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01:26 | Aug 16 | 2011

Yakutia: the World Record and a Summer New Year

A Guinness record was made during the most popular Yakutian feast – the Ysyakh, which is celebrated in the days of solstice in June. The idea of Ysyakh is to mark the beginning of the short northern summer, to celebrate the regeneration of nature and the beginning of the next circle of life. Yakuts love this peculiar “new year” not less than the traditional one. “Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region” Magazine has published this report from Yakutsk about the everyday life and the holidays of the largest Russian region. 


International melodies

From the 23d through the 26th of June khomus melodies could be heard almost all around the city of Yakutsk, and alien speech along with them. The Republic’s capital was hosting the VII International Congress-Festival “Khomus in the World’s Cultural Space”, and it is at this Festival that a Guinness record was made. Three thousand people took part in the Congress-Festival including delegations from Austria, Finland, Japan, USA and more than 20 other countries.

The idea to organize the largest concert of khomus music in the world looks extravagant only at first sight. Not only because over the half-century period the Guinness Book of Records has accumulated a good deal of the most strange and sometimes disputable human achievements.

The thing is that for Yakutians their traditional khomus, or jaw-harp, is not at all an exotic item of folklore. In the Sakha Republic it is in fact the most popular musical instrument. All Yakuts master it to a greater or lesser degree, and many can play virtuosic, at a professional level.

A record under the big top

In the morning of 24th of June participants in a giant musical ensemble who were set to make a Guinness record in playing khomus started to gather in front of the building of the Yakutsk circus.

All those who gathered in the square were dressed in vividly coloured national costumes. This was a motley show, since each Yakutian ulus (district) has its own traditional clothing. 

Participants in the hall were seated by a moderator, who was arduously swinging his arms and pouring out into the microphone in a mix of Russian and Yakutian. All the seats and even the stairs in passages were occupied by musicians, each of whom was holding a small instrument – the khomus. 

The performance was lead by the President of the International Center of Khomus Music Ivan Alexeev. He started to perform a traditional Yakutian melody, and it was right away taken up by the musicians in the hall. This was a moment of magic. Almost 1500 hands were moving in unison. The vibrating sound was not loud, but it was tense, like a distant thunderstorm. The melody sounded at times louder, at times really hollow; one musical phrase was replacing another just like lines in a long poem do. The performance of the largest ensemble of khomus players in the world was seven minutes long. 

A prayer addressed to the Sun

This year a traditional Yakutian feast Ysyakh was also devoted to the khomus. Ysyakh is the Republic’s major event; it takes place every summer in the Us Khatyn area near Yakutsk. 

Ysyakh is the Sakha people favourite feast. Ancient Yakutians considered the summer solstice a special time. And up to now the wake-up of nature after a long northern winter has a sacred meaning for them. Sakhas believe that the rays of the Sun offer people purification and energy for starting a new year. 

People from Yakutsk and all the nearby uluses arrive with families and in big companies, with their friends and colleagues, they always take tents along and set up a huge camp. And they wear vividly coloured national clothes: cool embroidered “floor-length” dresses and bouffant skirts for women, and shirts resembling Russian kosovorotkas – for the men. 

The opening of the Ysyakh takes place in the morning with the Greeting of the Sun ceremony, for which all those who have come for the feast get together.

This time more than two thousand people participated in the ceremony, and about the same number were watching the traditional show from the tribunes. The President of the Sakha Republic Egor Borisov, dressed in a national costume, made his “new year address” from the stage, in which he wished everybody the well-being and congratulated on the Guinness record made.

In the meantime the traditional Sakha dances were over, and the glade was taken by the one who was the most waited for – the algyschyt, or “well-wisher”, who is especially esteemed among the people. He fired a holy flame and began a rite of “feeding the fire” sprinkling it with koumiss. By the way, the very word “Ysyakh” derives from the Yakutian verb “to sprinkle”.

Then in the absolute silence the priest prayed to the deities of the Upper World (according to Yakutian beliefs there are three worlds – the Upper, the Middle and the Lower) for “strength, vivacity and health” for all the people of Sakha. All those who at this moment were present on the glade stood up and turned to the Sun, which was already almost over their heads, and stretched out their hands to it. As though enchanted, people were replicating the algyschyt’s gestures and the words of the prayer. It is at this moment that you understand that Ysyakh for Yakutians is not just a beautiful rite, but a true heathen feast. 

Celebration of the Ysyakh continued till the end of the next day. There took place national clothes and cuisine contests, as well as the sports Dygyna Games, a khapsagay (stick tugging) tournament, a tournament in Yakutian national khabylyk table games (wands tossing up) and the horseracing.

Not by diamonds alone

In the Soviet times Ysyakh was one of the few national holidays that continued to be celebrated in the Republic. Although the celebration events did not attract as many people and were devoted rather to the beginning of agricultural works. And, of course, no one prayed to the Sun.

Revival of the traditions of Ysyakh began after the breakup of the USSR, and over time it has turned into one of the most popular and well-organized national holidays in Russia.

The Head of the Republic Egor Borisov prefers to call the time of formation of the Russian Federation “the beginning of a new life”. 

And the new life in fact began in Yakutia in 1991. According to the President Borisov, 200 thousand people, i.e. one fifth of the Republic’s population, left the Republic in 1990s. The first Russian decade was a hard time for Yakutian enterprises, just as it was everywhere else in the country. Production of diamonds by the ALROSA Company, which forms the budget of the whole region, fell down in two times. 

But the problem is not as much in the level of production or the riches of the diamond pipes. What was more important for Yakutia was to start processing its gems. As Egor Borisov puts it, in old days the Republic “did not see the diamonds” – all the extracted gems were right away shipped for cutting to other jewelry factories of the USSR. 

In the new Russia Yakutians started to develop their own diamond-cutting sector and jewelry industry based on local raw materials – the Sakha Republic also possesses its own silver and gold deposits. Reserves of the yellow metal are especially significant – almost one quarter of all the Russian reserves. 

Another priority that is mentioned in connection with the plans for future is production of coal in the Southern Yakutia; it is planned that this coal will be exported to the APR countries. In addition, the Republic is ready to supply oil and gas to the Far Eastern neighbours of Russia.

Promoting projects for further export cooperation with other countries is exactly what the Yakutian leaders currently do. For example, in the end of 2010 and in the beginning of 2011 the President Egor Borisov visited Japan and South Korea, where presentations of more than two dozens of proposals on international cooperation were made.  


Alexandra Khomenok, 
Editor of the “Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region” Magazine