As international rumblings continue between the Russian Federation and the United States over Ukraine, a delegation from the far eastern Russian city of Yakutsk visited Kodiak this week to toast religious brotherhood with their Alaskan neighbors.
While some may associate Yakutsk with the board game Risk, Kodiakans learned about the Yakutians’ devotion to St. Innocent and St. Herman, their fondness for horses and their skill at jaw-harping.
Yakutsk is the capital of the Republic of Sakha, a region in Eastern Siberia also known as Yakutia. It is populated mainly by Yakuts, a Turkic tribe not too distantly related to the Mongols, and perhaps, distant cousins to some Alaska Native peoples.
The delegation, consisting of around a dozen, flew first to Fairbanks to firm up what had become a rather dormant relationship with Yakutsk’s sister city.
“This year was the 25-year anniversary between Yakutsk and Fairbanks. They were declared sister cities in 1989. For a while there was no connection between the cities. The relationship was reinstated (as a result of this trip),” delegation head Alexander Savvinov, chairman of the City Council of Yakutsk said.
If Fairbanks was the civil leg of their trip, their swing to Kodiak looked more like a Russian wedding with spiritual overtones.
The group made trips to St. Herman’s Seminary, Spruce Island and ended at St. Innocent’s Academy. “Today was special for us,” Savvinov said through an interpreter at the delegation’s final stop at St. Innocent’s Academy. “We went to one of the world’s holiest places, Spruce Island. It was extraordinary. By being at Spruce Island we were charged with a special energy and all of us were energized spiritually … With all the people that we met, we felt as if we have been friends for a long time.”
Savvinov’s entourage included historians, clergy, writers, and fellow members of the Yakutsk City Council. Many within the delegation spent time pouring over the archives at St. Herman’s Seminary and venerating relics at the Kodiak’s two Orthodox churches.
“Our overall feeling has been one of wonder and one of happiness, especially towards the people because the people are the greatest treasure of any country,” he said.
Yakutsk is nicknamed “the coldest city in the world” and was boasting temperatures of minus 55 degrees centigrade (minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit) this winter at home. It is not far from the town of Oymyakon, considered one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. This region of the northern hemisphere is referred to by climatologists as the Pole of Cold.
In these balmier climes of Kodiak, the delegation got to unwind with the visit to St. Innocent’s Academy, and then some.
The dinner consisted of several courses of Lenten fish dishes, a bevy of Russian-style toasts, songs galore by both the Academy Choir and the Yakutians, dancing and a jaw harp demonstration by Savvinov.
Savvinov played the native Yakutian xomus (pronounced haMOOSE), an instrument he said was known for its distinctive sound. That was followed by a native Yakut circle dance that, Savvinov informed, could last for days and involve thousands of dancers.
Savvinov did not mince words, however, when asked about the recent turmoil between Russia and Ukraine.
“We believe that what happened in Ukraine was a coup. Many of the protesters were fascist nationalists. In any civilized country, people don’t try to overtake the government by violent means,” Savvinov said.
The United States and most of its Western allies have allied themselves with the Ukrainian cause, even warning Russia that if didn’t back down from its annexation of the Crimea, then strong diplomatic and economic sanctions would follow. This includes establishing visa restrictions between Russia and the U.S.
These restrictions seemed to threaten only after the group had gotten their visas to come to America. Savvinov reported that his delegation acted fast and received their visas from the American consulate in Vladivostok “very quickly” and without any trouble.
Now about their love of horses: The Kodiak group learned about one of the favorite dishes in the Republic of Sakha: colt’s liver. Savvinov maintained that colt is considered a top-notch delicacy, though a bit pricey.
“It’s probably comparable to lamb in price, but it’s very good your health,” Savvinov said.