Indigenous peoples of the Russian North

Winfried K. Dallmann, Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø

"Rossiyskiy Sever", the Russian North, extends across a distance of 6000 km from the Finnish and Norwegian boundary through the Urals and Siberia to the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. It covers vast areas of taiga (boreal forests), tundra (treeless swamps and pasture lands), and polar deserts. The north-south extension of this belt widens from about 1000 km in Europe to about 3000 km in central Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Approximately 20 million people live in this land, mainly concentrated in towns and settlements along the rivers and in the industrial centres. Only about 180,000 of them belong to approximately 30 small-numbered, aboriginal groups - the indigenous peoples of the North. Their majority live in small villages close to their subsistence areas, where they pursue traditional occupations like reindeer-herding, hunting and fishing. But the reality these people face today is anything but an idyllic carryover from the past.

Since the colonisation of the North, large expanses have gradually been converted into areas for alien settlement, transportation routes, industry, forestry, mining and oil production, and have been devastated by pollution, irresponsibly managed oil and mineral prospecting, and military activity.

In tandem with the environmental disaster went the social decay of the indigenous societies since the early Soviet era, with collectivisation of subsistence activities, forced relocations, spiritual oppression, and destruction of traditional social patterns and values. The result was the well-known minority syndrome marked by loss of ethnic identity, unemployment, alcoholism, diseases, etc.

The recent socio-economic crises of Russia which came along with the transition to a market economy, has led to a break-down of most of the supply and transportation system in remote areas of the North. Having been incorporated into the alien Soviet economic system, made dependent on modern infrastructure and product distribution, the people now find themselves left alone without supplies, medical care, rising mortality, and the economic means and sufficient legal expertise to deal with the situation. The desperate road back to the old ways of life has tempted many, but is often hampered by the degradation or destruction of the natural environment.

Against this horrendous background, the cultural survival of these small ethnic groups may seem almost impossible. But they fight tenaciously, showing an unbelievable endurance, and their case has already won ground in many national and international fora.

Ancient roots

Like everywhere on earth, the Russian North has been subject to migration of peoples all through human history. Until ca. 2000 years ago, the North was dominated by ancient Siberian tribes whose cultural relations are poorly known. Pressure from the extension of southerly adjacent peoples gradually drove these tribes to the north, at the same time as they mingled with - and were partly assimilated into - the newcomers.

One group of descendants of these ancient Siberian tribes is comprised of the Yupik (eastern Eskimo branch) and Aleuts, who mostly migrated to Alaska and form a common culture group with other North American peoples. In Russia, less than 2000 Yupik live in villages at the Bering Strait, and some 700 Aleuts on the Komandorsk Islands and in Kamchatka.

The largest of the Proto-Siberian language groups is the Palaeo-Asiatic group, represented by the Chukchi, Koryaks and Itelmens. On the arrival of the Russians, these peoples inhabited most of Chukotka, Kamchatka and the areas around the northern Sea of Okhotsk. They are today concentrated to the Chukotkan and Koryak autonomous areas in the far north-east. With population numbers of 15,000 (Chukchi) and 9000 (Koryaks) these peoples belong to the larger ethnic groups. The Itelmens (2500) were once also wide-spread across Kamchatka. They are now restricted to a small land strip at the south-western coast. Large parts of their former population are mingled with Russian immigrants, speaking the Russian language, but have developed a distinctive local culture. These people call themselves Kamchadals and claim the official status of an indigenous people that they had lost in 1927. Their number is about 9000.

The Yukagirs, another Proto-Siberian group, once inhabited huge parts of north-eastern Siberia between the Lena mouth and the Bering Strait. The remaining 1000 people are mainly restricted to the Kolyma area in north-eastern Yakutia. The Chuvans (1300) at the upper Anadyr River are originally a Yukagir tribe that has adopted the Chukchi language, and assimilated partly into Chukchi, and partly into Russian culture. Isolated linguistic remains of an ancient Siberian population are also represented by the Nivkhi (4600) at the Amur mouth and on northern Sakhalin, and the Kets (1100) of the middle Yenisey River valley.

The Ural-Altaian penetration

Central and Eastern Siberia experienced extensive immigration of Tungus and Turkic tribes in several pulses from the south, from 550 AD. They spoke Altaian languages. Turkic Uigurs, the first invaders, were later assimilated into Tungus peoples that appeared after 1000 AD and mixed with the autochthonous Yukagirs, Koryaks, and the Amur River population. The relatively large groups of the Evenks (30,000) and Evens (17,000), wide-spread in central and eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, as well as a number of smaller groups in the Amur district and on Sakhalin (Nanais, Udege, Orochi, Ulchi, Oroks and Negidals) are the descendants of the Tungus penetration, which, however, also show older cultural elements.

The Turkic Yakuts did not arrive in present-day Yakutia earlier than about 1500 AD. They diluted the Yukagir, Even and Evenk populations. Having a large number, 380,000, and being the titular nation with an almost 40% portion of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the Yakuts are not considered to be "indigenous". A northern, reindeer-breeding subgroup of the Yakuts, however, does not differ much culturally from the indigenous minorities of the area.

A fairly new ethnic group, the Dolgans (7000), developed during the following centuries from mainly Evenk, but also Yakut, various Samoyedic and Russian elements in southern Taymyr. They speak a Yakut dialect.

Western Siberia and the European North were gradually penetrated by tribes of the Uralian language branch, starting several thousand years ago. Linguistically, they are subdivided into a Finno-Ugric and a Samoyedic sub-branch.

The Finno-Ugric branch comprises the Finnic subgroup to which the Saami people in Scandinavia and on the Kola Peninsula belong, and the Komi to the west of the Urals. While only about 1800 Saami live on the Russian side of their residence area, the Komi (340,000) have a similar, non-indigenous status as described above for the Yakuts. Ugric languages are spoken by the Khants (22,000) and Mansi (8000) in the Ob River basin and the Yamal area east of the Urals.

Samoyedic groups probably have their origin in the Sayan area in south-western Siberia, from whence they gradually migrated to their present residence areas ca. 2000 years ago. They comprise the Nenets (34,000, the largest indigenous group) along the Arctic shore from the Kanin Peninsula to the Yenisey mouth, the Nganasans (1200) on northern Taymyr, and the Enets (200) and Selkups (3600) in the Yenisey River basin.

Reindeer - a way of life

Despite the diverse historical, ethnic and linguistic background, the peoples of the North had to adopt quite similar subsistence cultures when they arrived in the Subarctic and Arctic regions.

However, distinct differences developed dependent on endemic fauna and climatic zones, sometimes within the same ethnic unity. Exchange of products between these cultural groups have been important throughout history. Due to collectivisation and forced relocation during the Soviet era, many of these differences have now vanished.

Coastal cultures have developed amongst peoples living in areas with significant sea mammals (walrus, whales, seals), particularly at the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk or the Bering Strait (Aleuts, Yupik, coastal Chukchi). Among other groups of the Far East, marine hunting forms part of the annual cycle, while their main occupation is inland (salmon) fishing, hunting or reindeer-herding.

River cultures occur especially in the Far East. Typical fishing peoples are the Nanai, Ulchi, and Udege in the Primorye area of the Far East, but also the Kets at the middle Yenisey River.

Tundra and taiga cultures occur throughout the Russian North. The basic traditional occupations are reindeer-herding, hunting and trapping, fresh-water fishing, and gathering. These peoples are traditionally nomads or semi-nomads. Since collectivisation during the Soviet era took place, most reindeer hunters and herders live in year-round settlements, though many still migrate seasonally with the herds.

Reindeer-herding is the fundamental, subsistence-related occupation of many Northern peoples. It is not necessarily the most typical native occupation, but the most characteristic one that still has economic significance. Furthermore, it is not just an economic occupation, but has developed into a way of life closely connected with ethnic identity. There are large-scale, extensive herding cultures like those of the Nenets, Khants, Chukchi and Koryaks, and small-scale breeding mainly for draught and riding animals as a subsidiary occupation for many taiga people. Reindeer-herding, however, is very sensitive to environmental changes. Modern development has created a severe threat to reindeer-herding and its related cultures.

Hunting of fur-bearing animals for other than domestic use, and later the development of fur farms, was initiated by the Russian colonisers for most ethnic groups. The tsarist governors demanded furs for yasak (a colonial tax). In addition, commercial interests in fur trading developed as a means of receiving trade goods from the Russians.

Shamans and guardian spirits

The indigenous peoples of the North are traditionally animists. They believe that the sky, the earth, and the water are populated by various spirits which affect the lives of the humans. They produce images of these spirits in human or animal form, which play an important role in their rites. Sacrifices to the guardian spirits in the form of animals and other food products were common in the past.

Religious practices were carried out by the shamans who were mediators between the people and the spirits of the other worlds. Through contact with the spirits, the shaman healed sicknesses, predicted the future, and delivered the souls of the deceased to the world of the dead. Due to the intense persecution of shamans in the Soviet Union, they do not officially exist anymore.

Although many of the indigenous people officially converted to the Russian Orthodox church prior to the October Revolution, Christianity has never exerted a profound impact on the religious beliefs of the groups as a whole.

The conquest of the North

The white man's conquest of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East does not stand far behind the attrocities known from other parts of the world. The tsarist intention was to subject the entire northern part of Asia to its rule because of the expected rich natural resources. Peoples were rendered tribute-payers. They were forced to pay a tax, yasak, in exchange for the promise of protection by the Tsarist Empire. Yasak consisted mostly of furs. The often very high tax requirements changed the occupational pattern of many ethnic groups and endangered their subsistence.

The Tsar's order read that the native peoples should be treated respectfully and accommodatingly, while military actions should only be applied against armed revolts. But the local governors and taxmen had their own laws, if any. Historians report continual pillaging and violent encroachment resulting in the extermination of entire nations. A usual procedure to make the native peoples pay yasak was to take hostages, often respected elders. It was also usual to abduct, or buy, and enslave women and children. Tax raids could escalate into pillage and sometimes murder raids. Many times, the entire subsistence basis of a local indigenous group was destroyed, and they died of cold or hunger. In places, the oppression continued into the 19th century.

Towards the end of the 17th century, most of Siberia to the Pacific coast was subject to Russian control. When Russian economies became worse, politicians decided to subdue the last resisting and opposing peoples, the Chukchi and Yukagirs, by military force. The Yukagirs were reduced to approximately half their population. During the smallpox epidemics of the 18th century and subsequent disasters, another 80% of the remaining population disappeared.

In areas of massive Russian settlement, the indigenous population was subject to russification with respect to language, economy, and social organisation. During the 19th century, large areas on both sides of the Trans-Siberian Railway were cleared of native population. Southern Siberia was affected most profoundly, and from there areas along the main waterways. But in other places, the opposite might happen. The most striking example is the yakutisation of Russian settlers in Yakutiya, where the native population had a strong social network that was not easily broken.

The official Russian policy towards the indigenous peoples in the 19th century was not always bad. Considerations of humanity and concern for the exploited natives led to attempts to control the situation by means of various (rather ineffective) laws forbidding slavery, limiting the exaction of tribute, prohibiting the sale of liquor and, as late as 1912, forbidding Russian traders to enter certain native territories. Still, the major trend of the development continued: loss of land, economic decline, dissolution of subsistence patterns, disintegration of the social framework.

Forced into the Soviet system

During the post-revolutionary Civil War that lasted from 1917 to 1924 (locally in the Far East), the Soviet administration replaced the tsarist governmental system. Passive victims of warfare between the two Russian factions, the indigenous population slid into a dispute between two competing politi-cal lines: one intended to secure a development according to each people's own cultural premises, while the other - the Stalinist line - aimed at the complete elimination of ethnic differences and the integration of all national groups into a common Soviet society. The Stalinist line won towards the end of the 1920s.

The administrative subdivision of Russia into national areas and districts was meant to reflect the ethnic composition of the respective territories. This was originally supposed to guarantee the influ-ence of the individual peoples on local development, which was never realised. In contrast, the strict application of the class law turned the social pattern of the indigenous population upside down. Their natural leaders, wealthy reindeer owners and shamans, for instance, were regarded as exploiters and excluded from political positions, while the young, elected "working class" people often neither felt competent nor were expected by their fellow-tribesmen to make decisions on their own.

In the 1920s, there was a variety of initiatives to compensate for economic loss suffered by the indigenous population during the Civil War, such as economic support bills, tax exemption for minorities, erection of support centres, etc. But during the 1930s, under the dictatorship of Stalin, most of the economic and social structure that might still have been intact, was destroyed. The large-scale industrialisation of the Soviet Union needed the resources of the North. The state firms imported their own workers who stood outside the local authorities' jurisdiction. Natives whose subsistence was destroyed became dependent on service functions for the foreign industry or sought refuge in more hostile mountain and tundra areas.

Traditional reindeer-herding, hunting and fishing occupations were forcefully transformed into collective farms, kolkhozes, all across the Soviet Union. Local uprisings were put down and punished hard, for instance, in the Nenets and Taymyr areas in 1930-32. A number of national areas were dissolved, and the North was divided between various ministries. No controlling agency existed that could survey the continuous colonisation and exploitation of the land and the fate of its native inhabitants.

In 1941 th Russia was drawn into World War II. Many indigenous individuals had to fight at the fronts. The lack of young men for domestic occupations especially affected the vulnerable, small indigenous societies. Excessive numbers of domestic animals had to be slaughtered, and river mouths were depleted of fish in the fight against hunger. The thousands of men returning from the front had changed their social attitudes and thus accelerated cultural assimilation. European immigration to Siberia increased.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a large-scale campaign was pursued to lead the peoples into the "modern socialist civilisation", by forced relocation into urban or semi-urban areas. The enforcement consisted in depriving rural areas of hospitals, schools and shops. Nomads were officially declared primitive human beings and were urged to settle. But there was not sufficient work in the new settlements to replace the lost traditional occupations. The consequences for many were further loss of economic ability and social structure, rising criminal rates and abuse of alcohol. In 1980, the ethnically based administrative areas were ceased, the word "minorities" was removed from law texts, and the local administrative bodies lost all but consulting functions.

The educational policies of Soviet Russia towards the indigenous peoples had been changing radically. The school system was renewed and underwent an important development in the 1920s. Linguists developed alphabets for all language groups, with special letters based on the Latin alphabet. Illiteracy dropped markedly. In 1937, Stalin forced the application of the Cyrillic alphabet for all languages, and linguists that had worked on customised alphabets were imprisoned as public enemies. A policy started that was aimed at wiping out all ethnic identity. After 1957, teachers were even punished for speaking anything but Russian to the pupils outside the mother tongue lessons.

The boarding-school system - originally meant to give nomad children the opportunity of a higher education - had a destructive influence on the minority cultures when extended to primary school level. Children were growing up far from their parents and returned at an age of 16-17 as almost complete strangers with often weakened ties to their ethnic origin and language, and almost without practical skills for the traditional occupations. As a result, the system favoured assimilation into the Russian society. The decrease in people using or understanding their native language is enormous. Today, the elder generation - above the age of 50 - carries on the language.

It would, however, be wrong to neglect positive developments during the Soviet era. One important example is that the role of women in the society achieved benefits, as many taboos were broken. Other examples were the improvement of health care, reduction of infant mortality, etc.

Environmental disaster

Until ca. 1930, industrial development and large-scale extraction of natural resources by the colonialists were largely confined to the area adjacent to the Trans-Siberian Railway. From 1930, large industrial projects were started in the North that caused severe, though local, environmental damage: intensive forestry in the Igarka area (lower Yenisey), nickel mining at Norilsk (Yenisey mouth), and gold mining in Yakutiya. The major impacts in the far North started in the mid-1950s, especially the chopping down of forests for timber over great expanses. Vast hunting grounds were destroyed. Large amounts of timber were left to rot. The Soviet Far East lost more than 30% of its forests.

The oil and gas boom started in the mid-1960s. The largest oil deposits were in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Area. Enormous forest areas were razed and the land was devastated by careless tracked-vehicle driving; rivers and bogs were polluted, and large areas became worthless for any sort of primary subsistence. In addition to the devastation of nature, the alien workers abused the indigenous population through pillage, theft, killing of reindeer, destruction of sacred sites, even robbery, rape, murder and burning of homes. The exploitation of the Yamal Peninsula was carried out quickly, though experts had not agreed on its profitability.

Both areas suffered immense loss of land and water resources. Railways and pipelines cut off reindeer migration routes. In the Khanty-Mansiyskiy and the Yamalo-Nenetskiy Avt. Okrug together, 110,000 km2 of reindeer pastures, 28 economically valuable rivers, 177 km2 of spawning areas and feeding fields were destroyed. Similar encroachments were made in the Far East in 1970-87, where reindeer herds decreased by 30-40%.

A significant impact of a different kind is nuclear pollution. From the atmospherical atomic bomb testing in Novaya Zemlya in the 1960s, large areas suffered radioactive contamination. In addition, nuclear explosions were often used for civil purposes like mining, attemps to divert rivers, and seismic sounding, some of which resulted in local radioactive fallout. High rates of related diseases are known from, for instance, Chukotka, northern Yakutiya, Kolguyev Island, and the Kola Peninsula. The tuberculosis rate - high throughout the North - is locally close to 100%. Other lung diseases are common, while infant mortality is quickly rising.

Political reorganisation

With the beginning of the Perestroyka policy, movements against the disastrous situation for the Northern indigenous peoples started with an increasing frequency. In 1986, Koryaks succeeded in preventing a village liquidation in Kamchatka. Other examples of successful protests followed, like the fight of the Udege people in the Bikin Valley (Primorye) against the cutting of timber by foreign companies in the early 1990s. A large amount of regional associations developed which were supposed to defend indigenous interests.

In 1989, an expert meeting on minority problems achieved agreement on the necessity of severe changes in the Soviet minority policy. The experts pronounced that the best way to secure the future of the Northern minorities would be the establishment of ethnic territories with self-determination, cessation of the former policy of forced relocation, replacement of large-scale development programmes by locally adjusted small-scale projects, etc.

An important initiative by the minorities themselves was the formation of the embracing "First Congress of the Small Peoples of the North" in Moscow, March 1990. It resulted in the establishment of the "Russian Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East" (RAIPON), under the first elected president, Vladimir Sangi (Nivkh), who was later replaced by Yeremey Aypin (Khant) and then by Sergey Kharyuchi (Nenets). The association became the official representation of the Northern indigenous people towards Russian authorities and government. International institution building programmes, initiated by ICC (Inuit Circumpolar Conference) Canada in 1995, helped to develop the organisation into a significant political tool which today spearheads the peoples' struggle for survival.

In 1998, RAIPON - together with the other embracing Arctic indigenous peoples' organisations, Saami Council, ICC and Aleut International Association - was accepted as a permanent participant in the newly established (1996) Arctic Council. The main goal of this council is international co-ordination of development in the Arctic, with the pronounced participation of her indigenous populations.

The way ahead

Environment, health, legal issues and economy are today on the agenda of the indigenous associations. RAIPON and associated organisations are working hard towards the Russian authorities concerning the emplacement of a satisfactory legal basis for indigenous rights. So-called ethnic communities are formed, where the native population executes a sort of self-determination in terms of traditional subsistence. Environmental violations have been brought to trial. Health-related development projects are initiated. Native communities are trying to go back to their traditional social clan structure and to revive the old ways of life in order to survive the present socio-economic crisis. The newly developed consciousness among the people, that their future is in their own hands, was nothing but a rhetoric phrase just a little more than a decade ago.

Enormous progress has been made during the past decade, but much more is still to be done. One of the main obstacles is the lack of financial means - not only for the associations, but also at an individual level. In many rural areas, there is shortage of basic things like food, equipment and firewood. The need for continuous support from the outside is fundamental.

The way the indigenous peoples of Russia have chosen is the one of partnership - with their neighbours, with the authorities - and at the global level. They are increasingly accepted as equal partners in the process of sustainable development in international fora. Progress at the domestic level is still very slow due to the reactionary behaviour of many local officials. But they fight with endurance.

The spirit of their ancestors is still there today. It has been the driving force for their survival through centuries. So, the Charter of their Association begins:

"We, the indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation, believe that:
-The Air, the Land and Water are blessed;
-Nature is the source of life;
-Man is but a drop in the whirlpool of life;
-The river of time is but a reflection of the past, present, and future and that how our ancestors lived in the past is how we now live and how our offspring will live in the future..."