Life on the permafrost in Yakutsk

Though he is from France, Alexis Pazoumian has long had ties with Russia. His grandfather, the painter Richard Jeranian, is originally from Armenia, and was among the first Western artists of his generation to go to Moscow in 1957, and then again in 1970, and then again for an exhibition in Novosibirsk in Siberia. “I grew up listening to the stories of his travels to this strange and far-away land,” says Pazoumian, “and it made me want to go there.”

Pazoumian’s uncle also adopted an Armenian girl after she was orphaned in the 1988 earthquake; this girl now lives in Yakutsk in the far north of Russia, so when Pazoumian heard about them, he decided he’d like to go to visit. “I was very well-received by this family,” he says. “They helped me throughout my stay.”

Yakutsk is located just shy of the arctic circle and in winter records the coldest temperatures for any major city on earth; in January the average monthly temperature is −38.6°C, and it’s not unusual to have days as cold as -50°C. The city is built on continuous permafrost, which means that it’s so cold that the subsoil is permanently frozen; in winter all the lakes freeze over and are turned into roads, and when it is very cold, a thick mist descends that makes it hard to see more than a few metres ahead.

An Armenian worker on a construction site. I became interested in the different people living in and around Yakutsk – Yakuts, Russians, and also minorities such as Armenians, Uzbeks, Kirghiz…Each community works in very specific sectors, and most Armenians work in construction. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian

Pazoumian was curious about how people live in such an apparently hostile environment, so he visited from March-April in 2017, then again from February-April in 2018. “Indeed it was cold,” he says; even so he found the locals make lives not so different from any others.

“Most Yakuts are very happy to live there, with the generations they have adapted their daily lives,” he says. “When it is too cold, school is cancelled for the children. But most of the time, people go outside, they go to the movies, make ice rinks, they have a normal life. They are used to it, and some have told me that they would not change their life for anything in the world.

“But if I had to summarise what struck me the most when I was there, I would say it was the drive to live, the survival instinct, which seems to be forgotten in the comfort and safety of our cities,” he adds. “In these pictures I hope to be able to capture the feeling of this vital force that is within each of us, but only reveals itself when circumstances and necessity demand it.”

Spectators at a reindeer race tournament. Every year reindeer herders come from all over Yakutia with their reindeer (sometimes by plane) to participate in these races. The fans are thrilled; the winners receive money or sometimes snowmobiles. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian

The community is varied, particularly because – rich in gold and other minerals – Yakutsk is very wealthy. It has attracted migrants from areas such as Armenia and Uzbekistan, some of whom chose to stay forever, others of whom leave after a couple of years. The area around Yakutsk is also home to the Evenes, a traditionally nomadic people Pazoumian managed to communicate with via Google Translate. “It’s very useful for this kind of project!” he says.

In fact since graduating from graphic design in 2012, Pazoumian has tended to shoot projects far from home, whether the population of Yakutsk or the African-American community in New Orleans, where he shot his first book, Faubourg Treme. But he says he’s now becoming more interested in topics closer to home, and he’s currently shooting “more personal” projects, at home in France or exploring his Armenian roots.

Boats on the frozen lake Lena during winter. All the lakes are turned into roads during the winter. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
A demonstration in support of Yakut’s Communist Party. The participants, often elderly, still have nostalgia for Stalin. I felt like travelling in the past, the Communist Party is still very strong in Yakutia. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
Lenin Square, the location of the place of communist demonstration. When it is very cold, under -60°C, a thick mist spreads everywhere. The visibility is very limited, we see only a few meters in ahead. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
The reindeer herders are located in the Oymyakon region, 1000km from the capital. This region is considered the coldest in the world, and temperatures can reach -70°C in winter. To get there you have to cross the R504, aka the Bone Route. It was built by Gulag prisoners in 1932, and takes its name from the fact that the bones of prisoners who died during its construction were incorporated into it. Once in the village of reindeer herders, Ushugei, the only means of transport to the camp are reindeer or snowmobiles. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
On the road from Yakutsk to the village of reindeer herders. From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
From Yakutsk © Alexis Pazoumian
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy