There is a region, in a land far away called Russia where winters get as cold as -50 degrees Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit). That region is Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic, and it covers a large part of Siberia and North-Eastern Russia. Aleksey Vasiliev is a photographer who has decided to capture the daily lives and struggles of the Yakutian people. He wanted to show what living in such a cold region looks like and what people do to pass the time. Ice-coated outskirts, pagan Holidays, roadside café waitresses, village schools — Alexei Vasiliev has captured all of this and more.
Yakutia is the largest region in Russia. It is five times larger than France. In order to travel between villages and towns, you would need to cross 1,500–2,000 km. The Yakut frost is quite popular, not only in scientific circles but also in meme culture. Getting to Yakutia from Moscow means covering more than 8,000 km.
Aleksey Vasiliev is a self-taught photographer born and living in Yakutsk. He was the finalist of the international 2016 LensCulture Street Photography Awards, and since then, National Geographic Magazine has featured his photos many times in their publications. Also, his work is regularly published in many Russian magazines.
Although somewhat popular all around the world, Yakutia is still far from becoming a desirable tourist destination. Vasiliev often repeats that it will take roughly 20 years for the place to become a tourist attraction. In the meantime, its inaccessibility, harsh condition, and colorful culture continue to attract that select group of hardcore travelers. Vasiliev stated: “People tend to come here not in the harshest cold, which is December-January time, but in March, when the temperature is around -30°C. For them it’s still chilly, but for us it’s almost spring. What I’m afraid of is that someday we’ll lose the ‘coldest place in the world’ title.”
Yakuts are not easy people to connect with, and they have a strong desire to preserve their national identity. Of all the indigenous peoples of Russia, they are the leaders in this endeavor, proud of their heritage. There is a saying among Yakuts that goes: “You don’t know the Yakut language? And you call yourself a Yakut?!”
Yakuts celebrate their own New Year. The celebration is held in summer and they call it call Yhyаkh. Instead of champagne, they drink koumiss (fermented mare’s milk), and instead of a fir tree, there is a sacred serge (ritual pole). During the Soviet era these events were outlawed, but now everyone can’t wait to get dressed up in national Yakut dress.
Yakuts are also big fans of the cinema. Vasiliev commented: “We have our own atmosphere here, and we value it. Because we feel defenseless against the ‘big’ world and nature, we need to rely on something to feel strong. But on what? On our culture, traditions, and, yes, cinema — through movies we get to know ourselves, because they reflect Yakut images and ideas.”
Before becoming famous, Vasiliev worked as a courier to earn some extra cash. At that time he treated photography as a hobby. After he started working with the camera, promoting Yakuts’ culture, the people started noticing it. He explained: “Sometimes I come across such exhibits. It’s not an entrance, but a kindergarten — the walls are covered in children’s drawings, there are shelves with books, sofas of some sort. It all looks really cute and is quite recent. It wasn’t always like that, it used to be shitty. But now people are developing a kind of self-awareness and civic-mindedness. It’s already important for them that the outside looks nice, not just the inside.”
Aleksey Vasiliev says that he makes photos of Yakutia because it’s right there on the doorstep, and he can work on his projects for as long as he likes. But even Vasiliev hasn’t managed to see all of it — the region is just too vast. To have a better insight into the region and its people, check out the rest of the photos listed below. Enjoy!