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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Looking East from Moscow and Yekaterinburg

The last time I travelled to Russia was six years ago, during which I spent nine months abroad as part of my time at university. My first experience of the country was daunting, arriving into a jam-packed airport at the same time as several other flights, waiting in a massive queue to hand in my migration card form, and waiting another lifetime at passport control, before heading into a sea of people beyond the arrival gates. I was not looking forward to a repeat performance, but to my surprise, it was a completely different story this time. There were no other flights, there was no need to fill in the migration card myself, and after waiting a couple of minutes in line for passport control, I passed through the gates, received my migration card, and stepped into a virtually empty arrivals area. Sure, a few taxi drivers were touting aggressively for a fare, but in a matter of minutes I was heading into the sun-kissed city on the express train to Paveletsky station. If the airport can keep up that kind of standard in future, there will surely be more repeat visitors to the country.

My trip on this occasion is of course partly about just travelling, relaxing and seeing a few sights, but I also made the time to talk to some of the people I met about their thoughts and ideas of the Russian Far East. The questions weren’t detailed or conducted interview-style, just a few minutes each on the topic. The sample size is quite small, twelve people in total, a fairly even split of male and female, and most of them in the 18-30 age-ranges, so I would stress that the opinions I’ve heard should not be considered as definitive or necessarily representative of the entire population. However it’s still interesting to hear what people think of Russia’s eastern lands, even if, as you will see, the results are maybe to be expected. In addition, I’ve left out the names of the respondents. The main limitation in going further was my language ability; whilst I can get through the day and talk for hours about simple things, I’ve not yet reached the stage where I can talk or understand in detail about complicated topics. It’s one of my main priorities for the rest of the year, and hopefully next time I’m in Russia I can provide more detailed observations than on this occasion.

The first couple I spoke to were of a mixed-marriage, the guy from western Russia and the woman from Italy. They had visited the east a year ago, heading as far as Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude during the summer-time. They had enjoyed the visit, and inspired a desire to see a few more cities in the country, but their knowledge of the east did not spread any further than the trip. They confessed to knowing little about the region, and the only events they could recall were the recent deal with China and the Amur floods of last year. They had vague recollections that the region was being developed, but had no idea of the cost, and when I asked if they would consider living in the eastern regions the answer was a definite no. They were happy near Moscow, with a preference to move a bit further away from the city and nearer the surrounding countryside. Adding something extra to their salary would not make any difference in their choice.

The second couple I had the chance to speak with were both natives to Moscow, their families mostly from the region too, and both had finished university in recent years. As with the first couple their knowledge of the region was limited. The woman had a classmate from Sakhalin and had heard of the great nature there, as well as in Kamchatka. She said she wouldn’t be against going to see the region one day, but expressed regret that the cost was far too high, and with a baby on the way, it was unlikely it would ever happen in the years to come. They both expressed a desire to remain in Moscow, to live and work there, and no amount of extra money would change that. Once again the floods of last year were something they knew about, and they remembered the numerous appeals for donations on TV. The gas deals with China were fresh in the news, though they admitted they only listened to the headlines of the deal. The only other major events they could recall were spending on the APEC 2012 conference, and there being reports of poor construction standards on the roads.

The third couple I spoke with had a more eastern-oriented background; although the man was from the Moscow regions, the woman was born in Yakutsk, spending her early years there. She’s an ethnic Russian, and had moved to Moscow with family when she was still a child. At this point I expected to hear some more detailed opinions on the region, but as it turns out the woman had absolutely zero interest in the city anymore. She had little desire to go back, and only did so once every several years around New Years’ time to visit older relatives. Particularly interesting was how deep the desire not to go back was, with their intention to live and raise children in Moscow. The woman had heard they wanted to develop the east, and knew about the various mineral and hydrocarbon reserves in Yakutia, but did not know much about the details. Outside of Yakutsk their knowledge was even more limited.

As well as talking to couples I spoke with some single people in the city, firstly with a girl who had moved to Moscow from Tatarstan. She knew there was talk of developing the east, but as with the others she had little idea about the details and expenditure. Her interest was firmly in the west, being very happy living in Moscow and occasionally visiting relatives back home, as well as a love of the New York area after spending some time working there. When asked whether she would consider moving east if the job and money were right, she responded with a laugh and a firm ‘nyet’, unless moving east carried her all the way back to New York. The second single person was from the Moscow regions, in his late-20s and what could be considered as a more liberal representative of the city, with one eye firmly on Europe. He was comfortable talking about events in Moscow and Russian elite politics, but when it came to the east he also had little idea of what was going on in that region. He was aware of the development, but was surprised by the amount of money being spent, albeit he was happier for the money to head east than to the Caucasus. As with all the previous respondents mentioned, he found it highly unlikely that he would move to the region, even for a better or higher-paid job. His preference was Moscow or the UK, and even a holiday east seemed time-consuming, expensive and not particularly interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting set of respondents was on the train from Moscow to Yekaterinburg. I didn’t take the much-feted platzkart option, having done it several times before, and on the previous occasion having enjoyed the atmosphere of a train full of young army conscripts living it up on the 25-hour ride from St. Petersburg to Murmansk…it was definitely kupe this time! It provided less people to talk to, but I had a lot more time to talk to them individually. One of the other passengers in my cabin was a middle-aged surgeon from Kazan, who had experience of living in other countries and travelling to a few cities. He knew of Sakhalin, having visited a friend there, and he spoke warmly of the nature and scenery you can find when you move beyond Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. He was interested in seeing Kamchatka one day, but admitted it was unlikely since he had to work, his relatives were all in Western Russia, and he was at the stage of his life where he enjoyed the quiet life, which he said also meant he was unlikely to ever consider moving to the eastern cities. He knew about the development of the region without having heard many details, but believed it was ultimately fruitless and that the region was unlikely to benefit much, as was usually the case with grand initiatives. As an added bonus he was eager to talk about Scottish independence, and couldn’t understand why Scottish people would want to leave something like the United Kingdom. It was an interesting discussion, but I’ll leave that for another day.

The other passenger in my cabin was an older woman, curious about other countries despite never having travelled, and born and raised in Yekaterinburg before heading to Moscow after university for a work assignment. Her answers ranged from the Far East to the Urals, but she was very bitter about the situation in the country with regards to wages and social benefits such as healthcare, particularly when she was asking about what older people received in the UK. She said that buying train tickets to visit her relatives in Yekaterinburg every now and then was far too much for someone like herself who was making a basic wage in Moscow, so even imagining going to the Far East was just crazy. She loved her home-region, but felt it needed development as much as the east did. As with the surgeon, she mentioned how trying to develop the Far East, and even researching it as I do, was a dead-end and would lead to nothing. She confessed that she didn’t have much knowledge of the region, but from the rare piece of news she had heard it was not a place she would have moved to even as a youngster. Overall it was interesting that the two older people I spoke to on the train had more knowledge and opinions of the east, or regional development in general, than any of the younger people in Moscow. It’s often said that the capital lives in a bubble, and my conversations seemed to reinforce that stereotype, even for those who had previously lived or travelled to the region.

Finally I spoke with two people in Yekaterinburg about the east, with hope that residents of a very proud region would know a bit more about events around the country than those in Moscow. Unfortunately that was not the case, as both had very limited knowledge of the east. The first did not know much more than the names of some cities, though expressed a love of the ocean. I asked if she was referring to the Pacific Ocean, but alas no, it was the Atlantic Ocean after having worked in the USA. Her interest was definitively about preferring to go back to the USA rather than moving to the Russian Far East. The final person I spoke to had a more interesting background, with ties to the region through her mixed Tatar and Mari heritage, a local girl whose father had lived in a small town in Primorsky Krai called Olga. She said he sometimes spoke about his life there, but the stories were short, and the overwhelming impression she got was that it was a place for soldiers and the navy. Given the time-frame involved, her father living there decades ago during the Soviet era and early days of the post-Soviet Russia, this is only to be expected. However once more she did not know much about the region beyond those stories, and had never visited. Whilst she had no desire to move to Moscow, Europe or the USA, she loved the Urals area, and would stay there as long as her relatives did. Holidays were a possibility, but cost, time and distance were once again raised as an issue.

Overall I think there was a clear pattern to responses, with zero interest in relocating to the region, limited or no knowledge of the development plans in the east, limited interest in taking even a holiday there, and any interest restricted with the distances, time and costs involved in getting there and back. It’s perhaps no help that the region rarely features on the national or regional news outside of the east unless there is a catastrophe or energy deal, and it’s viewed as almost a faraway country at times. If the Russian government is serious about developing the region and encouraging skilled workers to relocate there, particularly the married ones when you consider that Russians commonly settle down relatively early and meet their future husbands and wives during their university years, then it will need to utilise far more of its new-found soft power abilities on its own internal projects. Without serious internal initiatives to raise awareness of the region, all the energy deals, mineral extractions and infrastructure development won’t change the demographic and workforce issues that are ever-present.

My next stop is in Yakutsk where I’ll spend five days exploring the city, and where I’ll be taking advantage of the trip to talk to more people; it should be really interesting to hear how people in the northern parts of the Russian Far East think about developments, and in particular if there’s any difference in opinion within the city between ethnic Yakuts and ethnic Russians.

Welcome to “Towards the Great Ocean”

The main objective of “Towards the Great Ocean” is to offer commentary and original analysis on the development of the Russian Far East, to develop my academic research on the region, and to establish a dedicated outlet for a part of Russia which receives relatively scant attention in the English-speaking world.

With the continued economic rise of a number of Asian countries, and a massive drop in relations between Russia and the West, Russia has once again cast its eye east and earmarked huge sums of money to develop its eastern territory, a program which has been described by the Russian government as a national priority for the rest of the century.

Much of the development is based on exploiting the region’s vast energy and mineral resources, and a highly ambitious level of foreign investment is sought to go along with funds earmarked from the federal budget. My research aims to look beyond the headline goals of the project and examine how the targets and ambitions of the federal government match up to the realities and perceptions on the ground.

For those who don’t recognise the phrase used as the title of this blog, it comes from the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway at the end of the 19th century, with a call to expand Russian presence and power all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Given the rhetoric around the contemporary development of the region, it’s a timeless representation of long-term Russian desires and frustrations in the east.

I’ll be visiting Russia for the second time during May and June, taking in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Yakutsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Sakhalin. My time in the country will be limited on this occasion, but whilst I’m there I aim to find out more about local thoughts on the development of the Russian Far East and share my findings through this blog.

All comments, discussion and feedback is welcome, with the usual caveats on not being a troll.