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

Submitted by on May 10, 2012 – 7:17 pm 8 Comments |  
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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  • David Erschler

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “own tongue” of Dolgans: usually they are supposed to be a mixture of Evenki, Yakuts, and Russians(!) whose Yakut was heavily influenced by Evenki. As far as I understand, it is possible to trace which Evenki clans participated in the ethnogenesis of  Dolgans looking at the clan names.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I think what is meant here is that whatever language the ancestors of the Dolgans spoke (“own tongue”) was lost because of a shift to Sakha/Yakut. Subsequently, the version of Sakha/Yakut spoken by the Dolgans became a distinct language mostly because of Evenk influences (and also Russian influences, and language-internal changes). Genetic studies (e.g. indicate that the Dolgans are not a subgroup of the Yakuts. On the Y-DNA side, the Dolgans have a high frequency of haplogroup C, which is minimal among the Yakuts, but is found to be prevalent among Evenk, Buriat and Mongol men. This supports the idea that the Dolgans were an independent group, which switched from their earlier language (whatever that was) rather than a subgroup of the Yakuts that simply moved off and whose language changed.

      • David Erschler

         Well, Dolgans are visibly different from Yakut, even without genetic studies.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Good point! However, I wouldn’t rely on physical appearances alone for several reasons. One, whether two peoples look the same or different depends on the observer. And two, sometimes people look the same or different yet the genes reveal a very different pattern.

      • Kenan

        To be fair, according to the link haplogroup C is up to twice the size in Evenks and Mongols as they are among Dolgans.  Also there is a sizable amount of N2 and N3, roughly similar to the number of C, in the Dolgans too and looking at the chart for the Sakha N3 represents the overwhelming majority of them.  Also Dolgans have a sizable amount of R1a which is absent or very rare in Sakha, Evenk, Buryat, Mongol and Nganasan men.  Unfortunately the link doesn’t provide a subclade for R1a to help determine whether it has a southern Siberian or Eastern European origin. 
        To sum up according to the chart Dolgan genetic map can be broken up into 3 parts, C, N and the rest, the rest made up mostly of R1a.  C is found in its highest frequencies among the Evenks, N among Nganasans and Sakha and R1a either from southern Siberia, western Siberia or eastern Europe.  The lack of information on subgroups make it harder to determine exactly where.
        For a small numbered people like the Dolgans this genetic diversity where no single YDNA dominates suggests an ethno-genesis of varied origin which I think supports the narrative that the Dolgans descend from a number of different people coming together rather than an already existent group replacing its language.  The notion of a pre-Yakutian Dolgan people I find very unlikely, although granted I’m no expert in genetics.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          Many thanks for the comments. I am certain willing to defer to those who know the situation better than I do and accept that there were no “pre-Yakutan Dolgan people.” But I would also caution against reading too much into Y-DNA data to argue for “an ethnogenesis of varied origin.” The problem here is that most ethnic groups have varied origin if one goes back far enough; DNA evidence overall shows a lot of mixing and movement in human history. According to my understanding (although I am not an expert here),  limited Y-DNA diversity in certain groups often indicate a founder effect or, in very small groups, random drift. 

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Kenan, I agree with your analysis of the pie charts for Dolgan and other DNA, but I don’t think these data support your theory over mine. Let me explain.

          Since the language of the Dolgan is very similar to Sakha, we know that at some point, fairly recently, (some of the) Dolgan were the same ethnic group as the Sakha, they formed a community on some level. Still, they didn’t completely assilate to the Yakut, as their DNA still differs quite a bit, so the amount of mutual DNA flow was limited. Later, the Dolgan took off and developed a different way of speaking (different enough to qualify as a separate language, but still close enough to be a related language, according to the consensus opinion). Why exactly the specific changes happened, I will leave aside — but see my response to David Erschler below.

          What we are interested in for this particular debate is what happened to Dolgan before they were the same group with the Yakut. Were they always speakers of Sakha (or rather some earlier form of the language), or were they speakers of some other, unrelated language that shifted to Sakha at some point? The latter is the theory I’ve been proposing. It is also what was mentioned in the original post.

          Linguistically, we can’t really tell what language they might have spoken prior to adopting Sakha, as Evenk and other influences are likely more recent. But genetically I think the data in those pie charts suggests that our theory is correct. If the Dolgan were a subset of Sakha, a group of them who took off and moved westward, we’d expect them to have a subset of Yakut DNA. It is true than Dolgan and Yakut Y-DNA overlaps (the haplogroup N3 is found in both), but the Dolgan have lots of other haplogroups, including some that Yakut do not have. The overlap is, of course, not surprising, as we’ve already established that the Dolgan and the Yakut constituted a community at some point, based on the linguistic evidence. But what the Dolgan have *in addition to what the Yakut have*, such as a high frequency of C or R1a, suggests that the Dolgan as a group had an influx of men from these other groups like the Buriats and the Mongols. By the way, the Buriats and Mongols are not small groups resulting from founder effects, so it’s not likely that the high frequency of haplogroup C among them is an artificial effect of population size/diversity, as mentioned in Martin Lewis’ response.

          Since the Buriats and Mongols live in southern Siberia, and the Dolgan in northwestern Siberia, it is likely that this DNA was picked up by the Dolgans before they moved north. Importantly, since the Yakut do not have those haplogroups, it seems reasonable to me that the Dolgans were an independent group, with their own earlier language. Whether it was Turkic or not, we can’t tell, but it wasn’t (an earlier form of) Sakha. My scenario is that the Yakut lived further south, as did the Dolgans, but they were not the same group. Then the Yakut moved north (as described in an earlier GeoCurrents post in more detail), and so did the Dolgans—independently. After the move, they came into contact, probably in the sense of some Yakut men marrying into the Dolgan community. The Dolgan adopted the Sakha language at that point. Then the Dolgan moved westward and diversified their language.

          The way I see it, this is the most likely scenario, given these data. The only alternative compatible with the Y-DNA data is that the influx of R1a and C is more recent, but this scenario seems less likely to me because these haplogroups are found in southern Siberia and it is not likely that the Dolgan could have picked it up in their current location.

          Of course having mt-DNA would be another piece to the puzzle. I will see if I can find anything on Dolgan mt-DNA. To be continued (if I do find anything valuable)…

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          P.S. As you can see from my rather lengthy response, I am not denying that the Dolgan picked up various genetic influences, most  likely at different times. But I don’t consider likely a scenario that a bunch of random strangers from diverse origins, speaking different languages met in the tundra… and decided to stick together and to form the Dolgan group. Whatever the genetic influences, the group as a whole spoke some language. Our point is that prior to the Sakha language, Dolgan as a group spoke some other language, which they then abandoned in favor of the Sakha.