New East Digital Archive

My dear Yakutia: extraordinary and heartwarming photos of Russia’s Arctic republic

16 February 2018
Text and image Alex Vasyliev

Alex Vasyliev first joined Instagram in 2012. After starting out by sharing the usual selfies and photos of his family, he gradually began taking photos of street life in his hometown, and now has over 12,000 followers. Yet Vasyliev is not your average Instagram photographer. Residing in Yakutsk in the Sakha Republic (also known as Yakutia), his account gives a rare glimpse into one of the most remote, as well as the coldest, inhabited places in the world, and reveals the vibrant city life and warmth of all those who live there.

Life here comes to a standstill in winter. It’s frighteningly cold in Yakutia when winter temperatures plummet to -50°C and -60°C. If it wasn’t for work or daily errands, locals would prefer to stay inside, drink tea and wait for spring to arrive. When it gets so cold, a dense fog will obscure the sun for several weeks or months at a time. These long, cold winters have become almost a symbol of Yakutia. Despite this, people aren’t in a hurry to leave its capital city of Yakutsk: after all we have internet, a cinema, a museum and even a children’s library. We don’t need the conveniences of large megapolises — we’re just grateful for the little things and nature that’s all around us.

“Yakutsk is a difficult place to document. There aren’t any obvious things to take photos of”

After I quit drinking I needed something to fill up the emptiness that was there. Gradually I started taking more and more photos on my phone. At first I was taking photos of anything and everything, without any idea behind it. Then, little by little, I was drawn into photography and sought out the work of various photographers, mainly on Instagram. Imitating the work of other Instagram photographers, I tried to take beautiful photos of my dear Yakutia.

I joined Instagram in 2012 but I wasn’t so interested in it at the time since [Russian social media site] Vkontakte was a lot more popular. I had a friend who owned a camera and together we would roam the city and take pictures. Yakutsk is a difficult place to document. There aren’t any obvious things to take photos of. Like the hundreds of other small gloomy cities in Russia, it isn’t that photogenic. Moreover, the locals here aren’t used to photographers and therefore might not like having their picture taken. It means I have to walk around a lot before I capture anything. Even walking for several hours at a time in -40°C cold doesn’t guarantee you get the shot. When I’m out with my camera I try to view the city through the eyes of a foreigner, which is difficult to do in your hometown where you know every corner. In the beginning I was taking photos for the purpose of making friends on Instagram. After reaching 1000 followers (which still feels unberlievable today), I began working harder at honing my craft. Whenever anyone reposts my work, I still think it an incredible success for a guy from a small town on the periphery of the world.

The typical subjects for me are everyday people. I work as a reporter for a local newspaper for children and teenagers called Youth of the North. So I often photograph children and sometimes write articles. This portrait (below), of the boy in a cafeteria, I took during a work assignment. I was looking for an interesting location on the school premises and the blue wall caught my attention with a painted still life in the background. Suddenly, as I was thinking how great it would be to take a portrait there, a boy dressed in national costume walked into view, and I asked to take his portrait. Children in Yakutsk are often quite shy, but he turned out to be a very sweet kid and immediately took up the invitation.

The portrait above, I took at a boarding school for children with speech impairments. Twins Vlad and Stas were walking me to the administration office, which is located in a separate building. On our way there I took their photo to the backdrop of the teaching block, which reminded me of an haunted mansion. I took several photos with different backgrounds but settled on this one.

Nature and its worship has very special place in the hearts and everyday lives of local people here. Yakutians believe that nature is alive and populated with spirits. From childhood, whenever me and my family would go on a trip, we’d always stop by one sacred tree to leave money and cigarettes, as a form of sacrifice, and to ask for blessing for the journey. This is something that’s practiced by all Yakutians, no matter the age or gender. Hunters too ask for blessing by leaving food for the spirit of the forest, while fisherman do the same for the spirit of water.

In the photo below the national ensemble are getting ready to perform as part of the main national holiday in Yakutia called Ysyakh. Ysyakh, a ritual celebrating the arrival of spring, is also known as the Yakutian new year. Only instead of champagne we have koumiss (fermented horse milk), instead of olivye salad we serve a variety of different meats: beef, foal meat, venison. In place of a Christmas tree, there’s a sacred pillar, around which the national dance is performed. It’s celebrated once a year in the second half of June. The holiday was prohibited during the Soviet era but is now celebrated across the republic. Despite the fact that globalisation has reached even this far-flung republic, Yakutians still continue with many traditions and customs. Our traditions, and how they are honoured and respected to this day, aren’t just a formality but something that unites and strengthens our small nation.

Yakutia has many photographers, but they are mainly working in the sphere of commercial photography, documenting weddings and producing advertising material. Nobody is working on documentary projects (or I don’t know anyone myself) because you can’t make a living off of it. Some photo journalists quit and make money shooting weddings instead. Now and again, I will do the same because its very difficult to live on one pay check in this city, where the cost of living is very high. The prospect of one day being a documentary photographer is still a dream for me. I’d love to work in the North of Yakutia and document the life of nomadic reindeer herders. It’s difficult to get to, even for us locals it’s expensive to travel there. Plenty of these stories already exist but for me it’s just as important to see it with my own eyes.

Image and text: Alex Vasyliev
Interview: Liza Premiyak