The Oppression of Russia’s Indigenous People

I have recently finished reading Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I loved this book, whose chapters each recount the story of a different character set, though most are interlinked somehow. The book is set in the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia – an interesting setting. The region is not densely populated; most of the population lives in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. The Peninsula is home to over 300,000 inhabitants – approximately 13,000 of whom are indigenous persons. The setting definitely plays a huge role in the novel – from the girls’ abduction on the isolated coast, to a couple’s trip to a national park, characters’ returns to the village of Esso and other characters’ perceptions of the city. I thoroughly enjoyed this varied and thorough insight into a region of Russia that I had never previously heard of. 

Though the abundance of different Russian names (including nicknames) made this format hard to follow when characters from three chapters ago were referenced later in the novel, I found the author’s choice engaging in this respect. This format enabled a broader view of the characters and their context, as opposed to honing in on the plot from the perspective of fewer people. One of the most notable themes of the novel (in my opinion) is the presentation of Russian Natives’ experience – from the discrimination they face during the investigation for two missing girls, to the lack of the police’s respect towards the Native mother of another missing girl. Some of the chapters are centred more than others around this theme – one character discovers her culture through a Native dance club at her university, and the author portrays the difficulties of her relationship with a Russian man; towards the end, the author depicts the new year celebrations of the Even people, ‘nurgenek’. I found the exploration of the Natives’ culture throughout the book incredibly interesting – I had, out of ignorance, not considered the indigenous experience in Russia. I recommend Phillips’ novel for the plot, character development, and high level of detail, but also for the portrayal of a severely underrepresented area of the earth (in terms of Kamchatka) and culture. 

The novel mainly focuses on the Even indigenous people. The Evens are mostly nomadic hunters, or reindeer herders; on the coast, some are seal hunters or fishers. They speak the Even language as opposed to Russian, and are visibly distinguishable from ethnic Russians. Soviet-era Russia enforced change upon the Evens. The Russians created a written language for the Evens and eliminated illiteracy. For Evens and other Siberian Natives, the Soviet years altered their existence. ‘Sovietisation’ was implemented due to incompatibilities between tribal life and Soviet ideals. Such ideals included a rejection of shamanism – a condemnation that failed to find roots in the indigenous culture due to the lack of an alternative presented by the Russians. However, the decline of shamanism due to negative perceptions of such practices indicates the success of Sovietisation in this respect. Education became mandatory in the hopes of encouraging adoption of a Soviet lifestyle to usurp traditional practices and values. For instance, the Soviets offered reindeer breeders a return to their previous semi-nomadic lifestyle if they sent their children to boarding school for 8 years at a collective centre, where Russian was taught as the predominant language. A 1950s and 60s resettlement programme forced far-out families to relocate to be closer to the collective centre, where they no longer had land and were thus required to participate in Soviet jobs. Therefore, throughout the Soviet era, indigenous people including but certainly not limited to the Even people, suffered a cultural dissolution at the hands of the Soviets. 

Indigenous people are disadvantaged in comparison to ethnic Russians. In 2007, Russia abstained from voting for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Legally, indigenous people are not protected in Russia. The umbrella organisation for protecting indigenous rights in the country (RAIPON) is state-controlled. Given their reluctance to legally enshrine indigenous rights in the UN, it is easy to imagine the Russian state’s treatment towards Natives which is presumably manifested in the actions and policies of RAIPON. Evidence of this is found in the formal classifications of indigenous peoples in the state – of 180 different peoples in the Russian territory, only 40 are officially recognised. Such disdain for indigenous people in the country permeates society. Socioeconomically, crises are experienced to a greater extent by the minorities of Northern Russia, Siberia and the Far East, who are indigenous, than other minorities in the country. Traditional indigenous trades, such as hunting or reindeer breeding, are either in crisis or have disappeared, likely due to modernisation.

The Russian arrival at and consequent settlement in Siberia impacted indigenous peoples to a significant degree. Integration of the indigenous people, who had a different culture, spiritual beliefs and behaviours to Russians, posed a challenge. The solution proposed was ‘yasak’: a symbolic payment made by the indigenous people to Russia to evidence their Russian citizenship and obedience to the state. The main goods used to pay this fee were tusks found in mammoth remains or walruses, skins and furs, and other luxury goods. In other words, yasak was payment made to their invaders in order to continue living land they already inhabited. It is necessary to acknowledge another unsurprising, yet nonetheless offensive, injustice against the Natives of the Russian territory – their land and resource rights. Legislation referring to this issue was revoked in 2015. The consequence of this revocation is the erosion of local authorities’ legally protected ability to protect indigenous land from resource users and businesses looking to use the land for their own benefit. A number of violations occurred in 2015 and 2016 following this legislative change. Similarly, in 2017, the reduction in indigenous trade was further threatened when legislation was passed that increased the level of difficulty experienced by indigenous people in applying for fishing applications. In the Pacific region of the country, fishing is a large industry. The new laws require indigenous people to follow a long application process before they can fish – the timing, location, and amount of which they must accept. Evidently, Russia is keen to limit the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples, whose land they settled on. 

Unfortunately, this year’s oil spill in the Russian Arctic will further the disproportionate hardship experienced by Russian Natives. The spill, which began on 29th May, has polluted a large lake near Norilsk – Russia’s most polluted city. Over 21,000 tonnes of oil have entered the Ambarnaya river and surrounding soil, following a storage tank collapse attributed to melting permafrost, a consequence of climate change. The disaster will especially impact indigenous people as the Taimyr Dolgano-Nenetsky District around Norilsk is home to many groups of Natives, who, as previously noted, engage in (and depend on) herding, fishing, and hunting as part of their lifestyle. Though, as previously noted, these practices have declined somewhat, they are still important to indigenous people, and will be dangerously affected by the ecosystem damage that will inevitably occur following the oil spill. The Russian state has little regard for this, having built Nornickel’s smelting facilities on indigenous land, over 80 years ago. Thus, it is improbable that the government will attempt to mitigate or amend the inevitable problems of May’s environmental catastrophe on behalf of the indigenous people it will affect. 

While I am grateful to Phillips’ portrayal of the Even people in her novel, since researching the indigenous experience in Russia it has become clear that the Russian state perpetuates the inequality between ethnic Russians and Natives more than the novel portrays. This is not necessarily the fault of the author. However, the issue is apparent in Russian legislative decisions which increase and exacerbate the disparities. Yet, from my experience, there is little (if any) mainstream media attention given to the indigenous inhabitants of the Russian territory, even with regard to the oil spill which will likely destroy their livelihoods. This is an injustice in and of itself – the Russian state should be pushed, through international pressure, to improve their treatment of the Native whose land they claimed. The indigenous people of Russia must not be ignored or forgotten in order to avoid tension with the Russian government. Otherwise, all other states become complicit in Russia’s lack of regard and maltreatment of its Native people.

Disclaimer: the Sami Population in Sweden and Finland and Norway have a long history of being oppressed as well, a history that is hardly talked about as it doesn’t fit the narrative of a EU welfare system.

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