A Long Weekend in Yakutsk

Over the past few years my interest in Yakutia has grown. At first I only came across the usual articles on Oymyakon, a cold and God-forsaken place at the arse-end of Russia where people live and toil through a brutal winter that lasts most of the year. It makes for a sensational headline, but I wanted to see the republic for myself and get an idea of the pace of life. Recent times have only added to my interest, with stories ranging from the big-money industries of gold, diamonds, oil and gas, to grand dreams of resurrecting the woolly mammoths, and the potential role of Yakutia in opening up the Northern Route through Russia’s Arctic waters. So it came to be that in the early hours of a sleepy Thursday morning I stepped out of the airport and looked out on the city of Yakutsk, still draped in sunlight and conveying the contrast of modern buildings with old wooden shacks that still had people living in them.

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I was met at the airport by my friend Alina and her uncle (both Yakuts), a level of hospitality that would continue over the following days, and I’ll be forever grateful for their help during my time in the city. I was able to take a look around the streets while the city slept, wide roads covered in dust, pavements pocked with bumps and divots where the permafrost was moving, puddles and dirt almost ever-present. Most buildings were colourful, but uniform in style, the practicalities of protecting themselves against the winter more important than aesthetics. There was something quaint about the city; despite the appearance there was a sense that people here had made it a home. Just when I thought the row of buildings would continue on forever, an area of park or stretches of the river would appear to remind me that nature still reaches out here during the summer months.

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I had few firm plans for my time in the city and spent the first day exploring it by foot with Alina. We took a trip to the university, and whilst you normally need to show a student card to get in, when I told them I was a foreigner just coming to visit they laughed and waved me in. As with most places you get a wee bit of leeway when you say that you’re from Scotland! The university isn’t much to look at, built for function, but the students work hard and there’s a positive atmosphere about the place. As we walked around the campus I asked Alina more about her studies and where she sees her future, and her outlook was to be repeated to me by most of the people I met in the city. She talked about wanting to get out of Yakutsk while she was young, to visit European countries and use her English and German language skills, and see more of the world in general. She saw little hope for a professional future in Yakutsk, but as a Yakut she wanted to return when she was older and live the rest of her life in her homeland. Apparently there was a fad in the city for a while for UK-themed clothing and London was a local favourite, though she laughed and denied it when I asked if she had joined in. When I asked her about the development of the city and whether things were changing, she was more pessimistic. I’ve mentioned the problems that the weather and the permafrost bring, and she felt that life in the city was unlikely to change much no matter how much money was spent on development. To be fair I could understand her point, you can build roads and bridges, but you can’t change everyday life in the city by government planning. If Alina and others study languages, or indeed most other subjects, they’re going to need to leave to use those skills. I didn’t see any other foreigners during my time there, and only heard two foreign voices around the airport. Tourism is still at an absolute minimum, even by Russians.

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After the university we took a stroll around some of the local museums, and were joined by one of Alina’s friends. I asked her a few of the same questions, and she was absolute in her desire to get out of Yakutsk once she had finished her university education. Western Russia and Europe were once again mentioned, and there was a sense of inevitability about her future. I asked her what she liked best about Yakutsk, at which point she screwed up her face, laughed and simply said nothing was best about Yakutsk. She appreciated that it was her homeland, and that she could lead a comfortable life there, but to do anything with her life she felt she would have to move sooner rather than later. We finished up our walk around the museum and headed back out onto the streets. The old town looks great in the summer, old-style wooden buildings inhabited today by bars and shops, and there’s a large monument to the founder of the city, Pyotr Beketov, who got the ball rolling here in 1632. As with most Russian cities there’s a large monument to the war heroes, including a warrior on a horse which is an important part of Yakut folklore.

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Later on I would get a chance to meet Alina’s grandmother and try out some reindeer meat. As a man who eats meat for most of his diet, I loved it. There are more succulent meats out there, but it has plenty of chewing in it and fills the stomach. As I ate she asked me about what I do and where I come from, and she seemed confused as to why anyone would visit Yakutsk for fun. She didn’t believe that anyone would get funding to study the Far East, and she would later ask Alina if I was some sort of spy! In some ways it’s understandable to wonder why anyone would go out of their way to visit the city, but as we talked more I got the sense it was another reflection of how far away everything seems from Yakutsk, and that development is something that does not affect everyday people. Why go to Yakutsk when you can go to the beach in Europe or in Asia?

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My second day in Yakutsk saw me fulfil one of my goals on the trip; make a visit to the Tuymaada stadium. I’m a big football fan and being able to get into the stadium, walk about (and if you want you can also exercise on the athletics track and use the pitch) was good value at only 20 rubles. I didn’t bring my football boots on this occasion, but it was great to sit in the stand and look out on the pitch. I missed the last game of the season by a day, so unfortunately my quest to see the team play and get a scarf will have to wait for another visit. Near the stadium there’s also a theme park of sorts, but if I’m being honest it was probably the most depressing theme park I’ve ever seen. It was around lunchtime so I didn’t expect many people to be about, but to give you an example there was a lonely-looking tent which claimed to be a house of horrors. A picture of the clown from ‘IT’ was featured on the door, and the sounds of canned screaming from within did not quite get the adrenaline flowing. Afterwards we took a trip to a facility within the nearby hills, it’s frozen inside all year round with mammoth remains, ice sculptures and gives you the chance to eat stroganino and drink vodka from an ice glass. The best part though is a slide made of ice, good fun until it freezes your arse! Once you’re done you can take a walk up the hills and look out over the city, well worth doing to see the view. Later on we would meet another friend of Alina’s, also a student at the university. As with others she wanted to get out of Yakutsk, though she was inspired to go and live the rest of her life in Romania because she loved the stories about Transylvania and vampires. I can’t say I was expecting that response, but fair play to her for dreaming of something a wee bit different! She liked Yakutsk, but she didn’t see any future in the city and didn’t expect development to change that. I asked her if she knew much about the plans for the city and what the money was to be spent on, but beyond a vague notion that a bridge might get built over the Lena she hadn’t heard anything.

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The third day saw me fulfil my second dream in the city, a trip to the mas-wrestling and my very first lesson. For those of you who haven’t heard of it mas-wrestling is a Yakut sport, you basically have two people across from each other with legs pressed against a wooden divider, and both with a grip on a wooden stick. The goal is to pull the wooden stick away from the other person or at the very least pull them over to your side of the divide. It’s straightforward and each round is quick, but it’s great fun. Don’t let the description fool you either, the sport requires a lot of strength and determination. Even warming up I could feel muscles being used that rarely get much action, and that’s despite me doing pull-ups, push-ups and various other bodyweight exercises on a regular basis. I lost the stick almost every time, but I’ll put that down to the 30kg weight difference between me and the trainer! Next time I’m in Yakutsk I’ll be doing it again. The trainer was also pretty happy and surprised to see a Scotsman giving it a try, though he seemed crest-fallen when I told him that no one in Scotland, or most other countries, has heard of the sport. If there’s any justice in the world he’ll get to see it as an event at the Olympics one day.

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If there’s one good way to recover from a bout of mas-wrestling, it’s with a trip to the Lena to cook some shashlik and do some fishing. The roads there are akin to a bouncy castle and are in perpetual need of repair, but it’s a great scene when you finally arrive. The Lena is a mighty river, and there’s history in the area too with the 1912 massacre of goldfield workers. On this occasion it was quiet and peaceful, with pockets of Yakuts enjoying the sunshine, picking wild spring onion, and cooking up plenty of meat. I took the opportunity to talk more with Alina’s uncle, a middle-aged man with a successful career and a different perspective on life in Yakutsk. He had travelled around the country with his work, and enjoyed visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as trips to other cities such as Yekaterinburg and Irkutsk. No matter how far he travelled though he loved Yakutsk the most and had no desire to leave the city. He pointed out to the river, to the endless fields around, and asked why he would need to live anywhere else. He was happy about the future construction of the bridge across the river as it was only in winter that you could drive across instead of a huge detour, and he was comfortable with exploiting the various resources of the republic to bring in money. He reminisced about the Soviet era, saying that even in Yakutsk the lengths of Soviet power had made its presence felt. He welcomed the political and economic changes after 1991, saying capitalism and opening the markets had brought roads, infrastructure, goods and development to the region. It was a stark contrast with younger people who wanted to leave, though it’s hard to say if it’s simply generational, a sense of homeland or his experience in other cities which had given him that outlook. Perhaps it’s all three. It was refreshing though to hear someone who saw a future for the city, and who wanted to be there to help it along.

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My final day in the city was spent talking with more locals, all younger people, and there was almost a unanimity about the desire to leave at some point. One guy had previously studied in Yekaterinburg and was looking to move to another city in Russia when he had finished his studies in Yakutsk. Others were less fussy but saw their future anywhere west of the city. There wasn’t much interest in Asia at all, either for work or travel, and there was a strong wariness of immigrants who had arrived from Central Asia. Some of the group loved rock music, but said that Russian bands rarely ventured to Yakutsk to play, never mind foreign groups. Even the local beer didn’t have a good reputation. (EDIT: I was told of a Chinese presence in the city although I only saw a couple of Chinese people walking around. You can buy ‘Harbin’ beers in some of the shops and bars though which means there’s probably some kind of presence!)

Overall the atmosphere was one of inevitability and a resignation that leaving was the only way forward. Returning later in life to see out their days was rarely considered aside from Alina. As we ended the day at the main hang-out area beside the Lenin statue, I got the sense that whilst industrial development of the region may bring dividends, and the opening of the Northern Route may benefit the Arctic parts of the republic, social development would find little traction here. The local youth may well find their dreams elsewhere, and it’ll be a hell of a challenge to attract anyone else to set up shop here for even a few years.

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Next up is Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where I’ll aim to find out the local outlook from the more populated and prosperous cities of the Russian Far East. Until then, enjoy some political graffiti from Yakutsk.

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