Yakut - Orientation

Identification . The Yakut, who prefer to call themselves "Sakha," live in Yakutia, the Sovereign Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation formed in 1992. The Yakut are the farthest-north Turkic people, with a consciousness of having once lived farther south kept alive by legends and confirmed by historical and archaeological research. The Yakut, spread through Yakutia yet concentrated in its center, have become a minority in their own republic. The majority is of Slavic background. Other minorities include the dwindling Yukagir of northern Yakutia, the Even, the Evenk, and the Dolgan, a mixed Yakut-Evenk group.

Location. Yakutia is a 3,100,000-square-kilometer territory (over four times the size of Texas) in eastern Siberia (the Soviet Far East). Located at approximately 56 to 71° N and 107 to 152° E, it is bounded by Chukotka to the northeast, Buriatia in the south, and the Evenk region to the west. Its northern coast stretches far above the Arctic Circle, along the East Siberian Sea, and its southern rim includes the Stanovoi Mountains and the Aldan plateau. Its most majestic river, the Lena, flows north along cavernous cliffs, into a long valley, and past the capital, Yakutsk. Other key river systems where major towns have developed include the Aldan, Viliui, and Kolyma. About 700,000 named rivers and streams cross Yakutia, which has some agricultural land but is primarily nonagricultural taiga with vast resources of gold, other minerals, gas, and oil. Tundra rims the north, except for forests along the rivers. Notorious for extremes of cold, long winters, and hot, dry summers, Yakutia has two locations that residents claim to be the "coldest on earth": Verkhoiansk and Oimiakon, where temperatures have dipped to —79° C. More typical are winters of 0° to —40° C and summers of 10° to 30° C.

Demography. The 1989 Soviet census recorded a population of 147,386,000 for the Russian Republic, and 1,081,000 for the Yakut Autonomous Republic. The Yakut numbered 382,000, an increase from 328,000 in 1979. In the 1920s they constituted about 82 percent of their republic's population; by 1989 they were only 35 percent. The Yakut have become increasingly urban in the past twenty years, although at a slower rate than the majority (Slavic) population. Whole villages in central and northern Yakutia remain solidly Yakut, whereas the major cities of Yakutia are heavily Russian. The population of Yakutia was 65 percent urban in 1989. As many as 10 percent of marriages were between Yakut and other nationalities in the 1970s and 1980s, although this percentage was declining by 1990.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yakut speak Yakut, a Northeast Turkic language of the Altaic Language Family. It is one of the most divergent of the Turkic languages, closely related to Dolgan (a mixture of Evenk and Yakut sometimes described as a Yakut dialect). The Yakut, over 90 percent of whom speak Yakut as their mother tongue, call their language "Sakha-tyla." Their current written language, developed in the 1930s, is a modified Cyrillic script. Before this, they had several written forms, including a Latin script developed in the 1920s and a Cyrillic script introduced by missionaries in the nineteenth century. Yakut lore includes legends of a written language lost after they traveled north to the Lena Valley.

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