Yakutia - A Land of Extremes


by Vladimir Burnashev

Vladimir has the privilege of serving God among his own people.

Situated in north-eastern Siberia, the Sakha Republic, or Yakutia, is the largest region in Russia. It is as big as India and yet one of the least populated regions. Fewer than 1 million people live there, half of whom are the self-named Sakha or Yakut people - the largest indigenous group in Siberia. Over 40% of the Sakha Republic is beyond the Arctic Circle. The depth of permafrost, which occupies almost the entire territory, reaches 1.5km in some areas. The region's temperature drops to -70°C and has below-zero temperatures for up to nine months of the year; -55°C in winter is normal.


Yakutia has more rivers and lakes than any other Russian region. The largest river is the Lena, which is 4,400km long, with both ice and permafrost. It is so wide that there is still no railway connection across the river to the rest of the world.


It is thought that the Sakha people migrated to this territory from the south between the 8th and 12th centuries. Analysis of their art and culture, their DNA and their language, show that they are a Turkic people. When the Sakha arrived in this northern region they encountered other indigenous Siberian peoples, including the Evenki, Eveny and Yukagir, and have taken on many of their northern customs. For instance, whereas originally they would have bred cattle and horses, they have taken on the herding of reindeer. In the 17th century, Russians discovered this land and colonised it.


The economy of the Sakha Republic is based on gas and oil, and on mining diamonds, gold and silver. However, nearly half of Yakutia's population fish, hunt and keep livestock to make ends meet. Due to the extreme weather and remoteness, living in Yakutia is more expensive than other regions in Russia.


Many people in the republic are bilingual, speaking both Russian and Yakut. However, to have a sincere conversation and express themselves, Yakuts prefer to communicate in their mother tongue. The Yakut language is completely different from Russian. Until the beginning of the 18th century, Yakut was an oral language. The first writing system was provided by Russian Orthodox missionaries.


The Yakuts are animists and shamanists; they worship the sun and spirits of the air, earth, fire and water. Every summer solstice they celebrate their new year. The festival is full of dancing, food and sporting events, as well as sun and spirit worship. The Yakut believe that the world is made up of three parts: the lower world, inhabited by evil spirits; the middle world, where people live in contact with good and evil spirits; and the upper world, inhabited by good spirits and the 'most-high god'. The Yakuts believe that this god created humankind and then left them, with no way to communicate with him. People often see spirits and strange objects in the forests, and even in their apartments. They ask good spirits for their help and protection, and perform special ceremonies to please the evil spirits.


In the Yakut heroicepos (poetic tale) of Olonkho, there is a remembrance of the creation of man and the world, and even the Tree of Life. Olonkho relays that the sacred tree was huge, with roots extending to the underworld and branches so tall that they reach into the upper world. This ever-blooming tree is able to heal and give everlasting life. Moreover, there is a man in the tale, whom the 'most-high god' has sent to save people in the middle world. The Sakha word for 'woman' is the same as 'rib' and the word for 'nature' is 'creation'. There are many vivid connections between Sakha culture and the Bible's message.


During the 18th century, the Russian Orthodox Church spread into Yakutia and by the middle of the 19th century most indigenous people had been baptised, often by force, and given Russian names. Some Yakuts accepted Christianity because it freed them from taxes collected for the Russian tsar. Only Christians were allowed to go to school and use social amenities, such as hospitals. Many girls were baptised, simply so that Russian men could marry them. Today, the two religions coexist with some integration of beliefs; people may practise Orthodox Christianity while also worshipping the spirits.


Thirty years ago, the first Protestant mission workers arrived in Yakutia and founded some churches; however, none of them could be called a 'Sakha church'. They tend to be more Western and culturally irrelevant, particularly as they do not use the Yakut language. Therefore, the Sakha people remain predominantly animist, considering Christianity to be a Russian or Western religion.


Within Protestantism there are Adventist, Baptist and Pentecostal churches. Out of 450,000 Sakha people, only around 700 are Christians. The largest Sakha church in Yakutsk has approximately 70 believers.


In 2007 the New Testament was published in modern Sakha and the translation of the Old Testament is ongoing. The book of Genesis, a children's Bible and the Psalms have also been translated. However, the Sakha culture is mostly an oral one; people prefer listening and talking to reading. More work is needed to promote the gospel orally through audio and video recordings of Bible stories, songs and testimonies.


Most Sakha Christians became believers because of God's miraculous presence or help in their lives. Through close informal fellowship and friendship with Christians, their broken lives were put back together and they witnessed this same transformation in others.


For almost 30 years Protestant missionaries made long, risky mission trips across Yakutia, travelling in trucks across frozen rivers in winter and by boat in summer. Most of them did not speak the local language, and only people who understood Russian well and sympathised with Russian culture had opportunity to hear the gospel. Christians gave away books, New Testaments and other literature, most of which were written in Russian. As a result, when the first Yakuts accepted Christianity they denied their own culture, having been taught that it was pagan. Some groups and churches were formed, but they did not fit into local culture and language; this problem remains the biggest barrier between the church and the Yakuts. My dream is to see people coming to Christ, just as they are before God. We do not need to speak a second language or try to fit into a Russian culture in order to know God.


Vladimir's Testimony

I was born in a village in the coldest inhabited region on earth. As a child I remember my family believing in many gods and spirits, which is typical of the Sakha people; they did not know the real God. In 2002 Jesus Christ opened my eyes, and completely changed my heart and mind, through the testimony of an American missionary family who came to live in our village, and with whom my family became good friends. I was a teenager and saw true love in their family. One day I asked where I could learn to live a good life. They told me about the Bible and how God teaches us through it. However, there was a problem: I did not understand Russian and only began to speak it when I was 15 years old. To this day, my people do not have a fully translated Bible in the Yakut language. Consequently, I started to read the Bible using a Russian dictionary.


When we went hunting, my uncles prayed to the spirits of the hunt and the forest for luck as usual. One day, I decided to pray to the only God, asking: "If you are real and more powerful than any other gods and spirits, please give me a bigger prey than anybody else." That day my uncles caught some ducks and hares, but I killed a moose for the first time in my life. Sometime later we went fishing and the same thing happened. For the first few years, I was afraid to tell anybody that I worshipped the only God. I was also fearful of the spirits because I thought I had betrayed them. However, in time God strengthened my faith.


Five years ago, through God's providence, mission workers with Wycliffe Bible Translators were travelling across Yakutia when their car broke down near our village. They were able to stay with my family and share about their ministry. My wife and I now work in Yakutia translating the Bible, creating audio and video materials, visiting villages and helping my people to know God.


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