Report from Yakutiya

Stepanida Borisova
Ministry of Culture
Sakha Republic (Yakutiya)

My dear fellow conference participants, allow me to thank the organizers of today's conference for the wonderful opportunity to speak about processes in traditional culture in the Republic of Sakha, also known as Yakutiya, one of the largest and most northern regions of Russia.

Traditional society is defined by the ways of knowing and doing of a people. Traditional culture is not only a social environment in which we find ourselves placed and an expression of a people’s aspirations but also a way we use to cope with the ever-changing world and a regulator of the social fabric itself.

Why do I place such importance on this? Because Yakutiya is a region of extremes. Because it is one of the most challenging areas in the Russian Federation. There is the challenge of extreme cold for all but three months of the year. The northern part of the Republic is covered in permafrost, making construction very difficult. There is also the challenge of geographical isolation and the consequent socioeconomic hardships. This is why our culture plays such a central role. It provides us with a firm foundation that allows us to gather the strength to move forward.

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss declared the twentieth century the "century of ethnography.” In saying this, he would seem to make clear that this is a time of great urgency for all those who work as scholars and scientists. During this period they have tried to preserve the diversity of cultural heritage, all the while conscious of the encroaching standardization of culture and the blurring of cultural differences across the globe at this historical moment and of the role that revolutionary technologies have played in this.

Since 1917 and the founding of Soviet power in our Republic, dramatic changes have occurred in our lives. Oral traditions were codified for the first time as written documents. But what was once considered 'traditional' then became the detritus of history according to an extensive historical revisionism supported by the ideological and propagandist frameworks of the state. Traditional culture found itself consigned to the trash heap of history, marginalized as archaic and anachronistic, no longer attractive to youth, stripped of its prestige and dignity.

The rich and ancient roots of traditional culture survived in the Republic, however, and once the centralization imposed by Moscow crumbled in 1991, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya) set forth on a road to cultural renaissance and national rebirth. The cultural traditions that had been preserved were central to this process.

There was a bright splash of culture:

It is understood that safeguarding traditional culture hinges on concrete displays and outward signs. The Ministry of Culture of the Republic is currently developing a law "On the safeguarding of traditional culture for the peoples of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya).” This law will officially formulate founding principles for protective relations between the federal government, private experts, and those who keep traditional culture alive.

I think that by finding support in traditional culture, the people of Yakutiya have proved their ability to survive as an ethnic group with an ethnic identity within both Russian and international communities.

I also think it is impossible to turn back the clock. We cannot expect traditional culture to be the same now as it has been in the past. Now that we have the printed text, audio, and video, the original and authentic appearance of traditional culture is moving away from the past. However, if we look to the future, traditional culture and the authentic personal views that go with it will find new forms of existence, new levels of technological development through text and audio and video recordings.

What do I mean by this? In the area of traditional culture, we have at this moment two tendencies. Firstly, there are those who strongly believe that traditional culture should be portrayed as accurately as possible on the basis of ethnographic reconstruction (e.g. the students' theater "Ai-geh"). Secondly, there are those who, trusting in creativity, seek new forms for this rebirth of traditional culture through things like stage productions, adaptations of works from the literary canon, and explorations of traditional culture through modern music and applied arts.

In 1991, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya) formed a local UNESCO working group, which for the past few years has run a series of events of regional, national, and international significance. One event which stands out was the international conference "Shamanism As a Religion: Genesis, Reconstruction, and Tradition" held in 1992. The Republic also held a conference called "Ee-tik Seer" or "The Sacred Places" about sacred, esteemed, and honored places where rituals and sacred acts are performed for the revitalization of traditions and the protection of the environment.

In 1991, following the lead of UNESCO, the celebration of the national holiday Ee-see-yakh was placed on a register of recognized holidays. For the past few years, this holiday, which preserves traditional costumes, rituals, and practices, has taken place Republic-wide, framing the ancient ritual of the veneration of the sun at sunrise. Other rituals associated with this holiday include feeding the spirits of fire and nature, the drinking of fermented mare's milk, and circle dances with singing, all of which are wonderful ways to greet the three-month summer.

We have established a special museum in the Republic, named Khomusa. In the museum collection are hundreds of musical instruments from different countries of the world. The staff of the museum conduct research in the promotion and rebirth of ancient musical instruments.

In the history of the native peoples of Yakutiya, shamanism was the only form of religious expression. The pressures of the Soviet period resulted in much negative tension between shamanism and the formal social system. This all changed in 1991. Through a renewed freedom for religious expression and a renewed interest in shamanism, we can once more see the way this religion incorporated a worldview of folklore, mythology, and religious beliefs within a distinctly Eastern spiritual tradition.

The heroic epic of Yakut, Olonkho, is certainly the finest we have in the native creative tradition and is only the tip of the iceberg. In recent years it has attracted much attention not only from academia but also from leading cultural figures and artists. Theatrical shows have been staged using the tale of Olonkho. Librettos have been written, animations have been produced, and the Yakut Dramatic Theater is producing a play in an aesthetic consistent with the epic.

Preserving and rebuilding the traditional culture, folklore, and crafts of Yakutiya are some of the fundamental ways to develop the culture of the people of Sakha. The problems of traditional culture and folklore are being actively and openly discussed now, along with problems of language, literature, social infrastructure, politics, and other crucial issues of the day. As a result, in the northeastern region of Russia, in particular the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya), a unique process is occurring in the arena of traditional culture. Documentation of this process is extremely useful for the light it throws on issues of cultural unity and on the various ways that cultures develop in the modern world.

On behalf of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya), I would like to extend the hospitality of our Republic in offering to host a future UNESCO seminar on the Safeguarding and Revitalization of Traditional Culture and Folklore in the Republic of Sakha, of the Russian Federation.