Yakutia

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

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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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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.

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