Yakut - History and Cultural Relations

Yakut oral histories begin well before first contact with Russians in the seventeenth century. For example, olonkho (epics) date at least to the tenth century, a period of interethnic mixing, tensions, and upheaval that may have been a formative period in defining Yakut tribal affiliations. Ethnographic and archaeological data suggest that the ancestors of the Yakut, identified in some theories with the Kuriakon people, lived in an area near Lake Baikal and may have been part of the Uighur state bordering China. By the fourteenth century, Yakut ancestors migrated north, perhaos in small refugee groups, with herds of horses and cattle. After arrival in the Lena Valley, they fought and intermarried with the native Evenk and Yukagir nomads. Thus, both peaceful and belligerent relations with northern Siberians, Chinese, Mongols, and Turkic peoples preceded Russian hegemony.

When the first parties of Cossacks arrived at the Lena River in the 1620s, Yakut received them with hospitality and wariness. Several skirmishes and revolts followed, led at first by the legendary Yakut hero Tygyn. By 1642 the Lena Valley was under tribute to the czar; peace was won only after a long siege of a formidable Yakut fortress. By 1700 the fort settlement of Yakutsk (founded in 1632) was a bustling Russian administrative, commercial, and religious center and a launching point for further exploration into Kamchatka and Chukotka. Some Yakut moved northeast into territories they previously had not dominated, further assimilating Evenk and Yukagir. Most Yakut, however, remained in the central meadowlands, sometimes assimilating Russians. Yakut leaders cooperated with Russian commanders and governors, becoming active in trade, fur-tax collection, transport, and the postal system. Fighting among Yakut communities decreased, although horse rustling and occasional anti-Russian violence continued. For example, a Yakut Robin Hood named Manchari led a band that stole from the rich (usually Russians) to give to the poor (usually Yakut) in the nineteenth century. Russian Orthodox priests spread through Yakutia, but their followers were mainly in the major towns.

By 1900 a literate Yakut intelligentsia, influenced both by Russian merchants and political exiles, formed a party called the Yakut Union. Yakut revolutionaries such as Oiunskii and Ammosov led the Revolution and civil war in Yakutia, along with Bolsheviks such as the Georgian Ordzhonikidze. The consolidation of the 1917 Revolution was protracted until 1920, in part because of extensive opposition to Red forces by Whites under Kolchak. The Yakut Republic was not secure until 1923. After relative calm during Lenin's New Economic Policy, a harsh collectivization and antinationalist campaign ensued. Intellectuals such as Oiunskii, founder of the Institute of Languages, Literature, and History, and Kulakovskii, an ethnographer, were persecuted in the 1920s and 1930s. The turmoil of Stalinist policies and World War II left many Yakut without their traditional homesteads and unaccustomed to salaried industrial or urban work. Education both improved their chances of adaptation and stimulated interest in the Yakut past.

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