Map of Russian Federation

Map of Russian Federation


Sakha Republic
Sakha Republic is huge. It is the largest republic in the Russian Federation, approximately the size of India, or a third of China, but with a population of only around a million people, about a third of whom are ethnically Sakha, or Yakut. Sakha lies West of Chukotka and Khabarovskiy Krai and is covered in permafrost. Its northern border is the arctic coastline, where the river 4,400 km long Lena runs into the Arctic Sea.

Many travellers have been in awe of the Lena and the dramatic scenery of the Lena pillars. J. Stadling, a Swede travelling at the turn of the twentieth century, gives an extraordinary description of his journey up the Lena:

You steam on, day after day, night after night, for hundreds of miles in the same direction, ever further and further away from civilization and nearer and nearer to the eternal domain of the polar ice. In this vast wilderness the ‘Mother Lena’ with its ever growing proportions and mightiness, forms the piece de resistance. In its serene depth all is mirrored. […]You find a place […] at the side of the Yakut pilot standing silent and serious at the helm, knowing all the windings and turns of ‘Mother Lena’, its currents, its shallows and its rocks. And in the twilight of the northern light, when the voices and noise on board have subsided and the strong scent of the forest is unpolluted by smells from the kitchen, you are overpowered by the mighty spirit of nature. As the night hours advance, cold increases. […] Deep melancholy tones, as if coming from an unknown world quiver through the cold night air, echoing faintly from the steep cliffs, which tower through the cold night air, echoing faintly from the steep cliffs, which tower up like prison-walls on either side of the river. The steamer rounds the promontory, and yonder in the pale blue light of the Arctic appear two craft [..] slowly moving forward with the current. […On them] are sitting a crowd of men and women and a few children, and at each end stands an armed gendarme. They are ‘pauski’ laden with exiles on their way to Yakutsk.[1]

At the time of first contact with Russia in the 17th century, the Sakha lived in a fairly small area of central Yakutia. In 1632 the Russians built a fort which they called Yakutsk in the place which today is Sakha republic’s capital by the same name. Yakutsk and the surrounding area became a transit camp for explorers of and freight to newly-annexed Siberian lands. Many explorers and intrepid travellers passed through Yakutsk, including famous expeditions such as the Bering and the Billings expeditions. They were undertaken for mainly political reasons, Russia’s claim to these lands and empire building, but made important scientific discoveries.

Vitus Bering, a retired Danish naval office, was commissioned in 1724 by Peter the Great to lead an expedition to the most eastern parts of the Russian Empire. Bering left St. Petersburg in January 1725, travelling with a large team of navigators, seamen, shipbuilders, carpenters, blacksmiths and soldiers. In 1726 he led a massive caravan of baggage on horseback from Yakutsk to the Okhotsk Sea, most of his pack horses perishing on the trail. He made it to the coast just in time before winter set in. Whilst exploring the North Pacific, Bering died on the Commander Islands, which are named after him, in 1741. The Billings expedition 1785-1794 was undertaken at the order of Catherine the Great. Billings was an Englishman in Russian service in his twenties and was accompanied by two Germans, Martin Sauer, secretary to the expedition, and Carl Heinrich Merck, ancestor of the pharmaceuticals family, who joined the expedition from Irkutsk, where he practised as a doctor. Both Sauer an Merck kept diaries – Merck with detailed records of the natural environment, plants and animals as well as some descriptions of ethnographical nature, whereas Sauer’s is more personal, and has been criticised for being very negative, in particular in relation to Russians and all things Russian . Sauer describes Yakutsk at that time:

Yakutsk contains 362 wooden houses, five churches, and a cathedral. […it is] situated on a low sandy plain […] producing chiefly wormwood, thistles, a few flowers and wild onions; here and there clusters of hawthorn bushes and osiers, with currants, dog-roses, and raspberries. It is bounded to the west by a ridge of inconsiderable but woody mountains, from which the inhabitants obtain firewood. […]

Three centuries later, another traveller and writer, Colin Thubron, describes Yakutsk as ‘a town of ice and twilight’ where all the buildings are raised four feet above the permafrost on concrete stilts and people trail along the streets in black overcoats and black hats.[2]

The mysterious origins of the Sakha 
The Sakha language is a Turkic language, the most northern of all Turkic languages. It has been influenced by Siberian languages and its isolation from other Turkic languages has meant that it is difficult to understand for people who speak ‘mainstream’ Turkic languages. The Sakha have had a profound influence on the local indigenous peoples, not least because their language became the lingua franca among the tribes of the region.

The origin of the Sakha remains somewhat of a mystery. Because of their Turkic language and pastoralism, there is a general consensus that the Sakha probably originated from warmer, more southern lands, and some linguists believe that they originally came from as far as northern India. There is also some linguistic evidence that they may have once had a written language, which was later forgotten. It is known that in the Middle Ages, the ancestors of the Sakha lived in an area on the shores of Lake Baikal. They were probably known by Chinese chroniclers as the Kurykans, whose culture has been dated from the 6th to the 10th century AD. Archeological finds from this area include runic inscriptions which scientists believe are of a Turkic speaking people. It is believed that the Sakha were pushed northwards after the end of the Mongol Empire when Buryat tribes began to invade their territory in the 13th or 14th centuries. They ended up settling in the region of the basin of the river Lena. Sakha epic tales agree with the archaeological, linguistic, and ethnographic data in depicting the Sakha ancestors as having immigrated from the south and mention three legendary heroes as the ancestors of the Sakha, representing three separate immigrations to the area.

The traditional Sakha way of life differs from that of other Siberian peoples in that, like other Turkic peoples, the Sakha are traditionally pastoralists who breed and herd cattle and horses. They traditionally led a nomadic way of life moving between winter and summer pastures. Until the early twentieth century they lived in yurts housing extended families with slanted earthen walls, sod roofs and earthen floors with fur-covered benches lining the walls and ranked seating and sleeping areas in the winter; in summer huge conical tents made of birch bark could house as many as a hundred people. Cattle were kept in barns during the winter and throughout that time (often seven to eight months) needed to be fed with hay; therefore, haymaking is the most important event in the Sakha calendar. The Sakha horses, however, are able to fend for themselves even in winter, when they dig in the snow for fodder (in temperatures reaching –50° C and below). They are half-wild and roam free practically all year; only in early spring are mares brought to enclosures to ensure their safety at the time of foaling. Unsurprisingly, the traditional Sakha diet primarily consists of dairy products and meat, but like other Siberian peoples, the Sakha traditionally also fish and hunt. In the extreme north, some took up the traditional lifestyles of the aboriginal hunters and reindeer breeders of the region. Agriculture, to the extent possible, came to the region with the Russians.

Like other Siberian peoples, the Sakha practised shamanism. Yakut shamans performed all the usual functions of a shaman and were also story-tellers and keepers of the Yakut oral literature. Olonkho, or Sakha poetical epics, date to at least the 10th century and were told by the shamans, who memorised them; the poetic vocabulary of a Yakut shaman could contain 12,000 words[3].

Waclaw Sieroszewski, a Polish exile to the region, spent several years exploring the land of Yakutia, and living with the native people of the territory. His book about their culture and traditions is held to this day as a treasured document about the earlier Yakuti way of life and their culture. Sieroszewski gives a vivid description of a Yakut shaman in action:

…when the shaman who has been called to a sick person enters the yurta, he lies on his white mare's skin and waits for the night, the time when it is possible to shamanize. Meanwhile he is entertained with food and drink. 'When the sun sets […] all preparations for the ceremony in the yurta are hurriedly completed: the ground is swept, the wood is cut, and food is provided[…]. One by one the neighbours arrive and seat themselves along the wall, the men on the right, and the women on the left[…].voices are hushed, and the company talks in whispers; 'The shaman slowly takes off his shirt and puts on his wizard's coat.[…]Then he is given a pipe, which he smokes for a long time, swallowing the smoke […] When he has finished smoking, his face is pale, his head falls on his breast, his eyes are half-closed.[…]'Now everything is silent. A handful of white horsehair is thrown on the fire, putting it quite out; in the faint gleam of the red coals the black motionless figure of the shaman is still to be seen for a while, with drooping bead, big drum on breast, and face turned towards the south, as is also the head of the mare's skin upon which he is sitting.[…]'Only the gentle sound of the voice of the drum, like the humming of a gnat, announces that the shaman has begun to play. 'This music is at first soft. delicate, tender, then rough and irrepressible like the roar of an oncoming storm. 'The [1] music swells and rises to the highest pitch, the beating of the drum becomes more and more vigorous, until the two sounds combine in one long-drawn crescendo. The numberless small bells ring and clang; it is not a storm-it is a whole cascade of sounds, enough to overwhelm all the listeners.... All at once it breaks off-there are one or two strong beats on the drum, which, hitherto held aloft, now falls to the shaman's knees. Suddenly the sound of the drum and the small bells ceases. Then silence for a long moment, while the gentle gnat-like murmur of the drum begins again.The Shaman then begins to leap and dance, at first on the skin, and then, his movements becoming more rapid, he glides into the middle of the room. Wood is quickly piled on the fire, and the light spreads through the yurta, which is now full of noise and movement. The shaman dances, sings, and beats the drum uninterruptedly, jumps about furiously, turning his face to the south, then to the -west, then to the east. summons the "spirit".[…]'Then the shaman, shading his eyes from the light with his hands, looks attentively into each corner of the room; and if he notices anything suspicious, he again beats the drum, dances, wakes terrifying gestures, and entreats the " spirits ".'At length all is made clean, the suspicious "cloud" is no more to be seen, which signifies that the cause of the trouble has been driven out; the sacrifice is accepted, the prayers have been heard-the ceremony is over. The shaman still retains for some time after this the gift of prophecy; he foretells various happenings, answers the questions of the curious, or relates what he saw on his journey away from the earth. Finally he is carried with his mare's skin back to his place of honour on the billiryk.[4]

Shamanism co-existed with the Sakha religion, which is centred on a cult of heaven and worship of a divine creator. The horse is a central symbol, the white horse representing the sun whose light energizes plant and animal life. When a person died, it was believed its three souls including ‘tyn’, or breath, left the body, and visited all the places on earth where the person had been during his life. On the third day, the body was taken to a graveyard and buried just above the permafrost level. A horse or reindeer would be sacrificed to help the deceased travel to the land of the dead and provide food for his family. One of the dead person’s souls, the ‘kut’, then travelled to a lush greenery-filled heaven in the sky. Souls could also stay on earth and haunt surviving family and relatives. Although some Sakha converted to Orthodox Christianity under Russian influence and the indigenous religion was almost destroyed in the 1930s when many shamans were executed or deported, the traditional religion has experienced a revival in recent years, and the celebration of the ysakh festival in spring, when a sacred brew of fermented mare's milk is drunk has become symbolic of a revitalized Sakha identity.

Traditional lifestyle
The Sakha traditionally traced their lineage on their father’s side back nine generations. Society was organised into large clans of thirty or so lineages, called aymakh, which cooperated in important matters such as defence and economics, and warred among each other. The clans elected elders who formed a council that managed the clan’s affairs. Aymakhs in their turn were grouped into larger units called ulus. The toyons were military leaders and a kind of aristocracy who were wealthy and had large herds and slaves captured in warfare. They also employed their dependent clansmen. The clan system subsisted up to the time of the Revolution in the form of administrative units. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Stadling finds that the Yakut people are generally poor and suffer from famines. He notes that most of them are in debt to somebody of their own clan, and are thus practically enslaved.[5]

In the 1930s the traditional lifestyle of the Sakha was largely destroyed. The toyon and the clan system were abolished and many shamans were deported or executed. A sedentary lifestyle was promoted, and the Sakha nomads were settled by force. Today many collectives dealing with animal husbandry created under the Soviet rule survive, and families still migrate to graze cattle in the summer, but instead of yurtas the housing often consists of log-huts.

Sakha in the 20th century
Convicts were sent to Sakha, or Yakutia as it was then called, already in the 18th and 19th centuries to work in labour camps, and, as elsewhere in Siberia, there were also some Russian peasants and Cossacks, who settled in the region and sometimes mixed with the local population. Shklovsky, travelling at the beginning of the 20th century, describes how Russians living in Kolyma have been ‘nativised’ – they speak Russian very badly and have adopted beliefs and customs of the natives. At the same time, some Russian expressions, songs and tales that he hears in the region are so ancient and out of date that they have been all but forgotten in European Russia.[6]

Sakha is rich in natural resources. In the 1930s Sakha lands were industrialised as mineral resources were discovered and exploited. Sakha’s mines are Russia’s chief source of gold and diamonds, but there is also coal, lead, oil and gas in the republic. The notorious GULAGs in the Kolyma valley, in Sakha and Magadan Oblast, south east of Sakha, were established under Stalin’s rule. The GULAGs of Kolyma, with its inhospitable climate, were feared more than any other place. "Kolyma znaczit smert", which translates to "Kolyma means death" was what people said.[7]

During and after World War II, the Soviet industries were relocated to areas east of the Ural mountains, and in the second half of the twentieth century, large-scale industrial development projects took place throughout Siberia. The development of industries in Sakha along with the necessary infrastructure, as elsewhere in Siberia, brought a large immigrant population, many of whose descendants have remained, reducing the indigenous populations to minorities. In Sakha, about half the population is currently Russian.

The growth of mining and of oil and gas exploration has also caused problems of environmental pollution, posing a threat to the livelihood of indigenous peoples.

These days there is a rift between the immigrant Slav population who are largely urban and more affluent than the generally rural and agrarian Sakha. The Sakha, however, are one of the most numerous peoples of Siberia and have a strong sense of national and cultural identity.

The Yukaghir
There are a number of smaller native peoples who live in Sakha, among whom are the Yukaghir, believed to be one of the most ancient peoples of North-Eastern Asia, and traditionally hunter, gatherers and fishermen, although some adopted reindeer husbandry. There are two Yukaghir languages, Southern Yukaghir and Northern Yukaghir, which until recently were classified as dialects of one language. It is unclear where these languages originate from and some linguists consider them linguistic isolates, meaning they are unrelated to any currently spoken language.

It is believed that the Yukaghirs originally lived over a huge territory from Lake Baikal to the Arctic Ocean. They lived in extended families organized in tribes and led a nomadic way of life moving between summer and winter camps. Like other hunting and gathering cultures, the Yukaghir adapted to the environment and the availability of resources. Because of the cold climates, hunting played a crucial role, since little vegetable food was available during the cold months of the year.

Hunter gatherers tend to live in small and mobile groups, which move seasonally in order to take advantage of resources as they become available. Because they use many different kinds, rather than relying heavily on a small number of resources, hunter gatherers have little impact on the environment. In small groups there is little specialisation and relative equality prevails, and there is little need for coercion since the social pressure of the small group is sufficient. Nuclear families tend to be small and populations tend to remain stable because of this.

The number of the Yukaghirs dwindled between the 17th and 19th centuries. Already at the time of the Billings expedition Martin Sauer noted that the Yukaghir were nearly extinct. He writes:

On the 14th January Captain Billings proposed a visit to the Yukaghir to see their manners and customs, and procure a vocabulary of their language. … They call themselves Andon Domni, and are ignorant who gave them the name of Yukaghir. They are in tribes, and, besides this place of residence have villages near the estuaries of the rivers Indigirka, Yana, and Alazei. The whole nation comprises only about 300 males, the Chukchi and Koryaks have swept off great numbers, the small-pox still more; and the venereal disease now seems engrafted among them, as if finally to eradicate the race.

Many Yukaghirs converted to the Russian Orthodox faith, but Christianity typically mingled with their traditional shamanistic faith, and alongside Russian Orthodox beliefs, the Yukaghir still practice shamanism today. Their religion worships ancestral spirits, the spirits of Fire, Sun, Hunt, Earth, and Water. Every clan had a shaman who was treated as a deity after his or her death - the body of the dead shaman was dismembered and kept by the clan as relics.

By the twentieth century, Yukaghir groups who lived on the upper reaches of the Kolyma, Indigirka and Yana rivers were hunters and fishermen, who used skis, sleds, and dogs for transport purposes. The northern Tundra Yukaghir groups were nomadic reindeer herders who had adopted domesticated reindeer from Evens; their main source of food were wild reindeer, while the domesticated reindeer were used mainly for transport. A third, small group of Russianized Yukaghirs led a sedentary lifestyle on the Anadyr river, where they fished and hunted wild reindeer during the spring and autumn migrations.

In the 1930s forced collectivisation brought the construction of so-called "culture bases" to Yukaghir territory, with schools, hospitals, day-care centres and so on. More and more of them gave up reindeer-herding for industrial jobs, although some still live by reindeer herding and hunting and gathering. According to the Russian census of 2002, there were 1,509 Yukagirs in the Federation, 604 of whom speak Yukaghir, although this contradicts information gathered by a sociolinguistic survey made in 1987, which counted 350 Yukaghirs of whom around 120 spoke the language.

Most Yukaghirs at present speak Sakha and Russian. Tribal divisions are fading, and in Sakha today there are three nomadic extended family communities. There are three Yukaghir villages in Sakha: AndrjuĆĄkino and Kolymskoe in the Lower Kolyma district, and Nelemnoe in the Upper Kolyma district, as well as two villages in the Magadan region.

[1] J. Stadling, Through Siberia, 1901, pp 72-74
[2] Colin Thubron, In Siberia, Penguin Books 1999, p. 250
[3] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1951
[4] M. A. Czaplicka, Shamanism in Siberia, excerpts from Aboriginal Siberia, 1914
[5] J. Stadling, Through Siberia, 1901
[6] I. W. Shklovsky, In the Far North-East Siberia, 1916
[7] Stanislaw J. Kowalski, Kolyma – the Land of Gold and Death