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Indigenous Anti-War Initiatives in Russia are Inherently Anti-Colonialist

In February 2022, Russia escalated its invasion of Ukraine, an effort that began with the unlawful annexation of Crimea in 2014. The war on Ukraine is not new or covert; it is the next step in a long history of Russian imperialism. The ongoing invasion is inflicting a humanitarian crisis upon the Ukrainian people, further revealing the depth of the Russian State’s imperialist ideology and its economic and geopolitical objectives. For many non-Russian ethnic groups in Russia, including Indigenous Peoples, this war has prompted reflections on imperial conquests of homelands and detrimental Russification policies. Given this climate of anti-imperialist sentiment, calls for decolonization and discussions of Indigenous sovereignty by non-Russians have been largely intertwined with opposition to the war.

The Kremlin and regional governments continue to obscure the war on Ukraine by limiting or altering official statistics. Shortly after the invasion, accounts of large mobilization numbers and death tolls impacting various non-Russian ethnic regions, often homelands of Indigenous Peoples like Buryatia and Dagestan, began circulating. Many activists, experts, and community members emphasized causality between mobilization of so-called poor regions and outsized fatalities among Indigenous populations. While the term “poor regions” does not necessarily denote an area with Indigenous populations, Russian imperial politics have continued to foster poorer socio-economic circumstances in areas where the majority of Russia’s Indigenous Peoples reside.

Independent news sites such as Vazhnie istorii (IStories) and MediaZona have conducted in-depth investigations into the statistics of Russia’s losses, which reveal the number of soldier fatalities to be significantly higher than reported by the Russian government. MediaZona concluded that “Most of the dead soldiers are very young people from poor regions.” Data collection and fact checking is a colossal effort—one that Indigenous-led initiatives have taken on.

Motivated by the lack of official information and an abundance of anecdotal evidence, these groups compile data that determine ethnicity of soldiers based on a range of factors, including name, place of birth, obituary, appearance, and relatives. Maria Vyushkova, a Buryat activist, says discrimination on the basis of ethnicity within the Russian army exists. “I think there are prejudices about nationalities in the army . . . denying this fact is wrong. People believe that if there was no direct decree from Putin to send all the Buryats and Tuvans to death, then there was no discrimination.” Such investigative work is a crucial part of the combined anti-war and decolonial efforts started by Indigenous and other minority groups in Russia and the diaspora following the onset of the war.

Indigenous Peoples of Russia who are small in numbers (korennye malochislennye narody in Russian, or KMN) are constitutionally protected from military draft. However, this protection is not consistently applied, and accounts of KMN and non-KMN Indigenous men being summoned in the middle of the night or subpoenaed at work, on the street, or during traffic stops have circulated across Russia. To avoid summons, individuals are encouraged to disappear into the woods and engage in traditional activities such as hunting and fishing.

For KMN, whose legal categorization depends on small population size, the loss of any kin and community is detrimental to their futures. According to Indigenous Russia, an Indigenous activist and researcher-led online platform, one Indigenous village in Siberia with a population of about 200 had 5 Indigenous soldiers drafted. While some conscripts fled Russia or refused to report to the military office and were subsequently fined or imprisoned, other Indigenous people from KMN and non-KMN groups have voluntarily gone to war, motivated by economic reasons or genuine belief in the Russian State’s official narrative.

The work of preexisting feminist organizations and platforms such as Eighth Initiative Group, Eve’s Rib, Agasshin, Feminist Translocalities, along with others led by Indigenous and ethnic groups, have increasingly turned their focus to the war. Journalist Todar Baktemir explains that the recent invigoration of invocation of national identity is not simply a form of virtue signaling, but a means to distance oneself from Kremlin politics.

The struggle for non-Russian language protections against the backdrop of generations of colonial language policies is inextricably tied to State-sanctioned xenophobia, and Indigenous and minoritized languages are tools that can amplify anti-war sentiment. Their use is not only symbolic of the resistance against the State, but also serves as a rallying call, as exemplified by the artists Alisa Gorshenina, Yumzhana Sui, Polina Osipova, and Bali Shabarinova, who all used Indigenous languages in their anti-war pieces. Identity and heritage has also been a major unifier in protests, such as the women’s ohyokhai (sacred Sakha dance) protest in Yakutsk.

New “ethnic” branded anti-war initiatives have been founded with tenets and objectives combining anti-war action with decolonial work of organizations like Sakha Pacifist Association, New Tuva Movement, Voices of Nations, and pushes for sovereignty by the League of Free Nations. Free Buryatia Foundation, the first anti-war initiative started in response to the war on behalf of an ethnic group, focuses on the paradox of the State’s official narrative for the war and advocates for a reckoning with historic racism and imperialism within Russia’s own borders. It was founded due to the disproportionate number of Buryat soldiers dying in the war, their overrepresentation in media as the main perpetrators of violence, and the latent systemic factors that usher Buryats into military service. Several of these organizations that collect and disseminate information about other ethnic groups are part of collaborative anti-war and Indigenous efforts. Many of their members reside outside of Russia, as diaspora members are, to a certain extent, shielded from Russia’s “fake news” laws, which criminalize the dissemination of false information about the Russian army and are used by the state to censor, detain, and imprison objectors.

Indigenous people engaged in anti-war activism are targeted by the Russian Federal Security Service, making it increasingly difficult to maintain large-scale, Indigenous-led anti-war organizations based in Russia. Because of this, networks with diasporic or exiled individuals and groups are vital lifelines for individuals at risk in Russia. These networks track statistics, provide legal advice for contract termination, offer routes to asylum seeking, share credible information to combat propaganda and misinformation, and strive to prevent servicemen from fighting in Ukraine.

Activists who have fled Russia, including Rafis Kashapov (Tatar), co-founder of the Free Idel-Ural movement, Pavel Sulyandziga (Udege), founder of the International Development Fund of Indigenous Peoples in Russia (BATANI), and Ruslan Gabbasov (Bashkir), a politician, were among those gathered at the Free Nations of Russia Forum in May 2022 to discuss the impact of the war and options for Indigenous futures. There are several groups working in and across diasporas, including Free Buryatia, Indigenous of Russia, Free Kalmykia, Free Yakutia Foundation, and Yurt Community.

The founder of Yurt Community (formerly Indigenous Peoples of Russia Against War) told Waging Nonviolence that the racism and discrimination she faced studying in Moscow greatly influenced her decision to move abroad. She became involved in anti-war protests abroad and eventually created Yurt Community alongside fellow diasporic non-Russian Indigenous people. In March 2023, a collective of Indigenous and decolonial activists from Russia penned a collaborative letter seeking solidarity and demanding inclusion in conversations about their futures. The letter’s authors and signatories are active in anti-war initiatives, which further underscores the deep connections between these movements.

Indigenous Peoples and minoritized non-Russian ethnic groups are far from united in their anti-war stances. While the Russian government has successfully shut down Indigenous-led organizations and persecuted anti-war activists, several Indigenous representatives in government bodies and State-sanctioned organizations have publicly expressed their support for the war.

The war has split Indigenous communities, making attitudes about the war complicated and varied across and within regions. The importance of networks across the globe and spanning ethnic identities cannot be emphasized enough. Collaborative efforts among specialists, activists, and anti-war initiatives are crucial to sustaining the resistance.

--Katya Tuyaara Yegorov-Crate (Sakha) is an independent researcher specializing in contemporary Sakha identity formation, cultural and linguistic revitalization, and (de)coloniality in northeastern Siberia.

Top photo: Indigenous women in Chukotka, Russia, gathering berries in the autumn forest tundra. Photo by Andrei Stepanov.


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