Indigenous peoples in Russia

The Russian Federation is a multiethnic society and home to more than 180 peoples. Of these, 40 are legally recognised as “indigenous, small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”, one other is still striving to obtain this status. This status is tied to the conditions that a people has no more than 50,000 members, maintains a traditional way of life, inhabits certain remote regions of Russia and identifies itself as a distinct ethnic community.

Among the peoples recognised as such are the:

  • Evenks
  • Saami
  • Yupiq (Eskimo)
  • Nenets

Other Peoples of Asian and Northern Russia such as the:

  • Sakha (Yakuts)
  • Buryat
  • Komi
  • Khakass

do not hold this status because of their larger populations. A definition of “indigenous” without the numerical qualification does not exist in Russian legislation.

The small-numbered indigenous peoples number approximately 260,000 individuals in total and thus make up less than 0.2% of Russia's population. Ethnic Russians account for 78 %. Other peoples, such as the five million Tatars, are not officially considered indigenous peoples, while their self-identification varies.

Indigenous livelihood and territory

The latest official population figures from the 2010 national census do not provide disaggregated data on the socio-economic status of indigeous peoples. Indigenous peoples are predominantly rural dwellers, whlile Russia on the whole is a highly urbanized country.  

The small numbered indigenous peoples traditionally inhabit huge territories stretching from the Kola Peninsula in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, and make up about two-thirds of the Russian territory.

They have traditionally been hunters, gatherers, fisherfolk and reindeer breeders. For many of them, these activities still constitute vital parts of their livelihoods, even more since the collapse of the Soviet economy and the disappearance of the services it provided.

Their languages belong to many different families, such as Finno-Ugric, Manchu-Tungusic and Paleo-Siberian, and their cultures and world views are closely related to their environments: the tundras on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the vast boreal forests of Northern Eurasia, the Pacific Coast or the magnificent mountains of the Altai and the volcanoes of Kamchatka.

Their territories are rich in natural resources, such as oil, gas, and minerals, and heavily affected by large energy projects such as pipelines and hydroelectric dams. Any industrial project taking place on indigenous peoples’ lands presents a threat and elicits concern in the indigenous population.

A map by the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North entitled “Places of Potential Conflict Between Industrial Companies and Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East” identifies 70 places of potential conflict.

Legislation

Indigenous peoples as such are not recognized by Russian legislation; however, the constitution and the national legislation set out the rights of "indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North", including rights to consultation and participation in specific cases. However there is no such concept as "Free, Prior and Informed Consent" enshrined in legislation.

The small-numbered indigenous peoples are protected by Article 69 of the Russian Constitution and three federal framework laws  that establish the cultural, territorial and political rights of indigenous peoples and their communities.

However, the implementation of the aims and regulations contained in these laws has been complicated by subsequent changes to natural resource legislation and government decisions on natural resource use in the North.

In recent years, some important policy measures have been adopted, including the action plan for the implementation of the Concept paper on sustainable development of the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North for 2009-2011; however, its key components have not been implemented.

Russia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and has not endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Yearly update

Dowload the 2016 yearbook article on indigenous peoples in Russia to learn about major developments and events during 2015.