Industrial developers look at plans for the town of Pevek. Photo:

Glass beads for the indigenous people of Chukotka

Why did the Chukchi village complain to the UN and what does Roman Abramovich have to do with it?
October 18, 2020


Text by Tatiana Britskaya


Ayon Island, part of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, is a sleepy expanse of tundra on the Eastern Siberian sea. For more than 400 years, herds of reindeer graze in summer near the village on the shores of the Chaunskaya Bay. They graze their way to the sea along a well beaten path, well worn by uninterrupted centuries of use. And reindeer herders wander after them because the reindeer are wise and will always find the way.

If you do not go out to the sea in summer, the deer will end up there in winter. The sea wind drives away the gnats which cling to all life in clouds on the grassy fields in summer. And the deer, blown by the winds, calmly graze, rest, and build up strength for the long winter. 

For 400 years the Chukchi reindeer have been coming to the shore at Cape Nagleynin. But in 5 years there will be no pasture there. And then there will be no deer left for the inhabitants of the villages of Ayon and Rytkuchi. And then there will be no villages because there is no life in the tundra without the reindeer.

A port will be built on Cape Nagleynyn by 2025.  Copper is to be mined in Chukotka by Roman Abramovich and his plan is to ship it to China.

A total of 600 Chukchi live in the villages of Rytkuchi and Ayon. The main activities are reindeer husbandry and fishing. Aion used to be a state agricultural farm millionaire. Now there are 5 streets and a cemetery. A helicopter arrives from the mainland once a month. There are only three streets in Rytkuchi but there is still an art school, a museum and a library. A reindeer herding farm is located in Rytkuchi.

Recently however, the residents of the two villages learned rather suddenly that their usual life would soon change. One day strangers appeared near the villages. The strangers had brought equipment with them and they simply started working. The locals quickly found out that the newcomers were conducting surveys for the construction of a road along which BelAZ trucks would transport iron ore to the port. The road will cut the tundra in half, separating the villages from each other. And the new port will be built right on Cape Nagleynyn, which is called the heart of Chukotka. This is where “vazhenki”, the local name for the female reindeer, have always gone to calve and give birth to little reindeer.


More hints appeared when Alexander Kozlov, the Minister for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic, recently sent the following report to the Prime Minister.

“Today China consumes 60% of the world’s copper. The Chinese market has been completely occupied by manufacturers from Chile, Peru and Australia. Every year, they dictate their prices based on having to transport their copper over 17 thousand kilometers. In the future, we will be able to transport copper in only six thousand kilometers.”

Kozlov explained why life in the villages of Rytkuchi and Ayon could dry up in 2025 and why the Russian budget would pay almost 100 billion rubles (€1.1 billion) for this.

True, he did not specify who these “we” are or who will sell Chukchi copper to China.

But it is not only copper. 23 million tons of copper and up to 2 thousand tons of gold have been uncovered at the Peschanka deposit, a large complex gold-copper deposit within the Bilibinsky district of the Chukotka Okrug. The license for it belongs to GDK Baimskaya, which, in turn, is operated by KAZ Minerals, the largest copper mining company in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs bought 75% of Baimskaya in January last year from the “Aristus Holdings Limited” consortium , which is operated by three individuals, one of which is Roman Abramovich. A quarter of Baimskaya will remain with the previous owners until 2029.

And as of the moment, the owners have not completely parted with Baimskaya either. The deal is partially paid for with shares of KAZ Minerals. Thus Abramovich, the governor of Chukotka until his resignation in 2008, has never really left the region at all.  But if he gained a reputation here as a benefactor when he was an official, now it seems his position is changing and attitudes towards him are changing as well. 

“After Abramovich came to us, of course, life changed,” recalls the Chukchi businessman and activist Igor Ranav. “Abramovich delivered food, his company re-registered in Anadyr and he paid some taxes.”


(Editor’s note: after his election as governor of Chukotka, Abramovich registered three subsidiaries of “Sibneft”, all subsidiaries of Gazpromneft of which Abramovich was a founder, and the taxes from these enterprises provided 80% of the regional budget.)


“Of course, recovery began in Chukotka and investments in infrastructure and repairs appeared. But in practice, he fleeced us like little children. Maybe he invested a billion but he took 10. You know, it is like they say, they gave us glass beads and in exchange… the Federal Center simply gave him Chukotka. “

But in practice, he fleeced us like little children. Maybe he invested a billion but he took 10. 

Igor attended public hearings on the construction of the port and road. According to him, the hearings ended in a strange way and there was no vote. 

“People just submitted their comments and suggestions and they promised to take them into account. And that was all.”

At the same time, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples obliges companies to obtain prior, free, informed consent from the local population prior to any industrial development. But if Russian enterprises often ignore this requirement, KAZ Minerals, an international company with its head office registered in the UK, can as well.

By and large, the development of “Peschanka” itself does not cause any negativity among the locals. They know it is a mining deposit and if mining is carried out with an eye on the environment, nothing critical will happen. But it takes a long time to transport ore from Baimskaya to Pevek and the port infrastructure is outdated. The miners will need a new port at Cape Nagleinin. But there is a road to be built that will have to pass through the pastures. And this port and the road will be built mostly on budget funds. KAZ  is ready to invest only a part of the required amount and Mikhail Mishustin made it clear at a recent meeting in Anadyr that the government had received the green light and would help.

In fact, the port of Nagleinyn is being built to export Russian raw materials to China and solely in the interests of the only private company with foreign management and oligarchic interests. And state investments in the port are the same money that Pevek, who was counting on sending these goods, cannot receive.

The population of Pevek has decreased threefold since the 1980s. With the emergence of a new port, the city has no hope for revival.

And the aborigines of Chukotka have no hope of survival.

“The port will be located in the middle of the Chaunskaya Bay, where residents of all coastal villages fish and where many species of birds nest. How year-round shipping will affect fishing, no one can imagine. Everyone is worried that there will be dredging works and they will drive pylons into the water and this will cause the fish to leave. Everything will be gone on our lands and water. This business will cause irreparable damage to the environment,” says Igor Ranav.

The locals know what the price of their pastures is. The road to Pevek is 400 km longer than the one to be built to Cape Nagleinin. This deal has been done by the pure mathematics that say that 600 people and 8000 deer are within their margin of error. 

The indigenous peoples of the North have a special relationship with the land. If they show you the tundra and say - this is the land of such and such a family - this is not about ownership rights. It’s about responsibility. Not ownership, but stewardship and taking care of a piece of tundra, a lake or the seashore. This is what “land rights” mean here. And therefore, the indigenous people are fighting to the end for the salvation of their land. Abramovich’s agitators once exchanged irons, refrigerators and food for the loyalty of voters. Now, the people have no interest in giving up the land at any price.

To protect the tundra, residents of the village of Rytkuchi turned to the UN. The addressees of the letter also indicated the current Chukotka governor Roman Kopin, the senator from Chukotka Anna Otke, the president of the indigenous peoples’ association, Grigory Ledkov. The requirements are the most stringent. They do not want the port or the highway and they want normal public hearings in Ayona and Rytkuchi.



“Our two national villages, Rytkuchi and Ayon, graze reindeer and conduct calving campaigns, fish and provide for our families with these food stocks. Reindeer herding brigades No. 5 and No. 6 of the Chaunskoye municipal agricultural producer enterprise do this on the territory of Cape Nagleynyn. There are also wild reindeer herds migrating to the coast of the East Siberian Sea who live from the rich vegetation on the territory of Cape Nagleynyn. Arctic loaches come to spawn across the Rauchua River and migratory birds travel between the mainland and Aion Island. Some of these birds are included in the Red Book of endangered species.

There are nesting sites for wild Brent and Canadian geese, the spectacled and white-winged loon, the rose gull, the snowy owl, phalarope and peregrine falcons. Here, polar bears migrate to Wrangel Island, which is a maternity house for this Red Book animal. And rams, also listed in the Red Book, are grazed on Nagleynyn Mountain.

We, the residents of Rytkuchi village, are worried that our life will change for the worse. We fear that we will not be able to lead a traditional way of life in the future and our villages will become empty and existence will cease.”

None of the people addressed in the letter answered the residents but a paper came from the district committee for nature management. From this, they learned that public hearings had already been held in Anadyr and Pevek as well as in Bilibino, where the GOK is located. Just not in their villages. 



“The investor takes into account the need to respect the environment and social needs of Chukotka. The territory of the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug is characterized by an undeveloped network of roads. Because of this, the construction of a road to the sea terminal at Cape Nagleynyn is a reasonable and environmentally sound alternative to using the above-mentioned transport routes. This new road will reduce the distance from the port to the mine processing facilities. The reindeer pastures partially cross the corridor and will be taken into account in the design process in order to minimize damage to pastures.”

Igor Ranav does not like this. “We raise questions but they push us into a corner and then decide for us. Indigenous peoples can never be on equal footing with the authorities or the mining companies in any dialogue.” 

Dmitry Berezhkov, an expert on the rights of indigenous peoples, confirms that the distance between Pevek and Nagneinin is not that great and that it would be more logical to develop and update the existing infrastructure than to build a new road. 

“The only benefit of this construction for the investor is that it will be financed by the state,” he said.”It is important for reindeer herders to go to the sea in summer. Anthropologists say that they perceive it as if they are on a summer vacation. Nobody believes that the damage caused can be compensated financially. Even if the company donates something for the indigenous peoples, these funds will probably not even reach the addressees. ”


Translated by Adam Goodman

This story was orginally published in Russian by the Novaya Gazeta. It is translated and republished as part of a cross-border media initiative 


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