Wednesday, September 27, 2006

draka (n. fight)

The race issue has been simmering away in Yakutsk ever since, in the late 1980s, Sakha students ran about the main square overturning cars and setting things on fire, apparently in protest at being pushed out of jobs and to the back of queues by ethnic Russians. In the years after perestroika there was talk of sovereignty for the region, which in constrast to most other autonomous ethnic regions in Russia has a majority non-Russian population and a truckload of diamonds. This idea seems to have been buried, possibly because Yakutia is the size of India but has fewer people than Adelaide and its football team would have been rubbish. Usually when the topic came up we would hear the line from Sakha people, 'Russia can't live without Yakutia, Yakutia can't live without Russia. It's a big brother-little brother relationship'. This reminded me of the other lines we heard quite often, which were 'Russians need a strong leader', which means say what you will about Stalin, he won the war, and 'God likes things in threes', which means there'll be two more bottles of vodka on the way.
Then in a bar called Da Vinci, presumably named because of the artist's close personal ties with Yakutia, we met Andrei. He liked Gorrilaz, Black Eyed Peas and $6 bottles of Asahi. Did he remember the riots? He did, although he was kind of surprised we had heard of them. He was 11 and when his Mum heard about the bottles being thrown and the rubbish bins on fire she locked him in his bedroom. Did he know how the riots started?
"It was over a girl. A Russian guy at the university tried to pinch a Sakha guy's girlfriend. A few students got angry and went out onto the streets. Then it was on."
I said might there have been more to it than that?
"There's quite a bit of history, you understand. In the 50s and 60s most of the good jobs were held by Russian people. My mum remembers walking into shops and having Russian shop assistants sneer at her. They'd refuse to serve her until the last Russian customer had been served and then take their time, pretend they had other things to do before pretending to notice her. You would get picked on if you spoke poor Russian, left out of things at school. Then when the Soviet Union collapsed a lot of the Russians here left for the continent, as we call it, western Russia. Suddenly it seemed like there were a lot more Sakha people around."
"Are there tensions today between Yakut people and Russian people?"
"It depends what you call tensions."
"Let's say, if one group of people get drunk here in Yakutsk, will they beat up another person in the street just because he is Russian, or Sakha, or whatever?"
"Oh that. Of course. It's happened to all of us. You can get beaten up for a lot of things here. Being gay, being dressed differently, being alone. But yeah, being Sakha is one of those things."
A few minutes into our second $6 Asahi a hormonal roar went up on Lenin St outside.
"Draka!" said Andrei's friend Masha, running for the doorway.
"That's our city," said Andrei.

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