Ysyakh 2020 – solstice festival online

Midsummer, solstice on the 21 June is for many northern peoples and cultures an important holiday. In Finland it’s called Juhannus and a state holiday. In Yakutia, where I am now, it’s called Ysyakh, and considered the Sakha people’s new year day. The 2020 celebrations obviously come in a very different format in comparison to any previous festivities, for a number of reasons including but not limited to the corona virus.

The president of Yakutia ‘Il Darkhan’ Aysen Nikolaev congratulating for the Ysyakh 2020 on regional TV. Note his Sakha festive clothes, the Sakha horse on his left, the sacred horse pole Serge behind him, and the few participants in the ritual with covid-19 masks

Usually the Ysyakh in Yakutia has two main events: the Ysyakh Olonkho is celebrated every year in a different district of Sakha Yakutia (called ulus here). The festival is called in honour of the Sakha national epic Olonkho, which is considered part of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. This year it was supposed to happen in the Olekminst Ulus, but was cancelled. The other main event is the Ysyakh in the city of Yakutsk, called Ysyakh Tuymaada. Since Yakutsk is a covid-19 hotspot and according to the words of the Il Darkhan an ‘anti-leader in the Russian Far East‘, Ysyakh is for the first time happening entirely online. The government had ordered all the 36 municipalities of the Republic to film the main midsummer blessing ritual – Algys – with the municipal heads and ritual specialists at their festive sites without people. Today all of them are aired on the regional TV channel NVK Sakha . In addition to that, the Ysyakh Tuymaada includes a huge programme of concerts, competitions, cultural events online, which is a rich source for anthropological online-analysis for those who are interested.

The municipality of Yakutsk encouraged people to perform their own Ysyakh rituals at home, by providing pensioners and others in need with a gift-pack of the crucial ritual ingredients

The city of Yakutsk especially promoted the ‘stay at home’ slogan during the midsummer festival, encouraging people to celebrate in their apartments or their summer houses. For performing one’s own Ysyakh ritual at home, one needs special flour, from which to make olladiy, little pancakes. These are fed to the fire together with milk or cream, while saying a prayer that ends with the slogan “Uruy-Aykhal – Uruy-Tusku”, meaning something like “be blessed, may success be with us”. Part of the ritual is also a purification with smoke from juniper (mozhevel’nik) and /or Labrador Tea (bagul’nik). Therefore pensioners got from the municipality what I would call a covid-19 Ysyakh ritual survival pack: flour, a bag with the herbs, a litre of milk, vegetable oil and tea made from local herbs.

Ysyakh 2020 poster in Yakutsk, indicating the 75th anniversary of WWII victory, alongside the Siberian Crane, a symbol of Yakutia

Besides the covid-19 specifics, this year’s Ysyakh also features another particularity, which the Il Darkhan Nikolaev seamlessly connected: the 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory over the Fascists in WW II. At first I thought ‘what on earth does midsummer have in common with victory-day and covid-19’ ? Then i realised as Nikolaev was speaking: the main Russia-wide festival of the year – the WW II victory parade – was postponed from 9 May to 24 June in Moscow – almost midsummer. So the main Russian and the main Sakha holiday happen at the same time. Ysyakh is also the celebration of the victory of the sun over the darkness, over the cold winter, as Nikolaev indicated in his speech on regional TV. Correspondingly, speaking of victory, it is also easy to associate this year’s Ysyakh with the victory of the Sakha people over covid-19, and at the same time remembering those people in Yakutia who contributed to the Soviet victory in WW II. So it comes all together!

This connection is a new twist to the rich and long history of meanings of midsummer. Anthropologists with deeper knowledge of Sakha culture have previously extensively covered the interpretation of Ysyakh, for example Eleanor Peers and colleagues. Considering that solstice is such an important event culturally in the North, wouldn’t it be nice to edit an entire volume at some point about this festival among different peoples of the North? I’m not a specialist in this, but would be happy to bring something like that together if somebody else would take the lead:)

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