Yakutsk: A city of extremes

Today, dust blocked out the sun.

Yakutsk is a strange place; possibly the strangest place I’ve ever been. It’s a city of three hundred thousand people with no real access to the ‘outside world’. You can fly in by plane (like I did), but it’s expensive. You can just about get there by road, but this depends on the time of year (winter is best, when the ice roads make crossing rivers easy). There was supposed to be a train – an extension of the Baikal-Amur mainline – but this has yet to materialise (currently the closest you can get is the town of Tommot and then it’s a 450km bus ride north). And if you want to cross the river – well, plans for a long-awaited bridge have been shelved once again as Putin siphoned off funds to build a crossing to newly-annexed Crimea (for more on this, see the excellent blog: https://www.cryopolitics.com/2018/05/16/putin-opens-bridge-to-crimea-leaving-yakutsk-hanging/).

This is a city of contrasts. When I first arrived, bleary eyed from Moscow six time-zones away, it was pushing thirty degrees and brightly sunny. I was bundled into a ‘taxi’ by a grinning woman with no English and treated to some authentic Sakha music on the radio – a surprisingly enjoyable mix of Western boyband crooning and far-Eastern instrumentals. The city is a complete mess. Dust covers everything, rising up into mini-tornadoes with a gust of wind; buildings on stilts lurch haphazardly; pipes carrying water and gas snaked above ground and across roads. This is what living on top of several hundred metres of rock-solid soil looks like: it’s impossible to dig infrastructure under the city, so you have to improvise.

Later I took a walk to the perennial Russian war monument and found a T-34 tank complete with clambering children, whilst soldiers offered their rifles for families to pose with. Soviet victory music blared from a loud speaker on the empty stage. It was a world away from Westernised, cosmopolitan Moscow, yet the shopping malls stocked Mango fashion, United Colors of Benneton, Tissot watches. And there’s an Irish pub – two, actually – proudly declaring itself ‘the first Irish pub in permafrost’. It’s both global capitalism and frozen communism.

And just as yesterday was hot and sunny, today was cold and dreary. The sun shone but it was blocked by a thick layer of dust, or smog, or something soupy that didn’t allow warmth to get through. For the first time I understood how this place was so shaped and subjected to its climate. Although this was a long way from the minus fifty degrees celsius experienced in winter, the city felt trapped somehow, and not just because of the lack of bridges.

It leads you to wonder why people live here. Why do these three hundred thousand people live with no bridges or proper roads in minus fifty degrees? Why do they live in a place that doesn’t allow for buildings to be built properly, or for an underground sewer system?

I’m sure there are many answers to this, and as an outsider it is not for me to judge why people live the places they do. Humans have lived on and with permafrost for centuries, in defiant and remarkable ways. To Westerners, to live in such harsh conditions seems bizarre, and only a thing someone would do if forced. We imagine the gulags; of shivering prisoners and poverty stricken people unable to escape. Doubtless, these images hold a certain truth, but this is not a city held at the mercy of an unforgiving master. Yakutsk is a place that has learnt to respect the permafrost and the difficulties it brings, but it has also learnt to live alongside it and build livelihoods that a very much rooted in place. Yes, it displays global fashions from China in its shop windows, and continues to hold on a little too tightly to the Soviet Union, but it is its unique geological and cryopolitical circumstances that make Yakutsk what it is. Indeed, there are several museums, exhibits and institutions dedicated to permafrost and its importance to the region. Yakutsk has grown with the permafrost, not in spite of it, and in doing so, has produced a vibrant city that is proud of its status as the coldest city on earth.

And then, the sun began to shine again.