English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 5, 2001

Historic-demographic note on the Nenets of the Komi Republic

D.D. Bogoyavlenskiy, Senior Researcher, Center for Human Demography and Ecology, Institute of National Economic Forecasting, Russian Academy of Sciences

The Nenets living in the Komi Republic are a small part of the Nenets of Russia, who are officially referred to as on of the indigenous minorities of the North. At the same time, the Komi Nenets appear to be the least understood ethnic group of Nenets, receiving the least attention. They are a total of 400 people out of the total Nenets population of 34,000, i.e., a little more than 1% of the entire people, whereas their proportion in the entire population of the Komi Republic is still less.

An interpretation of the present-day legal and social situation of the Nenets in the Komi Republic requires some historical digression.

Over a long time period, the northern groups of the Komi people (Komi-Izhemtsy) gradually moved northward, where they became neighbors of the Nenets, the latter being partly assimilated. In the territory of the present-day Komi (except the area annexed in 1959, which will be discussed below), by the end of the 19th century there were about 400 Nenets, and in 1926 their number reached 900 and remained almost unchange until 1939. They all lived in three former regions of the Republic which at that time were regarded as the territories of the Extreme North: there were quite few of them in the Izhemskiy; somewhat more in Ust-Tsilemskiy; and the majority in Ust-Usinskiy. By that time, they had all been strongly assimilated – over three fourths of them referred to Komi as their native language.

The extraction of coal deposits of the Vorkuta Basin, started in the middle of the 1930s, dealt a heavy blow to reindeer herding of the Ust-Usinskiy District Nenets. The workers employed were convicts, and work was done with loss of life and with neglect of the indigenous people of the Bolshaya Zemlya Tundra, as was practiced at that time. Coal production particularly increased during World War II (over 12-fold between 1940 and 1945), the forthcoming victory justifying all the costs.

By the late 1950s, there remained about 200 Nenets in the Izhemskiy and Ust-Tsilemskiy districts – the former Ust-Usinskiy (in 1959 this was a territory of the Pechora District and the Vorkuta and Inta city councils) had almost no Nenets. Some died during the war and the post-war hard period, and some migrated to the Nenets Okrug (in those times it was referred to as «ethnic»).

Subsequently, the number of Nenets unexpectedly increased. The reason was that in the Nenets Okrug, on its eastern edge, bordering to the Vorkuta City Council of Komi, coal deposits were also discovered; and in 1954 a built-up area at the site of mine construction became the Khalmer-Yu construction village (actually, Khalmer-Yu is the Nenets word for cemetery). In 1957 the mine produced its first coal, and by the end of 1959, the construction villages Khalmer-Yu and Tsementozavodskiy, with the adjacent area of coal bed occurrence, were transferred from the Nenets National Okrug to the Komi ASSR. That was economically feasible.

The nomad Nenets registered in the Khalmer-Yu village began to be regarded as part of the Vorkuta population (both villages were affiliated with the Vorkuta City Council). In fact, in the Komi Republic, a substantial group of «city resident Nenets» developed; they were «city residents» only on paper and continued migrating between the Komi and Nenets okrugs maintaining close and often kindred relations with Nenets of both the Nenets and Yamalo-Nenets okrugs.

At the same time, there remained a group of «rural» Nenets – in the Ust-Tsilemskiy and Izhemskiy districts. It has been assimilated by Komi to a considerably greater extent, and judging by population data, their number has been declining, which does not apply to the so-called Vorkuta «city residents».

Number of Nenets in the Komi Republic *
(nubers according to census)

y e a r s
1959 1970 1979 1989
Total population
Urban population
% of people who regard Komi as their native language
Rural population
% people who regard Komi as their native language

*Since we have no data available on individual administrative units within the Republic, the table gives data on the entire Nenets population of Komi, including a small number of the Nenets living in southern districts and in Syktyvkar. But there are not more than 50 such people.

When in 1980 the concept of «Regions of Residence of the Peoples of the North» was developed, only the northwestern territories of the Komi Republic were attributed to those regions - Izhemskiy and Ust-Tsilemskiy districts – the area subordinated to the Usinskiy city administration (the then city council), in addition to the village of Usinsk and another village subordinated to the Inta city administration. Thus, the Vorkuta Nenets remained outside of the approved territories of the peoples of the North.

There was a view that urban groups of indigenous minorities do not lead a traditional mode of life. Judging by constant contact and exchange between the urban and rural populations, this view is questionable, and, in the case of Vorkuta Nenets, erroneous.

The paradox of the Komi Nenets situation lies in the fact that only a minority of the indigenous population (those in «the regions of residence…») enjoy all the rights they are entitled to. According to the 1989 census, there were only 46 such Nenets; and by the census of 1990, 60-70 people. The majority of them live on the lands of their traditional residence - on the Bolshezemelskaya Tundra, becoming second-rate people and being treated as a confounding factor.