The Sakha Republic – also known as Yakutia – is the single largest region in Russia, and at over 3 million square kilometres in size, it is also the largest subnational governing body by area in the entire world. Its placement on the Northern Hemisphere results in severe climate conditions, with average winter temperatures that regularly dip below −35°C, balanced out by warm summers across most of its major townships. At its most extreme, Yakutia is the coldest point on the planet, and its northernmost region at the cold pole easily drops to −60°C.

Buildings in Yakutsk are constructed on stilts because of the permafrost. Stilts are needed to prevent the house’s heat from melting the permafrost. © Alex Vasyliev, LensCulture Emerging Talent 2018

In such extreme weather conditions, venturing outside on a regular basis is out of the question, and most of Yakutia’s population is forced to stay indoors during the coldest winter months. For photographer Alex Vasyliev, who lives in the country’s capital of Yakutsk, life near the pole has proved tiresome. “I still dream of leaving,” he says. “Life in a city with a population of just over 300,000, albeit the capital of Yakutia, seems unbearably boring.” In search of something – anything – to combat this boredom, Vasyliev decided to take up photography.

Looking at his surroundings through the lens of his camera, Vasyliev has slowly learned how to appreciate his place of birth. From the discomfort on people’s faces as they hustle between destinations in the dead of winter, to the golden light of summer glowing on their freed and tousled hair, Vasyliev expertly captures the daily reality and traditions of his people. An image of women surrounded by reindeer pelts in their workshop is a nod to the traditional “unti” – the most popular shoes in Yakutia. “Despite the expensive price of fur products, such as fur coats and fur shoes, they are always in high demand,” Vasyliev explains.

The most popular shoes in Yakutia are “unti” (reindeer fur shoes). The Sardaana factory makes fur products.
© Alex Vasyliev, LensCulture Emerging Talent 2018

For some time, Yakutia’s harsh conditions have attracted many tourists, who are interested in experiencing – albeit briefly – the way of life for people living in such an extreme climate. “Winter has really become a brand that attracts tourists from all over the world,” the photographer explains. “They are interested in how people live in a region with such a harsh climate and population density of 1 person per 3 square kilometres. But my photos are an attempt to show how we live all year round, and not just in the winter.” Images of Yakutia’s dense, frozen fog are balanced out with photographs of traditional summer rituals like Ysyakh, a festival celebrating the Yakut New Year. “The event is devoted to the awakening of nature, celebration of warmth, and beginning of new life,” Vasyliev reflects.

Women in National Yakut dresses are preparing for a blessing ritual during the National Summer Festival - Ysyakh. The festival is the main and only national event, Yakut New Year.
© Alex Vasyliev, LensCulture Emerging Talent 2018

At the end of the day, Vasyliev hopes that his images help people connect to his homeland in the same way that he was able to re-connect with it himself. “Since discovering photography, I no longer dream of running away from here,” he explains. “I began to enjoy this life. Yakutia is a completely different world, with different conditions for living. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring.”