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Indigenous voices and security in the Russian North

An interview with Kara K. Hodgson, PhD candidate at the Arctic University of Norway. Interviewer: Mario Giagnorio.

May 19, 2020 - Kara K. Hodgson Mario Giagnorio - Interviews

Sámediggi, Sámi Parliament of Norway in Karasjok. Photo: Denis Caviglia (cc) flickr.com

Indigenous peoples have become increasingly active in the international community and have a prominent role in Arctic governance. Understanding their issues and their claims is crucial for inclusive and thorough governance of the region.

MARIO GIAGNORIO: Ms Hodgson, thank you for being here with us. Could you tell us what the Russian North is and who lives there?

KARA K. HODGSON: In terms of the “Russian North,” this is a very big category because the Russian North, at least administratively, contains not just what we consider to be the geographic North. It is kind of the shorthand for the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East, which is a vast majority of the Russian territory. It is basically everything near the Arctic Circle and above it, as well as almost everything east of the Urals, to the Pacific Ocean. Russia is different from all the other circumpolar countries, not just because it has the greatest amount of land, but because, from the Soviet era through to the present, it was seen as strategic to develop the North industrially. The Russian North is the most populated and industrialised compared to any of the Northern/Arctic countries. You do have Indigenous people, but you also have “incomers” – people who migrated to the North for the Soviet industrial monotowns, which were company towns intentionally developed around one specific industrial enterprise. A lot of cities which started as monotowns are still in existence, for example Noril’sk, and the populations of these monotown are quite sizeable still. You also have migrating workers, especially those who commute from all over Russia and even Asia to the North; this is not unusual in Russia.

Who are the Indigenous people according to Russian law?

When it comes to those who are the Indigenous people according to Russian law, it is complicated. There is no universally-accepted singular definition for who is considered an Indigenous person in general. All the global entities like the United Nations and the World Bank have their own operating criteria, and every country has its own definition too, as they differentiate benefits and legal statuses. For example, Canada and the United States largely use the principle of prior occupation when determining indigeneity; in other words, a group can be considered Indigenous if there is a historical record of them (or their ancestors) occupying the land at the time of European conquest. Although Russia shares a colonial past similar to that of Canada or the United States, its legal system, both historically and currently, is based on different logics and different principles. Its definition is much more constricting. In its 1999 federal law, called “On the Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Small-numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation,” Article 1, Section 1 provides fours specific criteria that a group must meet in order to be legally considered “Indigenous.” The group cannot count more than 50,000 persons, who need to live on the ancestral territories and practice a traditional way of life, while also perceiving themselves as a separate ethnic group. Only those groups meeting all four of the criteria can be legally considered Indigenous. Of the four criteria, the 50,000 threshold is the most unique and controversial. “Indigenous” is synonymous with “small-numbered.” If the amount of people outnumbers the 50,000 units, then the group could lose its legal “Indigenous” status.

Could you give us an example of this difference?

Indeed. Maybe the Sakha people, who live in the Russian Far East, can be a good example. By a Western European/North American standard, the Sakha would be considered Indigenous (in accordance with the principle of prior occupancy) because they were there before the Russian Empire expanded eastward into its homeland. However, speaking in terms of legality, Russian law does not consider them to be legally “Indigenous” because there are more than 450,000 Sakha people. Legally, the Sakha are categorised as a “titular nationality,” which provides them with different rights, responsibilities, and benefits, even though the Sakha consider themselves to be Indigenous.

Are Indigenous people considered citizens with full rights?

Yes, they are. Small-numbered/Indigenous peoples and titular nationalities are considered citizens of the Russian Federation, and have the same civic rights and responsibilities as any other person of any national/ethnic background in the Federation. The struggle for, and the politics of, Indigenous rights in Russia is not based on any denial of citizenship rights or benefits, but on a lack of recognition by the Russian government that Indigenous peoples and their lands were conquered by the Russian empire. The issue is that the Russian government has never reconciled the colonial past that it imposed on Indigenous peoples, while all of the other Arctic countries have attempted, however imperfectly, to reconcile and provide some sort of amends to their Indigenous populations.

You have talked about colonialism and colonial behaviour, which is a very sensitive topic for European and Western societies. What is the Russian narrative on that? Do they see themselves as conquerors?

As far as I know, there is no such narrative in Russia. I have never interviewed Indigenous people on this topic, so I do not have any first-hand knowledge of that, but I know what has been written by scholars. I can say that there is a tension between ethnic Russian, or Soviet-mentality people, and the Indigenous people, a tension between the incomers and those who lived there “first.” I can share an anecdotal piece of evidence. I was in a class in Arkhangelsk and I was giving a presentation about the struggles for Indigenous rights over land in the Yamal peninsula. There was a professor and scholar who devoted his career to laws about Indigenous rights, who was ethnically Russian. When I spoke about the struggles Indigenous peoples were experiencing over land rights, he became exasperated and replied that they, the Russians, had given Indigenous peoples important things like a written alphabet. I had the impression that there was demand for more “gratitude,” that Indigenous people shouldn’t be making such a fuss over land when the Russian Empire had already given them such “gifts” as an alphabet, that they should be content with what they got. I was surprised and disheartened because those words stem from a “Great Russian chauvinism” narrative that Russians only “improved” their lives when conquering and assimilating Indigenous people. It was really problematic for me, as academia and the global human/Indigenous rights movements have moved beyond such an early-20th century-style mentality, the mentality that that simultaneously de-legitimised any non-European ways of being while legitimising Eurocentric colonial power by saying that the world’s peoples were at different stages on the social evolutionary path to ultimately become like Europeans.

What was the Soviet attitude towards Indigenous peoples?

At the beginning, there was that ethos, the “friendship of peoples,” which was progressive for its time, but also truly idealistic. At the beginning of the Soviet era, there was this recognition, on the part of the Bolsheviks, that rather than simply considering Indigenous people as “savages,” they should elevate them in status and consider them equal under the law. But then Stalin took power and he wanted to get rid of all the connections with the past. Nomadic Indigenous people were forced to settle under collectivisation, and it was traumatising. Later on there came “russification” that was very similar to any other nationalisation programme. It included boarding schools, learning Russian, punishments for speaking their own language, and more. Some Indigenous cultures were extinguished. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been a lot of cultural revivals and recognitions of the right to identify as ethnically distinct. Yet, they are still not allowed to challenge the political structure of the Russian Federation.

What are the implications of the differences between the “Western” approach and the Russian one when it comes to Indigenous rights??

In terms of land rights, in Alaska you have the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and there are lots of land claims agreements in Canada as well, which is based on the British style of treaties and recognition of Indigenous groups as sovereign nations. They are considered equals and they can negotiate land and resources. This does not exist in Russia. Indigenous groups are not considered “sovereign,” and the government will not enter into negotiations with them. Then, there is no ownership of land, unless it is private – there is no concept of “collective ownership” in Russian law-  and land can be purchased individually, but the federal government could still exercise eminent domain and take it over if they wanted. Indigenous people have some control over land only in accordance with two laws passed at the federal level: the 2000 “Federal Law on General Principles of Organisation of Obshchina of Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation” and the 2001 “Federal Law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use of the Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation.” The latter, in particular, gives Indigenous people some rights to land. If you are a reindeer herder, for example, you can apply for a herding area as Territory of Traditional Nature Use. The authorities can still take it over for other uses, and they are technically supposed to give you an equal proportion of land somewhere else, but it can be detached from where you are or worse in terms of quality. Sometimes it does not even happen, as implementation of law is a huge problem. So, no right to own land, simply to use it: it is basically a rental agreement. In addition, no Territory of Traditional Nature Use has been granted at the federal level, so the federal government can negate any Territories of Traditional Nature Use that have been designated at the regional or municipal levels.

In terms of Indigenous empowerment, the Saami in Scandinavia have their own parliaments, officially recognised by the governments of Finland, Norway and Sweden. The Saami are also present in Russia, and there are seats for the Russian representatives, but Russia would not allow them to participate there.

Talking about the Saami, what is the importance of their transnational network and of NGOs for the Indigenous peoples’ rights?

In terms of the transnational network of Saami people, Russian Saami cultural or linguistic activities are generally okay, so long as they are not political. Unfortunately, any political advocacy efforts are treated suspiciously. For example, Saami activists who sought to get a Russian representative to the Saami Parliament were accused of separatism. To quote a passage from a scholarly article: “In 2012 a Murmansk Region media spokesman accused pro-Parliament activists of wanting to leech revenues from industrial ventures (a statement that falls in line with the ‘indigenous blackmail’ discourse found elsewhere in Russia), of ‘separatism’ (a traditional accusation against Sámi activists), and of being ‘coordinated from abroad,’ more precisely by the Norwegian Sámi Parliament.”[1] Within Russia, the Saami are members of the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North (RAIPON/АКМНССиДВ), which started during the Soviet Union and helped connect all of the country’s Indigenous people who are geographically divided and isolated. They were quite powerful, as they had international presence in the Arctic Council and in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and they were critical of the government. They were mysteriously shut down in 2012 when Putin came to power for his third term. After six months, RAIPON was allowed to re-open as an national organisation, but they had to change their leadership from a very well-known and well-respected Nenets intelligentsia member to a United Russia Party member, and they still exist, probably only by virtue of their international connections. Yet, it has been reported that RAIPON members are kept quiet or kept from fully participating at United Nations meetings and conferences. The situation is not good for Indigenous rights in Russia at the moment.

How can Indigenous rights NGOs be affected by the current Russian law on “foreign agents,” which declares any NGO, or even individual, who has received funding from outside the Russian Federation as a possible “foreign agent?”

To answer this question, first we’ll need to take a step back to understand the nature of civil society in the Russian historical context. Civil society organisations, as we understand them in a Western European/North American context, have been seen as “threats” throughout both the imperial and the Soviet times, because such organisations, by definition, were supposed to operate independently of the state. cCivil society organisations existed during the time of the Soviet Union, but were far from the idea of a “third pillar” of society, meant to check and balance those in power. Only the officially sponsored groups were allowed, and they were either apolitical or designated by the government, like the National Geographic Society or the Communist Youth Party. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a boom in NGOs, and most of them were internationally funded, but a very small number of them were actually organic. To be fair, there were a number of crime organisations operating as NGOs and groups that were trying to take advantage of the chaos, but things got worse after the law was passed. Putin has been determined to become an authoritarian figure, and he started clamping down on anything that could represent a check or balance against his power, so any NGOs that are political in nature and critical of the government, are seen as a threat. At the same time, lots of them receive international funding, as this is the only way to get some sort of basis to challenge the power structures and to critique the government. This is the reason the “Foreign Agent Law” came into being. Recently, there was a case against the “Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North / Russian Indigenous Training Centre,” that was critical of the Kremlin and internationally funded, because it was a joint effort of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (the Inuit are also present in Russia). The Inuit Circumpolar Council is a well-organised political NGO. It negotiated the land agreements in the United States, Canada and Greenland.

This leads also to the chapter you wrote together with Dr. Stammler and Dr. Ivanova on human security and Indigenous communities in the Russian North.[2] Could you tell us what human security is and how does it apply to them?

Human security is the idea that, in order to live life with dignity and with the chance to maximise human potential, all people need to have freedom from fear and freedom from want in seven different, but interrelated, areas of life: personal, health, economic, food, environmental, community, and political. The term was first coined in 1994 in a United Nations document, the UN Human Development Report. Until this conception came along, “security” was largely understood in international relations and in security studies as the ability of governments and militaries to keep any sort of outside threats from harming the country. Such an understanding had greater relevance during the Cold War.However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, scholars increasingly realised that such a definition was too narrow and, let’s face it, completely unconnected from how average everyday people understood it. In their daily lives, most people are more concerned about having enough money, a place to live, and food for the table, than they are about an invading army. Human security was designed to fill that gap in understanding.         

As far as the Indigenous communities in Russia are concerned, one of the big tensions is between economic security and all of the other areas of human security. On an individual level, economic security refers to being able to have a job and earn money for oneself or one’s family. States have co-opted this term to mean that a government must ensure that enough revenue comes in for the government to function (paying off debts, providing social welfare benefits, etc.). Where the tension comes in for Indigenous peoples is that Russia’s current economic security heavily depends on oil and gas production. But this production has been known to cause major disruptions to the human security of the people who live in those areas. This comes to a head when you have specific situations like the reindeer herders in the Yamal peninsula, where the current megaprojects for oil and gas disrupt herd migrations and spoil the land. This results in food, health, environmental, and personal problems for the herders and their families. The tension is further exacerbated by the fact that the herders have precious little room to air grievances. The Russian federal government has declared oil and gas production in the Arctic to be a national priority, which means that the interests of extractive industries triumph over the human security needs of the herders. If herders complain, the most they can receive is monetary compensation, which is inadequate for the loss of livelihood incurred. This negatively affects both the political and economic security of the herders, their families, and their communities.

Kara K. Hodgson is a PhD candidate and research fellow at UiT – The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø). Her research explores the relationship(s) between extractive industries and Indigenous groups in the Russian Arctic through a human security perspective.

Mario Giagnorio is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe. He earned a Double Degree in European Studies from the University of Padua (Italy) and the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.


[1] Berg-Nordlie, Mikkel (2015). Two centuries of Russian Sámi policy: arrangements for autonomy and participation seen in light of imperial, Soviet and federal indigenous minority policy 1822–2014. Acta borealia, 32(1), 40-67.

Quote from p. 58

[2] Stammler, F., Hodgson, K. K., Ivanova, A., “Human security, extractive industries and Indigenous communities in the Russian North, edited by Hoogensen Gjørv, G., Lanteigne, M., Horatio Sam-Aggrey, H., The Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security, 1st Edition, 2020, London, Routledge.


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