Friday, April 11, 2014

'Animal Symbolism' and 'Sakha Sovereignty'

This week, i discuss on an unique development, the role of animals in the sovereignty and identity of the Sakha Republic.In the case of Sakha Republic, animals act as cultural symbols which denote the separate identity of Sakha Republic in the Russian Federation.This 'animal symbolism' varied from time to time in accordance with the relationship between Moscow and Yakutsk.Three important domestic animals and an extinct animal species are the part of this process : reindeer, horse, cow and mammoth.The first three animals represent three major communities of the Sakha Republic : Indigenous people (Even, Evenk, Yukagir, Dolgan and Chukchi), Sakha people and Slavic settlers. During the Soviet era reindeer was the major symbol of the Sakha Republic. But after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and at the beginning of the sovereignty movement, horse replaced the reindeer. At last after the weakening of the 'sovereignty movement,' cow got into the central stage.These developments may look insignificant, but it  all  related to the socio - economic  and political developments in the Sakha Republic.

Sakha people or Yakuts (Russians used this name for calling Sakha people) migrated to the present day Sakha Republic only in the 15th century.It is generally regarded as this migration happened just after the decline of the Mongol Empire. Before that there were small indigenous groups (Even, Evenki,Yukagir, Chugchi and Dolgan) who were reindeer herders. Another major ethnic group of the Sakha Republic, Russians appeared only in the 17th century. But large scale Russian migration took place only under the Soviets. During the Soviet period, the economy of Sakha Republic was divided on ethnic lines : Sakha and indigenous people were more active in agriculture and animal husbandry and Russians were active in industrial sector. Sakha people were also more active in the politics of the republic but Russians were active in the economic and commerce sector. Again Sakha and indigenous people were more rural in comparison to the Russians. This work equilibrium collapsed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Sakha Republic declared its 'sovereignty' in 1992 before the establishment of the federal constitution (1993).The resource rich Sakha Republic also took full control over its revenues.This situation changed after Vladimir Putin's ascension to power in 1999. Putin's era witnessed the re-centralization of power and its effect influenced all republics including Sakha. In 2009, Sakha Republic was forced to remove the term 'sovereign' from its constitution and at the same time it was also forced to accept the voluntary nature of its entry into the Tsarist Empire.These political developments reflected on the 'animal symbolism' of the Sakha Republic.

Under the Soviets, reindeer was the major symbol of the Sakha Republic. How ever, reindeer was only associated with the indigenous population of the Sakha Republic.Soviets considered neither Sakha nor earlier Russian settlers as indigenous to the region. Sakha people had an ambiguous attitude towards the reindeer.Sakha people accepted the symbolic value of the reindeer but looked down the profession of the herding of reindeer. Sakha people's attitude clearly reflected after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1989. Then onward, horse became the major cultural symbol of the Sakha Republic.The government under Mikhail Nikolaev started to celebrate southern, nomadic origin  of the Sakha people. Some of these actions of the Sakha Republic were projected in Russian media as the symbols of the nationalism and separatism.But Putin period witnessed the further shifting in the animal symbolism and then cow started to play a major role.Cow is not only important to the Sakha people but also to other ethnic groups of the republic such as rural Russians and indigenous people of North. At the same time Sakha leaders were promoting archaic nature of their republic with the promotion of a new identity, the extinct mammoth.In 2005, President of the Sakha Republic, Styrov adopted the decree ' on the special status of natural resources -ancient remains of mammoth fauna and regulations of their turn over on the territory of Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)'.

What are the meaning of these various animal symbols? There is no doubt that, reindeer was the first domesticated animal of the region. But reindeer associated mostly with the small indigenous groups of the northern part of the republic. For Soviets, indigenous people were the real owners and earliest settlers of the territory.So Soviets promoted reindeer. Sakha people also claimed reindeer due to their 'northerner 'character which they share with the indigenous people of the North. But during the Sakha sovereignty movement , the animal which represented the  Sakha nomadic culture, horse came into the forefront.Government even started to promoted the breeding of the horses. These new developments naturally invited the attention of federal government into the republic. So under Putin, Sakha government had to take a balancing act. Hence, government started to promote cow instead of horse. It shows that Sakha government consider not only Sakha people but also other ethnicities too.It also denotes the Sakha government's compromise with the Russian government.Meanwhile Sakha government tried to promote its republic's unique identity through the promotion of natives species such as Sakha cow, Sakha horse and extinct species of mammoth.


1) Gossmann, Anna Stammler, 'Political Animals' of Sakha Yakutia, pp : 153-175.

2) Sharlet, Robert , "Resisting Putin's Federal Reforms on the Legal Front", Demockratizatsiya, pp : 335-342.

3) Yakovlev, Evgeny and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya (2006) "State Capture : From Yeltsin to Putin", CEFIR/NES Working Paper Series, pp : 1 - 21.

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