Xenophobia and indigenous peoples in Russia. What does the “Hate Crime” topic mean for Russian IP?

Presentation for the OSCE Expert Meeting “Addressing Hate Crime against Indigenous Peoples” by Dmitry Berezhkov.

The “Hate Crime” topic regarding indigenous peoples is still relevant for Russia. It is a great challenge that has roots in colonial history and the colonial nowadays of the ultimate nature of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and today’s Russia, which has similar origins to the colonial suffering of other indigenous peoples around the world. So I will not touch today on the history of the issue in Russia as it is very similar to the history of other indigenous peoples whose lands were colonized by other nations.

The topic “Hate Crime” was very relevant for Russia in 2000 when we received every year messages about killings and beatings of indigenous students by skinheads in Russian capitals, Moscow and Sant Petersburg. That was dozens of killings, many of which were not reported as “hated crimes” because, for police, it was more comfortable to consider them domestic crimes.

Russian skinhead

It has to be said that it was not directed against indigenous peoples but against every person whom Russian far-right radicals consider “others”. Primarily against people with Asian appearance as persons from the Caucasus could fight back roughly.

And Russian authorities at those times demonstrated evident efforts to fight against skinheads. Police arrested some of their leaders; authorities tried to control football fans’ organizations, one of the primary sources of skinheads activity. But the main milestone of reducing skinheads activity became 2014 when president Putin was able to trick the situation and refocus the hatred of the Russian far-right radicals against Ukraine, the US and NATO after the annexation of Crimea.

At the same time, domestic intolerance and xenophobia continue to be one the main features of indigenous peoples’ living, especially in urban and industrialized areas.

In a short presentation, I will not concentrate on this topic but need to mention the problem of keeping indigenous children in boarding schools. Formally these schools are organized for children from every family. Still, in practice, in remote villages of the Russian Arctic, Siberia and the Far East where indigenous peoples live, mainly children from indigenous families live in such boarding schools.

Boarding school for Sami children in Lovozero village. Murmansk Region. The second half of the 20th century.

Besides the problem of assimilation, losing the native languages and traditional culture, the challenge of domestic intolerance against indigenous children by personnel of such boarding schools is still actual for many Russian regions. We were reported that indigenous children were beaten by boarding school personnel in Novy Port village (Yamal) in 2019. In another boarding school (Beloyarsk village, Yamal) in 2019, the director organized an illegal hotel for migrant workers who lived just in neighboring rooms with children. In 2021 in the boarding school in the village Polunochnoe (Sverdlovsk region), indigenous children who adapted to traditional food did not like the unusual for them boarding school cuisine. But when one of the personnel supported by indigenous parents tried to raise this issue in the media, the boarding school fired the person and wrote a statement against her to the police.

A punished boy at the boarding school in the Novy Port village (Yamal), 2019. According to the school cameras, the boy stood for at least 3 hours (from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.)

In some cases, local informants provide us with information that the municipal administration specially put indigenous children not in usual schools but in boarding schools to keep state finance from Moscow for the municipal budget. In other cases, we were reported that boarding school personnel didn’t fight against bullying but participated in it.

These examples show that domestic intolerance regarding indigenous peoples is still a problem for Russia until nowadays.

At the same time, I want to highlight another aspect of xenophobia closely connected with the rights to lands, resources and self-determination. Today these continue to be the hottest challenge for the Russian indigenous peoples’ development. As you know, Russia is a world producer of natural resources. Yet, Russian businesses closely connected with authorities through corrupted links try to use any opportunities to press out indigenous communities from their traditional lands.

I will give you an example. Some years ago, in my homeland region Kamchatka, the speaker of the regional parliament, Boris Nevzorov, implemented the legislative act that had to exclude South Kamchatka from the federal list of indigenous traditional lands. We have such a list of territories in Russia, and only indigenous peoples who live in these territories have some rights to traditional fishing, hunting and other traditional livelihoods. At the same time, a lot of indigenous traditional lands where indigenous peoples continue to live were not included in this list.

Boris Nevzorov

So Boris Nevzorov prepared the rationale for this law. In this document, he noted that only a small percentage of indigenous peoples live in these territories – less than 5 percent of the total population. He based on the history that during the Soviet times, the South of Kamchatka as most comfortable for living area was intensively industrialized by authorities (so he put the historical colonization as a justification for future one). There were also many other unnatural arguments, including that indigenous peoples’ traditional fishing threatened national security as the South Kamchatka is a base for the Russian Far East nuclear submarines fleet, and American forces could use the indigenous peoples to raise separatism in Kamchatka. This is a nonsense for us or any sane person, but this is a reality of Putin’s Russia.

But the reason why Nevzorov tried to exclude these lands from the federal list of indigenous territories was straightforward. While he is a Russian official and represented legislative authorities, he, at the same time, was an owner of the biggest Kamckatka fishing company, “Ustkamchatryba,” and tried to exclude indigenous communities as competitors for access to fishing resources. It must be noted that Boris Nevzorov is officially one of the reachest Russian state officials.

After he failed to lobby this legislation in Moscow, which we tried to block with all efforts, he started an information campaign in local media. In this TV show, journalists asked ordinary Kamchatka residents what they think about the law, according to which only indigenous persons in Kamchatka have the right to fish free without a license. Of course, this is a tiny amount of fish per year – about 50 kilos, but for the poor Kamchatka population, even such an amount is substantial.

The question was formulated like this: “Indigenous peoples in Kamchatka have the right to fish salmon without licenses while others who live in Kamchatka for many years or maybe their whole life have no such right. Do you think it’s fair?” I will not explain how chauvinistic further discussion this question followed by.

And this is a trick used by business and state officials regularly in Russia to continue to control indigenous lands and resources.

I would be able to give you many other examples of intolerance, xenophobia and chauvinism towards indigenous peoples in Russia. It is dangerous when such cases continue to happen in any state. It is very dangerous when the state does not fight against xenophobia. But it is extremely dangerous when the state canalizes xenophobia in a politically or economically beneficial way for state powers.

Now Putin canalizes the energy of the Russian nationalists against Ukraine. What target will be next? We don’t know.

A “Donetsk People’s Republic” soldier with a Russian passport, taken prisoner by the Ukrainian military during the war in Ukraine. Shyrokyno village, June 2022.

I think international institutions like OSCE have to rethink their approaches to democratic discussion with totalitarian states like Russia regarding human rights, whether it is indigenous peoples’ rights, hate crimes or any other human rights.

30 August 2022, Vienna.