To understand just how cold it it here, consider that January temperatures in the United States, the lowest since the nation's founding, were an average of 70 degrees fahrenheit warmer than they are very year for months at a time in this huge region of Siberia.
This is a land where children go to school until the thermometer hits 98 degrees below zero, where each breath freezes into a "whisp of stars that covers the streets in a misty fog, where airplane doors must be pried open with steam and the thick rubber soles on boots made for the coldest New England weather crack almost immediately.
It is also the home of about 800,000 people, a growing proportion of them emigrants from warmer parts of the Soviet Union, sent here to defy the elements in exploting some of the world's richest reserves of gas, diamonds, gold and coal buried in vast stretches of permafrost. It is alsmot the size of all Western Europe. As an Englishman who visited recently put it, Yakisk, or Yakutia as it is also called, is exaggreration country.
Bravado spirit and the frontiers men's manner of the miners and builders come through in an often repeated local ditty: "a thousand kilometers is not distance, 50 degrees of fros tis snot cold, 40 proof vodka is not vodka, 100 rubles is not money and 90-year-old woman is not too old."
The history of Yakutia is romantic stuff. For centureis the only residents were trappers and herdsmen of northern tribes, Evens, CHukehas, Dolgans and others, kin to the Eskimos. Is the Middle Ages (came the Yakuts, descendents of Mongol Turkic invaders. Then some Russian missionaries appeared as well as Czarist exiles, visionaries and adventurers. They live for scattered settlements and isloation was their way of life.
Bundled up in animal furs, they reveled on reindeer sleds to hunt moose and bear for food and for conering tent-like houses called yerts. In outlying areas they are still doing it. One small Russian group is so remote that it retains an old Slavid diaect that many modern Russians would find hard to follow.
Such natives accept the cold the way Africans do the jungle heat, as a dominant force, something intrinsic and unquestioned. Yet coping with the extreme winters is never easy and even full-blooded Yakuts whose families have lived on the land for generations regard the six months of frost with awe.
Being accustomed to the cold, they say, is not the same as conquering it.
On a hunting trip along the coast of the Laptev Sea laste last fall, Arean Kuzmin, a vigorous 93-year-old scientist who is vice chairman of the regional government, was stranded for several days. "I though I was going to give up my soul," he recalls. "The cold can be a terrible factor if you can't get sufficient wawmth or if you are not properly dressed. When the helicopter came I had tears in my eyes."
Imagine, then, how imposing the aveage January temperature of 46 below zero is for the thousands of people who come here from less forbidding places eveyr year to work. Only about 40 per cent of the population can be described as indigenous - Yakuts and other hardy peoples whose ties to the area are ancient. Even these are frequently joining the new-comers in towns where the state seeks to provide them with a standard of living comparable to that in other parts of the country.
Assuming adequate protection from the elements, Kuzmin maintained in an interview, the human organism can adjust to the Yakutian climate in three months. Some longtime residents complain nonetheless, that they find the frozen fogs depressing, or as one put it, "My brain seems to stop working on the worst days."
Virtually the only time spent outdoors during the harshest months of winter is what it takes to get from oneplace to another.Not until March are sucn relaxing and healthful pastimes recommended. To ease the strain of being so cooped up, authorities are making new apartments somewhat larger than in warmer places.
The official effort to achieve normalcy is greatly helped by the fact highest recorded temperatures for July are over 100 - providing a chance to grow some crops and ferry supplies up the long Lena River from the nearest rail terminals, hundreds of miles away.
Dry frost is the rule, moreover, and that makes the low temperatures seem more bearable. Rostislav Kamensky, a department head at the permafrost Institute, said that when he visits his relatives in Leningrad, he finds the dampness and temperatures in the teens there are more uncomfortable than the bracing sub-zero cold in Yakutsk.
This city, the administrative center for the territory, has a population of about 150,000 and is scheduled to grow to more than a quartermillion by 1990. (Anchjorage, Alaska, by comparison, has about 50,000). There is a university and a resident theatrical repertory company that does musicals as well as drama. Last week, a new production of Shakespeare's Otheollo premiered, in a translation by the famed Russian poet Boris Pasternak.
The supply of consumer goods is remarkably good by Soviet standards - better than in many other provincial towns. Aside from the natural emphasis on heavy clothing, there are tape recorders, color televisions and console record players, plainly meant to encourage recreations.
Food seems to be more of a problem. A downtown food store was jammed at 5 p.m. with people waiting on line for any meat. A Russian staple like mineral water is not availabe at all because transporting it is so complicated. Citrus fruits cost more than twice as much as in Moscow. A pound of oranges, when available, goes for about $2.50.
Getting people to come to face the cold and other inconveniences is still not easy. Teachers, technical experts, even the deputy director to serve here for a time as soon as the complete their education. Many then leave.
"Without incentives and inducements," Kuzmin remarked whtih accord from his colleagues at the Permafrost Institute, "It would be very difficult to attract the specialist we need."
Salaries in Yakutia all carry a large bonus and some are more than twice what they would be for similar work in Moscow. Vacations are 42 days long instead of the 24 elsewhere, plus an unpaid 15 days travel time. Every other year, each resident receives a ticket to any point in the Soviet Union. Even arranging travel abroad seems a bit easier. A young researcher at the university said that last year he was in a group of 40 Yakuts that went on a gala 24-day tour of Western Europe at a state-subsidized low price.
Senior scientists at the Permafrost Insitute, considered one of the best such institutions in its field, are permitted to maintain apartments in other cities while tecnically living here.
People past retirement age, which is five years below that generally applied, amy buy flats in warmer cities instead of having to wait in line.
The fact remains that living standards in Yakutsk do rival those of major Soviet cities in many ways, which is a substantial achievement - an act of enormous will and expense that reflects the Soviet leadership's determination to develop Siberia's vast resources.