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Assessment for Yakut in Russia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Yakut in Russia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Russia Facts
Area:    17,075,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Moscow
Total Population:    146,881,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Yakut exhibit virtually no likelihood of rebellion in the near future with no recent history of rebellion and only weak recent history of protest. Recent levels of protest have been low and associated with displeasure over proposed measures to increase Russian federal control of the diamond industry company ALROSA in Yakutia/Sakha. There has also been increased political agitation by some ethnic Russians, perhaps in part due to the Yakut domination of executive positions in the republic despite their relatively small size proportionally.

While historically the Yakut have violently resisted Russian political control, there has been no violent resistance since the 1930s, when the Yakut fiercely resisted Stalinist policies. The Yakut do have a high level of group cohesion and territorial concentration. However, these factors are unlikely to lead to violence absent government repression (which triggered the outbreak of violence under Stalin). The leadership of the Yakut Republic has repeatedly stated that the republic does not seek secession and that the Russian Federation must remain intact. On the other hand, Yakutia clearly aims to maintain significant policymaking freedom. For example, in January 1995 Yakutia issued a decree banning recruitment of its citizens by the Russian military on the grounds that draftees would be sent to fight in Chechnya.

The Yakut have also exhibited little propensity for political protest. Protest peaked in the 1990s, but never exceeded symbolic resistance, mainly centering on economic grievances over the use of Yakutia's natural resources and the distribution of those benefits. While these grievances remain, and the Yakutia Republic's government has attempted to withhold payments from the center, the central government has granted some concessions in the realm of natural resource management.

One source of ethnic tension in Yakutia stems from the position of the republic's five native Siberian ethnic groups, with whom the Yakuts may be distantly related. Unlike the more numerous Yakuts, in Soviet times Yakutia's indigenous peoples were counted among what were called the "northern minorities," "peoples of the North," or "small-in-number-peoples." Despite recent Yakut claims to indigenous status, the previously-designated indigenous peoples of Yakutia tend to view both Yakuts and Russians as colonizers. Although the Yakut-indigenous dimension of ethnic relations is much harder to document than Yakut-Russian interaction, it can be stated that indigenous groups have often felt alienated from the Yakut-controlled administration that has held power since the waning days of the Soviet Union. However, it is important to note that the Yakut constitution is rare in that it formally institutionalizes the rights of indigenous peoples. As reflected in its progressive legal standards, prospects are favorable that Yakutia will prove successful in managing ethnic relations in the future.

As with many of the groups in Siberian Russia, the Yakut are most at risk from the general economic decline in the region, as well as from significant environmental degradation.

Analytic Summary

Although the exact origins of the Yakut people (who call themselves Sakha) are not known, they are believed to be descended from Turkic, Mongol, and native Siberian tribes and speak a remote Turkic language (LANG = 1). The Republic of Yakutia, the largest autonomous republic in the Russian Federation, is in north-central Siberia. The Yakut comprise approximately 33 percent of the republic's population, which also contains Russians and several smaller Siberian indigenous people groups (GROUPCON = 3). The Yakut traditionally follow an animistic religion, centered on a cult of heaven. Some Yakut converted to Orthodox Christianity under Russian influence, and the indigenous religion was almost destroyed under Stalin, who had most shamans executed or deported. In recent years, however, shamanism has experienced a resurgence in the region, closely linked to a cultural revival also emphasizing the Sakha language.

Yakutia is one of the pivotal territories of the Russian Federation for three reasons: first, numbering 382,000 (1998 estimate of Yakuts in Russia), Yakuts are one of the most numerous native ethnic group of Siberia; second, at twice the size of Alaska, the republic is the largest administrative sub-division of Russia; and third, the region's mines are the country's chief source of gold and diamonds and also furnish vast quantities of coal and other strategic materials. Most tension between the republican and central government has arisen over the use and distribution of these resources (ECOGR503 = 1).

Historically and today, Yakut-Russian relations have been comparatively lacking in violence. Anti-Russian rebellions did occur in 1634-1642, and in the late 1920s and 1930s Stalin's policies met with fierce resistance. However, the Yakut people have generally not reacted harshly to Russia's influence. By the early 1800s, many Yakuts were at least nominally members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Interestingly, at a time when other ethnic traditions were under assault by the Communist Party, in the 1920s certain Yakut intellectuals propagated a Pan-Turkish ideology without interference by Soviet authorities.

While in previous generations Yakuts did not consider themselves to be an indigenous people, some Yakut leaders now favor such a designation as a means of promoting a Yakut renaissance and protecting Yakut identity. Yakuts are now acutely concerned with resisting undue Russian influence on their political, economic, and cultural affairs. As a result of Stalin's emphasis on developing heavy industry, large-scale immigration of Slavs into Yakutia occurred. Thus, Soviet industrialization led to demographic trends under which the local Russian population is now twice as large as the Yakut community. Like other ethnic republics, Yakutia has opted to increase its independence by declaring sovereignty within Russia and by strictly delimiting the powers of the republican and federal governments. In August 1991, amid the confusion and disruption caused by the attempted hardline coup against Gorbachev, Yakutia's parliament issued a law transferring control of all state enterprises from the USSR central government to the republican government.

Yakut sensibilities are particularly inflamed by the fact that, although their region is rich in natural resources, the republic's non-Slav population is notably poor. Therefore, republican authorities have moved to gain exclusive control of the republic's natural resources with the right to dispose of them as they, not Moscow, see fit (ECOGR503 = 1). In particular, Yakutia declared its intention to sell raw materials on the world market and establish cash reserves outside of central bank control. Despite political clashes between Yakut and Russian leaders, Russian President Boris Yeltsin made moves to accommodate Yakut sensibilities during his tenure in office. Symbolically, in April 1994 Yeltsin issued a decree denouncing the persecution of ethnic Yakuts under Stalin. Substantively, Yeltsin granted greater local control of Yakutia's natural resources. However, the political leadership of Yakutia feared a reversal of these accommodations under Putin, and opposed the creation of seven federal districts to be governed by presidential appointees.

Tensions were raised during the republic's 2001 presidential elections when a Russian group calling itself the Russian Imperial Battalion distributed chauvinistic leaflets demanding a ‘Russian Yakutia' (INTERCON01, INTERCON02 = 1). However, there have been no acts of violence. In 2002, Yakutian officials completed changes of the republic's constitution, in line with President Putin's demands, to remove inconsistencies between the federal and republican constitutions.


BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, numerous stories, 1990-2003.

Bruno De Cordier, "The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia): Between Turkestan and North Asia." Research Center for Turkestan and Azerbaijan, 1996.

Kaapcke, Gretchen. "Indigenous Identity Transition in Russia: An International Legal Perspective." Cultural Survival Quarterly (Summer/Fall 1994): 62-68.

Lexis-Nexis: All News Files 1995-2003.

Olson, James S. An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Reuters World Service, numerous stories, 1990-1995.

RFE/RL, various reports, 2000-2003

TASS, numerous stories, 1990-2003.

Tishkov, Valery. The Principal Problems and Prospects of the Development of National-Territorial Entities in the Russian Federation. Cambridge: Harvard University Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, n.d. [probably 1992].

Vakhtin, Nikolai. Native Peoples of the Russian Far North. London: Minority Rights Group, 1992.

Wixman, Ronald. The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1984.

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