their language spread. But as it did, it was molded by the pre-existing Persian substratum, gaining a large number of Persian words and expressions; several of the resulting dialects even lost the distinctive “vowel harmony” that characterizes Turkic and, more broadly, Altaic languages. But the spread of Turkic speech did not result in the disappearance of Persian (or Tajik, in Turkic parlance). Instead, linguistic duality came to characterize much of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
Thomas Lessman's Map of 1500, Showing Uzbek KhanateIn a social environment in which bilingualism was common, the distinction between those who spoke Persian and those who spoke a Turkic language was generally of little significance. What mattered more was mode of life. The main distinction here was that between settled people, whether city-dwellers or farmers, and pastoral nomads. Those with a sedentary lifestyle were generally called “Sarts,” both by outsiders and themselves, regardless of their mother tongue. In contrast were the Turkic peoples who largely retained a pastoral way of life, most notably the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen. Included in this group were the original Uzbeks, a group of historically nomadic people, ultimately of Mongol origin, who had forged a powerful state the 1500s, the Shaybanid—or Uzbek—Khanate. The relatively non-Persianified Uzbek language of this group (known as Kipchak Uzbek) was, and is, much more closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than it is to the Turkic dialects of the settled Sarts (which are most closely related to Uyghur in northwestern China).
Wikipedia Maps of Three Turkic Language Sunfamilies In the 1920s, ethnic affiliations were transformed by official decree across was then became Soviet Central Asia. Following Lenin’s nationality policy, certain groups were elevated to national status, affording them a measure of cultural autonomy within their own Soviet republics. After lengthy deliberation, Soviet cultural engineers decided that “Sart” was a derogative term that had no linguistic content and thus did not denote a real ethnic group . As a result, they split the Sarts into two nationalities, each of which received its own republic. Those who primarily spoke Persian were deemed Tajiks, while those who spoke Persian-influenced Turkic dialects were placed in the Uzbek category, despite the fact they bore little relationship to the people who already carried that name. The new standardized Uzbek language that resulted does not even fall in the same linguistic sub-family as the original (Kipchak) Uzbek language, as the former is placed in the Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) group, the latter in Northwestern, or Kipchak, branch.  (And if that were not enough complexity, a third dialect of “Uzbek”, Oghuz Uzbek, falls into yet a different division, the Southwestern branch of the Turkic language family.) The linguistic terminology used today does not clarify the issue, as the old “Kipchak Uzbek” tongue is now classified merely as a minor dialect of “Uzbek.”  Even the linguistically rigorous Ethnologue uses this classification scheme. Yet it makes little sense from a strictly logical point of view: how can two dialects of the same language simultaneously belong to different branches of their larger linguistic family? Political expedience, it seems, can trump linguistic realities.
The artificially constructed distinction between Uzbek and Tajik continues to generate political problems in the former Soviet Central Asia, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia Read More »