Finnish journalist Jussi Konttinen spent a year in the Yakut village, survived the northern frosty winter, learned to drive UAZ, and all this in order to write a series of articles, and in the future, perhaps, a book about Siberia.
In autumn 2016, Jussi, together with his wife and three children, came to the Yakut village of Tekhtyur. From the whole family, only Jussi spoke good Russian at that time: he is the journalist of the largest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, and had previously worked in Russia. The family of Jussi rented a small village house in Tekhtyur with no particular conveniences, and he was allotted an office in the local administration, where he could work under the portraits of Vladimir Putin and Egor Borisov.
- If I'm not mistaken, you have Russian roots and some of your ancestors even come from Siberia. Is that why these places are so inviting for you?
- My grandmother was Russian; her childhood was spent in Siberia. She was born before the revolution in a military family, so they moved around the country very often and lived in different Siberian cities. After the revolution, her whole family died in St. Petersburg from an illness: in those days it was very difficult. My grandmother was left alone and in 1924 she left for her aunt in Vyborg, which was then part of Finland. That was the last year when you could get out of the country. Perhaps this is partly the reason why I'm so interested in Siberia.
While still a student, I went to Irkutsk for a year to learn Russian. Then I began to travel across Siberia. Since then, the idea of returning to the Eastern part of Russia haunted my mind.
- Siberia is huge. Why did you choose Yakutia, and to top it off, a small Yakut village?
- For the first time I was in Yakutia in 2008, and after that I decided to write a book about Siberia. It seemed to me that Yakutia is a special place: by area it is the largest republic, more than half of the inhabitants are indigenous people, there is authentic culture. In my opinion, this is the place where the development of Siberia has not yet ended. Yakutia characterized by a very long distance that has a certain effect on people's thinking. They feel detached from other regions, as if it were a separate country within the country.
- How did your family react to your proposal to go to one of the coldest places in Russia for a whole year?
- I cannot say that my wife dreamed about it, but I was lucky that I have a wife who agreed to go with me to Siberia for a whole year. The children did not have the faintest idea of where they were going. We promised them that when we arrive in Yakutia, they would receive a game console, so they were happy to move.
For our kids this trip was a chance to learn another world: they were able to see real winter and a completely different life. I'm sure they will always have memories of this.
Of course, it was not easy for the children, because they did not speak either Russian or Yakut. At school they teach in a mixed language sometimes, and everyone speaks only Yakut among themselves.
Our children were nowhere except Yakutia, so Russia now associates with Yakutia. Now they think that everywhere in Russia it's terribly cold, the toilet is outside, water is made from ice in winter, and Russians are people with Asian faces.
My middle son in Yakutia became a patriot of Finland: he fell in love with all Finnish, and the Finnish national anthem is now his favorite song. Perhaps he saw Russian and Yakut patriotism and adopted this feeling towards his country.
- How did you survive the Yakut winter?
You need to prepare for winter, especially in the countryside. You need to prepare clothes, a house, a car, to make water supplies for the winter time. For us, the Yakut early winter was frightening. The first snow fell at the end of September, and until the spring it no longer melted. Since there is no running water in the village, people begin to prepare ice in November. For the Yakuts it is a holiday: the whole village gathers together and goes to the lake.
It is necessary to prepare the car: it is either frozen for the winter, or the engine is permanently on, if it is in the cold. I decided that I would drive UAZ, despite the fact that many dissuaded me from this idea. But I have long dreamed of this car. Of course, sometimes I had problems with it, but my children were very fond of that UAZ. And people were especially amused when my wife was driving, and I was sitting next to her.
- You are already well acquainted with Siberia and the Russian North. What is the difference between Yakutia and all other Siberian regions?
- In Yakutia there is a very strong national culture and national spirit. The Yakuts have a clear understanding of where they come from, and they are very attached to this place. Even if the Yakuts study at higher education institutions in other cities, they very often return home to their coldest republic. I think Yakutia will never be lost, because there is no such demographic problem as in other regions: people rarely leave for somewhere.
They have a strong sense of patriotism. For example, there are a lot of national and patriotic holidays at school. Although militarism in schools shocked me a little. Even the children in the kindergarten are dressed in uniform for military holidays and parades. In our village this is the regulation that people observe despite the fact that it is expensive: if the family has many children, parents have to buy a uniform for everyone. The Yakuts have great pride in the fact that they have a very high percentage of young people serving in the army, and they consider themselves to be good soldiers, because they are hunters.
Since there are a lot of holidays in Yakutia, including national holidays, children have suits for every occasion. The local people were even surprised that we did not bring our national costume with us.
Yakutia also has a special opposition mood among the population. For example, Pavel Grudinin received very large support in this presidential election. In our village, according to official figures, Grudinin had almost the same rating as Putin.
In Yakutia, people believe that the republic suffered in the 2000s when they lost some control over their economy, including ALROSA. People believe that Moscow takes away their natural wealth from them, and the republic tries to fight back as much as they can. For example, in Yakutia there is a law that prohibits further privatizing ALROSA. This is an example of that when people are united, their opinion should be regarded.
- In your publications, you wrote that while you were working in Yakutia you faced a ban on visiting certain places. How did that happen?
- Once I was going to go to the camp of reindeer herders in Anabar ulus, where Rosneft was holding a reindeer herders' festival. I came to the northernmost village of the ulus and accidentally found people who agreed to take me there on snowmobiles. After that I went to the taxi to pick up my things, but the taxi driver suddenly took me to the house of the local policeman. The policeman checked my documents, and then went to the reindeer herders who promised to take me to the tundra. Three minutes later it suddenly became clear that all the foreign-made snowmobiles had broken down, which were still in the yard. In the end, I could not get to the reindeer herders' camp. And the head of the village said that I need to leave urgently, because the security service of the FSB prohibited me from going to the tundra. And all this despite the fact that I had permission to be in that place.
It is sometimes difficult for me in Russia to understand what is being planned, and what is improvisation. I still do not know if I was hindered from going to the reindeer herders camp deliberately or just some local officer of the bodies showed such an initiative.
Ordinary people rather joked, as they always joke about foreigners. "You must be a spy?" they often asked me. Someone even said that I look very much like a spy. Perhaps they think so, because I'm very curious. But I'm a journalist, so I'm curious, I'm asking questions. I think that I would have turned out to be a bad spy, because I work openly. Perhaps the spies do not write about their life in the newspaper.
- In your opinion, what is connected with this suspiciousness?
- I think that the suspicious attitude towards foreigners is a Soviet legacy. This has remained since the times when it was necessary to suspect everyone and everything. And the suspiciousness of officials is, most likely, the result of Russia's current complicated relations with other countries. It is sad that officials, budget workers are very cautious and afraid of everything.
I came to Russia and Yakutia not as an enemy, I came as a friend. I write about their land in the edition, which has the highest circulation in Scandinavia. This is a very good opportunity for PR-promotion of Yakutia.