If you have ever played Risk, the classic family game for players six and older which entails marauding armies, death, and attrition in the cause of world domination, chances are you rolled the dice for a green blotch in northeast Asia by the name of Yakutsk. This word, clumsy and overburdened by consonants, is misemployed by the makers of the game. For Yakutsk is not a territory, but a city, the capital of Yakutia, land of the Yakut people and some others, including—for a time—me.
Farley Mowatt, the Canadian writer of books about the north, wolves, and his own drinking bouts, in his book Sibir lavishes naïve praise for the Soviets’ experiments with construction in permafrost and the marvels of reindeer husbandry. But the only praise for which Yakutsk can realistically contend is that of being the most stubbornly impractical place on earth.
If you fly into Yakutsk from Moscow in the west, you pass over the Lena River for the last few dozen miles. The Lena is something like the Mississippi before it was shortened and redirected and transformed into a drainage and navigation facility. At times the Lena is twenty miles wide and the pools, tributaries, and cul-de-sacs that grow off it create the image of a river that is one massive delta, flowing eventually into the Arctic Ocean. But the river is deep, too, and provides essential transportation during the June to September span in which it is navigable. From January to May, it is the main ice road of the province.
Yakutia, a territory the size of Western Europe, holds just under one million human souls. Most are Russian or the Mongolian-faced Yakuts, with other tiny ethnic groups such as Evens and Evenks sprinkled in the mix. Yakutsk is located roughly in the middle, and with a third of the population of the province, is recognized as the world’s coldest city.
I first arrived on an early September night, and the air was bracing. A few months later I returned to step out of the airplane into the jaws of Siberian mid-winter. My lungs at first did not work. My tear ducts spontaneously threw out tears. My face hurt and my teeth—as I could only breathe through my mouth for fear my nose would freeze solid and snap off—felt as if they were being scraped by a vicious dentist. The stewardess of the Yakutia Airlines flight had announced as we approached a current reading of minus 45° Celsius, or around 60° Fahrenheit—minus.
Today it is summer, and it is hotter in Yakutsk than in many milder locations in Russia. The city claims to be preparing furiously for the Children of Asia event, which is held every four years in Yakutsk, I have learned. Sort of like the Olympics. I went to the municipal pool today and was told it was closed for repairs.
But it will be open for the Children of Asia? I inquire.
The woman, who had been lying down on a couch by the entrance, smiled and shook her head. No, we won’t make it.
A few blocks away, at the heart of downtown, across from Lenin Square and directly under the pointing finger of a giant metal Lenin, there is an anti-tobacco rally taking place. Fifteen or so people are gathered around a huge stage with a sound system that is far too much for the job. Of the onlookers, most are enjoying tobacco. A small Yakut boy swears with gusto, takes a drag of his cigarette, and ambles away. As do I.
Walking now down Lenin Prospect, an older Russian woman in a sundress shuffles slowly toward me as a little boy and girl dance and run in circles around her. She appears to be teaching the boy a lesson. Seeing me, she points and says to him, “Say something to him, and see how he will hit you! Do you want to fight him? Are you afraid?” The boy, not much more than a toddler, ignores her and me both.
The population of Yakutia has been shrinking since the late 1980s, as the communist system which supported these uneconomical social experiments in the north began to unravel. However, the numbers in Yakutsk have risen quickly as the outlying areas flood to the relative comfort of the capital. There are even guest workers from Chechnya, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. They are not liked by the locals, who in turn would prefer to be from Moscow, St. Petersburg, or even other Siberian cities, if these cities would take them.
This morning I woke up, washed my face in the yellow, pungent tap water, and headed out for a morning walk. Leaving behind the center of Yakutsk, with its ugly Soviet block-buildings, I stroll along the Lena River embankment. To the left is the unending flood plain of the Lena, now full of water, although the main branch of the river itself is several kilometers away. To the right are dilapidated wood shanties with aluminum roofs that appear as a jumbled, slanted mass, crumbling and falling every which way, although they are not old. The permafrost here goes more than one hundred meters deep. New and expensive buildings are built on pedestal foundations driven deep into the permafrost. But the little wooden houses have shallow foundations or none at all, and as the earth melts around them in the spring, then heaves and freezes solid in the winter, the houses are thrown into almost comical poses. They slouch and tend toward the soil. They look as if they have given up.
But while all around them is difficult, inhospitable, and irrational (after all, Yakutsk should not exist), the people live on, work, smile, love, fight, and exist the best they can.