By Federico Buldrini
The Sakha Republic or Yakutia is a 3 million square kilometers territory located in Oriental Siberia, within the Russian Federation. It’s characterized by extremely cold winters and is covered for the most part by coniferous forests, favouring hunting and fur animals breeding.
The soil is extremely rich in reserves of oil, gas, coal, gold, silver, tin and diamonds. In Sakha live mainly Russians, Ukrainian and Yakuts, the indigenous people. Yakuts have a northern Asian body type and can be roughly divided in two groups. The northern one is composed mostly by half nomad reindeer herders, hunters and fishers, much like the Sámi, while the southern one live mainly from horses and cattle breeding.
Sakha also called Yakut, one of the major peoples of eastern Siberia, numbered some 380,000 in the late 20th century. In the 17th century they inhabited a limited area on the middle Lena River, but in modern times they expanded throughout Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in far northeastern Russia. They speak a Turkic language.
The Yakut knife is the Siberian counterpart to the Finnish puukko, the Swedish brukskniv and the Norwegian tollekniv. Though, unlike its Fennoscandic cousins, it’s highly specialized in the processing and preparation of fish and meat, rather than being also a wood working knife.
Its origin is unknown, various legends and theories exist, though mostly speculative since the majority of the old knowledge and tradition of this knife was lost during the communist regime: the Yakuts themselves started to study it only in the 1990s.
One unlikely theory suggests, for example, that its asymmetrical blade is a steel version of the prehistoric bone knives: if a long bone is splitted the outer side will be convex, while the inner side will be hollow, once the marrow has been removed.
On the other hand a common legend says that the blacksmiths learned the art of forging this knife from the Hell’s gods themselves.
Another disputable theory states that the blade’s particular geometry was developed not only for its performance, but also to use less steel for each blade.
While possible to save a little steel by forging the fuller, is unlikely that was the primary reason and it’s much more probable the geometry was essencially purpose driven.
On the practical side, a yakut knife is essentially a three piece knife: a monolitic wood handle, an asymmetrical blade and a leather sheath.
The handle is generally crafted from birch burl, is untapered and has a flattish oval section.
The asymmetrical blade usually has a left convex bevel and a right flat one, sporting a more or less deep fuller in it.
The knives coming from the northern area of Yakutia tend to have a more tapered blade, as opposed to the southern ones sporting a slightly broad blade.
The side stitched sheath is traditionally made from cow tail hide, has a wooden liner and grips the knife halfway up the handle.
As said, the Yakut knife is optimized for slicing push cuts and can be commonly seen cutting curly flesh stripes from frozen stiff Coregons to prepare the Stroganina, a Yakutian dish. The flesh is served raw, still frozen, with a touch of salt and black pepper in ice cold bowls and eaten with the hands. Everything is usually paired with vodka.
Stroganina can also be done with sturgeon, reindeer meat or frozen fresh mare’s milk.
Here is where the fuller comes into the game. In addition to lighten the blade and give the knife a handle heavy balance, it also dramatically reduces the surface of outer contact, making slicing easier.
The Yakut knife is thus a good wood planer with push and pull cuts, the latter with the flat bevel in plain contact with the cut surface. Though, unless you tilt the blade at an angle, the wood shaves will be fairly flat.
On the other hand, the asymmetrical grind is not that great when doing pull cuts without the flat side being in contact with the wood or when cutting off shaves engaging the wood perpendicularly, because it has very little material behind the edge and not enough mass to separate fibers by geometry alone.