Photo by Mikhail Bashkirov
“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there.
By Karina Kesserwan and Jean François Arteau
The Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation, or Yakutia, is often referred to as a land of extremes. The region stretches for 2,500 kilometers (1,600 miles) from south to north and occupies three time zones (2,000 kilometers, or 1,200 miles) from west to east. About 40 percent of its territory is in the Polar Circle.
Originally from Yakutia, Daryana Maximova has a PhD in political science and is a research associate at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. When she tells people that she comes from Yakutsk, the capital city of Yakutia, they are often curious about the living conditions of the region. Located on the Lena River and surrounded by the taiga, Yakutsk is home to nearly 300,000 people and is considered the coldest city in the world.
Maximova says that the North has brought her endurance and persistence. But above all, Yakutia is her homeland, and her pride in her region is tangible. We spoke with her about the meaning of the “North,” her work, and her hopes for the future of her region.
Yakutsk, photo by Robert Frechette
Kesserwan Arteau: Where is your North?
Daryana Maximova: Despite the fact that the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) is the coldest region of Russia, in Yakutia, we have our own definition of the North. Yakutia, which is also the largest region of the Russian Federation, occupies an area equal in size to several European countries combined. Therefore, no one in Yakutia would consider Neryungri (in the south) or Mirnii (the capital of the “diamond province,” Mirninskiy District in central Russia), or Yakutsk itself, where winter temperatures can drop to -50 degrees Celsius, as the “real” North.
There’s a “Far North” or “Extreme North” concept in Russia. The “Far North” is a part of the Russian territory located mainly north of the Arctic Circle. The climate is extremely harsh in some areas. The territory of the Far North includes the Arctic zone, the tundra, the forest-tundra, and the northern taiga areas.
If we talk more specifically about Northern Yakutia, it is comprised of 13 Arctic “uluss” (uluss is a local administrative unit, meaning district): Abyisky, Verkhnekolymskiy, Verkhoyansk, Zhigansky, Moma, Oleneksky, Srednekolymsky, Eveno-Bytanayskiy, Allaikhovskiy, Anabar, Bulunsky, Nizhnekolymsky, and Ust-Jansky areas.
Aal-Luk Mas (yakut sacred tree), photo by Olga Maximova
KA: Can you describe this North? What is singular about this place?
DM: Northern Yakutia is perceived by the rest of Yakutia as a rather distant area, an “island” in a sense. This is due to a shortage in means of communication and transportation. It is impossible to reach the North by train. The only way there is by plane at a very high cost, or, in the summer, on a motor ship along the Lena River to the village of Tiksi and then by motorboats to the other Arctic communities. In the winter, remote Arctic settlements be reached by car on the so-called winter roads—roads operated only in winter conditions on winter river crossings, covered with ice.
Northern delivery plays a huge role in the life of the North. During the summer, when navigation conditions allow it, river transport to the northern villages delivers food, supplies, coal, and so on—all that will be required during the winter. Regional authorities are responsible for this quite expensive practice, introduced in the Soviet times. Without it, the already difficult lives of people in the North would be paralyzed. When northern delivery is not completed in the navigation period in the summer months, it must be carried on the winter road. Many Arctic Yakutia villages are also powered by diesel generators, which are very expensive.
Yakutsk is rightly considered the coldest big city in the world. In winter, the temperature in my hometown sometimes reaches -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit) or below, while the summer can be very hot with temperatures at 30C (86F) and above. In the winter we wear fur coats, “unti”—fur boots sewn from deer legs—and fur hats. I find that very beautiful. If you live in Yakutsk, no amount of cold can scare you.
Life in the North requires you to be resilient, so you need to eat well. My origins influence my diet. I cannot imagine my life without meat! Yakut cuisine is very interesting. We have a lot of delicacies, mainly meat, fish, and dairy dishes. When winter comes in Yakutia, many families stock up on food, and some city dwellers even acquire meat carcasses. Yakuts are traditionally pastoralists, so in our cuisine we favor beef and foal meat. We eat foal (two-year-old horses) boiled, raw, and frozen. Another specialty is “stroganina,” a dish consisting of raw, thin, long-sliced frozen fish—white salmon, broad whitefish, or cisco, which live in the Lena River and in the Arctic Ocean.
Market in Yakutsk, photo by Robert Frechette
KA: Who are the people who live in Northern Yakutia?
DM: Northern Yakutia can be divided into two parts. The first part is a more industrial area, which was developed in the Soviet time. In addition to local residents, it has a rather large population of “shift workers”—people who come for a limited time from different regions of Russia to work.
The other part can be defined as indigenous territory that is inhabited primarily by the minority indigenous peoples of the North—Evens, Evenki, Yukaghir, Dolgans, and Chukchi. They lead a traditional way of life: hunting, herding, and fishing. In the Yakut language there is a word “hotu” which means “north.” Often, that is what the representatives of these minorities are called.
KA: How do you see the importance of international relations around the North?
DM: In my view, it is important to implement international cooperation in the Arctic and take into account the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North. The Arctic is facing the most rapid climate change today and indigenous peoples of the Arctic are its most vulnerable targets. The Russian Arctic, north of the Arctic Circle, is home to only 82,500 [small-numbered] indigenous people [as defined by the Russian government], which is negligible compared with the total population of the Russian Arctic. The Arctic zone of the Russian Federation comprises about 9 million square kilometers and is home to more than 2.5 million people.
It should be noted that Arctic issues have been more prevalent in recent years, and international cooperation in the region is more promising.
KA: What are some successes in your North?
DM: In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian North was abandoned. However, in recent years, the situation in the North has become much more stable. It is no longer a depressed region. In Yakutia there has been significant progress in the industrial field because of diamond mining companies. It was also recently announced that Yakutia has been selected as a pilot area—a North-Yakutian support zone, which will provide for the sustainable development of the region.
KA: What are a few challenges that your North is facing?
DM: Today, the issue of the sustainable development of the Arctic regions is a problem not only in Yakutia, but in the North in general. Both climate change and human impact on the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem are becoming increasingly prominent environmental problems. As opposed to the Antarctic, people inhabit the Arctic, so the socio-economic development of the region has also become one of the important tasks on the agendas of both Russia and other Arctic states. The allocation of rights to the control and use of space and resources in the region is an unfinished process, as is the establishment of territories managed by the indigenous peoples of the North.
KA: What are some solutions that you see?
DM: I believe that the main goal of sustainable development in the region should be a rational use of natural resources and a balanced solution to the environmental, socio-economic, and political problems for the benefit of present and future generations.
KA: Name a few misconceptions about your North.
DM: Up until recently, the issues faced by the indigenous peoples of the North have been given insufficient attention in terms of economic development in the region.
KA: Where do you see your North in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, and 100 years?
DM: Many experts and political scientists today agree that the modern world has become almost unpredictable because of both global situations and individual political figures. But it seems to me that the future of Northern Yakutia and more widely, of the whole Arctic world, will largely depend on the global policy-making and international relations. Many questions remain: Is it possible to overcome the crisis in relations between Russia and the United States, as well as a number of European nations? Will the status of the Arctic Council change? What will be the policy of Asian countries in relation to the Arctic? I also think that energy prices will play an important role in the development of these issues, since their fluctuation will influence industrial development in the Arctic.
For now, there are too many unknowns. Perhaps what is more certain is that in the near future, the dispute about the status of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage will grow increasingly relevant. In this regard, we can assume that the political weight of Russia and Canada in the Arctic will increase, as these countries have the most Arctic territory
KA: What are your hopes and fears for the future of the Arctic?
DM: My main hope is that political leaders, regional authorities, and mining companies become aware of the threat to the ecology of the north. And in general, I would like the world to know more about Yakutia.
My main fear is related to the disappearance and transformation of cultures, languages, and traditional practices of indigenous peoples. Of course, the threat is not new and has existed since the beginning of the contact period [when Northern indigenous people first encountered people of other cultures], but new technologies and practices amount, in my view, to new challenges for these peoples.
This interview was translated from Russian by Karina Kesserwan, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
[Photos courtesy of Daryana Maximova, unless indicated otherwise]