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. But despite its expansive geographical coverage, Yakutia only has a population of one million people, and remains one of the most under-explored regions on our planet. This elusive presence is primarily owed to its placement on the Northern Hemisphere, which results in severe climate conditions: average winter temperatures that regularly dip below −35°C combined with contrastingly warm summers across 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.
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, even though it is the capital of Yakutia, feels unbearably boring. Winter is long, and temperatures below zero and its accompanying snow last from October to mid-April.” In search of something—anything—to combat his boredom, Vasyliev decided to take up photography.
To his surprise, while looking at his surroundings through the lens of his camera, Vasyliev slowly learned 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.
While the region is generally unexplored, Yakutia’s harsh conditions do sometimes attract curious visitors, 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,” Vasyliev 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.” And so, 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.
While his images are meant to illustrate the isolation that many residents feel throughout their lifetime, Vasyliev also hopes the photographs will 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.”