A Letter From Russia
Journey to “the Edge of the Earth”
OUR small plane took off from Yakutsk and gradually gained altitude over the Tuymaada Valley. Leaving behind a multitude of frozen lakes of various shapes and sizes, we flew over the Verkhoyanskiy, a series of snow-covered peaks bathed in sunlight. After traveling 550 miles [900 km], we finally touched down in the village of Deputatskiy.
This was the beginning of my travels in the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia, a beautiful but harsh land, larger than all of Western Europe. It is a place where temperatures can range from 105 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C] in the summer to -95 degrees Fahrenheit [-70°C] in the winter and where the ground yields fossil remains of enormous, long-extinct animals. Although several years have passed since my last visit, I remember as if it were yesterday the small towns wrapped in thick fog, the shimmering northern lights, and the cheerful, hardy Yakut people.
The village of Deputatskiy was not our final destination. My traveling companion and I were to visit some other villages. The first one was Khayyr, 200 miles [300 km] farther to the north, near the Laptev Sea, in northern Siberia. Why did we decide to make the trip? Earlier, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to these villages and had found many people who wanted to learn more about the Bible. It turned out that we in Yakutsk, about 600 miles [1,000 km] away, are the nearest to them! We felt that these people needed encouragement and help.
When we arrived in Deputatskiy, we found a man who was driving to Khayyr, and he offered to give us a ride for a small fee. We were a bit hesitant when we saw his car—an old, beat-up Soviet model reeking of gasoline. Anyway, we decided to take a chance, and we left with him that evening. Little did we know what awaited us.
The seats in the car felt as frozen as the tundra outside, and it didn’t take very long for us to realize that they were not going to thaw out. We asked to stop at the first opportunity and rummaged in our bags for warm woolen clothing, which we layered over the clothes we wore. But the cold bore into us relentlessly all the same.
Our driver, a seasoned man of the North, was as cheerful as could be. Suddenly he asked, “Have you ever seen the northern lights?” I never had, so he stopped the car, and we crawled out. For a moment, all was forgotten. I stood transfixed, marveling at the shimmering, multicolored curtains of light that furled and unfurled above us—a miraculous sight that seemed just an arm’s length overhead.
Somewhere out on the frozen tundra in the early morning darkness, we got stuck in a snowdrift. We helped the driver get his car out of that trouble—and several times thereafter—as we progressed toward Khayyr along roads that had been plowed through the deep snow. It was only after daybreak that I realized that the “roads” were actually frozen rivers! Finally, around noon, 16 hours after we had left Deputatskiy, we reached Khayyr. Although expecting to fall ill after such prolonged exposure to the cold, we got up the next morning as fresh as ever. Only my toes felt a little numb, possibly from frostbite. The villagers gave me some bear grease to rub on them.
Normally, we would call on people at their homes to talk about the good news. Here in Khayyr, however, as soon as the villagers learned of our arrival, they came looking for us! Every day for two and a half weeks, we studied the Bible with the local people, sometimes from early morning to late night. It was thrilling to meet so many warm, hospitable people who were interested in spiritual matters. Several elderly Yakut women told us: “We believe in God. The fact that you have come here, to the edge of the earth, shows that there is a God!”
We were intrigued by the local customs. For example, people stack blocks of ice like firewood next to their houses. Whenever they need water, they simply pick up one of the blocks and stand it in a large kettle over the fire to melt. The villagers treated us to a wonderful Arctic fish called chir, delicious when enjoyed as stroganina, a local delicacy. The fish is frozen as soon as it is caught, then cut into thin strips, dipped into a mixture of salt and pepper, and eaten at once. The villagers also enjoyed telling us about fossilized remains, such as mammoth tusks, and fossilized trees, which they often find in this area.
From Khayyr, I traveled hundreds of miles, mostly by plane, to visit those interested in the Bible in other villages in Yakutia. How warm and loving the people here are! Once I met a small boy who somehow found out that flying made me nervous. To encourage me, he made me a card. He drew a pair of sparrows and a small plane and wrote: “Sasha, when you fly on a plane, don’t be afraid of falling. Matthew 10:29.” How touched I was when I looked up the scripture! There, I read Jesus’ words about the sparrows: “Not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.”
I have recounted just a few of my many impressions of Yakutia. That cold, harsh land will ever remind me of those warm, wonderful people who truly live at “the edge of the earth.”
[Pictures on page 25]
We found the Yakut people to be warm and hospitable