For thousands of years up until the 17th century indigenous peoples had inhabited the area known as Yakutia, as hunter gatherers and semi nomadic reindeer herders. Living in clans the idea of ethnic unity and nationhood would have been very much an alien concept to them. Inevitably though this would all change as the advance of the European nations forged ahead thirsty for empire. As they conquered and colonised the world they brought with them Christianity and European ideologies to some of the remotest areas of the planet.
The Tsardom of Russia began its conquest of the region in 1632 building a fort at Fort Lensky, the future city of Yakutsk. In August 1638 the Moscow Government formed a new administrative unit with the administrative centre at Fort Lensky. From this time onwards Russians arrived in ever greater numbers as colonists and as explorers of the new Far Eastern and North East Asian territories. Yakuts received them with hospitality and wariness. Inevitably though skirmishes and revolts followed led at first by the legendary Yakut hero Tygyn. Some Yakut relocated moving Northeast and integrated with the Evenk and Yukagir tribes. Most Yakut, however, remained in the central meadowlands, sometimes assimilating Russians. Yakut leaders cooperated with the Russian commanders and governors becoming active in trade, fur-tax collections, transport and the postal system. In the 18th century Moscow began exiling various religious groups to the region who introduced animal husbandry and established agriculture with the growing of wheat, oats and potatoes. Yakutsk soon became of centre of Russian Orthodoxy in Siberia. Mass baptizing of the region’s indigenous peoples into the Orthodox Christian faith began in earnest. At the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century industry and transport began to develop. The first steam powered ships and barges arrived and the mining of coal and gold and lead production began.
Yakutia’s remoteness, even compared to the rest of Siberia made it a place of exile for Czarist and Communist governments of Russia. Many of Stalin’s notorious Gulag workhouses were built in Yakutia and the infamous ‘Road of Bones’ (a 2000km highway connecting Magadan and Yakutsk) is still used to this day.
Life in Yakutia at the beginning of the 20th century was not much different from that of the early times. Yakuts were still the most numerous ethnicity in the region. People mainly bred cattle, fished and hunted. Some were involved with small scale arable farming. Life in general was hard with the constant struggle with the extreme environment. A lot of people died because of the severe climate, starvation and diseases. Few people could read or write and medicine was not developed, especially in the remote areas. When people got sick they often consulted Shamans. At that time there were still many Shamans, some of which were very powerful. However after the Red October Revolution and the onset of communism in Russia, Shamanism and other religions were persecuted. The numbers of Shaman declined markedly during soviet rule and many people were converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. In recent times however there has been renewed interest and activity towards renewing traditional religions and consequently Shamanism is now the official religion of the republic. Nevertheless, Orthodoxy remains the most practiced religion in Yakutia in part because the second biggest ethnicity in Yakutia at 41% is of Russian origin. In 1900 though, Shamanism was still the main religion practiced by the Yakuts and other ethnic groups. People would invite white and black shamans to carry out their rites in connection with some important event in their life such as marriage or blessing the dwellings in which they lived. A lot of inhabitants lived in traditional summer and winter Yakut dwellings. Winter dwellings were Yurts (balagan) which were oblong huts with low ceilings and dirt floors and often with adjoining rooms for cattle. The ancient summer dwellings were large elegant birch-bark conical tents (Urasy) similar in style to the Teepee. In some cases these could hold up to one hundred people. But even by 1900 Urasy were rare. Summer homes were Yurts or combination yurt-log cabins. By 1950 yurts were also obsolete. In the countryside most people now live in Russian style rough-hewn log cabins. In the cities the preference is for low, concrete apartment buildings.
Throughout Yakutia at that time most people lived largely a subsistence existence. As such Yakutia entered the 20th century economically underdeveloped and politically powerless. After the Russian conquest in 1632 the region’s peoples had always actively sought self-governance from the Russian empire through contracts and treaties and occasional anti-Russian violence. However the interests of the central authorities in Moscow always prevailed. It wasn’t until 1922 that a major breakthrough occurred. On April 22nd 1922 the Yakut Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic (YASSR) was formed which provided the legal and constitutional base for the formation of statehood within the autonomous Republic.
The years that followed saw Yakutia’s economy move from a subsistence economy to one based on primary industry activity. Large-scale industrial exploration of Yakutia’s natural resources began. Powerful mining infrastructure was created when gold and diamond deposits were discovered; exploitation of the Northern Sea Route began; the Tiksi Sea Port was built in the Lena River’s Estuary and shipping and air routes connected the previously hard-to-reach areas of the Republic.
The highlight in the Republic’s history came in 1992 after the fall of communism, when Yakutia was recognised in Moscow as the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. Since then Yakutia has transitioned from the planned (controlled) economy of the communist model to a market economy. Indeed this transition is most noticeable in Yakutsk, the capital, which has a thriving economy with diverse businesses.