Debra L. Schindler


The advent of glasnost brought to public view the issues of First Nation rights, economic development, and environmental preservation. As is now clear to the whole world, minority conflicts in Russia are far from resolved: natural resource development has suffered from poor plannning and outdated technology, resulting in irreparable ecological damage to the environment.2 Today the Russian North is moving rapidly forward with the industrial development of natural resources and the establishment of eco- and ethno-tourism. Siberia and the Far East have always been recognized as important targets for economic growth and for the development of natural resources. Timber, oil, natural gas, coal, diamonds, and nonferrous metals (especially gold) have been the primary targets of resource exploitation in these vast areas.3 As Moscow's politicians scramble for control of the Russian Federation, so too are regional political and economic planners scrambling to gain control over various bits and pieces of the Russian Federation. The Russian government is under tremendous pressure from the developed nations and international banking organizations to restructure the economy, introduce market principles, and establish a politically stable environment for foreign aid and investment.4 Russia's mineral wealth is specifically cited as collateral for financial assistance and investment. Environmental iinterests play an important part in this struggle, but not always, or necessarily, on the side of Native peoples. Global economic, human rights, and environmental forces have set the stage for acute conflicts between Russian national interests and First Nation rights.

First Nations and Soviet Policies

At the turn century, Native peoples in what would become the Soviet Union could be characterized by subsistence systems which encompassed a wide range of economic activities: hunting, gathering, fishing, and reindeer breeding, with attendant variations in settlement patterns and land use practices. Kinship was the basic organizing principle of society. Many indigenous groups also engaged in various forms of exchange with non-Native peoples: Russians, Americans, and others. The 1989 census recorded 197,345 indigenous northerners in Russia.5 These people are officially grouped into twenty-six nationalities which comprise the "Numerically-Small Peoples of the North."6 The northern Native peoples define their membership differently than the state, however, including such groups as the Komi and Sakha (Yakut) which have substantially larger populations than the "Small Peoples," and there are several groups which receive no official recognition at all.7

Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, policies were aimed at the "development" of indigenous cultures and economies and reflected the common Western perception that indigenous peoples had to be "saved" from their "primitiveness." The indigenous peoples were considered to be the most "backward" (orstalye) in all of the Soviet Union, and thus in need of the most help. All the trappings of primitive communalism - animism, shamans, ritual and ceremony, the chum and yaranga, Native languages, etc. - would, with proper guidance and education by Party workers, give way to a modern "Soviet" life-style driven by socialist principles and industrial development. Diversified economies and centralized settlements with modern houses, schools, and hospitals would replace the nomadic and seminomadic life-styles of the indigenous peoples and would strengthen their economies.8 This reorganization was part of an attempt to provide an infrastructure of locally produced goods (eggs, milk, meat, vegetables, etc.) and services to support the growth of industry in the Far North.9

Following World War II, the focus of development in this part of the world shifted dramatically from people to natural resources and to the growth of the Soviet military industrial complex. The slow pace of socio- economic change among the Native peoples became a liability to industrialization, and assimilationist policies were hastened without regard for the consequences to indigenous populations. Instead of creating mixed economies and effecting ethnic integration, policies of forced collective collectivization and resettlement destroyed the fabric of indigenous life which integrated the land, resources, and kinfolk into a coherent, functioning society.10 For the most part, the indigenous population has not directly participated in industrial development and, today, these jobs, as well as those in the service occupations, continue to be held predominantly by non-indigenous personnel.11

Even in the "traditional" occupations, the indigenous populations often provide only the labor needed for hunting and herding, while most supervisory and administrative positions, such as that of sovkhoz or kolkhoz chairman, have come to be held by non-Native individuals. Ethnic stratification, which seperates the industrialized groups (Russians, Ukranians, and others) from the indigenous population, is clearly visible in laborers and non-Native administrators. Despite longstanding Soviet claims of economic and thus social parity among ethnic groups, unequal access to goods, services, jobs, and education, significantly lower wages for the indigenous population, and discriminatory practices related to language and life style perpetuate interethnic strife in the Russian Federation.

The rapid social and economic changes which have taken place throughout the North have had a devastating effect on the physical and mental health of Russia's First Nations, as evidenced by patterns of morbidity and mortality and the increasing incidence of violence.12 Native northerners are treated for diseases of the ears, nose and throat, heart, liver, and kidneys, and other ailments far more frequently than are members of the nonindigenous population, and the incidence of death from these conditions is also higher. Infant mortality is high and life expectancy is low: between forty and forty-six years. On average this is sixteen to eighteen years below that of the nonindigenous population.13 Between 1970 and 1980, half of the deaths of the indigenous northern population were due to domestic and industrial accidents, murder, and suicide. This is three to four times greater than the average for the Soviet Union.14 Theeducational system which was intended to integrate the northern peoples into "Soviet" society has failed, while effectively alienating children from their parents and grandparents in language, occupation, and world view, as well as from the land on which they live.15

In March 1990 the first Congress of the Numerically-Small Peoples of the North was held in Moscow to discuss the political and economic situation of Russia's First Nations and to consider what direction further development should talce. There is no doubt considerable variation in the needs and wants as well as the present abilities of the northern peoples to achieve the economic, cultural, and political autonomy which they desire. At this Congress the Association of Numerically-Small Peoples of the North was created, and the Nivkh writer V. M. Sangi was named its president.16 Since this time other branches of the Association (e.g., the Association of Kola Saami, the Society of Eskimos, the Society of Tomsk Sel'kups, etc.) have been established, and other organizations concerned with indigenous rights have been formed.

Of first priority is the establishment of basic rights for the northern peoples - northern affairs must be administered by northemers. Native associations in the Far East, for example, have expressed their goals as therebirth and strengthening of the indigenous peoples. Four general areas of activity are identified by Associations in Chukotka and in the Magadan area and their agenda is, in basic outline, shared by all of Russia's First Nation peoples:17

1. Native peoples must have control of traditional economies: hunting, herding, and fishing. Indigenous land use for hunting and herding must have priority over industrial activities, which themselves must be halted until agreements can be reached over control of resources and until environmentally sound practices can be implemented.

2. Native peoples must have political rights: fair representation at all levels of govemment.

3. The spiritual development and rebirth of native cultures depends on the strengthening of national languages, culturally appropriate education and employment afterwards, the revival of ancient rituals and ceremonies, etc.

4. The physical survival of Native peoples is at a critically low point: adequate health care must be a priority.

Pre-Soviet patterns of land use, settlement, resource exploitation, and social organization are no doubt gone forever, and this is clearly understood by the northern peoples. Desires to return to "the way things used to be" are combined with realities of sedentary village life, the acknowledged benefits of education, the severe health problems affecting the entire northern population, the upheaval in Russia's political economy, and the sudden influx of foreigners interested in "development" of widely varying scope and purpose. The difficulties arise in trying to find those aspects of past ways of life which can be reconstituted and still serve to strengthen Native cultures within present-day circumstances and in funding new ways of ensuring cultural survival.

Within the context of Russia's current social, political, and economic crisis, control of resources and the right of priority in land use are issues of critical significance to discussions of First Nation economic, political, and cultural autonomy. At various times during the Tsarist and Soviet periods, attempts were made to legislate the protection of northern peoples, but such laws were impossible to implement, especially when their goals ran counter to the ethno-national interests of Russians.18 Legislation exists inRussia today which establishes the priority of traditional land use and resource control by indigenous peoples and which provides the possibility for the creation of Native administrative divisions based on ethnic territories.19 Other laws which would protect First Nation rights in Russia are also being proposed. The implementation of the law, however, is still easilydeterred in the face of many competing ethno-national and international interests; by the lack of adequate legal recourse for indigenous peoples; by their minority status in their homelands with respect to the Russian population; and by the dominance of nonindigenous personnel in northern administration.

As new systems of land tenure and resource development are being instituted, joint ventures with foreign firms and privatization provide both opportunities for Native empowerment and obstacles to Native autonomy. In some areas local government bodies have either been given the authority or have asserted as their right, the decision-making process on questions of land use. For example, the Amur oblast soviet of people's deputies has passed a measure on the creation of territories for traditional use by Native peoples.20 The difficult economic position of the autonomous districts and regions and increasing decentralization necessitates that local governments look for some means of providing an income for their districts. One means of doing this is through payment for land use from both industries and traditional trades, such as reindeer breeding.21 Another means is through the development of tourist opportunities for foreigners.22

The Far East

The Russian Far East is home to Yupigyt, Chukchi, Eveny, Koryaki, Itel'meny, Yukagiry, Evenki, Oroki, Nivkhi, Orochi, Ul'chi, Udegei, Negidal, Sakha, Nanai, and to members of other Native minorities. Two brief examples of the conflicts between "development" and First Nation rights are offered here, one from Primorskii Territory (krai), just north of the Korean and Chinese borders, and the other from the Chukotka Autonomous District (Okrug), just across the Bering Strait from Alaska in the far northeast comer of the Russian Federation.

The Primorskii Territory is rich in timber, oil, natural gas, and mineral resources, and its waters are rich in fish. The Udegei, Nanai, Ul'chi,Orochi, and other Native peoples in the territory have begun to feel the effects of decentralization and the power of Russian regional administrators who collaborate with foreign joint ventures in the exploitation of the area's natural resources. The Udegei and Nanai living in the upper reaches of the Bikin River valley are hunters and fishermen who have continued to practice subsistence hunting and fishing, even within the collectivized economy of the Soviet state. Today, as the ability of the state to supply remote areas with goods and services continues to erode, subsistence activities have become even more important. The Bikin River and surrounding forests are critical to both the physical and cultural survival of the Native peoples.23

The Russian-South Korean logging firm Svetlaya began its operations in 1990, harvesting enormous amounts of timber and rapidly beginning to encroach on the traditional lands used by Udegei and Nanai communities for hunting and fishing. In 1992, local administrators and the Native peoples succeeded in bringing a halt to logging operations, and the Russian Supreme Court has upheld a decision in favor of Native claims to traditional land use areas in the Bikin River area. Environmental activists also played an important part in the controversy because the entire area under concern is also home to rare birds, commercially valuable fur-bearing animals, and the endangered Siberian tiger.24

Svetlaya has not been the only timber cutting operation on Udegei lands,25 and as noted above, timber is not the only resource of interest in Primorskii Territory. China, for example, imports timber, fertilizer, and fish products from Primorskii Territory and plans to import natural gas as well.26 Throughout Siberia and the Far East, areas of particular economic interest are the foci of development plans. The Tumen River Free Economic andTrade Zone is one such project which integrates the northern provinces of China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and Primorskii Territory, together and will provide expanded opportunities for resource exploitation and trade. The project is supported by the United Nations Development Programme and the Asian Development Bank.27 It will also, however, provide more opportunities for corruption in political and economic spheres. Within such an international framework and with nations not well known for their human rights records, it will be increasingly difficult for the First Nation peoples in this area to be heard.

Natural resource development in Chukotka includes mining of nonferrous minerals: gold, tungsten, and until recently, mercury. Coal deposits in the district are also being exploited. Oil and gas exploration in Chokotka has been concentrated in Beringovskii and Anadyrskii regions, and offshore deposits show great promise in spite of the difficulties which production would entail in such a severe environment.28 Out of a total population of 163,934 in 1989, only 17,443 people (roughly 10%) in Chukotka were representatives of the northern indigenous groups - Chukotka, Yupigyt, Eveny, and others. Although many non-Native people have left the district since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Native peoples are still a minority in their homelands. Reindeer breeding is the principal occupation of the indigenous population and is concentrated in the state farm system. Approximately 485,959 reindeer are herded in Chukotka.29

Many of the conflicts between industry, environmentalists, and the indigenous peoples center around the degradation of pastures and water resources and subsequent harm to domestic and wild animal populations. Reindeer breeding, hunting, and gathering are integral parts of Native cultures, and their destruction implies the extinction of Native cultures. Mining activities have employed wasteful and ecologically damaging technologies in their push to fulfill economic plans. The movement of heavy equipment in the tundra has irreparably damaged large tracts of pasture lands. All-terrain vehicles which are used year-round for transport also do considerable damage to the topsoil and vegetation. Other environmental issues of concern include the polluted coastline - ships using the Northem Sea route frequently dump refuse into the ocean, which eventually fouls the coastline. Policies of state secrecy surrounding gold mining in western parts of the district and operations at the Bilibino nuclear power station have made the impact of these activities difficult to assess.

Eco- and ethno-tourism, as well as environmental preservation, are seen as important factors in eastern Chukotka's development. In 1990, plans for the Beringian Heritage Intemational Park were announced. This park would join the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska with a park encompassing the Providenskii and Chukotskii regions (raiony) of Chukotka.30 The primary goal of the park is to preserve the rich and unique natural community there. Mention has also been made of the cultural community in Chukotka and the need for its "preservation.31 There is, however, little evidence that Native peoples themselves have control over the process of park creation or even adequate information about plans for the park. Cruise ships and scientific expeditions already stop along the coast to show scholars and tourists what the "Native villages" are like. What impact these visits have had and will have in the future has not yet been investigated, and local peoples have little or no control over such activities.


In November 1993, United States President Bill Clinton hosted a summit meeting of leaders from the Pacific Rim countries to discuss future cooperation in this area of rapidly growing economic importance. Although the Russian Far East did not make headlines as an important player in the Pacific Rim economy, it has the potential to become a major source of raw materials for industrial development in this part of the world. It is ironic, therefore, that the summit was held in a replica of a coastal Salish longhouse in a model Native American village. World leaders there discussed a future, the consequences of which will assuredly result in the dispossession of Russia's First Nation lands and life-styles in much the same way as the First Nations of North America - peoples such as the coastal Salish - were dispossessed of lands and life-styles, until all that remains are replicas and models of peoples and lives. To add even further insult to injury, "human rights" issues (which must include First Nation rights, although such is not the current political fashion) were too sensitive to be discussed at the Pacific Rim summit.

The Russian Far East is an important regional power, both within Russia and within the Pacific Rim. To some extent today, the Far East considers itself beyond the reach of Moscow's economic control and is moving rapidly toward market reforms and international trade relations, especially with its neighbors along the Pacific Rim. Tensions between Moscow and the regional centers are not new to Russia,32 and the rise of political and economic power in these areas should not be underestimated. Non-Natives in the Russian Far East are either eager to leave for the central parts of the country or are looking south, to the economic opportunities presented by Asia. Some Native peoples look to the north and to other circumpolar First Nation peoples as models of economic, cultural, and political empowerment. Others look south, where organizations such as the Eurasian Club have as their stated goals the promotion of "sustainable economic development that respects and preserves the cultures of the thousands of indigeneous peoples such as the Nanai and Ulchi..."33

The rate of change in this region is having a tremendous impact on the ability of Native peoples to mobilize on their own behalf and is making it imperative that they establish relationships not only with Moscow but also with the political and economic powers of the Far East. To date, most negotiations of indigenous rights have been with authorities in Moscow. The centralized command structure which could supersede local directives no longer exists, and Native associations must deal with local authorities. While in some areas they have begun to do this, by no means do they as yet have the political power or legislative backing to enforce their rights. Russia's First Nations must not only be consulted about "development" but must be allowed to participate as policymakers in control of their own homelands. They must be allowed to choose, and one of the possible choices must be no.


1. This chapter has been adapted from "Indigenous Rights, Development, and the Environment in Russia," Who Pays the Price? Examining the Sociocultural Context of Environmental Cnsis. Society for Applied Anthropology Report on Human Rights and the Environment, Barbara R. Johnston, editor, 1993 (pp. 92-101).

2. IWGIA, lndigenous Peoples of the Soviet Far North," International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs Document 67 (Copenhagen: IWGIA) 1991), "Russia's Greens. The Poisoned Giant Wakes Up," The Economist 313(7627): 23-26 (1989).

3. V. Conolly, Siberia Today and Tomorrow. (London: Collins) 1975; F. 1. Kushnirsky, Soviet Economic Planning, 1965-1980. (Boulder, CO: Westview) 1982; S. V. Slavin "Leninskie idei i osvoenie sovetskogo severe (Leninist ideas and the mastery of the Soviet North)," Letopis' Severa 10: 3-22 (1982); J. Tichotsky, "Use and Allocation of Natural Resources in the Chokotka Autonomous District," Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska, Anchorage, 1991; A. Wood and R A. French, editors, The Development of Siberia: Peoples and Resources (New York: MacMillan) 1989.

4. "Yeltsin Proves a Charmer as He Ventures into Capitalists' Den," New York Times, February 2, 1992 (p. 8).

5. A. Sheehy, "Ethnic Muslims Account for Half of Soviet Population Increase," Radio Liberty Report on the USSR, January 19, 1990, 2(3): 15-18.

6. "Osnovnye pokazateli razvitiia ekonomiki i kul'tury malochislennykh narodov severa (1980-1990 goda) (Basic indicators of development of the economy and culture of the Numerically Small Peoples of the North)," (Goskomstat: Moscow) 1990.

7. Boris Chichlo, La Premiere victoire des "petite peoples," Questions Siberiennes 1: 4056 (1990)i IWGIA 1990.

8. A. 1. Krushanov, "Isotoriia i kul'tura Chukchei (The history and culture of the Chulcchi)," (Lenigrad: Nauka) 1987; D. L. Schindler, "Theory, Policy and the Narody Severa," Anthropological Quarterly 64(2): 68-79 (1991); M. A. Sergeev, "Nelcapitalisticheskii put' rarvitiia malykh narodov Severa," Trudy Instituta Etnografi AN SSSR, New Series, XXVII, Moscow-Leningrad, 1955; lu Slezkine, "From Savages to Citizens: The Cultural Revolution in the Soviet Far North, 1928-1938," Slavic Review 51(1): 52-76 (1992); V. A. Uvachan, "Perekhod malykh narodov Severa at rodovogo stroia K razvitomu sotsializmu," Letopis' Severa 1 8: 21-36 (1977); 1. S. Vdovin, "Legislative, economic, social and cultural policies of the US.S.R. to encourage the development of the Chukchi and the Eskimo," The MuskOx, l3:41-48(1973).

9. V. Komarov, "U narodoswi Severa (Among the peoples of the North)," Sel'skma Zhizn', October 27, 1988.

10. D. L. Schindler, "Russian Hegemony and Indigenous Rights in Chukotka," Etudes/lnuit/Studies 16(1-2): 51-74 (1992).

11. Cono-ly 1975 op. cit. note 3.

12. A. Pika and B. Prokhorov, "Bol'shie problemy malykh naradov (Large Problems of the small peoples)," Kommunist 16(1332): 76-83 (1988); V. Sharov, "Mala li zemlia dlia malykh narodovr?" Literaturnaia Gazeta, August 17,1988.

13. 1. Levshin, "Surovaia realnost' surovoi zemli (The harsh reality of a harsh land), Literaturnaia Rossiia, September 2, 1988 (pp. 3-4)i V. Sangi, "Otchuzh deny (Alienation)," Sovetskaia Rossiia, September 2, 1988.

14. Pika and Prolchorov 1988 op. cit. note 12.

15. Komarov 1988 op. cit. note 9; Levshin 1988 op. cit. note 13; A. Nemtushkin, "Bol' moia, Evenkiia! (My pain, Evenkia! )," Sovetskaia kul'tura, July 28,1988; lu Rytkheu, "Lozungi i amulety (Slogans and amulets)," Komsomol 'skaia Pravda, May 19, 1988 (p. 2); "Beloe bezmolvie7 (White Silence)," Ogonek 17: 20-21 (1989);Sangi 1988 Op.cit.note 13;Sharov 1988 Op.cit.note 12.

16. "Materialy s"ezda malochislennykh narodov severe (Materials of the Congress of Numerically Small Peoples of the North)," Moscow, 1990.

17. "Ustav i programma. Assotsiatsiia malochislennykh narodov Chukotki i kolymy. (Statutes and program. The association of Numerically-Small Peoples of Chukotka and Kolyma)" Anadyr', 1990; "Programma Assotsiatsii Korennyk> Zhitelei poselenii Oli," typescript.

18. Nikolai Vakhtin, "Native Peoples of the Russian Far North," Minoriry Rights Group International Report 92/5 (1992); Nikolai Vakhtin, "Korennoe naselenie Krainego Severa Rossiiskoi Federatsii. (The indigenous population of the Far North of the Russian Federation)," (St. Petersburg: Minority Rights Group, European House) 1993.

19. Decree 868. Postanovlenie Presidiuma Verkhovnogo Soveta Rossiiskoi Federatsii 868, "Ob uporiadochenii pol'zovaniia zemel'nyTni uchastkami, zaniatymi pod rodovye, obschinnye i semenye ugod'ia malochislennykh narodov Several" Moscow, March 30,1992; Decree 1186. Postanovlenie S"ezda Narodnykh Deputa tov Rossiiskoi Federatsii 1196, "O sotsial'no-ekonomicheskom polozhenii raionov Severa i priravennykh k nim mestnostei." Moscow, April 21, 1991; D. J. B. Shaw, "Land Reform and Peasant Farming," Soviet Geography 32(9): 639-642 (1991). 20. RA Report 15, July 1993. Center for Russia in Asia, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

21. Y. N. Andreeva, "Rational Development of the Arctic Region: The Yamal Case." Institute of Arctic Studies, Dartmouth College: Workshop on Rational Development in the Arctic, 21 pp. (1991); N. A. Chance and Y. N. Andreeva, Research Overview. Sustainability and Large Scale Natural Resource Development in the Circumpolar North: A Comparative Analysis," 1992.

22. Tichotsky 1991 op. cit. note 3.

23. V. A. Shnirelman, "Are the Udege People once again faced with the threat of disappearance.7" IWGIA Newsletter, No. 1, January/February/March 1993 (pp. 31-37); Vakhtin 1992 op. cit. note 18.

24. G. Fondahl, "Udege of the Russian Federation," in State of the Peoples (Boston: Cultural Survival and Beacon Press) 1990, p. 127; Shnirelman 1993 op. cit. note 23.

25. Vakhtin 1992 op. cit. note 18.

26. RA Report 1993 op. cit. note 20, p.51.

27. RA Report 1993 op. cit. note 20.

28. Tichotsky 1991 op. cit. note 3; D. Wilson, "Exploration for Oil and Gas in Eastem Siberia," in The Development of Sibera: People and Resources, edited by Alan Wood and R. A. French (New York: St. Martin's) 1989, pp. 228-255.

29. Tichotsky 1991 op. cit. note 3.

30. Tichotsky 1991 op. cit. note 3.

31. F. Graham Jr., "U.S. and Soviet Environmentalists Join Forces Across the Bering Strait," Audubon, July-August 1991 (pp. 43-1); Y. Rosen, "US'Soviet Peace Park Invites Cooperation in Array of interests," Christian Science Monitor, July 23, 1991 (p.7)

32.Leslie Dienes, "Siberia Perestroika and Economic Development, Soviet Geography, 32(7): 445-457 (1991); Beth Mitchneck, "Territoriality and Regional Economic Autonomy in the USSR." Studies in Comparative Communism 24(2): 218-224(1991).

33. RA Report 1993 op. cit. note 20, p. 159.

This article first appeared in Who Pays the Price? The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis, edited by Barbara Rose Johnston, Island Press, 1994. Reproduced with permission of Island Press.

ArcticCircle Home Page