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.


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


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