Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North

Twenty five years ago, few Westerners comprehended the ethnic complexity of the Russian Federation, especially in its Asian hinterlands. Even fewer realized that this ethnic mosaic included some 30 Northern aboriginal peoples, most of whom live in Siberia (Asian Russia), and maintain their cultural traditions despite over a half-century of heavy pressures to assimilate into Soviet state and society.

Today the leaders of these indigenous peoples access the domestic and international presses and electronic media to demand greater fights through a renegotiation of aboriginal-state relations. Although the occasional journalist's article describes indigenous life in the Russian North in often romanticized and sometimes inaccurate terms, there is little question that the voice of indigenous peoples in Russia is starting to be heard. From a position of relative powerlessness 25 years ago, northern indigenous peoples have made significant strides toward reasserting at least some control over their futures.

Such progress arose from the nexus of several processes: the development of a cadre of native leaders with the ability to deal with Russian political leadership; a national realization of the vast crises facing aboriginal communities in Russia's North; publicizing of such crises made possible by Gorbachev's new policies, of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring); renegotiation of power relations among the Russian Federation's regions; and international pressure from state and non-state actors on aboriginal peoples as Russia attempts to re-integrate itself into the world community. While the severe hardships of the post-Soviet economic transition continue to plague Russia's northern aboriginal communities, these problems are now openly recognized -- a step forward for the Russian indigenous movement.

For decades, indigenous peoples of the Russian North have suffered the same host of problems which plague indigenous peoples worldwide: high infant mortality rates, low life expectancy, high homicide rates, suicide and substance abuse problems, and erosion of linguistic and cultural traditions. Among the 26 northern aboriginal peoples officially recognized by the Soviet state, seven groups decreased in absolute numbers between 1970 and 1989. Aboriginal leaders contend that many of these problems resulted from the assimilationist policies of the Soviet state, beginning with sedentarization and consolidation policies 25 years ago.

The 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the closure of so-called "futureless" indigenous villages, forced relocation of native populations into larger, often multi-ethnic settlements (where the leadership was often non-native), an increase in the removal of children from their families for residential school-based education, and heightened state interference in traditional economic activities (reindeer husbandry, hunting, fishing) with an eye toward "rationalization." Such challenges to cultural persistence contributed to acute social pathologies, evidenced in an indigenous life expectancy 20 years short of the relatively low Russian average. Indeed, by the early 1980s, Soviet officials had launched a hushed program of research into the origin of the problem. In 1988, a silence-shattering article called "The Big Problems of the Small Peoples," published in the official journal of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, brought these adverse statistics to the public eye. Soviet inventions of a history lauding the great progress made by these peoples under socialism rang painfully hollow in the face of such misery and social dislocation.

In response to the crises facing aboriginal peoples, aboriginal leaders began to mobilize politically. Throughout the regions of the Russian North, Associations of the Peoples of the North were created and in March 1990, the first congress of native northern peoples convened at the Kremlin. Beginning at the congress and continuing through their associations, aboriginal leaders united to demand land rights, environmental protection of their homelands, language preservation, and sufficient political power to control their own paths of development. While the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the increasing number of armed ethnic conflicts drew attention away from the demands of indigenous northern peoples, the subsequent rise of the Russian Federation as an independent federal state provided "pressure points" that indigenous leaders have used to consolidate some rights. In particular, the constitutional tug-of-war between Moscow and the regions has provided opportunities to improve the constitutional and legal status of aboriginal peoples at both the federal and regional levels.

Constitutional Rights and Legal Reforms

During the 1990s, aboriginal peoples in Russia gained important constitutional and legislative ground: the new Russian Federation constitution (1993) entrenches indigenous rights, if in rather vague terms. It guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples "in accordance with generally recognized principles and norms of international law" (Article 69), and shares the responsibility with lower-level governmental units for the "defense of the age-old environments of habitation and traditional ways of life" of these peoples (Article 72). However, a Law on the Legal Status of Native Peoples of the North, drafted over five years ago and twice passed by Parliament, has been returned by President Boris Yeltsin for further work. As it is more comprehensive and specific than the constitutional rights, the law, as it appears, is unlikely to be adopted in the near future.

A number of legislative degrees, presidential edicts, and laws at the federal level have begun to define indigenous rights to land and to self-government in more concrete ways. One of the most promising responses to indigenous demands was a 1992 presidential edict that called for the allocation of lands to voluntary associations of native northern peoples (families, extended families and non-family units) for the pursuance of traditional activities. The associations, known as obshchinas (the closest word in English being "communes"), are modeled after the pre-Soviet form of socio-territorial organizations which characterized most indigenous peoples of the North. To date, over 2,300 obshchinas have organized, developed charters, and petitioned for land. In some areas, the obshchina movement has had significant positive results, allowing much greater indigenous control over hunting resources, reindeer herding, and other activities. In other regions, the lack of financial means and hindrance by state officials (including refusal to allocate land) has compromised this movement.

At the regional level, two republics of the Russian Federation that are home to northern indigenous peoples have exceeded federal protection in terms of both constitutional developments and legislation. The Buryat Republic has incorporated the same guarantee into its constitution as stated in the Russian Federation constitution, but the Buryat Constitution also specifically ensures "freedom of development of nations...and creation of conditions for the preservation and development of their traditions" (Article 4), and the right to each people to maintain and develop their native language (Article 67). Moreover, the Buryat Republic has also passed legislation on the establishment of native self-government at the village and district level, legislation which the Evenki people have used to create a number of native villages (and one native district) as models for native self-government.

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia) has the most advanced constitutional rights and legislation that offer protection to aboriginal peoples. Indigenous leaders have fought hard for these inclusions and continue to lobby for improved rights to land, resources, and self-government. In part, the lead that the Sakha Republic has taken is in response to its constitutional tug-of-war with Moscow as Russia builds a new federal system. For example, the republic's 1994 constitution claims "exclusive jurisdiction" in the "defense of indigenous natural habitat traditional modes of lite of national minorities of the North within the republic" (Article 38). The constitution also protects "inalienable rights" to possession and use of traditional lands and resources" (Article 42), including: rights to aboriginal territorial-administrative orders of government (Article 43); official language status (in addition to Russian and Sakha) for aboriginal peoples where they are territorially concentrated (Article 46); and some control in the implementation of justice systems (Article 98).

In December 1992, the Sakha Republic passed legislation permitting the organization of obshchinas which would have some powers of aboriginal self-government. Officially, there are about 200 indigenous obshchinas in the republic. Once again, the larger politics of federal state-building are evident in aboriginal land claims and self-government. In the gold-rich Aldan District of the Sakha Republic, 33 obshchinas were created with the support of the republic government partly out of concern that this heavily Russian populated district may want to secede from the republic. The existence of the 33 indigenous obshchinas would make such a secession significantly more difficult.

Finally, a special law on self-government for the Yukagir people, a nation numbering approximately 800 individuals in 1989 and considered to be one of the most endangered in terms of cultural survival, is under consideration by the Sakha government. However, other interest groups (especially those of industry, and more generally, non-native groups who find "special" rights for certain peoples offensive) are opposing these demands. Indigenous northerners have to walk a fine line between demands and explanations of how such rights will contribute to the well-being of all.

Putting Legislative Reforms into Practice

Although newly acquired constitutional rights and legislation have offered the basis for native northerners to make claims to lands and to establish self-government, the difficulties in implementing the legislation are many. Legislative decrees and presidential edicts are often ignored by regional governments which claim that they will act upon adoption of federal laws. Few financial means exist to establish self-government units, make land claims, and develop the economic activities on the land which will allow real self-determination. Until 1992, the federal government substantially helped with loans and grants; the financial crisis accompanying the transition to a market economy in Russia has since curtailed much of this help.

The situation in regions of Russia which do not enjoy republican status is more problematic for indigenous peoples. Jurisdictions such as the autonomous regions, that do not have the right to establish their own constitution and especially those that are resource poor (for example, the Chukotskiy Autonomous Region), have fewer incentives or means to accommodate aboriginal aspirations. It is already apparent that regional variations of aboriginal rights are developing across the Russian North. This variation stems from the organizational level of local indigenous leadership and the willingness and capacities of regional governmental officials to enact legislation prior to the passage of a concrete law.

Another problem with the implementation of aboriginal legislation is the dominance of top-down reforms. While it is a common global practice for aboriginal and state elites to agree over land settlements and legislation, this problem is even more pronounced in Russia given its historical legacy of autocratic rule. It is common for local aboriginal leaders not to see proposed legislation developed by aboriginal and state elites in Moscow or regional centers that may directly affect their respective communities.

International Involvement

If the results at home are mixed, the improvement over the last decade in native northerners' ability to address their own problems is unequivocal. Involvement on the international front has enabled indigenous northerners to access and help shape international responses to some of their problems. Since its creation in 1977, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference reserved a seat for the Soviet Eskimos; from 1989, representatives of this people were able to participate in ICC meetings. Indigenous representatives have become frequent visitors to Geneva, and have made numerous presentations to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples. Most recently, the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the Russian North has become one of three (non-voting) indigenous group members of the Arctic Council, which is otherwise comprised of representatives of the eight Arctic states. Indigenous members have also participated in a number of bilateral projects supported by such agencies as the Circumpolar Liaison Directorate of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development of Canada.

The Future

The situation of the aboriginal peoples of northern Asia, the Russian North, and Siberia is a paradox. On the one hand, aboriginal peoples enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to mobilize politically and pursue their aspirations for greater self-determination after decades of authoritarian rule. Yet the very processes that are transforming former patterns of authoritarian rule, namely the transition to democratic rule and a market economy, make the realization of greater self-determination extremely difficult because of the lack of effective political institutions and economic resources. While some indigenous peoples will be able to endure this transition without assistance from higher levels of Russian government or from abroad, the fate of many others remains uncertain.

For Further Reading:

Fondahl, Gail. 1997. "Siberia: Assimilation and its Discontents." in New States, New Politics: Building the Post-Soviet Nations. I. Bremmer and R. Taras, eds., 190-232. Oxford: Cambridge University Press.

Forsyth, James. 1992. A History of the Peoples of Siberia. Oxford: Cambridge University. Press.

Poelzer, Greg. 1997. "Aboriginal-State Relations: Russia and Canada in Comparative Perspective." in Beyond the Monolith: The Emergence of Regionalism in Post-Soviet Russia. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Post-Soviet Geography 36(4), April 1995 (Articles by Poelzer, Fondahl, Osherenko, Finkler).

Vakhtin, Nikolai. 1994. "Native Peoples of the Russian Far North" in Polar Peoples: Self Determination and Development. London: Minority Rights Group, pp. 29-80.

Yuri Slezkine. 1994. Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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