Yakutsk, the capital of the Russian Republic of Sakha, in northeastern Siberia, is surrounded by nearly two million square miles of wolf-haunted forest and bear-stalked bog. No proper roads connect the city to the larger world, and the ferries that ply the adjacent Lena River, though providing a scenic and relaxing mode of travel, take seven days to reach the railhead, the settlement of Ust' Kut—when the river isn't frozen and the ferries can run at all. The only practical way into—or, as is more often fervently desired, out of—Yakutsk is by air. Only a few airlines, however, serve the city, the largest of which is Sakha Avia, one of Aeroflot's progeny in the post-Soviet era of privatization and fragmentation. Standards of safety and service on Aeroflot, much improved in recent years, are generally acceptable, but those of its regional offspring vary widely and are of some concern to Russians who have to fly to or from the provinces.
That Sakha Avia was born of Aeroflot was all I knew about it when, at the end of a summertime visit to Yakutsk, I bought a ticket for the six-hour flight back home to Moscow. The talents of the republic's people, the Turkic Yakuts, have historically lain in herding reindeer and trapping sable, which told me little about their potential for operating jet aircraft. But Sakha produces a quarter of the world's diamonds, and this suggested sufficient funds for the maintenance of if not a fleet of luxury 747s then at least a couple of sturdy, well-appointed Il'yushin-62s—the Russian equivalent of French Airbuses. (I later learned that my assumption was misguided: Sakha's diamond industry is rife with corruption and scandal, and the republic is heavily in debt to Moscow.)