ALMATY, Kazakhstan — With his dark hair slicked back into a short ponytail, Nurgun Atakov shared his uncommon story from the stage of a comedy club with an audience of howling Kazakh locals.  

“When you speak Russian poorly, and when you live in Moscow, people treat you so-so,” the comedian confided in heavily accented Russian about the experience of his fellow indigenous natives of the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, in Russia’s far east, 40 percent of which lies above the Arctic Circle. 

“Then I thought I would move to Almaty, and life would be easier,” he said. “But everyone here speaks perfect Russian! So, who actually lived in Russia? Me or you motherf*ckers?”  

Applause and laughter ensued as he moved on to another anecdote about how now it’s elderly Kazakh women, mistaking him for a local because of his Asian features, who berate him for not speaking the Kazakh mother tongue.  

The reception Atakov received at the city’s most popular comedy club reflects the overall warmth with which Kazakhs have otherwise accepted thousands of indigenous immigrants from Sakha who left Russia after their country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. When he arrived in Kazakhstan’s former capital following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 2022 military mobilization order, Kazakh comedians—already familiar with his work from YouTube—pooled resources to find him temporary accommodation. 

The trend of Sakha people—also known as Yakuts, although that Russified term has fallen out of favor among many Sakha in recent years—emigrating from Russia’s largest region to Kazakhstan got underway in March 2022, when two major tech companies from Yakutsk—the Sakha capital—relocated several thousand employees to the Central Asian city to evade international sanctions. 

With a large base of compatriots already in the former Soviet republic, Almaty became an attractive option for many Sakha people, who continue arriving here to escape growing militarism and economic uncertainty back home. A regional air carrier from Yakutsk recently established direct flights for the first time. 

The Sakha emigres I interviewed who, like Atakov, had spent time in Russia outside their republic, related harrowing accounts of the racism that defined much of their experience. Amid growing ethnic-Russian chauvinism, hostility toward Russia’s many ethnic minorities has been escalating alarmingly in recent years.  

The exodus of Sakha has also opened a new connection between two cultures that previously knew little about each other despite sharing ancestral points of confluence. They’re not alone. Against the backdrop of Moscow’s war against Ukraine, many colonized ethnicities of the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union—including both Sakha and Kazakhs—are seeking to revitalize national identities.  

Among Kazakhs, also a Turkic group of nomadic origin, the several thousand Sakha emigres have found a space to explore cultural commonalities, as well as integrate into an expanding economy as tech specialists and creative workers.  

Despite their forced emigration, the Sakha I spoke to say Almaty is a major improvement from their native republic with its unbearable climate and underdeveloped infrastructure, as well as other parts of Russia. 

Still, pervasive authoritarianism in Kazakhstan, as well as extradition agreements with Moscow, make Sakha emigres wary of publicly speaking out against Kremlin policies. 

A resource-extraction colony 

When Westerners think about the remote Russian far east—with its brutal climate and history as a site for exiles and labor camps—Sakha typically comes to mind. 

It’s the world’s largest national subdivision, far larger than India. It is also the coldest territory on Earth inhabited by humans. Temperatures can drop to as low as -6 degrees Fahrenheit in the coldest winters, with an extreme scarcity of daylight throughout much of the year.  

For Moscow, roughly 5,000 miles away, the republic is a treasure trove of natural resources, including diamonds, gold, silver, coal, gas, uranium and timber. Locals complain those riches have not translated into a decent quality of life for the population of roughly 900,000, including about half-a-million ethnic Sakha.  

Regional activists accuse state-backed corporations of transforming the republic into a resource-extraction colony. A 2018 report by the UN’s refugee agency states that while “a quarter of diamonds sold worldwide come from Sakha mines, very little revenue has trickled down to the local Sakha communities.”  

“With all the resources we have, we should be living better than Dubai,” Mariika, a 34-year-old artist who left for Kazakhstan in 2022, told me.  

Many Sakha villages lack grocery stores and rely on traditional wood stoves to heat homes. Growing up in the republic means battling daily against the elements. Mariika, who is from Yakutsk, recalled regularly spotting men in drunken slumbers at bus stops. 

“I knew that if I didn’t shake them awake,” she said, “they would just die of cold during the night.” 

Survival in such extreme conditions is difficult alone, which is why the Sakha people place great importance on family.  

Every summer, comedian Atakov traveled with his siblings to the remote village of their grandparents, who live off the land. The grandchildren would deliver groceries and spend entire summers preparing for the long winter, including days chopping hay with sickles. Because the village has no roads, tractors and other modern farming machinery are rare. 

“A single cow needs two tons of hay to survive through the winter,” Atakov told me over tom yum soup in a trendy Asian fusion restaurant opened by Sakha compatriots. Chuckling like a motor, he interjected “aha” in his speech repeatedly—uncommon for a native Russian speaker.  

His first language is Sakha, and although Russian was taught at his village school, other courses were conducted in the local language. He learned Russian primarily through films and television shows, he said, including a VHS recording of a dubbed Eddie Murphy comedy special he watched “over 100 times.” 

“When I was growing up, Moscow and America basically felt like the same place for me,” he said, “distant, foreign lands.” 

Much of Sakha culture is passed down through oral tradition, so indigenous people know few specifics about their own historical timeline. The century in which their nomadic ancestors arrived in the territory is still debated.  

“Legend has it that one of our chieftains dropped the chronicles of our people into a river,” Atakov quipped. “But maybe that is good because we can have discussions, fantasize and argue over our origins.” 

Still, the Sakha preserved their shamanistic religion of Tengrism, which has experienced something of a revival since the Soviet collapse in 1991. That is reflected in the annual celebration of solstice festivals and practice of “leaving food for the spirits” who watch over the Sakha people in their daily lives.  

Winter in Yakutsk (WikiCommons)


In the capital, where ethnic Russians were a majority until the end of communism, many traditions were diluted. Mariika, who now lives in Almaty with her husband and child, attended a Russian-language school in the city.  

Her upbringing was typical of Yakutsk working-class families in the 1990s. Her public school provided free lunches because “there was not enough food at home.” Her father, who worked at an electrical plant, was sometimes not paid for months. 

In her class of 43 students, Mariika was the only one with Sakha roots. When we spoke, she referred to herself as a “Yakutka.” A tattoo with a geometric Sakha design peaked out from underneath her black hair, and a small ring hung from her septum nose piercing.  

Her classmates would tell her she’s “Russian like [them], just with slanted eyes,” she said.  

Many ethnic Russians in Yakutsk were descendants of political exiles or criminals, forced east by the autocratic policies of the Russian emperors or Soviet government.  

But the demographic makeup of Yakutsk has changed over the last decade, Mariika said, as more Russians departed and rural Sakha people moved into the city. Her Russian classmates eventually left to attend universities to the west. As a result, the Sakha language is now spoken more commonly in Yakutsk than it has been for centuries. 

At 14, Mariika switched to a school exclusively attended by indigenous Sakha.  

“Suddenly, I was the only Sakha who didn’t speak the language, and I would get bullied and ostracized for it,” she said. Eventually, her classmates helped teach her the language.  

Comedian Atakov spoke decent-enough Russian by the age of 18 to attend a university program in “technosphere safety” that prepared him as a specialist coping with the region’s natural disasters. The only reason he pursued the degree, he said, was to escape the military draft.  

Comedy was always his true passion, and while at university, Atakov became a member of the Yakutsk Klub vesyolykh I nakhodchivykh (“Club of the cheerful and resourceful”), or KVN, part of a popular Soviet, and now Russian, television show in which regional teams compete by creating and performing comedy sketches. 

It helped launch the careers of many successful entertainers, including Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who competed as a member of the Zaporizhzhia-Kryvyi Rih-Transit KVN team.  

Atakov initially participated in a Sakha-language KVN team before joining Yakutsk’s Russian-language team, where he began cultivating a comedic image as a village bumpkin with heavily accented Russian.  

A creative hub 

Yakutsk was a far eastern center for exiled scientists and other members of the Soviet intelligentsia, and it preserved its status as a hub for science and creativity after the USSR’s collapse.  

The launch of InDrive, now the second-largest ride-share company in the world, transformed the city into a Russian IT capital, inspiring a generation of locals to study programming. Dzhu, a 32-year-old content manager who now resides in Almaty, joined the company in 2018 when its headquarters were in Yakutsk.  

Most workers were natives of the city with a corporate work culture that mirrored those of tech companies in the United States, as well as a campus boasting coffee shops, relaxation areas and sports facilities. Its founder, the ethnic Sakha entrepreneur Arsen Tomsky, who lives in California where the company is now registered, was known for frequent motivational speeches.  

“People in Yakutsk considered him a local hero,” Dzhu said, lauding Tomsky’s regional philanthropy, particularly during recent wildfires and the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Simultaneously, Yakutsk was becoming a major hub for cinema, with local filmmakers reflecting on their cultural identity. Before its relocation from Russia, InDrive was a main financer. In the fall of 2023, the company continued the tradition in Almaty, launching its Alternativa Film Project, an international nonprofit that finances and showcases up-and-coming directors from countries with small film industries.  

Comedy also gained widespread popularity in Yakutsk over the last decade, part of a nationwide trend. Atakov regularly performed at a club opened by Yakutsk native Sergei Orlov, an ethnic Russian he described as “the most popular stand-up comedian in Russia.”  

Seeing potential in Atakov’s comedic approach, Orlov urged him to move to Moscow, where he promised regular gigs in the city’s most popular venues.  

Screenshot of a documentary about InDrive featuring founder Arsen Tomsky

‘Strangers hurled slurs’ 

While Atakov’s accent may have helped him launch a career as a successful comedian, it also proved a hindrance navigating day-to-day life in Moscow, where he moved at the age of 24.  

His time in Russia’s capital was characterized by countless encounters with racism.  

“I felt it immediately,” he told me. “Police officers would randomly stop me in the metro to ask for documents… Strangers hurled slurs.”  

During his first three months in the city, he lived in hostels while searching for apartments, when landlords would hang up the phone the moment they heard his accent.  

“Some hostels even put up signs saying they only accept people with ‘Slavic features,’” he said.   

Since more than 140 people were killed in a March 2024 terrorist attack in a large Moscow shopping mall—claimed by a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group and which Moscow says was carried out by natives of Central Asia—such incidents have become even more frequent.  

A video showing young Russian neo-Nazis chanting racist slurs at a Sakha native in a Moscow metro station as passersby continue about their day recently went viral. Another video, published last month by the activist group Asians of Russia, showed a group of Russian schoolchildren tormenting and assaulting a female classmate because of her eastern roots.  

During her first-ever trip to Moscow at the age of 19, Mariika also confronted discrimination. She was delighted to be in a city of ethnic Russians, she said, until a drunk man in the metro yelled at her to “get out of here.”  

“I never play into this victimhood when confronted with racism,” she said.  “I would just glare at anyone who harassed me, and they would immediately stop when I showed strength.” 

After completing a degree in design, she moved to Yekaterinburg, a city of 1.5 million residents near the Ural Mountains. She regularly confronted racism there, too, which she casually chalked up to the “tough Urals mentality, spitting sunflower shells and all.” 

Three women once assaulted her outside a bar, an incident she described in a matter-of-fact tone. For a year and half, she struggled to find a job because of her appearance, she said—a fact potential employers openly admitted. Eventually, an Armenian hired her as a designer for his furniture store. 

Having always considered herself Russian, Mariika was bewildered by the treatment.  

“I grew up among [them],” she said. “I am one of them.” 

The war in Ukraine 

For many years, Mariika failed to grasp that the chauvinism she confronted daily was a consequence of Russia’s violent colonial past, she said.  

The war against Ukraine, therefore, felt like a “shock.”  

“Maybe I was just so far from it, but I felt no hint that a war was going to happen. I hardly even knew about the Donbas,” she said, referring to the eastern Ukrainian region where Russia has stoked an anti-Kyiv conflict since 2014. 

“Suddenly, our eyes in Yakutsk opened to the fact that the war had actually already been happening for eight years,” she added. 

As reports surfaced that the Russian army was sending ethnic minorities to the front in disproportionately large numbers, Mariika concluded there was a “double genocide” happening, with the Kremlin relying on non-Russian citizens to subdue Ukraine. 

“The front lines are always comprised of either eastern or North Caucasus minorities,” she said.  

For the last several years, Mariika, her husband—also an ethnic Sakha—and their infant daughter spent the winters in warm places abroad—Bali, Hawaii and Thailand—a practice colloquially referred to by Russians as zimovat, or “overwinter.”  

They were in the seaside Georgian town of Batumi when news of Russia’s February 2022 invasion broke.  

While countless Russian exiles began arriving in Georgia, Mariika and her husband, still confused about the situation, decided to return to Yakutsk because they “no longer felt safe” in a country experiencing rising anti-Russian sentiment.  

“Only in the context of a war was I beginning to gain political literacy about my country,” she admitted.  

Eventually, the September 2022 mobilization drew the curtain on their time in their home republic, prompting their move to Kazakhstan.  

Atakov, too, described feeling distant from politics, which he justified by explaining that, as an indigenous Sakha, he felt like a “guest in Moscow.”  

“I felt like I had no right to say anything negative about the country,” he told me.  

For many natives of the Sakha Republic, he continued, Kremlin politics felt inaccessible. And it was particularly dangerous for people already treated as second-class citizens to take part in anti-war protests.  

Evening in central Almaty

On February 23, the day before the full-scale invasion, Atakov performed a stand-up monologue in which he jokingly speculated about the possibility of war breaking out. 

“The next morning, when news broke of the invasion, I realized my jokes were no longer funny,” he said. He asked that the routine not be published on a YouTube channel with over 1 million subscribers.  

Despite an immediate exodus of many well-known comedians, Atakov initially decided to stay in Russia, citing financial reasons. But his self-ironic comedy about “Russian racism and Russian chauvinism” suddenly became too topical, and organizers stopped inviting him to perform.  

“Managers would tell comedians not to joke about the war, nationalism or imperialism out of self-preservation,” he said.  

Eventually, mobilization pushed him out of the country too, and he flew to Almaty, where over 1,000 Sakha tech workers—among them, close friends—were already residing.   

Because many of InDrive’s customers were in South America and Africa, its executives quickly decided to relocate outside of Russia, fearing the repercussions of sanctions imposed against Moscow. 

Dzhu, a former employee of the company, also fled to Kazakhstan to escape mobilization. Like Atakov, Mariika and her husband, he initially remained in Russia after the full-scale invasion.  

Just a month before the war, Dzhu and his wife made their dream move to St. Petersburg where the climate—still notorious for its harsh, dark winters—was “much more pleasant than Yakutsk.” They had already purchased an apartment, and Dzhu had found a job in the city.  

After the government declared mobilization, however, he realized that his “appearance” would put him in peril.  

“As an ethnic minority in St. Petersburg, I knew the police would just randomly stop me,” he said.  

For several weeks before he left for Kazakhstan, Dzhu hid in his apartment to avoid encounters with police who could force conscription notices on him. 

He initially left his wife behind to finish renovating their apartment. Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, was his first destination, and he arrived on a bus full of mobilization deserters from Chelyabinsk, a Russian city less than 65 miles from the Kazakh border. The September 2022 partial mobilization drive saw some 400,000 Russian nationals arrive in Kazakhstan.   

For two weeks, he searched for an apartment in a market flooded by Russian emigres before he decided to move to Shymkent, the country’s third-largest city near the borders with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.  

Several young Almaty residents described Shymkent to me as a city where “you can get punched in the face for speaking Russian.” Unlike the more cosmopolitan Astana and Almaty, the southwestern border city preserves a strong national identity, and many locals, especially younger working-class men, refuse to speak Russian. 

I picked up on this firsthand during my few hours in Shymkent. While snaking through its dilapidated Soviet neighborhoods in a taxi with a companion from the United Kingdom, I listened to the driver draw a comparison between the respective colonial histories of India and Kazakhstan.  

“[India] was once under the thumb of the British Empire, and look it at now, a global economy,” he said in English, refusing to speak Russian as we glided past newly erected statues of nomadic Kazakh warriors. “We will get there one day too.” 

For Dzhu, such nationalistic sentiments meant that finding an apartment or a job in the city was difficult, as many locals were suspicious of Russian nationals. By January 2023, he moved to Almaty with his wife, where he now works as a content manager at Kaspi, a Kazakh “unicorn” company that functions as an online store and a money-transfer app. 

“Almaty is our home now,” he told me. “We like the climate and the people.” 

Like many Sakha emigres in the city, Dzhu and his wife are putting down roots here. But they do not intend to sever ties with their native heritage. They hope their daughter, who was born in Almaty last year, will grow up speaking three languages—Kazakh, Russian and Sakha.  

Almaty, a multicultural city 

The Sakha are the latest in a long line of ethnic groups to arrive in Kazakhstan, first as settlers during the Russian empire and later as forcibly displaced, supposed “enemies of the people.” 

At a music venue opened by recent Russian emigres called Bardak or “mess” in Russian, I met an ethnic Belarusian who grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking village in northern Kazakhstan. The young man’s ancestors were among those who settled the region, known as “Gray Ukraine,” in the 19th century. 

Later came the kulaks, peasants who resisted Soviet collectivization policies and were punished with deportation. During World War II, members of the Soviet intelligentsia were relocated to Almaty along with their enterprises: theaters, universities, technical schools, hospitals, motion-picture studios and industrial facilities. 

This drastically changed the demography of Almaty, making Kazakhs an ethnic minority until the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the war drew to a close, violent Soviet deportation policies pushed another million non-ethnic Russians—including Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and several indigenous groups from the North Caucasus—into the Central Asian republic, further reducing Kazakhs to 30 percent of the population of their native land.  

While some deported groups returned to their ancestral homelands after dictator Josef Stalin’s death and others as the Soviet Union collapsed, Almaty and Astana remain Russian-speaking. In Almaty, I noticed young people switching between fluent Kazakh and Russian with ease.  

Screenshot of Nurgun Atakov’s comedy special in Almaty

This made it easier for newly arrived emigres from Russia “to melt into the fabric of society,” Caress Schenk, an American professor of political science at Astana’s Nazarbaev University told me over a Zoom call.  

Still, the start of Russia’s colonial war in Ukraine spurred a “big push among widespread parts of the population to really rethink their relationship with Russia, especially through a colonial lens,” Schenk added. “And there was a big surge to learn the Kazakh language.” 

Two years down the line, however, Schenk believes locals lack the emotional energy to “sustain this discourse.” 

But such swells in nationalist sentiment do not necessarily affect Kazakhs’ feelings toward emigres from Russia, Schenk’s research assistant Alex, a Russian scholar who is also in exile, told me.  

“Most locals were surprised and interested in the newcomers, which created all kinds of exchanges,” he said. Emigres from the Sakha Republic have been greeted with particular warmth.  

Ponoekhalny is a colloquial Russian expression of disdain for immigrants or other outsider groups who “arrive in large numbers.” In Moscow, Atakov would often hear it aimed in his direction, sometimes as the door to his apartment building was shut in his face.   

Now the expression is directed at Russians who left their country after the war and settled in former Soviet republics. Sometimes it is applied humorously, as in Armenia, and sometimes derogatorily, as in Georgia, a country where Russian emigres are less welcome.  

In Almaty, however, the expression is seldom used, Atakov said. Sakha emigres, in particular, are considered “brothers” by many Kazakhs. 

“Just like in Sakha, Kazakhstan also has the problem that many locals do not know their own language and still only speak Russian,” he said.  

In addition to his stand-up performances, Atakov runs a YouTube channel called Turkic Phrasebook that features comedians with non-Russian backgrounds from the former Soviet Union. His guests, who range from Tatars to Armenians and Uzbeks, discuss the cultural rituals of their communities. A local mobile virtual network operator, IZI, supports the channel.  

One the show’s cohosts, a Kazakh comedian and copywriter named Aibek Khasanov, has long taken an interest in Turkic peoples and studied in Istanbul.  

“I always wondered why different Slavic groups, for example, know about each other,” he told me during a telephone interview. “But we Turkic peoples know nothing of one another.”  

Upon acquainting himself with Sakha, Khasanov realized Kazakhs and Sakha have more in common than they do with most other Turkic ethnicities.  

“Maybe our harsher, northern climates have made us more inclined to self-irony than the Turkic peoples living in more southern climates.”  

“It’s amazing that we continue to help and learn from each other, and I’m proud to see how my compatriots have welcomed the Sakha,” Aibek added. “I think one of the most difficult things for [diasporas] is when they have no local support.” 

Atakov is now married to a Kazakh woman and is learning the language as he applies for a residency permit.  

Kazakhstan is the “ideal place,” he said. 

“Even if everything was fine in Russia, I would prefer to live here,” he said. “Nobody is racist toward me, and more and more Sakha are coming.” 

Mariika likens the relationship between Kazakhs and Sakha to “an older brother—Kazakh—and a younger sister—Sakha.”  

“If I hadn’t been accepted like [family] here, I think I’d go nuts,” she told me.  

The Sakha community in Almaty has used this opportunity to showcase their traditions to the locals. Last week, they hosted their second annual Yhyakh, a summer solstice festival imbued with shamanistic rituals, dance and national cuisine, attended by nearly 3,000 people—mostly locals. 

While the majority of Kazakhs practice Islam, Tengrism also permeated Kazakh nomadic societies before the 15th century formation of the Kazakh Khanate, the first Kazakh state. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Kazakh intellectuals attempted to revive the cosmological religion. With the arrival of Sakha—for whom Tengrism is still the main faith—Mariika said, some urban Kazakhs are showing a renewed interest.  

“There are many people in Kazakh society who say this is the most real expression of Kazakh identity,” Khasanov told me.  

A Kazakh acquaintance of mine named Temujin lives in Tbilisi and asked that I not use his last name, citing security concerns. He takes issue with what he believes to be the “colonized mentality” of his people and told me that the arrival of Tengrism with the Sakha could play a unique role in forging a distinct Kazakh identity.   

“Kazakhstan has two problems: Russification and Arabization,” he told me, noting the Arabic language continues to make its way into the more devoutly Islamic parts of Kazakh society.  

“In our pagan traditions, the Kazakh language has been preserved, and building bridges with the Sakha could help with our own cultural revival,” he added.  

But this sentiment is not widespread.  

“Some things need to be left in the past, and there is no reason to dig them up,” Khasanov, the Kazakh comedian, admitted when asked about Tengrism. “When Kazakhs emerged as a nationality [through the Kazakh Khanate], most of us were already Muslims, and it would be foolish to deny this. Islam has always been our religion, and thanks to its concrete rules and dogma, it pushed out Tengrism.” 

In the 19th century, the Kazakh Khanate eventually capitulated to the Russian Empire, which used the newly conquered lands to build military settlements, abolish indigenous governments and implement colonial Russification policies that carried on into the Soviet Union.  

As part of the Kazakh government’s attempt to revive the national identity, the government latinized the alphabet in 2017, rejecting the Soviet-imposed Cyrillic script. The move was not received well among Russian nationalists.  

Just last month, Russian parliament Deputy Pyotr Tolstoi warned of what could be a conflict between the two nations if Kazakhstan continues its nation-building trajectory.   

“Look at what is happening in Kazakhstan today in terms of building a so-called Kazakh state,” he said in a radio interview. “A national mythology about independence and the transition to the Latin script is blossoming.” 

“Let them not forget that Almaty is our faithful city, our Russian fortress in Kazakhstan,” he warned in a pompous tone. 

Colonial history 

The October 2023 arrest of Ayhal Amassov, a Sakha punk musician and activist who fled to Kazakhstan after facing charges of “discrediting Russia’s armed forces” and “extremism,” put the Sakha community in Almaty on high alert. The activist was detained by Kazakh authorities acting on a Russian government request for his extradition.  

Because Russia and Kazakhstan’s extradition agreements do not include such charges, his case remains in limbo, although he is being held in solitary confinement. One Kazakh activist advocating on his behalf recently described Amassov as “stuck between judiciary systems.”  

While many Kazakhs I spoke to believe their officials privately condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, the two countries maintain a strong strategic partnership. Just a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kazakh government called on the Russian military to help quell the largest protests the country had seen in three decades, spurred by a sharp increase in gas prices and overall discontent with the political climate. The death toll from “Bloody January” eventually reached 277. 

Such a clouded political climate has made Russian nationals in Kazakhstan—especially vulnerable ethnic minorities like the Sakha—wary of publicly expressing discontent with government policies. 

“It’s dangerous for us to speak out here,” Dzhu said.  

Even in conversation with me, Atakov, Mariika and Dzhu asked that we avoid discussing the war in Ukraine or any blatant criticisms of the Russian government.  

A Soviet war memorial in Almaty says “Russia is vast but there is nowhere to retreat—Moscow is behind us!”

“I liken Russia to a family of alcoholics,” Mariika said. “I’m traumatized from living in that country. Although I left, I don’t want to criticize it because it’s still the family that raised me. I will speak objectively about it, but without passing any judgment, just laying out facts like a psychologist.” 

Still, in private and among friends, they discuss their colonial history with passion. After our interview, Atakov took me to a Sakha-owned bar in Almaty, where I watched patrons—all emigres from the republic—practicing the Sakha language.  

“In the US, each state has its own laws,” Atakov said in the bar. “This is what I want for Sakha.”  

When I asked about the possibility of his native republic gaining full independence from Russia, he hesitated.  

“I’m not so sure,” he answered. “Things could get worse. Maybe China would seize us and makes us a colony.” 

The fear that China could one day try to annex the territory was a sentiment I heard from many Sakha emigres. During her last visit to her native republic, Mariika noticed Chinese companies building hotels and cutting down forests for timber.  

Last year, the construction of a direct freight railroad between China and the Sakha Republic was approved, fueling fears that, as the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov once said: Putin is turning the Far East into “a colony of China.” 

“We are too small of a population to separate from Russia and fend for ourselves,” Mariika mused.  

Atakov also pointed out the creative energy in Yakutsk, which, because of wartime censorship and brain drain, is beginning to wane.  

“Our people learn and develop very quickly,” he said. “In the 19th century, we were still nomads, but now Yakutsk is one of the tech capitals of Russia.” 

Last year, the award-winning film Aita, which became the highest-grossing film ever from Russia’s Far East, made headlines when it was removed from domestic streaming services by the Kremlin’s media watchdog.  

The thriller revolves around a conflict between indigenous Sakha villagers and a Russian police officer accused of a heinous crime. According to the Russian authorities, “the film demonstrates inequality on the basis of nationality” for its alleged negative portrayal of an ethnic Russian.  

Mark Shishkin, a popular Tatarstan-based historian and film critic, criticized the government’s move for “angering and alienating the Sakha creative class” in a post published on Telegram last September.  

“They are a social group with a significant media presence, a well-earned reputation and a great deal of influence over the minds of Sakha people,” Shishkin wrote. “These pointless attacks may have long-reaching implications that we will see 10 or 20 years from now.”  

‘A time of great calamity’  

Hunting is one of the many traditions the Sakha have preserved.  

“They say every Sakha person can shoot a squirrel between the eyes,” Mariika told me. The number of gun owners in Sakha—many illegal—greatly eclipses that of any other Russian region. 

“Among my friends back home, it was common practice to gift rifles for a 30th birthday,” she said.  

To cope with an extremely harsh climate and daunting terrain, Sakha people are raised with survivalist skills. They can forage for food and build fires with ease.  

Such skills, coupled with their marksmanship, make them ideal candidates for the army, Mariika mentioned.   

While other indigenous groups from Russia’s eastern reaches, such as Buryats, have been conscripted in far greater numbers than the Sakha, the Moscow authorities have taken note that the Far Eastern republic has been failing to meet manpower quotas. In November 2023, the regional military commissar announced that the Russian military was seeking 540 local men a week to fight in Ukraine.  

“One Sakha soldier is worth 10 Russians,” Mariika told me. She recalled that their physical education courses in school were “very militarized,” as if to prepare local children for combat one day.   

One of her former classmates who had completed prior military service was mobilized into a special forces unit last year. She communicates with him regularly, and he reports how “they are killed at night, with one rifle for every three men.”  

Out of 160 men in his regiment, only 40 survived, he told her. The rest, he said, “were left decaying on cold Ukrainian ground, with nobody to retrieve their bodies.”  

I was taken aback by how nonchalantly she related such horrors. At the end of our conversation, she spoke about how, increasingly, more shamans are emerging in the republic. Many of them, she said, hold dissenting opinions and have been forecasting turbulent periods. 

One shaman, Alexander Gabyshev, famously attempted to march on Moscow in 2019 with the mission of “exorcising Vladimir Putin.” His journey was swiftly interrupted when authorities detained him and threw him into a psychiatric facility, where he remains to this day.   

“They say that when shamans begin to wake up, it signals a time of great calamity,” Mariika said. 

Top photo: Comedian Nurgun Atakov at a Sakha emigre bar in Almaty