Sardana Avksentyeva, the Mayor of Yakutsk. Picture: The Siberian Times
Sardana Avksentyeva swept to power as mayor of Russia’s diamond capital in September
Sardana Avksentyeva is now winning admirers nationwide, as she bans lavish town hall parties and sells off plush official cars.
Ruffling political feathers she certainly is, but the 48 year old mayor took time out from her war on waste to use The Siberian Times to invite the world to visit one of the planet’s most extraordinary cities.
If even once in your life you want to feel real, epic cold - just for just a day or two perhaps - then Yakutsk, capital of Yakutia region also known as the Sakha Republic, is the place to come.
Within a few weeks now, as it does annually, the city is likely to experience severe winter temperatures of around minus 60C and it is increasingly attracting foreign visitors from many countries who have her city on their bucket lists because they want to taste such cold.
How do people survive in these temperatures, in a city of 282,000 people literally built on permafrost?
Come here - a six-hour flight east from Moscow, or a three-hour journey north from Vladivostok - and discover ultimate cold, and a genuinely warm welcome.
WELCOME TO YAKUTSK!
Sardana Avksentyeva, the Mayor of Yakutsk. Picture: The Siberian Times
As Avksentyeva says in a new video aimed at visitors and released today by The Siberian Times: ‘Everyone who considers themselves a traveller, who knows the world, who is fascinated by all the most unusual and interesting phenomena on our planet - must visit Yakutia.’
Wearing the national dress of her republic, she stresses: 'Those who never came to Yakutia, you did not see the whole world.'
Not that it’s just the cold: this is the place to come for the best-value diamonds and silver jewellery anywhere, superb culinary surprises, sights you will see nowhere else - and above all the rich and vibrant culture of the Yakut peoples.
Diamonds at the Treasury of Yakutia. Pictures: The Siberian Times
We met the so-called ‘people’s mayor’ in her city hall offices in the centre of Yakutsk, from where she is setting about delivering on her campaign pledges that saw one of the biggest upsets of the September round of elections in Russia.
Six times zones away in capital city Moscow, the election commission chairperson Ella Pamfilova surveyed the results from all around Russia and declared: ‘Despite the general skepticism, we have actually seen a competitive voting process with some unpredictable results.
‘For instance, Sardana Avksentyeva, a candidate of the Russian Revival party, won the mayoral election in Yakutsk.
‘Was it a surprise?
Sardana Avksentyeva at the office. Picture: The Siberian Times
The colourful new mayor is not from the ruling United Russia Party, and she struck a chord with her fresh broom promises to cutback on official largesse and divert wasted cash into vital projects, like providing a rapid expansion in the number of heated bus stops.
In an Instagram post, she pictured a Mercedes and a Toyota 4x4 owned by the city administration.
‘What you see in the photo will be sold first,’ she vowed.
The money from selling off some of the official car pool - one estimate puts it as $104,000 - would be redirected to better uses, she made clear.
Warm bus stops in Yakutsk. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Across the table she fixes us with a serious face showing she means business, a quality that has seen her labelled the ‘Iron Lady’, a monicker that the Soviet Union once gave to the up and coming Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.
‘I am really surprised that people didn’t believe I would keep my word during my campaign,’ says the mayor.
‘I am now fulfilling what I promised. For sure I am going to fulfil all my words.
‘We are now making a new scale of values.
‘If I don’t fulfil all my promises, the citizens will call me back and vote me down.
‘It’s a small city, and everyone is in the vision of each other.’
The new Mayor of Yakutsk. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Sardana Avksentyeva's mission is far more than selling off a few official cars.
In another move, she cancelled a fur fashion show costing the city almost $12,000 involving Moscow designer Irina Krutikova.
The show during the annual festival ‘Winter begins in Yakutia’ was intended only for those in the Yakutsk beau monde who could afford such accessories, say its critics.
The mayor also sought the cancellation of a city-funded ballet recital to divert money to children’s arts programmes.
A roadworks contractor was axed after a video emerged of workers unprofessionally failing to clear snow from a road or repair potholes, and simply poured hot asphalt on top.
The quality of roads - not helped by the fact they are built on permafrost - is a big concern for Avksentyeva, as it is for all locals who endure the holes and bumps.
‘Everybody who comes to Yakutsk pays a lot of attention to the condition of our roads. It’s not very good,’ she says.
GVs of Yakutsk, the city built on permafrost. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Last month saw the resignation of the head of the city’s administrative office Maksim Artemiev over plans for a ‘lavish’ New Year banquet for officials, a feast allegedly including expensive delicacies.
The cost was almost $12,000, and the mayor expressed her disapproval of this bureaucratic overindulgence.
'If the head does not understand basic requirements, restrictions, which I have repeatedly explained earlier, we have different paths to follow,' she made clear in a searing public censure of Artemiev.
Avksentyeva's mayoral priorities are specific measures to improve life in the city, concrete affordable actions - not grandiose words.
A huge expansion of ‘comfortable and warm’ heated bus stops is one promise.
In the deep winter cold, the attraction and even necessity is obvious: some of these shelters will include shops and cafes, saving people from waiting in the outdoors for a late bus.
From savings elsewhere, she has already reduced the cost of tickets on public transportation from 30 to 28 roubles. This means a bus ride now costs 42 US cents.
‘The main task I am working on is to make the city clean and comfortable,’ she says.
Sardana Avksentyeva. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Avksentyeva is keen to bring in both federal money and local entrepreneurs to realise her improvements.
The bus shelters, for example, are being built with assistance from city companies.
‘My job is to coordinate it all,’ she says, adding: ’It’s not that difficult.’
She brings to her job both previous experience of government in various roles but also of business, in both the diamond industry and airline catering.
A recent visit was to a farm - vital for food supplies in her city which has only a three month summer.
The hope is for greater self-sufficiency.
Views of Yakutsk, one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. Pictures: The Siberian Times
For now the new mayor is winning plaudits from all around Russia for her fresh approach.
Russian politics is still a bruising and male-dominated business, so Avksentyeva can expect a backlash and may need her supposed metallic plating.
Yet one impressed legislator wrote recently: ‘I liked my conversation with her. We’ve really got an Iron Lady here.’
A longer term priority for the development of the city is connecting it properly to the great Siberian rail network.
Though founded as long ago as 1632, Yakutsk has never been close to a rail link, yet a new line is soon to open connecting Nizhny Bestyakh, immediately across the giant Lena River from Yakutsk, to the Baikal-Amur Mainline which in turn connects to the Trans-Siberian route.
To go further and extend to the city itself, a bridge - the most likely option - or a tunnel dug into the permafrost are extreme engineering challenges and, as the mayor says, 'it’s expensive'.
River Lena port in Yakutsk, and a GV of the river. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Currently locals must drive across the frozen river in winter, or use a ferry in summer.
In spring and autumn, well, it's more difficult.
After the opening of the successful link between the Russian mainland and Crimea, itself a mammoth engineering feat, Sardana Avksentyeva is optimistic of a great new Siberian crossing, a project that has been on the planning board for many decades.
It would depend on federal money from Moscow, however.
‘I hope that in five or seven years we can have that bridge,’ she says optimistically.
For tourists, too, it would be a boon and over the longer term tourism, surely an industry that is hugely underdeveloped across the whole of Yakutia, is ripe for expansion.
Instant winter make-up, and a young reindeer herder from Oymyakon, otherwise known as The Pole of Cold. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Yakutsk has several good hotels and a number of others of more basic quality and the mayor admits ‘we have undeveloped infrastructure’.
She is a traveller herself, and not long ago spent one-and-a-half months with her husband in New Zealand.
What struck her was how ‘we could do everything ourselves - you don’t need to book through a special travel company’.
You just get there and enjoy it.
Such tourism has been harder traditionally in many parts of Russia for foreigners, but it is certainly getting easier now.
‘I hope to make it the same in the city of Yakutsk,’ she said. Yet ‘we have to take into consideration all the cold issues. It is really cold in winter.
‘We should pay special attention to the safety of tourists.'
Kierge jewellery store in Yakutsk. Pictures: Kierge
Still, cold can be cool for tourism.
‘We understand that developing the tourist industry makes a big contribution to the economy', said Sardana Avksentyeva.
It’s easy to see how Yakutsk can be a magnet for tourists to the whole of Yakutia - a vast region that is only a little smaller than India, or put another way, four and a half times the size of Texas.
The savings foreigners can make on diamonds here, as one example, may well pay for a trip compared with buying in western Europe or North America.
Near the mayor’s office is Kierge - one of many jewellery stores in central Yakutsk, pictured above.
This retailer sells the sparkling finished products at prices that are highly competitive with other world outlets, but step behind the scenes and there are masters designing and making superb top quality jewellery. They will take commissions based on your own needs.
Yakutsk, too, is at the heart of efforts to clone extinct animals back to life, led by the woolly mammoth.
Scientists here are collecting remains of mammoths, cave lions, woolly rhinos and a long-gone species of horses, all preserved in the region’s permafrost.
You can get the feel of this at the city’s mammoth museum, dedicated to the extinct hairy beasts.
Some have compared the return of dead species to Jurassic Park.
Yet it is now scientifically a real possibility if not so far a certainty.
Mammoth museum in Yakutsk. Pictures: The Siberian Times
In recent years bison have been reintegrated to Yakutia where they once roamed but became extinct.
'Bison have been brought back. If bison, why not mammoths?,' asked Sardana.
'I know that they are working with our foreign scientists on cloning.
'I have no idea on the likely dates.’
Permafrost Cave near Yakutsk. Pictures: The Siberian Times
Far to the north from here is Pleistocene Park, a slice of the Arctic being restored to its flora and fauna from the times when the mammoths trod the planet.
If mammoths make a comeback through cloning, this place would be the biggest tourist venue of all - to see them living in their natural habitat again after a pause of some 5,000 years.
Already existing in Yakutsk is the remarkable Permafrost Kingdom, a labyrinth of passageways deep in the permafrost rock, a testament to the wonders of frost, also pictured here.
So there is plenty for tourists to do before using the city as a stepping off point for a region alive with possibilities for all sorts of adventure holidays, including hunting, fishing, climbing, trekking in one of the world’s last great wildernesses.
The city also has a number of excellent restaurants including those dedicated to local foods which include many different types of local fish - often eaten frozen and raw - and Yakut horse meat, cooked in myriad styles.
Exceptional is Mahtal in the old city, an area recreated to show how Yakutsk looked when settlers first arrived here, where you can taste delicious local dishes.
The restaurant allows you to travel in time - the decor includes stunning Yakutian artwork but you also feel yourself inside traditional village homes designed to combat the punishing cold outside.
As the mayor says in her “Welcome to Yakutsk” video, ‘We live in the heart of Yakutia - the largest region of Russia.'
‘We are waiting for you to get to know our national culture, our paintings our national holiday Ysyakh, our excellent cuisine with organic products and with the pristine beauty of our nature.’