Sakha and Yakuts

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The famous folklore scholar G. V. Ksenofontov has compared the once nomadic Sakha people to a branch of an apple tree carried around the world by the wind and finally taking root. The Sakha, or Yakut, people are the descendants of Turkic nomads and originated in the region around Lake Baikal in what is now Russia. But in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Mongols arrived from the south, along with other peoples, and the Sakha moved north and east, settling eventually in the basin of the river Lena, later called Yakutia.

In the early twenty-first century, Yakutia or the Republic of Sakha is an autonomous republic within Russia in the far northeast, five times the size of France. Known as the "Land of Soft Gold" for the rich furs that come from the region, Yakutia is home to the Sakha people, as well as four other indigenous cultural groups (the Even, the Evenki, the Yukagir, and the Chukchi). The name "Yakut" comes from the Evenk word yako, meaning stranger. The Russians arriving in the seventeenth century adopted the Evenk word for the local population. The capitol of the Republic of Sakha is Yakutsk, its largest city.

Russians sent to gather fur and other riches for the tsar, made Yakutia a stopping point on their way to the Pacific Ocean during the eighteenth century. They brought new agricultural techniques to the Sakha, who were primarily cattle and horse breeders, but the local population paid a price in fur tax for these innovations.

In 1923 Soviet power was established in Yakutsk. It was declared an autonomous republic under the name of Yakutia, but was still economically and politically controlled by the Soviet Union. It received its official name (Republic of Sakha) when the Declaration of Sovereignty of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) was signed on September 27,1990. The Republic of Sakha has a president, elected for a term of five years.

Always a resource-rich region, Yakutia plays a large role in Russia's economy. The main industry in the republic is mining. The Republic of Sakha produces 99 percent of Russia's diamonds, 24 percent of its gold, and 33 percent of its silver. It is also a major producer of coal, natural gas, tin, timber, fish, and other natural resources. The diamond mining industry is the main source of Russia's foreign currency income; the multinational De Beers company partnership with the Russian company Almazy Rossii-Sakha (Diamonds of Russia and Sakha) was established in 1992.

The Sakha summer festival, Ysyakh, is held in June, celebrating the ancestors' movement of their cattle to pasture in the steppe. The festival opens with the solemn ritual of feeding the fire and includes sport contests and horse races, as well as kumys, a traditional beverage made of fermented mare's milk.

Since 1991, the Sakha language has been a mandatory class in primary schools, and some 92 percent of ethnically Sakha people speak their own language. It is not considered to be an endangered language, unlike the Chukchi, Even, or Evenki languages. The some 400,000 Sakha people living and working in the Republic of Sakha take pride in their strong and unique heritage.

See also: chukchi; evenki; nationalities policies, so viet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Argounova, Tatiana. (2000). "Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)." <>.

Hiller, Kristin. (1997). "Big River of Siberia." Russian Life 9:1624.

Slezkine, Yuri. (1994). Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Vitebsky, P. (1990). "Yakut." In The Nationalities Question in the Soviet Union, ed. Graham Smith. London: Longman.

Erin K. Crouch