July 27, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9469

Russia's Yakutia Fights Forest Fires By Mobilizing Shamans And Appealing To Leonard DiCaprio

July 27, 2021
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 9469

Massive forest fires are not unique to Russia in this era of global warming, as the massive fires in the Pacific Northwest show. The natural disasters in Russia are compounded by the pathologies of Russian officialdom that include distortion of information, wild improvisations, and the emphasis on shirking responsibility and pinning the blame on others. Russia's republic of Yakutia, geographically the country's largest republic was particularly hard hit by the forest fires. Vitaly Obedin deputy editor of a local paper, wrote an article for the liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper titled " Chanting Against the Fire", in which he described the utter ineptitude of the local officials from the governor on down. This reduced the local residents to sending appeals to the federal center or trying to enlist the aid of actor Leonard DiCaprio. Obedin's article follows below:[i]

Yakut shaman recites chants in a futile bid to contain the forest fires (Source:

"In Yakutia more than a million hectares of forest are burning. The region's authorities are concealing the desperate circumstances and have engaged schoolchildren and shamans in battling the fires.

"The situation in Yakutia is catastrophic, more than a million hectares of forest are on fire. The skies in republic’s capital [Yakutsk], in which one-third of the Yakutia population resides, are covered with smoke. At times the density of suspended particles in the air exceeds the maximum permissible concentration in 15-30 times. Women and children go out to protect their settlements from the fire; desperate residents of Yakutia organize mass attacks on the personal account of the Federal Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, Alexander Kozlov, and call Ksenia Sobchak and Leonardo DiCaprio for help. Regional authorities, were publicly exposed understating the magnitude of the catastrophe and fire ravaged areas, and scorned and ridiculed on social media.

"Massive fires that destroy tens of thousands of hectares of taiga forest are commonplace for the region. The republic’s area constitutes one fifth of Russia at more than 3 million square kilometers. The majority of land is covered by taiga forest. Given the vast distances and low population density, most of the forest area in Yakutia is assigned to be the so-called 'control zones'. i.e. areas were fire-fighting perceived as economically unfeasible.

"After the massive fires in Siberia in 2019, a review of the control zone laws has begun. In some regions, for instance Tyumen and Sverdlovsk oblasts, the control zones were abolished, but Yakutia’s control zones were preserved in identical proportion.

"However, the authorities are unable to deal with fires even where they are supposed to be extinguished. The residents of Yakutia fully realized that the summer will be hot both literally and figuratively on May 11, when fires began spreading over the lands of Nyurbinsky Ulus (District). On May 18 a state of emergency was introduced in the district, however it was immediately cancelled because of the ongoing hunting season.

"The mayor of Nyurba, Alexander Ivanov (the administrative center of the district), wrote at his Instagram account, 'On May 18, the deputy head of the district decided to introduce a state of emergency or a special fire prevention regime in the district. The next day, the head of the district has returned from a hunting trip and overturned this decision, claiming that people should hunt. So I’m wondering is hunting more important than fires and people’s lives?'

"Juvenile Firefighters

"On May 31, the local administrations and the Russian Fire Service again raised the issue of introducing a state of emergency, but were turned down. Eventually, a state of emergency was introduced, but only on June 4, when the fire had already reached the borders of certain settlements. The Governor of Yakutia, Aysen Nikolayev was in St. Petersburg at the time attending the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum [SPIEF] with a large delegation.

"Four days later, the fires were just five kilometers away from the village of Khandyga (a large settlement in the Tomponsky District, which neighbors Nyurbinsky District).

"The situation turned out to be so dangerous that the Ministry of Emergency Situations prompted the village residents to prepare for evacuation. In other settlements, schoolchildren were recruited to fight with the fires. Local officials, however, vigorously denied the latter fact.

"Afanasy Kirillin, Head of the Unified Duty Control Service (UDCS) at Nyurbinsky District stated, 'Inaccurate information about the recruitment of underage children in extinguishing forest fires near the village of Kangalassy has been propagated in social networks. We are well aware of danger that children’s involvement in firefighting poses and do not allow it.' (as quoted the official telegram channel of the operative staff).

"In response to all this, the videos recorded by eyewitnesses of high school students in camouflage and knapsack fire extinguishers behind their backs at the background of scorched forest began to be uploaded on social media.

Children in Yakut village of Tas-Yurakh learn to be firefighters (Source:

"By this time the residents remembered that Yakutia has a leader and began to wonder about his whereabouts. Hadn't the SPIEF concluded?.'

"It turned out that the head of Yakutia, Aysen Nikolayev, had already left St. Petersburg and with his entire entourage arrived Kazan, where the 'Days of Yakutia in Tatarstan' were celebrated. From there, the head of the republic posted buoyant messages through the official Twitter account that the situation in Yakutia is under control.

"Aysen Nikolayev, head of Yakutia tweeted, 'I maintain constant communication with the republic's cabinet of ministers on the forest fires issue. The Republic’s Prime Minister, Andrey Tarasenko reported that the situation in Tomponsky District has stabilized. He ordered to send helicopter and explosives-experts to the region. In the morning the actions to contain the fire s will begin. In addition, a group of firefighters from the Republican Department of the Ministry of Emergency Situations has been deployed in the area. As for the other districts, the ongoing forest fires were contained. If necessary additional resources will be directed to deal with the issue.' 

"Shamans Come To The Rescue

"It should be noted that Andrey Tarasenko, who was practically left in charge in Yakutia, did way more than he reported. He tried to mobilize not only firefighters, but also Yakut shamans to extinguishing the taiga fires.True, the most famous of them, Alexander Gabyshev, was unable to participate in rescuing his native region, because he is currently under a psychiatric treatment. [Alexander Gabyshev became famous for an attempt to exorcise Vladimir Putin and was placed in a psychiatric hospital]. The other shamans didn’t make attempts to exorcise the demon from Russian President Vladimir Putin, thus they are free and could be recruited to fight the fires.

"On June 7, during a meeting of the Yakut government, the republic’s Prime Minister, Andrey Tarasenko said that some forces (apparently, the opposition) are conspiring 'against us,' redirecting precipitation to the wrong places. Thus, according to the Prime Minister it is necessary 'to return to traditional medicine and find a shaman who will summon the rain.' Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Sadovnikov, who oversees security issues, reassured that 'this work is also underway.'

"Thus, on June 9, candidate of historical sciences, ethnologist Lyudmila Egorova stated that Yakut shamans started anti-fire chanting, 'People believe in this method, and it works. Such rituals encourage the harmonization of nature’s energy, to fight the elements. Forest fires are now raging in the republic now, so various shamans were performing rituals in several districts.'

"Alas, the shamans’ intercession didn’t help.

"A day earlier, Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, Alexander Kozlov sent a letter to the Prosecutor General’s Office demanding actions to be taken against the Yakutia authorities, who were concealing the real state of affairs with forest fires.

"Aysen Nikolayev’s Public Smack-Down

"The [minister’s] letter spoke of the need to pay attention to 'issues of an inaccurate account of the situation with the forest fires in the official reports of the two regions [meaning Yakutia and Irkutsk Oblast] and, consequently at the insufficiency of measures and management decisions made on extinguishing large fires and their prevention.'

"According to the minister, Yakutian authorities have undercounted the magnitude of forest fires [by a factor of] 10-20 fold. 

"Later this data was revised. The magnitude of certain fires, according to the data acquired via space monitoring, was 40 times higher than that provided by Yakut officials.

"In response, Yakutia's Minister of Ecology, Nature Management and Forestry of published a media press release, claiming that the space monitoring data is incorrect. The release stated, however, that the actual area of the taiga covered by the fire needed clarification but there was no money for that. The federal authorities were not satisfied with such reply, to say the least, and the head of Yakutia was urgently summoned to Moscow for a meeting along with the Federal Forestry Agency.

"The meeting, which was held on June 11, looked more like a smack-down.

"Aysen Nikolayev was publicly needled on the big screens and was publicly lectured that the system [of fire monitoring] should be trusted, that Yakutia receives assets sufficient for monitoring and fire extinguishing.

"According to the website of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology, Alexander Kozlov stated during the meeting, 'We understand the problems of the region: the vastness of the territories, the sparse population. All this has been considered and support measures are provided to the region. We have already deployed 280 federal specialists to the region. 100 paratroopers of Aerial Forest Protection Service will arrive in the region in the middle of next week. As for assets allocated, at the beginning of this year Yakutia received 1.3 billion rubles as planned (more than the last year). The republic also received 378 million rubles from the reserve funds. In order to react promptly and provide timely assistance we must get valid data. This is also the base on which decisions are made. And if the information on forest fires has been distorted, then the decisions will be distorted. There is no need to hide anything, a [sound] reaction depends on it.'

"The Head of Yakutia did the least he could in this situation… he opened his eyes in astonishment and began to publicly berate his subordinates. Straight after the meeting he called the region and blasted his underlings.

"Aysen Nikolayev said at the meeting 'I'll fly out [to Yakutia] the day after tomorrow... You are lucky I cannot fly today, otherwise I would have gathered all of you tomorrow [at the meeting]. I have a flight the day after tomorrow, I will be [in Yakutsk] on the morning of July 14. We will travel straight to Nyurba, to the forest fires... there you will answer to me in front of the people... One can make mistakes but they cannot be twenty-thirty times larger. Colleagues, we have a 40-fold discrepancy on some fires’ data. 40-fold! You already got a telegram from the minister and prosecutors’ reports, but you still refused to change the estimates. Colleagues, we will find out who was on the spot and consciously or unconsciously allowed forestry violations to happen

"To skip ahead, upon returning to Yakutia, Aysen Nikolayev's anger had passed, and the anonymous 'human factor' that didn’t provide correct figures on forest fires’ data to be reported, was named responsible for the discrepancies in estimates.

"However, this measure had no impact on the rapid spread of forest fires and the emergence of new ones. The fire kept spreading across Yakutia. There were already 200 fires and thermal spots. In some settlements, women started to fight the fires, male hands weren’t enough.

"It's Not The Fault Of Officials, The Natural Aberration Is Guilty

"By July 1, the area of forest fires exceeded 490,000 hectares of taiga forests. The Yakutian authorities, who had previously explained their inability to deal with th the consequences of 'abnormal natural phenomena,' as usual began to talk about an extraordinary course of circumstances.

"The July 1st report of Yakutia operational headquarters reads: 'June of 2021 was the hottest and driest June recorded for the country’s central regions since 1888. Consequently, there was a dramatic increase in the number of wildfires in the central districts and districts beyond the Lena river that were suffering from 'dry' thunderstorms.'

"The version blaming climate anomalies, didn’t provide reassurance.

"On July 2, when Yakutsk’s skies were once again covered in smoke, desperate residents of the capital organized a mass flash mob. By the hundreds, the people started to leave messages on Minister Kozlov’s Instagram account, demanding that he pay attention to the issue. The messages read, 'Yakutia is on fire! There’s no air to breathe!' Some incorporated in their posts links to [media personality] Kseniya Sobchak’s Instagram account, trying to get the attention of federal media.

"And it worked, the minister stated that he had read all the comments and empathized with the situation. However, he was unable to do anything, the fire is stronger.

"Alexander Kozlov wrote on his Instagram account, 'True, the situation in Yakutia is very difficult, 826,000 hectares of forest are on fire. A state of emergency has been introduced. We are mobilizing all available forest fire brigades from all over the country to the Republic. The federal team includes 724 people. More forces will be arriving soon. In total, up to 3,000 people, firefighters, volunteers are engaged in firefighting every day…'

"We are trying to stabilize the situation, but the fire is still defeating us. Furthermore,, the prospects regarding the conflagration situation in July are bad. We are doing everything that depends on us ... even trying to make rain. But, unfortunately, the cumulus clouds over the republic are sparse, and we can’t use silver oxide [to make rain] ... Forest fires are always bad. They cause huge damage to the ecosystem. But now the main task is to keep the fire away from villages and towns.'

"Ksenia Sobchak also reacted by publishing posts and requesting data from Yakut and federal officials.

"The statement that 'forest fires are always bad', however wasn’t enough for Deputy Prosecutor General Dmitry Demeshin, who arrived in Yakutia a few days later in early July along with Maxim Popov, who will serve as the republic’s new prosecutor (The latter, by the way, will be the first prosecutor of the region who, according to the amendment to the Constitution, was not approved by the Yakut parliament).

"After learning the situation, on July 6 Demeshin issued a warning to the head of the operational headquarters for protection of forests from fires, the Minister of Ecology, Nature Management and Forestry Afanasy Sakhamin and to the head of the Main Department of EMERCOM [Ministry of Emergency Situations] in Yakutia Pavel Garin.

"These measures, however, did not help the situation either. The fire continues to spread.

"As of July 12, there are 308 registered forest fires with a total area of over 1 million hectares in Yakutia. Even last weekend's rains didn’t help much.

"In the meantime, a desperate public is pinning its hopes not even on shamans, Ksenia Sobchak or local authorities, but on popular actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the founder of a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the ecological environment. After a series of messages with the hashtags '#saveyakutia' and '#yakutiaonfire' DiCaprio responded, 'I’ve heard you, and I and my management will look into the issue. Then we will talk to the authorities in charge to see how we can be of help.'"


[1], July 13, 2021.

Share this Report: