23Ź Rencontres Jacques Cartier - Lyon, 22-23 novembre 2010



Indigenous peoples of Russia as political actors

Natalie Novik


There are over 65 indigenous ethnic groups in the Russian Federation, and some 40 live in the North and the Arctic portion of the country, representing about 200,000 people. Indigenous peoples in Russia are understood to mean primarily not only indigenous, but also small populations. This is because larger populations, made out of nomadic tribes which migrated to Russia in more recent times, have also laid a claim to being indigenous and are actually recognized as such by the United Nations. However, the main umbrella organization in Russia, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON) is quite adamant in keeping only smaller indigenous groups on its list.

The Russian empire started expanding east in the 16th century, soon after the Mongol yoke had been rejected. However, the Russians had been in contact with Finno-Ugrian populations for hundreds of years, and some regions had a mixed half-breed population. As the Russians marched east, they encountered peoples they had not heard of before, and behaved with them in the same manner the Americans did as they moved west. The indigenous communities were broken up, driven into forced labor, accultured, but sometimes managed to escape and hid in the forest and the tundra.

After three hundred years of expansion all the way into Alaska, Russia had a firm grip on the Southern fringe of Siberia and some of the Russian Far East. But further north as well as in more remote areas of the Russian Far East, people continued to live a traditional lifestyle, when the Russian Revolution of 1917 changed the game.

The Soviets put more effort into penetrating the whole continent, driven by new technologies enabling them to tap in Siberia’s vast natural resources. The Soviet local representatives targeted wealthy reindeer herd owners, traders, shamans as enemies of the people, as they were doing with the White Army, which they fought well into the 1920’s before they consolidated their power on the North and the Far East. The traditional economies were replaced by a communal farm system (kolkhoz and then sovkhoz) that negated the clan-based system and tried to erase traditional governance. Immense swathes of land used for traditional activities were occupied to make room for industries, roads, penitentiary colonies (the gulag), and also, gradually, for the building of towns and cities. The children of reindeer herders and hunters were taken away from their families and placed in boarding schools. The forests were cut down, the rivers polluted, the land poisoned.

For forty to fifty years, nothing changed. Very few people outside of Russia (and even in Russia) knew there were indigenous peoples, or had any contact with them. They were almost completely isolated, and consequently forgotten for the most part, except for a few writers and artists compelled to sing praises to the regime.

The first light

By the early 80’s, things started evolving. The Soviet Union started opening to the world in the wake of the 1980 Olympic Games. As the hard-core regime started falling apart, new leadership emerged, more conscious of the problems encountered all over the land by its first inhabitants. Simultaneously, small indigenous organizations such as “Yamal to our descendants”, “Yassavei”, “Salvation of Yugra” started popping up all over the place, often driven by the need to resist new ventures by the oil and gas and the mining industries.

Writers, journalists, local leaders, who had been often repressed under the Soviet regime, became a very influential group, denouncing the injustices and leading the opposition. Gradually, they managed to get their movement known to the West. Western Europe was the first to invite them to conferences and workshops to talk about their problems, with IWGIA and other indigenous support groups leading the move, but soon they were also on their way to the U.N. in Geneva and New York, and from there, to meet their brothers in North America, South America, Australia...

As the Soviet Union became a thing of the past and the new Russian Federation came to life, another phenomenon took place: the surge of the regions inside Russia, with very powerful governors, and right behind the regions, the various indigenous groups claiming a recognition of their rights at the federal, regional and local level. The first steps had been taken towards asserting their rights, and now nothing could stop them, because they knew that international law and institutions were behind them.

Struggle in the open

The first important step towards the recognition of indigenous rights in Russia was led by Vladimir Sanghi, when he organized the First Congress of Indigenous Peoples in 1990. It was a tremendous success, and gave the impulse for RAIPON’s legitimacy as representing indigenous peoples in Russia. But these were very difficult times, there were competing organizations, the government was doing everything to prevent the organization from surviving, there was no money, and the only thing that really ensured RAIPON’s survival was the unanimity of its members to voice their concerns and reach the public opinion not only in Russia, but abroad as well.

At the cost of tremendous efforts, RAIPON managed to send representatives to the United Nations, to the meetings of support groups outside of Russia, to international conferences. It became an observer at ECOSOC and one of the Permanent Participants of the Arctic Council.

RAIPON, with its many branches all over Russia, reaches out to 41 different indigenous nations. It works closely with the local indigenous organizations, often providing them with legal support and financing.

The local organizations are not passive either. Over the past 20 years, they have developed strategies to cope with industrial development, to defend their rights, to protect language and culture. There have been some famous fights, like the sit-ins organized by the “Sakhalin Environmental Watch” to stop oil companies from opening roads all around the island of Sakhalin and ditching drilling muds into fishing grounds. Other conflicts have been settled more peacefully, usually through some kind of compensation agreement.

No man’s land

Today, the overall situation is definitely one of struggle, although considerable progress has been accomplished. Languages are on the decline, culture and tradition are not always very visible, and there are numerous cases of graft, incompetence, corruption which plague Russia’s first nations. Alcoholism is rampant, tuberculosis is now ranking as the top infectious disease in the North, and as everywhere else in the North, the young generation is moving to town.

The situation in Russia is worse than in other countries, because the legislation does not provide for ownership of the land or for recognition of indigenous rights. The Russian Parliament has made efforts in recent times to adopt legislation governing indigenous rights, but it has been defeated by opposing interests.

As a result, no indigenous reindeer herder, hunter, fisherman, berry gatherer or woodcutter can say that he or she is conducting their activity on land they inherited from their ancestors. The indigenous organizations and RAIPON have worked locally to obtain recognition of what is called “traditional use lands”, i.e. reindeer pastures, for instance, or fishing grounds. But no one has a title to the land.

At the same time, the everlasting growth of the resource industries is placing enormous pressure on the land and the people who depend on it. Oil companies are displacing reindeer herders to use the pastures and the migrating routes for drill pads, roads, pipeline corridors. Oil spills are frequent and poorly managed. Mining complexes not only blow up entire hills and valleys, they also pollute with mercury and other tailings and black carbon in the air. The logging industry, led by foreign companies, is clear-cutting a forest that seems at first glance to be endless, but more and more regions are pocked by naked land, where no effort is made to reforest. The fishing industry is another source of concern, overfishing the stocks and using bottom trawlers that scoop everything in sight.

The law

Nonetheless, this is no longer the unchecked devastation of the Soviet years. For one thing, the regional governments have now environmental departments in charge of watching over the shoulder of the resource companies, Russian and foreign alike, and can be ruthless in dealing with violations of environmental laws. They are probably less effective when it comes to defending indigenous rights.

But for another thing, the indigenous population has developed the skills required to represent and fight for themselves. This new turn of event has been supported by outside funding, like the Canadian government and its IRIPP program or the Open Society Institute. One of the results of this support has been the training of indigenous lawyers, who understand the federal and international legislations and know how to use to their benefit.

Another result has been the development of local schools, to keep the young generation at home instead of sending them out to boarding schools. A net benefit of this is the sense of identity developed by the younger ones. In their internal passports (the ID used internally in Russia), instead of indicating their ethnicity as “Russian”, they are proud to indicate they are “Evenk” or “Yukaghir”.

But the most significant change has been the emergence of a generation of indigenous leaders. Like their counterparts in Canada or the United States, they are often people who have been schooled in the big cities, who have seen another lifestyle and how legislation is enforced. In Russia in particular, many of them attain the higher level of academia, and either stay in the city and provide a much-needed link to government officials and various levels of administration, or return home, armed with the necessary knowledge to protect their culture, stand for their rights and do it in a very articulate way.

Today’s tools

Agenda 21


Declaration of Indigenous Rights


Speaking in one voice

After decades of isolation, indigenous peoples in Russia have achieved parity with other indigenous peoples around the world as they are a part of the overall community of first nations. Their long traditions of trade and exchanges with their neighbors are resurfacing and leading to powerful international treaties and agreements (i.e. the Visa-Free Border Commission between Alaska and Chukotka, enabling indigenous peoples to travel between the two sides visa-free). Their participation is now seen as a normal component of transborder agreements, such as the one governing polar bears between the U.S. and Russia, where the Nanuk commission in Alaska and the Association of Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka have equal seats at the table as the federal representatives. They are one of many indigenous voices at the International Whaling Commission meetings, at the United Nations’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and its General Assembly as well, and in countless international organizations, forums, conferences, dealing with indigenous problems.

The problems they need to solve today do not differ significantly from those of indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, and in particular in the North and the Arctic: land use, climate change, education, health, sustainable development, traditional activities, protection of the environment, culture and language survival…

The new challenges

Climate change adaptation and sustainable development are today the main preocupation for indigenous peoples in Russia. This stems from two reasons: as all the peoples of the North and the Arctic, rapid climate changes (global warming but also climate unpredictability) are modifying ancestral patterns, and finding ways to support their communities into the 21st century are the drivers behind practically every problem encountered by the leaders. The importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge to cope with climate change adaptation cannot be understated: it is probably the most important tenet of survival for reindeer herders, fishermen, hunters and other people living off the land. Without an intimate knowledge of the land and sea and their resources, indigenous peoples would be at the mercy of the elements. However, in order to apply this knowledge in a rational way, share it with their neighbors, train their children to use it, and get scientists to condone it requires more means and more financial resources than is currently available.

There is a need therefore to combine the resourcefulness of indigenous knowledge with new technologies, new jobs and new land use legislation, in order to make the communities sustainable in the long run. Many leaders fear that if this does not happen very soon, entire clans will move from their ancestral lands into large cities and disappear forever.

While some international organizations such as UNEP, GEF, the Arctic Council, the Northern Forum and others are actively at work to push for a move in the right direction to help indigenus communities, they are encountering the same obstacles that have prevailed under the Soviet regime, namely a lack of interest and a passive approach from the part of the authorities at all level. There is more than a suspicion that this negligent attitude is fueled by the rewards gleaned by officials from the resource companies, complacently encouraged to “develop” the North and the Arctic.

Oil and gas is a prevailing concern, as they encroach on reindeer pastures and pollute the land with regular oil spills, but the protests of the herders do not often lead to results. The World Reindeer Association, which includes mostly Russian herders, has developed guidelines for its members to try and negotiate agreements with these companies, but they themselves recognize that, with a very few exceptions, oil and gas companies brush away their concerns.

Mining, and in particular gold mining with the use of mercury and coal mining with the assorted air pollution, have entire indigenous groups up in arms. Unfortunately, since Russia is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to minerals, there is little hope that indigenous advocates could prevail without considerable support from the government.

Logging and in particular clear-cutting of the immense Siberian forest, one of the lungs of the earth, is progressing every year. The Sikhote-Alinsk Biosphere Preserve, one of the rare primeval forests left on earth, north of Vladivostok, is completely encircled by clear-cut areas. It is home to the Nanai and Udeghe people, who call themselves people of the forest, but are at the point where they wonder what they should call themselves. Pavel Suliandziga, Vice-President of RAIPON, and who is Udeghe himself, who was supposed to be giving this talk, has his hands full with this problem and was not able to attend.

The Southern part of the Russian Far-East and Siberia is now the center of a new mega-development plan, with roads and railroads being built, a trans-Siberian eastern pipeline being laid in place, more mines opening. The Northern Sea Route, with its fleet of nuclear ice-breakers, is poised to open again the route between the Northern tip of Europe and eastern Asia, threatening the livelihood of the indigenous communities along the Arctic shores.

Allies and friends

Nonetheless, with the efforts conducted over the past two decades by indigenous leadership in Russia to open up to the outside, indigenous peoples are not alone. Today, they can easily find allies in the scientific community and also in the environmental community. The final goals might not always coincide, but there is an understanding that the environment needs better protection and that the knowledge of indigenous peoples can be very useful.

The media are also another group that is more friendly than it used to be to indigenous causes. Nudged into learning about the problems with their indigenous colleagues, many journalists, even in Moscow and St. Petersburg, have traveled to the hot points and learned where the problems are. In some cases, they get into trouble by doing so. Both the local authorities and the industry do not like to see them investigate, and some terrible caes of violence against journalists have been recorded, even recently.

And finally, indigenous groups have made inroads into the government. They have allies among the members of the Russian Duma and in committees that deal directly with Northern and indigenous issues. The recent efforts to determine who is qualified as an indigenous person or to assert land ownership reflect the fact that indigenous questions do not leave the government indifferent. However, it is a government that moves slowly, and the detractors of such proposed legislation have the ability to react rapidly to get the proposal removed.

Outside of Russia, as mentioned earlier, numerous international organizations, foundations, indigenous groups, environmental organizations and scholars are providing a lot of support, both financially and logistically. Thanks to their efforts, the movement started by a few courageous indigenous leaders in the 80’s has now grown and developed to the point that the public outside of Russia has heard of the Nenets or the Nanai people. Documentary movies are constantly filmed by foreign companies in indigenous communities, books are published, articles appear in magazines and newspapers. Artists are often invited to perform outside of Russia and the most successful are almost constantly on tour abroad.


At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, one can say that a lot of ground has been covered, certainly, but a lot of progress remains to be made as well. The various indigenous nations inside Russia are at a crossroad: with the continuous sacrifice and support of their leaders and representatives, and the help of their allies, they might be able to improve their lives and take some degree of control of their future. But if nobody steps forward and takes on these very difficult tasks, if the younger generation finds it easier to blend into the Russian melting pot and forget who they are, if sustainable development cannot be attained because of the undue pressure from large industries, there is little hope for them. At this point though, there is hope that a new generation is getting ready to take over from those who started twenty and even thirty years ago to raise their voice and fight for their rights. They will need all the help we, outsiders, can provide them with. When asked in the early 90’s what the word “hope” was in her language, Siberian Yup’ik Tanya said “I don’t remember, I don’t remember the word for “hope”. Her children should know the word. It’s “ikik”…