Photo: Atle Staalesen

They are no longer counted as indigenous people

The FSB takes full control of native populations. Why is that?!
октября 07, 2020


Text by Tatiana Britskaya


The registration of chosen representatives for the various small groups of indigenous peoples has become an integral part of the monitoring system in the fields of interethnic and interfaith relations for the Russian Federation. An official decree was signed by Michael Mishustin, the Russian Prime Minister indicating the official policy for carrying out the latest official census. In the decree, the FSB would be responsible for this monitoring. The main purpose of this monitoring is to search for various kinds of extremism. Violent opposition is becoming a problem in the Russian Federation. The indigenous peoples have often felt the attention of the special services in recent years but now such scrutiny has been legalized and formalized. And the register itself in this context strongly resembles the registration system in China for the Uyghur, the 10 million ethnic Turkish muslims who live in Xinjiang.

According to the order, there are now officially 46 different groups of indigenous peoples in the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia. And each has their official abbreviations in official documents. On the unofficial list, there is an argument as to whether or not there should be 47. Officially in 2010, the Alyutors living in Kamchatka ceased to exist.

Officially in 2010, the Alyutors living in Kamchatka ceased to exist.

The new indigenous accounting system went into effect in May. The register was developed with active participation from the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and Far East of Russia. Their president is Grigory Ledkov, the State Duma deputy. He is with the United Russia party. The authors of the document, the state, argue that the register was created to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. Their thinking about the Alyutors is that adding them to this list is incorrect and in order to receive state support, they will need to continue proving the existence of their nationality from time to time. And though guilt is usually the business of the prosecution to prove, this time around, the Alyutors failed to prove their existence.

Indeed, the indigenous people do have to face a rather humiliating procedure of having to prove their national identity and numbers. The story of Andrei Danilov, a Sami activist, suing government agencies three times over this was reported in the Novaya Gazeta. The rights of the Kamchadal or Nenets people to fish and graze deer on their own land is one of the big questions which will be «monitored» by a conditional comrade major. The state believes the creation of this specific list will solve the problem. And counterintelligence officers have been called in to monitor the situation as well. 

Preparing lists of the people representing this or that ethnic group is not unique to Russia. They are there to clarify the special economic situations of the indigenous population. It defines their rights. Canada also has such lists. In the event of industrial production on their land, the indigenous peoples there automatically become shareholders. In the United States, residents of reservations receive income from casinos built on their lands. In these cases, the indigenous community always keeps their own records. And this should make sense because everyone from the fifteen hundred Russian Sami people know each other much better than the officials.  State officials are unable to distinguish the difference between a Sami kuwaxa dwelling and a Mongolian yurt. I was an eyewitness to such an incident in one of Andrei Danilov’s court cases. 


But here, the state decided all by themselves that they do not trust the northern groups with the job of doing their own registrations. And when the state takes on something, even if there is a better way of doing things, it is always treated as a joke with Kalashnikov assault rifles as the punchline. 

The state decided all by themselves that they do not trust the northern groups with the job of doing their own registrations

As the current law reads, to enter the register, a member of the Imrek tribe must documentarily prove their ethnicity and lead a traditional lifestyle. They may not have any other sources of income other than via doing native handicraft or by skinning animals. And they must live within the confines of their reservation.  

And they needed to have simple and clear documentation. This was supposed to make things easier for native people but as it turned out, it made things harder. According to the registry operator - the Federal Agency for National Affairs - should the committee consider the submitted documents incomplete, the «applicant» may be refused. 

The documents proving official nationality had to include several items. The resident of an indigenous tribe must have, among other things,  a Soviet passport with the column for «nationality» filled in and stamped. They can also have a court decision determining ancestry. Also the need a stamp or certificate of registration at their place of residence, A SNILS (Страховой номер индивидуального лицевого счёта - a public insurance document) and an IIN (Идентификационный номер налогоплательщика), their tax ID). And unfortunately, these are documents not all tundra people have.  


Dmitry Berezhkov. Photo: Thomas Nilsen


The established criteria also ignores the existence of those members of the tribe who are and, for various reasons, moved to the city. Activist and Former vice-president of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Berezhkov is an expert on indigenous peoples of the North. 

“These registers of theirs only count people leading a traditional lifestyle. We need a certain number of people working in these professions in order to receive quotas, resources, benefits and so on. The people don’t want to have to fill out all kinds of applications and send documents. They don’t really want to fight the system just to lose. They would rather let someone more efficient do the job.»

The division of the indigenous peoples takes into account those filed under «tundra» and those marked «asphalt». The asphalt people live in the city. This is a part of the story of the region. 

«These registers are wrong to exclude or reject those members of the native community who live in comfortable apartments. They got them because many just do not want to lead a traditional lifestyle.»

During the years of industrialization, the tundra was mastered by the factory builders. sacred places, graveyards and camps were destroyed with excavator buckets. Some local inhabitants were forcibly relocated to cities or a kind of “urban type” reservation, like the village of Lovozero in the Murmansk region. Parents of tundra children are still obligated to send their children to boarding schools on the mainland every autumn. And not everyone wants to come home. Some simply don’t have to. 

People get an education, build families and make careers. They are still Sami, Chukchi, Dolgans and Nganasans. One’s identity is their identity. But the people here believe they retain the right to preferential treatment despite assimilation. They do not get paid because they practice traditional handicraft, as the laws have decided, they get paid because the wealth of their lands feeds half of the country. And because their lives have been altered against their wills. 

According to the new documents, in order to receive these preferences, you need to prove that you are “correctly identified” as a member of an indigenous people.

In 2015, after the president of the association announced in an interview the beginning of the development of the laws concerning the Register of Indigenous Peoples of the North, they sent out its first version. The document said that that proof of affiliation was necessary primarily for nomadic reindeer herders. Gennady Shchukin, a Dolgan from Taimyr, immediately objected: 

“Is anyone sure that our lives will change for the better with this registry? They divide our people with this register. They separate the intelligentsia from the tundra people, the children from their parents, the pensioners from their grandchildren and the wives from their husbands…»

Gennady Shchukin is the head of the Taimyr Dolgan community. He is outraged that people are forced to prove their nationality. To him, this goes against the constitution which ensures people the right to voluntary ethnic self-determination. And even worse, they are demanding that the natives spend their time ice fishing. 

«If you are sitting at an ice hole, you are indigenous and if you go to school, you’re not. Because that’s what it looks like,» explains Shchukin.

It was the Dolgans who were the first to sound the alarm. They noticed one day that the Ambarnaya River smelled like diesel fuel. This discovery was the Norilsk fuel spill which dropped 20,000 more than cubic metres (17,500 tonnes) of diesel oil on the ground and into local rivers, affecting the nearby Daldykan River, a tributary of the Ambarnaya River, the land and groundwater in an immediate area of 18 hectares (44 acres) and contaminating an area of 350 square kilometres. (citation) And it was the Dolgans who refused to let them have a coverup. 

In recent years, almost all environmental protests against the large enterprises  - from Novokuznetsk to Shies, from Norilsk to Chukotka - take place with the participation of indigenous peoples. The native population understands that they are fighting for survival. Without their native land, they have nothing.  If this is taken away or destroyed, their people will be gone.  And this thought is clearly very, very annoying for industrialists who, in the final analysis, seem to be the real beneficiaries of this new legislative novelty.

Firstly, the protests are usually more active and more educated. These are not slow witted fools «sitting at the ice hole». And because of this, as already mentioned, it just got easier to cross their names off the register. Or it is better to say that this makes them easier to discredit.  How can you represent the interests of your people if you are not living on the reservation? 

And then we have the issue that the FSB will be controlling who enters the register. Where there is a protest, there is extremism. And the FSB has always been good at anti-extremism. There is a law somewhere that fits, as they say, and they’ll find it. And if there isn’t, they’ll make one. 

“This is being done to fully control the activists,” says Andrei Danilov, director of the Sami Heritage and Development Foundation.

«If we submit an application, they will know everything about us. But if we don’t submit to them,  we are no longer counted as indigenous people. 


Dmitry Berezhkov calls the register a pilot project for population control.

 “The major is sitting in Chukotka and he is bored. Nothing interesting ever happens. And now he has a reason to get a bigger budget. No, he needs money for «operational support». They believe that the indigenous activists can be a threat to their big commodity companies. Commercial interests determine everything there. We have a letter from a senator who runs a fishing company. He personally appealed to the Legislative Assembly of the region with a demand to simply remove part of the territories from the list of lands of traditional residence of the indigenous people. He said they should just take it. They want to wipe us out. And we see that now Russia has big plans for the Arctic. Apparently, someone thinks that the indigenous peoples could prevent them from making their money. «

Olga Murashko is a member of the International Working Group on Indigenous Peoples“ Affairs and the Expert Council of the State Duma’s Committee on Ethnic Affairs. 

“A law has been adopted to support entrepreneurship in the Arctic. The Arctic Development Corporation is now responsible for all permits to investors. And they are allowing even options bypassing the existing system of environmental legislation.”  

It seems those in power are now conveniently ignoring that in addition to economic feasibility, the projects must pass environmental and social feasibility inspections as well. 

«It is ecologically and socially impractical to give away fishing for the sake of some industry that will kill all of the fish. All the fish that are exported for money will be gone and there won’t even be anything left for the traditional fishing population to eat. Just because a well known oligarch convinced the prime minister that it would be economically expedient for “them” to build a new port and access roads to it with budget money in untouched industrial areas, where people graze reindeer and catch fish and animals on the coast, does not make this ecologically inexpedient for the locals.»

When the register is completed and all procedures for appealing against the refusal to be included in the lists of indigenous peoples of the North have been exhausted, the number of indigenous people in Russia may, among other things, be greatly reduced. 

Grigory Ledkov, President of the » Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation,» has already mentioned publicly that the register will work exactly the same as the one designed for The Yamal Peninsula in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug of northwest Siberia. But the problem is that less than 20 thousand people were included in the Yamal list of indigenous people. And there too, they only counted those who permanently live in the tundra. According to the 2010 census, more than forty thousand Nenets, Khanty, Selkups lived in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, half of whom live in cities and towns. Why doesn’t the list include them in the census? Why are they not counted with their people? Who are they now? What is their status?

And is it possible to deprive a person of their nationality as easily as it is to deprive them of their benefits?

«The registry will finish us off.» This is what Andrey Danilov has to say. 

«People are afraid to enter this register. To them, it is not worth the preferences. And what are the preferences there? Why do they have to catch 5 kilos of whitefish a year on Lovozero? Because they have to do this just enter the register. They must do this, then they issue a trade log, take it to Murmansk and submit the reports.  Yes, this is the same whitefish that sells on the market for 250 rubles. Frankly, it is easier just to buy it. We are not afraid of losing food, we are losing our way of life. Yes, some people live in the city and maybe only once a year they might go out on a boat, set up a net, collect medicinal herbs and visit sacred places. This should not be regulated by any registry.  It seems like everything turns out to be aimed at eradicating indigenous peoples in general in Russia. They change the laws so the people will not want to enter the register and then we just won’t be on paper. But then they will come and take way the rivers, lakes and lands. Maybe there will only be 100 Sami left. And they will tell us that it was our own fault. Obviously, we did not want to exist any more. The register in its current form is very harmful because inevitably, it leads to the extermination of our people. It will finally finish us off.»

Gennady Shchukin, chairman of the Dolgan community, deputy of the Dolgano-Nenets district council: 

“They worked it out that if you are an indigenous minority, you obviously must live in the tundra. If, God forbid, you have a cell phone, you are no longer indigenous. We are already racially limited in entering society. We are outcasts. But now the only choice is either sit on the periphery in primitiveness or forget your culture and be like everyone else.»

There is another rule in the new register. The place of registration must be included in the official «List of Places of Traditional Residence and Traditional Economic Activities.» 

In this list, 28 «official places» where the indigenous peoples live are mentioned. Residential regions are not mentioned in half of these places. Instead, individual districts and even settlements are mentioned. Inter-settlement territories, forests and pastures, where traditional economic activities are conducted, were also not included in the list. This gives rise to conflicts with commercial enterprises that use subsoil or other resources such as fishing, hunting areas and forests. Cities and regional centers that emerged in the territories of the historical settlement of the indigenous peoples were also not counted. And these were places where representatives of indigenous peoples study and work or even where they moved to in their old age to be «closer to the hospital.»

Since 2017, there have been  a massive number of cases of people being refused their nationality in court. And this has been true even if the people presented old passports and other documents where ethnicity is recorded. They live in urban areas. They do not count. 

And it seems clear from the wording of the decisions that these refusals were recommended from above. “The applicant has not presented evidence of their preservation of the historically established way of life. Evidence must support any claims of self-identification for applicants. They must show that they are working to develop and maintain the culture of the people to which they state they belong to.» 

Surprisingly, this wording was taken by me from a court decision that refused a place in the register to several members of the community, mainly pensioners, living in the suburbs of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. I personally know of and have participated in the maintenance of the Itelmen village for almost 20 years. The village was reconstructed 30 km from the city and is considered a place of cultural heritage. This wording is similar to the motives in the court refusal of the Sami from the Murmansk region that now disallows Danilov from checking the «traditional hunting» box on his hunting ticket.

Translated from Russian 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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