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

Submitted by on May 3, 2012 – 7:21 pm 25 Comments |  
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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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

    I wonder if they have yet developed any wild-eyed nationalists who try to link the ethnonym Sakha with the ancient Scythian Sakas.  In any case, is Sakha the people or the place?  I always thought of Yakutia as the Sakha Republic, but Mr. Tichotsky’s book calls it the Republic of Sakha.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Interesting point.  I have not heard to any attempts to link the Sakha to the Sakas, but I would not be surprised. The preferred name does seem to be “Sakha republic.” The language is called “Sakha.” I have seen the indigenous ethnic designation as “Sakha,” Sakhalar,” “Saxa,” and Caxa.” 

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        According to the Wikipedia page in the Sakha language (see link below), the people are called Sakhalar, the place Sakha Sire or Sakha Respublikata, and the language Sakha Tyla. As far as I can gather from a simple morphological analysis. Sakha is their designation for themselves, but one has to add “people” (-lar), “land” (Sire), or “language” (Tyla) to clarify what one talks about. By the way, ‘the Russian language’ in Sakha is “nuuchcha tyla” :) Names of other peoples also get -lar, -ler, -ner, or -tar at the end (this must be the same morpheme, with a clear case of both consonant assimilation and vowel harmony). I might make a little morphological problem for my students from this… By the way, the word Sakha is stressed on the last syllable.

        http://sah.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A1%D0%B0%D1%85%D0%B0_%D0%A1%D0%B8%D1%80%D1%8D#.D0.94.D0.B5.D0.BC.D0.BE.D0.B3.D1.80.D0.B0.D1.84.D0.B8.D1.8F

        Not sure about a connection to Sakas, but what about Sakhalin? Probably no connection there either, just a coincidence.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          My mistake in the above: -lar is the plural marker, not “people”. It is used only when referring to a number of things collectively, not when specifying an amount. And it shows a remarkable conservativity of Turkic, as it is the same morpheme as in Turkish!

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            Indeed, I understand that, while not entirely mutually intelligible, speakers of one Turkic language can understand a great deal of most of the others, with the singular exception of Chuvash, of course.  As for the republic, assuming that Sakha Respublikata is congruent with Kazakh Respublikasy, Republic of Sakha sounds infelicitous to me.  Although it is rather nineteenth-century sounding, maybe Sakhaland.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            I am always careful about making statements about how mutually intelligible certain languages are, as it is often the case that outside observers think that the languages in question are more similar than how they appear to be to speakers of the languages themselves. There is a great deal of similarity between Turkic languages, due in part to common descent and in part to contact between different languages. This is also why the classification of Turkic languages is to some degree more controversial than it should be. I’ve written about this here: http://languagesoftheworld.info/language-families/internal-classification-of-turkic-languages.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

    Improving the Lena Highway to useful standards would be difficult but far from impossible.  The Dalton Highway in Alaska, the Dempster Highway in the Yukon/NW Territories and the Trans-Taiga Road in Quebec are all decent, year-round roads in extremely challenging climates.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Good point. The roads that you mention were expensive to build, but not prohibitively so. Russia’s reluctance to invest in a decent road network, even in European Russia, is difficult to explain. 

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        I agree that climate is only one factor. Roads in Central European Russia aren’t better by much, especially those connecting second- and third-tier cities. Try getting driving directions, say, from Tver to Vladimir in Google Maps. The most direct root takes 2 minutes longer than the longer route through Moscow!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

        One could argue that the Dalton Highway and the Trans-Taiga Road are special cases.  They were built not for general transportation purposes but to provide access to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields and the La Grande Riviere hydroelectric dams respectively. Still, providing reliable road access to a regional capital of 250K is certainly a worthy purpose.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Peter-Rosa/1593565364 Peter Rosa

    I was curious about the physical appearance of the Yakut people and looked at some images online.  This got me thinking – is race, in its strictly physical manifestation, a major obsession in Russia?  I know that Muslim vs. non-Muslim is a vital difference, but not about race per se.

    In America, of course, physical racial differences are vitally important, what with affirmative action, the One Drop Rule, and a never-ending stream of controversies such as the Elizabeth Warren flap in Massachusetts.  Issues of culture and religion are less important.

    To frame things in more specific terms, if an ethnic Russian person hears about the Yakut peoples, is his or her thought process going to be “that’s a pretty unusual culture” or “those people look like Asians.”

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Asya Pereltsvaig can handle this question better than I can, but from what I have read, race is hugely important in Russia, and racism is common. Racism is especially an issue with the “skinheads,” or “street nationalists,” who are thought to number up to 70,000. That number is not huge, but skinheads are often violent and are always intimidating, and they are sometimes used by more powerful political organizations. See http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/12/01/how-strong-are-russias-skinheads/

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        I will try to answer Peter’s question. As Martin has pointed out, race is important, especially with “skinheads”, and incidents of race-based violence get widely reported. But it is also a relatively new phenomenon. Overall, I would say that race per se is less important than it is in America. The most important distinction is that of ethnicity or nationality, which is not nationality in the sense of statehood, as Martin has discussed here: http://geocurrents.info/cultural-geography/why-russian-jews-are-not-russian

        In this sense, ethnicity is a composite of physical appearance, culture, language, religion, and so much more. While xenophobia is quite common (http://geocurrents.info/cultural-geography/russian-xenophobia-and-the-history-of-the-finnic-speaking-peoples), it is not focused on race in the sense of “blacks”, “mongoloids”, “whites”, etc. For example, people from the Caucasus (called in Russia “persons of Caucasian nationality”) are frequently subjected to such “ethnic” attacks, as are Jews. Other ethnic groups, even if they are “whites” or even Slavs (Estonians, Ukrainians), are subject to derision and on occasion violence.

        So to answer your original question, it’s not the “unusual culture” as in “weird foods” or “odd beliefs” that make a certain group subject to xenophobia. The physical appearance plays an important role. But the distinctions are more fine-grained than those of race.

        It should also be pointed out, however, that while Russian xenophobia is based on ethnicity, it is also quite common to conflate or confuse different groups, and this is true not only of “simple people on the street” but cultural leaders too. For example, Leo Tolstoy in his stories about the North Caucasus refers to all the groups there as “Tatars” though none are, and few are even related to Tatars (or Turkic-speaking).

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

          The American concept of race is in large part the result of importation of substantial populations from widely separated regions across an ocean.  The huge landmass of Russia includes a sort of racial spectrum without sharp breaks, which doesn’t provide the opportunity for the clear distinction Americans made between black, white, and Indian.  That said, I have traveled in Russia with African-American friends who, being entirely outside that Eurasian racial spectrum, faced racism at least as bad as what they faced in the United States.  It is widely known that it is difficult for a black person to hail a cab in New York, but I can remember a friend having to hide behind a sign so that I could hail a cab in Moscow.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            I don’t say that an African-American (or just African) would not be subject to xenophobia, only that other people who are not necessarily of a different race would be subject to the same degree of xenophobia.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-T-Wilson/682045086 James T. Wilson

            Absolutely, my point is that this sharp racial distinction is not present and usually not recognized where you have a gentle gradient from gene pool to gene pool.  Introduce a stranger from afar and that xenophobia is often understood in physical, racial terms.  Of course, the whole nature of the European and African settlement of the Americas, along with the later immigration from Asia, was the mixing of people from widely distant regions.  I can’t think of anyplace where the peculiarly sharply-defined and physical concept of race exists without some sort of rapid immigration from a distance.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            I agree that the Americas are different in this respect. Still, I wonder if racism plays as important a role in, say, Brazil…

            What I find interesting in this is that in the U.S. such large-scale racial groupings outweigh smaller-scale ethnic divisions. Though “Hispanics” may be akin to “persons of Caucasian nationality”…

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  • kalmy97834

    It does not appear Russia is tryinging to improve the lives of people in the region – the Yakutians – but are trying to encourage ethnic Russians and non-natives of the regions to move and stay there with government aide. Perhaps to remove the (East) Asian element from the region.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is a good way to sum it up.

  • cem

    they are turkic right?

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig
      • cem

        if most of the turkey turks had evolved around central asia an siberia that explains why turkey turks have more resistance against cold than most of the races compare to the geographic place of turkey

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Is that a fact? References, please?

          • cem

            i couldn’t find a scientific fact yet i thought maybe you would have a scientific fact while i waswriting that comment :) that was more like question than a fact

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Oh sorry. I don’t know that there’s any evidence for that but maybe other readers do?

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