A Problem of Moscow’s Own Making: Who is an Indigenous People in the Russian North?

Paul Goble

Staunton, Sept. 27 – The Russian government has defined as indigenous peoples in the North those who are members of one of 40 numerically small peoples (under 50,000 each) who receive benefits from the government which allow them to continue to practice their traditional hunting and fishing.

            That approach has given rise to two sets of issues, one of which threatens to become explosive. The first involves those who are members of these numerically small peoples but who live in cities and do not live in a traditional manner. Some of them want to claim that status, but Moscow has been working hard to deny them such an opportunity and the money it involves (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/10/moscow-sets-up-registry-of-northern.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/11/saami-activist-appeals-to-supreme-court.html).

            While this is a problem for some individuals and for the defense of national identities of these groups, it does not present serious difficulties for large numbers of people or Moscow as such. But the second issue does. The indigenous peoples in the Russian North are proud of that status and want to distinguish themselves from everyone else, including ethnic Russians.

            On the one hand, that has prompted some Russian nationalists to demand that the numerically small peoples of the north not be allowed to make a distinction that exists in Russian law. And on the other, it has led some Russian nationalists to demand the Russians living in the North be named an indigenous people as well and get benefits too (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/12/to-protect-national-security-moscow.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2021/09/russian-nationalist-outraged-russians.html).

            Moscow-appointed officials in the North not surprisingly are on the side of the Russians, although they face problems with the fact that Russian law itself defines indigenous peoples for the purpose of promoting the survival of these traditional communities and thus cannot oppose that without putting themselves in opposition to Moscow.

            But they may now have found a way to take action against the numerically small indigenous nationalities of the Russian North. Some of them are suggesting that foreign countries want to mobilize these communities by using the indigenous-non-indigenous divide and that Moscow must block that by ending this arrangement (regnum.ru/news/society/3381878.html).

            This debate appears set to escalate with the non-Russians who benefit playing defense and the ethnic Russians and their corporate allies in the North playing offense and hoping to use the national security card to get Moscow’s attention and support for ending what has been one of the few defenses the indigenous peoples have.

            If the Russian side wins this debate, however, anger among the numerically small indigenous nations of the North will escalate; and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Russian government by its willingness to cater to Russian nationalists on this question may be putting itself at far greater risk than it likely understands.

            The traditional peoples are armed, and many of them work as prospectors for natural resources and even have dynamite to search for rare minerals. Angering people with guns and explosives is far from the cleverest thing to do when they are located in critical regions with long and unguarded pipelines and highways.  

           But if the indigenous peoples of the North succeed, they will become a model for other non-Russians who are likely to see playing up the difference between their own nations and ethnic Russians who arrived during imperial expansion as politically useful. That could create an even more serious problem for Moscow as well. 

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