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19:34 | Aug 02 | 2012

The Master of Fire

An authentic Yakut knife can be bought only from Yakut blacksmiths.

Blacksmiths have always been high on the social ladder of the Sakha people. According to the legend, blacksmiths were considered the elder brothers of shamans, who often dreaded their fire mastery abilities. Today we are talking to Nikolai Popov, one of the best Yakut blacksmiths.

- Nikolai, when did you take interest in blacksmithing?
- Ever since I was a kid. It’s not surprising since many of my ancestors were master blacksmiths. I made my first knife from an iron door hinge when I was twelve. I had it with me for many years. At first, it was just a hobby, but I took up blacksmithing quite seriously after graduating from university. Apart from knives, I also make khomuses. In 1991, I made the world’s first electronic khomus. Its operation is based on the principles of electromagnetism.

Blacksmiths and Metallurgists’ Association of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) was established last year. It is aimed at training and providing expert assistance to Yakut smiths and metallurgical technicians. In January 2011, an advanced training program for blacksmiths was arranged by the Division of Solid State Physics at the North-Eastern Federal University. At the end of the course, the participants were given certificates. Blacksmiths need specialist knowledge as many of them do not know all distinctive features of the metal and identify its properties only approximately.

- On the recent 25th Blade: Traditions and Modernity International Exhibition you won the gold award in the Best Artistically Crafted Knife category.
- It was the fourth time I had taken part in that exhibition. I won awards in different categories in the other years. The category I had been nominated for this time is the most prestigious exhibition award. The jury panel included representatives of the Russian Ministry of Culture. Knives in this category are evaluated not by their working properties (e.g. metal quality, cutting properties, and area of use) but by their aesthetic element, as a piece of art. I had a few serious competitors, both among individual knife makers and reputable companies, such as Zlatoust-based AiR, the oldest knife manufacturer in the CIS.
It took me two years to make this knife. The pattern gradually changed, I constantly remodeled and refined it. My work resulted in the knife adorned with 114 diamonds and 250 lab-grown emeralds with a Damascus steel blade and birch burl handle and sheath. It has about 300g of silver and 40g of gold.
- Your winning the award will probably contribute to making Yakut blacksmithing popular. How would you evaluate the awareness of such Yakut brand as the Yakut knife?
- When I took part in the exhibition for the first time in 2004, there were no Yakut knives presented at the event. My knives were sold out the first day and I was surprised at such great interest. However, the next time I participated in the exhibition I noticed that the number of so called Yakut knives increased. Those buyers at the previous event turned out to be big company managers. Later some company representatives admitted that they had replicated my knives. I don’t hold a grudge against them, all the more so because true blade lovers know that an authentic Yakut knife can be bought only from Yakut blacksmiths.
The Yakut knife, one of the best in the world, is considered all-purpose. It has only the necessary and nothing more. It didn’t always have the shape it has now; the evolution of the knife blade took several hundred years. The shape of the knife is tailored to a certain task but while other peoples have different knives for specific purposes, a Yakut man has always been a hunter, fisherman, carpenter, etc., which explains why knives are made all-purpose.
- According to the Yakut mythology, blacksmiths possess great supernatural powers. As one myth says, shamans were afraid only of blacksmiths. Only the smith could resist dark and evil shamans.
- It is true. The blacksmith as a person who knew the secret of smelting metal was respected. It was a blacksmith who made many of shaman’s sacred objects. According to the legend, the blacksmith placed certain restrictions while making them so that the shaman could not use his powers against smiths. The myths say that blacksmiths belong neither to the Upper nor Lower World. Kudai Bakhsy, a deity and the progenitor of all smiths, lives in the Lower World, yet is closer to the Middle one and considered a neutral character.
- Is it possible to say that modern-day Yakut blacksmiths worship Kudai Bakhsy?
- Yes, we worship Kudai Bakhsy and the Spirit of Fire, offer them gifts, “feed” fire, and ask them for help in what we do. Unfortunately, the knowledge and skills our ancestors possessed are partly lost. The ties between generations were broken in the Soviet Russia. Of course, blacksmiths were not persecuted at the time but their knowledge wasn’t passed on to younger generations with the public policy of atheism playing the crucial role in it.
Iron production in the old-fashioned way, when it was extracted from the ore, is almost forgotten. Along with a few enthusiasts we have smelted iron this way several times. The problem, though, is that many details and secrets of this process have been forgotten. But we will continue working towards re-discovering the authentic Yakut blacksmith’s craft. Without the fundamentals, consisting of our ancestors’ traditions and ways, we won’t be able to move onto a new level.

Nikolai Kychkin