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Karl Hele
R.R. # 4, Bell's Point Beach
Highway 17 East
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Canada, P6A 5K7
This is a review of the recent history of the Indigenous people of Russia.
The author speaks of their experiences under the Tsars, then under
socialism in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and now under the new
On passe en revue l'histoire récente des Aborigènes de Russie. L'auteur
parle de leurs expériences sous les tsars, puis sous le socialisme de l'Union
des républiques socialistes soviétiques, et maintenant sous la nouvelle
Karl Hele
Indigenous peoples around the globe have experienced colonialism,
assimilation, and paternalism, whether it be in capitalist or socialist
systems. From Tsarist times to the present the Indigenous peoples (see
Figure 1 for definition) of Siberia have had to face Europeanization. In the
Soviet period, the Indigenous people experienced the "dictatorship of the
proletariat" (Bartels, 1986:19). Simply put, they experienced the
"dictatorship of industrial society" (Bartels, 1986:19). Soviet policy towards
its Indigenous people was a type of benign paternalism that, over time, has
grown into a tumour that now must be removed. Today, solutions based
upon the intentions and mistakes of the past are being offered to try to
stem some seventy years of cultural tampering, developmental policy,
general mismanagement, and neglect. Similar to the other Indigenous
populations of the world (such as those in Canada), the Small Peoples of
the Soviet North or Siberia (i.e. Aleuts, Chukchee, Eskimos, Nganasans,
see Map 1 for location of groups) demand a recognition of their rights,
values, culture, and self-determination. The Small Peoples want control of
their destiny. To them, the all powerful nation state is not a valid trustee.
With the current trends in Soviet society, the Indigenous people may again
be able to master their destiny within the Russian Republic and Soviet
State. Soviet policy has fluctuated widely when it comes to governing the
Small Peoples. Policies developed in the early years have digressed to
such an extent that Indigenous society is characterized by stagnation and
The definition of Indigenous is subject to both variation and misunder-
standing. The definition used in this paper is:
[1] a word synonymous with the common usage in Canada of “Native”
and “Aboriginal”, as well as the Siberian term “Small Peoples.”
[2] Indigenous refers to a person born in a geographical area within
which he or she can trace their ancestry. The land that the individ-
ual is from is commonly referred to as a homeland.
[3] Indigenous refers to, in this case, a people living in a region prior
to its discovery by Europeans.
[4] Indigenous also refers to the original inhabitants of the and, region
or geographical area.
Some of the Indigenous peoples of the Soviet north are the Aleuts, Bur-
yat, Chukchee, Chuvans, Dolgans, Entsy, Eskimos, Evenks, Evens,
Itelmens, Kets, Khants, Komi, Koryaks, Mansi, Nanaism, Negidals,
Nenets, Nganasans, Nivikhi, Orochi, Oroks, Sammi, Selkups, Tofalars,
Udege, Ulchl and the Yakuts.
Figure 1: The Indigenous Peoples of the Soviet North
Native Populations of Siberia
Map 1: Small Peoples of the Soviet North.
Source: Map reproduced from
Indigenous Peoples of the Soviet North
IWGIA Document 67, Copyright Copenhagen, 1990 by International
Work Group of Indigenous Affairs.
Karl Hele
cultural loss (Programme of the Association of the Small Peoples of the
North of the Soviet Union, 1990:53). This problem is serious enough to
make some believe that the Small Peoples will become extinct if
something is not done soon (Mihalisko, 1989b:4). Indigenous and non-
Indigenous people, alike, are attempting to find solutions to halt this
cultural annihilation.
The proximity along with a connection to Europe and China has
opened the Indigenous inhabitants to the "civilizing" effects of more "highly
developed" civilizations for a longer period than their Indigenous North
American counterparts. The first European contact with the Indigenous
people of Siberia was recorded in the 11th century (Lineton, 1978:88). The
socialist state eventually confronted Indigenous peoples as did its
predecessor, the Tsarist state. Complete control over western Siberia by
Moscow was not achieved until the reign of Ivan the Terrible (Lineton,
1978:88). Conquered Indigenous groups were forced to pay a tribute to the
Tsar's officials. However, the Chukchi and nomadic people were never
totally defeated; thus for many years the Tsar had to give them more gifts
than he received in tribute (Bartels, 1986:3). Wooden forts, manned by
Cossacks, were established along important waterways, to be used as
bases for fur traders and for military action against Indigenous groups.
Treatment of the Native population in Siberia by the Tsars was
characterized by benign-paternalist neglect, tempered at times by forced
Russification (Lineton, 1978:88-94; Cherkasov, 1982:66). Moscow
decreed that the Natives were to be treated with respect, but corrupt local
officials often ignored this. The Indigenous peoples were often viewed as
inferior peoples by the Russian settlers and officials in the north.
Complaints of mistreatment by officials were acted upon swiftly when and
if they reached the court in Moscow. Unfortunately, this "respect" and
"protection" from the court in Moscow did little to prevent the disastrous
effects of continued contact. Regular fur trading connections, new
diseases, and alcoholism were imported. Traditional economies were
disrupted and destroyed, and game animals were depleted (Bartels,
1985:38). Eventually, this led to economic dependence upon the
outsiders. Ever increasing numbers of Natives became little more than
indentured servants, and labourers for the non-Native bourgeoisie
(Lineton, 1978:91). The fur tax (tribute), which had been imposed since the
conquest of Siberia, now caused extreme hardship as the numbers of fur
bearing animals continued to decline, and fishing and hunting grounds
were increasingly encroached upon by non-Natives. The ineffective
protection of Native customs and traditions by the Tsars did little to stem
the continued economic pressures (Lineton, 1978:92, 102).
Siberia was also used as dumping ground for political prisoners by the
Tsarist State. This gave the Indigenous inhabitants ample opportunity to
discover that not all non-Natives supported the Tsar and his policies.
These exiles often came with valuable skills, (i.e. doctors) which gained
Native Populations of Siberia
some exiles acceptance in the Indigenous communities. Later, after the
October Revolution, these former exiles would use the knowledge of
Native customs, traditions and way of life, to help their former hosts.
Bogoraz, for example, was an exile among the Natives for several years
and later a key member of the Committee of the North established in 1924
(Bartels, 1986:3-5).
After the 1917 Revolution civil war erupted. It was not until 1925 that
the last of the "White" forces (pro-Tsar) were defeated in Siberia. Many
Aboriginal people fought on the side of the Reds (the Revolutionary
Forces). The war disrupted trade, depleted game stocks and reindeer
herds. With the disruption of trade, the Natives were unable to obtain guns,
ammunition, fish nets, hooks, traps, knives, and many other Western trade
goods that they had become dependent upon (Bartels, 1986:6).
Consequently, many Natives were on the edge of starvation. Thus the
situation of the Siberian Indigenous people was worse than before the
Revolution and Civil War (Bartels, 1985:38).
With the advent of the Soviet government, Natives were no longer
officially viewed as inferiors, but as equals, at least in their suffering from
the effects of capitalistic exploitation. The Committee of the North,
established in 1924, took immediate steps to assist the Indigenous people
(Bartels, 1986:7). Until 1934, it "was responsible for the economic
development, conservation and management of the wildlife, establishment
of political and legal institutions, trade, medical care, and education in
Native regions" (Bartels, 1986:6). The Indigenous people were exempted
from taxation, and conscription. The law also required that Native people,
including Native women, sit on courts of the people (Bartels, 1986:12).
"Culture bases" were also established. Cinemas, cooperatives, clinics,
and libraries were located at the cultural base (Bartels, 1986:12). The
Committee of the North, consisting of Marxists and non-Marxists, was a
conglomeration of experts on Indigenous peoples (Bartels, 1986:7). In
1930 the Soviet Union established national/autonomous areas for
Indigenous peoples and local tribal governments. These governments
have lasted until the present, although their original Indigenous majority
has been reduced to a minority. Actually, by the completion of the first five
year plan, the Native people in most areas were in the minority (Kolarz,
Idealistically these "primitives" maintained elements of primitive
communism and thus could skip stages in the communist development
theory. It was believed that the Indigenous people could skip the
intervening stages of feudalism and capitalism, and proceed directly to an
advanced socialist society. Education, political organization, and
modernization were seen as steps allowing Indigenous peoples to "catch
up" to the more developed western areas (Bartels, 1986:9-11). Teachers,
doctors, and technicians were sent out to assist the Small Peoples.
Education was deemed to be of great importance, so free schools were
Karl Hele
established, up to and including university. Alphabets were developed for
the Small Peoples to assist in their education. In 1938, the Committee for
the New Alphabet of the Peoples of the North was established to speed up
the process of development (Gurvich and Taksami, 1986-1987:37). Even
today, alphabets are being created for Indigenous groups, and scholars
are simplifying old alphabets, (albeit at a much slower rate now that the
revolutionary fervour has subsided). Unfortunately, there are not enough
Native scholars to assist in the development of these alphabets. Besides
being instructed in their own languages, the people were taught Russian
in order to facilitate their entrance into the State economically and
Like other peoples across the Soviet Union, the Indigenous people
were subject to Stalinist state policies and campaigns. Native reindeer
herders and herds, as well as all other areas of the traditional economy
were collectivized. Later, to form larger cooperatives, reindeer herders,
hunters, and fishermen were collectivized, forming larger organizations
subject to state control. Collectivization destroyed centuries-old villages
and communities without much thought to their social and psychological
effects upon the people (Taksami, 1990:27). By the late 1960s, the
collective farms were re-organized into state farms (Cherkasov, 1982:71).
In common with the people of other areas within the Soviet Union,
such as the Ukraine, the Small Peoples opposed collectivization. This led
to the process being slowed, and sometimes reversed, while the people
were educated about the benefits that collectivization could bring (Bartels,
1986:14-15). Cadres flocked north, not only to liberate and politicize the
population, but also to conduct anti-religious campaigns. The League of
the Militant Godless confiscated symbols of worship, drove missionaries
out, abused and arrested shamans, and attempted to educate the people
about what was considered their folly (Kolarz, 1969:77). Shamans
opposed Soviet policies and thus became the focus of attack by the
Stalinist state. The Militant Godless claimed that shamans took advantage
of ignorant, superstitious Natives and obstructed the betterment of Native
people as a whole (Kolarz, 1969:75-77). Shamans were arrested and
expelled from tribal territories (Kolarz, 1969:77) by authorities attempting
to prove to superstitious Natives that the State was both more powerful
than, and not afraid of, the shamans. The loss of the shamans weakened
the ties of communities to the past, this further disrupting the traditional
ways of life for many Indigenous peoples. Native people were even killed
due to their "capitalistic opposition" to state policy. For example, the Buryat
lost approximately ten thousand people and all their temples due to Stalin
(Edwards, 1990:15-16).
Another state policy, following the lines of collectivization and still
present, was that of settling the nomads. Nomadic existence was viewed
by the Soviet state as backward and destined for extinction (Mihalisko,
1989b:4). The main reason for the continued existence of nomadism is
Native Populations of Siberia
that the reindeer refused to settle where the state ordered. The
sedentarism forced upon the reindeer, combined with the killings by
herders (to prevent the state from collectivizing the herds), led to a
significant decline in the number of animals. In addition, ecological
damage, such as oil and chemical pollution, continues to reduce the
number of reindeer.
Since the 1934 disbanding of the Committee of the North, nothing has
gone right for the Indigenous people of the Soviet North (Mihalisko,
1989b:6). In 1935, power over Northern Affairs was assumed by the Chief
Administration of the Northern Sea Route (CANSR) or a local government.
Three years later, a decree from the Council of Peoples Commissars
ordered CANSR to relinquish power over all enterprises and institutions
that were not directly connected with the development of a northern sea
route (Kolarz, 1969:67). From 1938 to the present, the state has controlled
all aspects of northern development and maintenance.
World War Two interrupted the progress of the Indigenous people.
Many Indigenous students, teachers, and members of the intelligentsia
joined the Red Army and their loss further slowed development in the post
war years (Bartels, 1985:40). The Cold War also affected Indigenous
people. Young Native intellectuals were taught that the United States and
the West were their enemies and sought to enslave them. Groups that
lived along the coast of Siberia were forcibly resettled away from the coast,
cutting off contacts with relatives and friends living in Alaska and Canada
(Garrett, 1988:507). The NKVD-MVD, and later the KGB, enlisted the
services of the Indigenous people to return escaped prisoners to the
Gulags (Kolarz, 1969:70). Finally in the 1950s, atomic testing was carried
out in the north, disregarding Indigenous protest (Pika and Prokhorov,
The only Indigenous group that seemed to benefit from the Cold War
was the Aleuts. In 1932, an Aleutian National District was established,
although it was largely ignored until 1949. At the beginning of the Cold
War, however, Soviet authorities developed the District and provided
benefits to the Aleuts in order to show their brethren living in the United
States how good life was in the Soviet Union. Few other Indigenous groups
received such lavish treatment, however (Kolarz, 1969:85-86).
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Indigenous people of the Soviet
North had similar experiences to those of other people across the entire
Soviet Union. It was only after the Second World War that their condition
relative to other groups began to deteriorate, in large part due to state
economic policy. Another contributing factor that increasingly led to the
marginalization of the Indigenous people was massive immigration with
the stagnation of the Soviet economy.
The young revolutionary Soviet state promised to end the use of force
against Indigenous people, and to end exploitation, and promised future
economic development and the establishment of equal rights in language
Karl Hele
and culture (Lineton, 1982:95). Three of the four promises have been
broken. Where does this "trail of broken promises" leave the Indigenous
inhabitants of the North? Industrialization in the Soviet North has been
occurring at an advanced rate since the 1930s. In the ever continuing
search for hard currency, the Soviet State has been increasing the
development and exploitation of oil and gas fields. To accomplish state-
planned economic targets, people with a "narrow-minded business
attitude" (Kolarz, 1969:69) were retained. The most important detail to
these individuals was the fulfilment of the current five year plan, not the
interests or needs of the Native people (or anyone else living in the region).
When the Indigenous inhabitants got in the way, they were simply pushed
aside and their lands appropriated for development.
The Constitution of the Soviet Union, at the All-Union level,
guaranteed that all national districts were represented by a deputy in the
Soviet of Nationalities (Cherkasov, 1982:67; Vdovin, 1973:43). This, in
effect, placed the representatives of the Small Peoples in a position to
represent and defend the Small Peoples in national debates (Cherkasov,
1982:67). Unfortunately, prior to Gorbachev's freeing of society, the
legitimacy of the representatives was suspect and their representation
questionable. Now that the central command system is deteriorating, the
representatives are free to vote as they choose. In addition, as a result of
free, competitive elections, the representatives are now able to more
effectively represent their people. There is a proposed constitutional
amendment that would give the power of veto to Indigenous members in
the Soviet of Nationalities over policies that are detrimental to the
groups. If enacted, the
representatives could effectively safeguard the Indigenous interests.
However, with the Soviet Union collapsing and the Russian Republic
growing in strength, the assertion of power by the representatives of the
Small Peoples at the All-Union level is weak.
The bureaucratic command system, once prevalent in the Soviet
Union, had detrimental effects in the Soviet North. Settlement areas were
wiped out by bureaucrats and the inhabitants of the now defunct areas
were resettled "by persuasion or by force" (Mihalisko, 1989b:4). This policy
destroyed many of the traditional communities of the Small Peoples, and
by concentrating them in larger areas further subjected them to dominance
by the bureaucratic system. Appointments to positions in the North were
viewed as undesirable, so that transfers or appointments to the North were
often made to punish an individual (Kolarz, 1969:68). One qualification
necessary for appointment to the North was adherence to the Party and
the command system (Taksami, 1990:27). Not considered to be
qualifications were the origins of the individuals appointed, or any
understanding of the customs, traditions, and values of the Small Peoples
whose affairs the individual was to administer. These appointments
applied from the collective or state farm level on up. Orders and
Native Populations of Siberia
appointments from above and by outsiders to the Native communities
destroyed traditional economies, and robbed the Small Peoples of the right
to self-government and self-administration (Taksami, 1990:25). A direct
result of state policies and the theft of self-determination, is that few
Natives are found in command positions today among state farms and in
industry (Taksami, 1990:27). These non-Native managers and
bureaucrats seem to be concerned solely with the fulfilment of the current
five year plan; they appear to be unconcerned with the effects which their
policies of exploitation have upon either the ecology or the inhabitants of
the region.
Economic development has meant the loss of livelihood for many
Native people, the depletion of reindeer herds and pastures, and the
pollution of lakes and rivers, as well as a loss of fishing grounds and a
decline in the numbers of fish and game stocks available for harvest by
Indigenous people. Many of the best hunting and fishing grounds have
even been turned over to people who are attempting only to "get rich quick"
in practices which further harm both the environment and Native people
(Taksami, 1990:28). Many of the cities in Siberia are among the most
polluted in the Soviet Union, or indeed the world (Edwards, 1990:20). Oil
and gas spills, research, and development have polluted the environment.
For example, rivers and lakes are extremely polluted in the Ob basin and
the Yamal peninsula (Dahl, 1990:12). The Nentsy around the city of
Yambrug call the city "messy place" because of the ecological devastation
there (Edwards, 1990:36). Further unchecked industrialization of the
Soviet North threatens the ecology of the region and thereby the
Indigenous peoples of the area (Dahl, 1990:12).
Furthermore, the profits or benefits from the exploitation of the
resources are not seen by inhabitants of the Soviet North. The Yakut
Autonomous Republic, within the Russian Republic, is rich in resources
but little of the profit returns to the region (Edwards, 1990:32). Most of the
income generated remains west of the Urals, while the small amount that
manages to make its way to the East is swallowed by the immigrants.
Immigration to the Soviet North has made the Indigenous peoples
minorities within their homelands. Originally, in the "national areas"
established during the 1930s, the Small Peoples had control of the Soviets
and administration. Today, they are outnumbered by recent immigrants at
all levels of local government. In short, the various Small Peoples have lost
control of the homelands and thus, their ability to self-govern. In theory,
this loss of the ability to self-govern theoretically should not be either
politically or economically threatening to them. Each national area has the
constitutional obligation to protect the interests of the Natives (Pika and
Prokhorov, 1988:3). Unfortunately, few immigrants have the best interests
of the original inhabitants at heart; most are more interested in taking
advantage of the higher wages available in Siberia than in the survival of
a way of life that has existed for centuries.
Karl Hele
The rapid industrialization of the North, without consultation with the
Native peoples, has had disastrous effects upon the Natives themselves.
Living standards for Native people in the north are the lowest in the entire
Soviet Union (Mihalisko, 1989b:3; Dahl, 1990:16). The life span of the
average Indigenous inhabitant is shorter than that of the residents of most
third world countries. The average life expectancy for Native men is only
forty-five, while for women it is fifty-five years of age (Mihalisko, 1989b:5).
In fact it is some sixteen to eighteen years below that of the Soviet national
average (Schindler, 1990:14). The International Work Group on
Indigenous Affairs report on the Indigenous peoples of the Soviet north
suggests a life span of some ten to sixteen years below the national
average (Taksami, 1990:29). Clearly a significant difference in life span
exists between European Soviets and the Indigenous peoples of the north.
Suicide rates (at 34 times the all Union average [Mihalisko, 1989b:5]),
aggressiveness, and alcoholism are all on the rise, implying that Native
individuals and societies have lost their ability to deal with rapidly changing
social and economic circumstances (Mihalisko, 1989b:5).
The most severely affected group within Indigenous societies are the
young. Those who are educated can find little or no employment in their
fields of study. Managers of industry prefer to hire non-Native applicants
over Native applicants. The reason for this is that non-Native persons are
more likely to be indifferent towards the destruction of pastures or rivers,
while Native persons are likely to resist such activity. As well, young Native
people are reluctant to take up traditional occupations because those
fields of employment are seen to be economically backward and carry little
prestige (Pika and Prokhorov, 1988:7). Even those Natives who are
employed in non-traditional jobs must cope with manual labour and poor
paying, low-status jobs (Pika and Prokhorov, 1988:7). Common among the
young as well is a preference for modern comforts over the life of a nomad.
All these factors combined lead to a high level of dissatisfaction and
cynicism among the younger generation (Bartels, 1986:17) as well as a
high unemployment rate.
With the advent of
and the ecological debate in the Soviet
Union, developers must now take into consideration Native inhabitants
and their wishes. Before this, Native protests were simply ignored for the
"betterment of the state." The ecological threat has brought many non-
Natives into alliance with Native groups against the developers (Dahl,
1989:219). But will the non-Native majority always support the interests of
the Native minority?
has also exposed to the world the
consequences of Russian and Soviet colonialism, the disregard and
neglect of the rights of Indigenous peoples (Dahl, 1990:12).
Moscow now at least listens to the complaints of the Indigenous
inhabitants. The new openness has allowed the Indigenous peoples to
take advantage of fora of expression, formerly closed to them, in their drive
for survival (Mihalisko, 1989b:6). Criticism of Soviet policy and conditions
Native Populations of Siberia
amongst the Indigenous people in the Soviet north is on the rise in the
media. The question of political representation has been raised by
Indigenous peoples in these fora as well. The Small Peoples are protesting
development, are forming local, regional and national associations, and
are beginning to operate on the international level to propose solutions to
their problems. In response to the threat that exploitation and exploration
pose, the Indigenous inhabitants protest regularly, sometimes using
confrontational tactics. The Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula, for instance,
protested the development of gas deposits, fearing that such development
would destroy their way of life. The Khants physically blocked a section of
the Ob to save spawning grounds from a gravel digging operation. In
support of the Khants, the local Soviet ordered the digging stopped (Dahl,
1989:227). A proposed large scale hydro-electric project on the Nizhnyaya
Tungusha River in the Evenk Autonomous Area was effectively blocked by
the combined action of the local Soviet and the Evenk people (Dahl,
1989:219-220). Protests by the intelligentsia and the Indigenous
population of the Yamal Peninsula forced Moscow to place a one year
moratorium on further resource development in 1989 (Dahl, 1989:222).
The groups involved here demanded to be consulted in the future about
the development of their lands. Protests about the destruction of their
homelands and calls for local autonomy and self-determination continue to
this day. As the Indigenous people gain more confidence and support,
both inside and outside of the Soviet Union, the protests will only grow
louder. The time when people accepted decisions from above has passed.
The state planners must now take Native interests into consideration or
expect protest from the local inhabitants (Dahl, 1989:219, 220).
Seeing the beneficial nature of mutual support, the various
Indigenous groups have formed political interest organizations determined
to support and defend the interests of Native peoples. In 1989 the Saami
of the Kola Peninsula formed a new Saami organization which claimed to
represent approximately twenty-five thousand people. The name of this
new organization-Arun-reflects the founders' desire to survive, as literally
translated it means "revival" (Dahl, 1989:228). The goal of Arun is to
protect the Saami culture and way of life, and to assure its continued
survival. A second example of local action is in the Khanty-Mansi
Autonomous Region, where the people formed an association called
"Saving Yugra." This was done in response to the Tyumen oil extraction
zone located within the Region. The head of the organization, Tatyana
Gogoleva, has suggested creating vast preserves for Indigenous
economic activity, with current industrialization in these areas reduced or
stopped altogether (Dahl, 1989:228).
At the All-Union level, the various Small Peoples of the Soviet North
came together to form
The Association of the Small Peoples of the Soviet
North (ASPSN)
in March of 1989 (Dahl, 1990:5). The first public call for
such an organization was suggested by Vladimir Sangi at the meeting of
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Writers Association of Russia
in 1988 (Dahl, 1990:12). This is the first
national association of the Indigenous peoples of the Soviet north. The
ASPSN is a political organization charged with the defence of Indigenous
interests. A unified stance seems to be to the advantage of the Indigenous
peoples. The founding meeting that occurred in the Kremlin was a victory
for the Indigenous people, for it signalled government recognition of the
ASPSN (Indigenous Peoples of the Soviet North: Document 67 IWGIA
1990: 19, 21, 53; Statutes of the Congress of the Small Peoples of the
Soviet North, 1990c:47). Membership in the ASPSN is open to all
Indigenous people from the Soviet north. Immigrants and non-Natives are
allowed to join the ASPSN if they have resided in the north for generations
or are interested in preserving the north and the Indigenous people living
there (Declaration of the Congress of the Small Peoples of the North
1990a:46). The ASPSN has three main tasks:
1) to defend and implement sovereign rights and interests of
the people of the North on all administration levels
2) to preserve and promote cultural distinctiveness
3) to establish and expand international relationships with
peoples of other countries (Taksami, 1990:43).
Complementing these tasks are many goals, including the right to self-
determination, self-government, and the retention of Indigenous ways,
culture, and values. Other aspirations include ecological preservation,
constitutional status, improvement and upgrading, defining land boundaries
specific to Indigenous use only, and the review and submission of legislation
concerning them (Programme of the Association of the Small Peoples of
the North of the Soviet Union, 1990b:55-56; Statutes of the Congress of
the Small Peoples of the Soviet North, 1990c:47; Dahl 1990:16). ASPSN
wants to cooperate with society at large to achieve its goals. The most
important goal is to work in conjunction with all levels of government in order
to ensure that their interests are represented, and that they will not have to
suffer the tyranny of the majority. ASPSN also wishes to work with other
organizations (such as the environmentalist movement) and to work at the
international level. However, ASPSN is unfortunate in lacking a firm charter
and final programme. More importantly, the political profile of the organiza-
tion has yet to be agreed upon (Dahl, 1990:21). Yet, ASPSN is an excep-
tional start for a people who were allowed no voice for many years. The will
to challenge and to talk has returned to the Small People.
Prior to the formation of ASPSN, Indigenous groups from the Soviet
North had been politically active on the international scene. The
Indigenous people of the Soviet North, both as a whole and individually,
hope to cooperate with other Indigenous peoples around the globe (Dahl,
1989:228). In 1988, the Siberian Yupik-speaking Eskimos visited their
Native Populations of Siberia
relatives in Alaska, the first official trip by this group since the United States
and the Soviet Union closed their mutual border in 1948. The Soviet
Eskimos and the Chukchi also attended the Inuit Circumpolar Conference
in Greenland in the summer of 1989 (Dahl, 1989:228-9; Reese, 1989:15).
This delegation had observer status at the meeting since they had not
applied for membership in the organization. Similarly, the Saami people of
the Soviet Union are seeking contacts with other Saami. At the request of
the Saami living within Soviet borders, delegates from the Nordic Saami
Council visited the Kola Peninsula in the Soviet Union (Dahl, 1989:229).
The Soviet Yupik Eskimos, Chukchi, and Saami recognize that they
are suffering from an affliction similar to that of their western relatives-the
nation state. The Soviet delegations are concerned with the problems of
industrialization, pollution, and the preservation of culture and traditions.
Now they hope to be able to exchange ideas about coping with such
problems with other groups outside of the Soviet Union (Reese, 1989:15).
Some believe that the Small Peoples of the Soviet North are facing
extinction if immediate steps are not taken (Mihalisko, 1989b:4). What
these steps should be remains contentious. Following in the trend of
reform, the
Central Committee of the Communist Party
had established a
sub-committee to examine the problems and to propose solutions for the
Small Peoples of the Soviet North prior to the dissolution of the Party.
Suggestions for solving the problems of the Small Peoples come from
various sources, ranging from the Small Peoples themselves to the
intelligentsia. The
Committee for Northern Affairs
has proposed several
solutions based upon suggestions from various parties (Mihalisko,
1989b:6). One of the proposed solutions is the creation of "special
restricted economic activity zones," which is a type of Reservation system.
Any change that is made in state policy towards Indigenous people,
however, needs to be determined by the people themselves, not by the
greater Soviet state or the Russian Republic. The Natives must determine
how much of the past they want restored (Taksami, 1990:32).
Reforms to housing conditions and medical care must be enacted first
(Declaration of the Congress of the Small Peoples of the North, 1990a:46;
Taksami, 1990:32). A revival of feasts, celebrations, and old songs is
needed, as well as the creation of cultural centres and museums. The right
to hunt, fish, and trap year round for subsistence must be restored, in
addition to creating some type of allowance system, but not welfare
(Taksami, 1990:32, 33, 34, 36).
Next, the entire education system for Indigenous people must be
revamped, starting with a basic curriculum for Indigenous students
(Hannigan, 1986:16). Education must be changed to be compatible with
the culture and traditions of the people, and must be taught in their own
languages. Only through educating the young will the preservation of
language and culture occur. Thus, there is a need for more and better
textbooks in the various Native languages. As not all of the Indigenous
Karl Hele
groups have written languages, the development of alphabets for these
people is necessary. Teachers trained in the languages of the people are
also needed, for only through education in the Native tongue will these
languages be preserved.
To ensure an Indigenous education, the current system of boarding
schools for children must be abolished. The boarding schools instil Native
children with non-Indigenous values, robbing them of the ability to survive
upon the tundra (Taksami, 1990:35-36). In other words, the White man's
education they receive robs them of the ability to work in traditional areas,
as they have not learned to see such occupations as advantageous. The
boarding school system needs to be replaced by a system based upon the
nomadic lifestyle. Two suggestions are developing, roaming schools that
follow the nomads, or centering the school year around the migration cycle
of the reindeer. The need for higher education for Indigenous people is
great as well. ASPSN is calling for the re-establishment of the University
of the Peoples of the North in Leningrad (Declaration of the Congress of
the Small Peoples of the North, 1990:45). Development of higher institutes
of learning for Indigenous people is a must. These institutions would be
open to all Soviet citizens, with preference given to Indigenous students.
Moreover, young Natives are needed to work in the traditional sector, but
there is a lack of adequate training available (Taksami, 1990:3840). With
the establishment of Native curricula in schools, this problem would be
eliminated. Furthermore, these institutions would graduate people
conscious of Indigenous values, cultures and peoples, and be concerned
with the effects of development upon the people and the environment of
the North.
Another area of great concern is the development of the resources of
the North. The Indigenous people are not against the development of the
North; they only want development if it will not harm the northern
environment or themselves. In other words, they want destructive resource
development stopped (Dahl, 1989:227; 1990:14). The Natives want to see
some of the profits derived from the exploitation of the resources returned
to their communities. Before development and exploitation of a resource
has begun, the Native people feel that the protection of their way of life
should be guaranteed (Dahl, 1989:227). In addition, some Natives, the
intelligentsia, and government officials would like to see the establishment
of special economic-environmental zones where the Natives would be in
complete control of the land.
Indigenous people would also like to see the demise of the large
collective and state farms, with control of the land being returned to the
People. These huge corporations are against traditional Native values,
because they operate on a profit and exploitationist perspective (Taksami,
1990:32). The restoration of the small family unit is seen as a solution
which would reduce unemployment and other associated ailments, such
as alcoholism.
Native Populations of Siberia
At the local Soviet governmental level, Native people are requesting
a bicameral style of government. Natives would hold power in the second
or upper house; hence, any policies that are determined to be detrimental
to their society could be vetoed. Other suggestions include the
reestablishment of village councils, having national areas where Natives
are in the majority, and creating other types of self-determination, such as
clans, tribal governments, and councils of elders (Declaration of the
Congress of the Small Peoples of the North, 1990:45). If enacted, the
specific functions of such bodies would need to be defined, as well as
determining the status of autonomous areas, ethnic areas, villages, and
Soviets (Taksami, 1990:30). Finally, local government bodies must have
the final word in conflicts with the larger state over development policy
(Bartels, 1986:19). Some examples of self-government cited by the Small
Peoples include Greenlandic Home Rule, the Alaska Native Claims
Settlement Act, and the Canadian Nunavut proposal (Dahl, 1990:19). A
further recommendation is the creation of a two-chamber Soviet at the
level of the Russian Republic. The second chamber, similar to that of the
All Union level, would have representation from the various autonomous
areas (Dahl, 1989:227; 1990:18). This reform would also be extended to
include the Soviets of the autonomous areas.
The Indigenous people would like the Supreme Council of the
Russian Republic to form new autonomous areas, national regions and
village settlement councils, and to extend the rights of local Councils of
Deputies. Indigenous people are also seeking the guaranteed
representation of Native people in all areas and levels of government. The
Supreme Council has also been requested to form committees in areas of
mixed population to take care of inter-ethnic relations. These committees
would also have the right to veto decisions which are in opposition to the
Indigenous interest (Taksami, 1990:BI).
Internationally, ASPSN wants the Soviet Union and the Russian
Republic to ratify international treaties concerning human and Indigenous
rights. Two examples include the newly revised and adopted ILO
Convention 169 (107), and the "Convention Concerning Indigenous and
Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries" (Dahl, 1990:19-21). In the view
of Soviet Natives, these treaties would strengthen their land claims, and
their demand for the return of lands (Dahl, 1990:19-21).
The most important and controversial proposed reform/solution is the
creation of "reserves," or
The term "reserve" refers to much
more than the North American Indian policy of Reserves. The word
, translated directly from the Latinate word "reservation,"
in Russian, or "preservation" in English (Mihalisko,
1989a:31). When the idea was brought forward in the 1920s by Vladimir
Germanovich Bogoraz, it was rejected by the Bolsheviks. It still is believed
by some that Reserves would only serve to isolate the Indigenous people
and make it easier to exploit them (Kolarz, 1969:66). Supporters of the
Karl Hele
idea believe it will preserve the Indigenous people. Bogoraz believed that
Reserves would protect the Aboriginal groups, whom he referred to as
primitive tribes, from the influence of Russian civilization, preserve a land
base for the Natives, and prevent them from becoming extinct (Schindler,
1990:15-16). The conception of the idea rests on the premise that with the
continued development and destruction of the northern ecology, soon
there will not be room for traditional occupations. It is also seen as a
solution by Indigenous people to maintain their culture and homeland. In
short, they could not be removed from their homelands if they controlled
the land, hence, avoiding many of the social consequences of such actions
(Schindler, 1990:15-16). The "reserves" would actually be "zones of
priority land use" or "preserves" (Taksami, 1990:33). In other words,
Indigenous use of the land would have priority over industrial development
and exploitation: Aboriginal people would have direct control over the
administration of the land. Therefore, the preserves would help stop further
exploitation of the Indigenous people by the ministries. These preserves
would be created by combining all undamaged lands. Thus, the Natives
could live "free of industrial enterprises and lines of communication" (Aipin,
1989:7) if they wished. The Commission for Arctic Affairs has
recommended that a legal basis be established so the zones can be
created. It has yet to be debated or approved by the Supreme Soviet or the
Russian Republic. These zones will only work if they are not overrun with
problems similar to those faced by their North American precursors
(Mihalisko, 1989a:34).
The most significant benefit if the
were established would
be self-government for the people living there. Indigenous people would
have the final say concerning the utilization of their lands. Thus they would
be able to demand compensation from industry practicing non-traditional
resource exploitation and would share in the profits derived from their
lands (Taksami, 1990:33). They would also administer all functions that a
self-governing people would expect to maintain, such as education, local
government, and social services. Many problems would be solved.
would help the Indigenous people preserve their language,
culture and traditions. Unemployment, suicide, violence, and alcoholism
rates would all decrease, and, as a result, mental health would improve as
well. Individual pride would, in effect, be restored (Aipin, 1989:7).
Over the past decade, attempts have been made by various
ministries or government bodies to resolve the problems of the Small
Peoples. Attempts have been made by the Central Committee of the
Communist Party, the Council of Ministers (USSR), the government of the
Russian Republic, forty-two Union and thirty-six Republican Ministries,
and local authorities (Taksami, 1990:29). Out of all of this activity, nothing
has been accomplished. Over 31 billion rubles have been allocated to the
needs of the Indigenous people; the money, however, never made it to
them. Instead it was spent on administrative buildings, industrial
Native Populations of Siberia
settlements and in the towns where the administration centres are located
(Taksami, 1990:29; 33; 34). Recently, land reform and compensation laws
have been passed. In the area of land reform, life-long leases have given
local authorities greater control over land and resources. The process
needs to be accelerated in order to grant control of mineral exploitation and
wildlife management to the Indigenous people and to local authorities
(Anderson, 1991:20). A movement to municipalize joint state property is
also under way (Anderson, 1991:20).
In 1989 a law was passed concerning the expropriation of land. The
law has three basic components:
1) all people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, living on
the land own it;
2) before the land can be expropriated there must be a refer-
endum to approve the expropriation; and
3) compensation must be paid to the claimant in the case of
indirect loss of land (Dahl, 1989:225; Taksami, 1990:33).
The first two components of the law have been generally accepted as good
measures, but the idea of compensation is suspect. First, the Indigenous
people do not want straight material compensation. They want legislation
which does not "give" them something, but which recognizes them as self-
governing and provides laws protecting their cultures and ways of life (Dahl,
1990:18). Second, the lack of clarity specifying to whom the compensation
is to go: the Natives, or the immigrant controlled governments. There are
also questions concerning how the money will be spent and the possible
future of these landless Indigenous people (Dahl, 1990:17-18). It has been
suggested that the compensation be used for conservation schemes and
to establish a foundation for the development of Indigenous self-govern-
ment (Taksami, 1990:34). Finally, the law is seen as a possible way for
industry and the ministries to circumvent the law. The ministries and
industry can (and do) promise "x" number of rubles if the people allow the
land to be expropriated. Because Indigenous people are now only minori-
ties, they have little say and can lose their homes without any cash
compensation. Often the industries involved with the current confusion
being caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union simply ignore the law
(Dahl, 1989:224).
Indications of future trouble are easily found. The Yamal Nentsy claim
is just one of numerous indicators of a troubled future. The government
has promised them all kinds of "goodies" from roads to schools, but has
yet to deliver (Edwards, 1990:39). Separate from the Yamal claim is the
1989 promise by the Soviet government to pay out a total of five hundred
million rubles in compensation, which has yet to be paid because of the
question as to who is
to receive the cash (Dahl, 1989:226).
Karl Hele
Due to the policy of openness instituted by Gorbachev, Indigenous
people are highly optimistic. Many believe that the future depends "on the
future of
. If
continues, ...[the Indigenous] people
will survive" (Aipin, 1989:7). As long as society continues to remain open,
the plight of the Small Peoples of the North will continue to be expressed
in the printed media, the demand for reform will go on, and the tumour will
eventually be removed. With the will to survive, optimism, and
the plight of the Indigenous people will continue to catch the eye of the
media and aid in the resolution of many problems.
The Soviet Union is listening to and hearing the demands of the Small
Peoples; in contrast, the Canadian government continues to talk to the
First Nations but yet does not hear what is said. Since they will not listen
to the First Nations themselves, the various Canadian governments would
do well to look to the Soviet Union for possible original ideas on how to
solve the "Indian Problem." Similarly, the First Nations of Canada could
look at the ASPSN for original ideas, especially in the area of the unity of
all Aboriginal people for the betterment of the whole. In Canada, the
movement is fragmented and disorganized. However, disunity still could
strike the ASPSN as the disintegration of the Soviet State continues and
more so with the possible breakup of the Russian Republic.
Demands and claims by the Indigenous peoples in both countries are
the same. Indigenous people simply wish to determine their own destiny
without interference. They wish to see the final demise of imperialism. Self-
government is a right of all people; the Indigenous peoples are simply
attempting to assert their inherent right. Land claims may differ in the
sense that First Nations in Canada have treaties with the Crown, whereas
the Small Peoples of the Soviet north have none. Both groups want to
reclaim lands lost, receive compensation for these lands, and stop further
appropriation by non-Indigenous people. In Canada, First Nations have
fared better in that they have land bases, albeit limited ones. These
Reserves, while isolating the people from much of Canadian society, have
helped the people preserve their language, customs, traditions, and links
to the past. Unfortunately, Reserves have also created immense social
disruption and deterioration.
Public education is mandatory in both Canada and the Soviet Union.
Despite this, "non-first peoples" in both countries believe that the Natives
are thriving on welfare and other government programmes. This view is
highly erroneous. It can only be corrected with time and education.
The Soviet Union and the Small Peoples can learn from the mistakes
of Canada and aspire to greater goals. In the current wave of reform, and
past Soviet tolerance of minorities and nationalities, the Small Peoples will
surpass the First Nations. In Canada, reform is usually carried out at the
expense of the First Nations and other groups, a practice which appears
likely to continue. Hopefully reform in the Soviet Union will not be carried
out at the expense of the Indigenous inhabitants of Siberia. Nevertheless,
Native Populations of Siberia
the Bolsheviks were correct in their assumption that Indigenous peoples
the world over suffered from imperialism. However, instead of eliminating
imperialism they merely continued it under the guise of Soviet reform. The
reforms only created greater problems for the Small Peoples of the Soviet
north. Today the Small Peoples, and Aboriginal people the world over, are
taking steps to change the process of "civilization" (Dahl, 1990:12).
Karl Hele
No author
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North and Far East of the USSR in the Soviet Period.
Anthropology and Archaeology
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Karl Hele
Reese, William
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