• Indigenous peoples in Russia

    Indigenous peoples in Russia

    Of the more than 180 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 40 are officially recognised as indigenous. While the Russian constitution and national legislation set out the rights of “indigenous minority peoples of the North”, there is no such concept as “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in legislation.
  • Peoples

    180 peoples are inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia. Of these, 40 are officially recognised as indigenous peoples 5 million Tatars are not officially considered indigenous peoples
  • Rights

    2007: Russia abstains from voting for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous World 2019: Russia

More than 160 distinct peoples inhabit the territories of contemporary Russia. Forty of these peoples are officially recognised as the indigenous minority peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East. These are groups of less than 50,000 members, who are able to preserve some aspects of their traditional ways of life and continue to inhabit their territories across the northern and asian parts of the country.

In addition to these recognised groups, one more group is actively pursuing recognition, which continues to be denied, another is likely already extinct. Together, they number about 260,000 individuals, less than 0.2 % of Russia’s population. Ethnic Russians account for 80 %. Other peoples, such as the Tatars (approximately five million), are not officially considered indigenous peoples, and their self-identification varies between peoples. The latest official population figures from the 2010 national census do not provide disaggregated data on the socio-economic status of indigenous peoples. Two thirds of indigenous peoples are rural while Russia is, on the whole, a highly urbanised country.

Indigenous peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such; however, the constitution and national legislation set out the rights of “indigenous minority peoples of the North,” including rights to consultation and participation in specific cases. There is, however, no concept similar or alike to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) enshrined in legislation. Russia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and has not endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The country has inherited its membership of the major UN Covenants and Conventions from the Soviet Union: the ICCPR, ICESCR, ICERD, ICEDAW and ICRC. It also has ratified the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe

There is a multitude of regional, local and interregional indigenous organisations. RAIPON, the national umbrella organisation, operates under tight state control. Some other indigenous organisations have been classified “foreign agents” and are therefore extremely vulnerable.

Legislative developments

In 2018 an amendment to the federal Framework Law on Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was being discussed by parliament. The amendment would make it possible for citizens to register themselves as members of indigenous peoples, something which has not been possible since Soviet passports were abolished. Those passports contained a “nationality” (meaning: ethnic identity, not citizenship) field. While the Russian Constitution in Art. 26 stipulates that “everyone shall have the right to determine and indicate his nationality,” indigenous peoples are regularly confronted with authorities who do not accept their self-identification as indigenous and demand  documentary proof.

The challenge for indigenous peoples is that rights to fish, hunt and use other resources including pasture land, which indigenous peoples vitally depend on, are tied to their registered indigenous identity. In contrast to many other countries, indigenous peoples do not have the right to autonomously determine who is a member of their community and who is not, but rather the state authorities who register them or refuse to.

The five-page amendment, which has been presented in December 2018 to the State Duma (the federal parliament) has raised concern with indigenous organisations and representatives, because it introduces highly bureaucratic procedures to register as indigenous. According to observers, most indigenous individuals have trouble meeting the terms set by the procedures. They have to provide extensive documentation on their pedigree and family,1 while at the same time being required to register individually. The law does not provide a possibility for registering entire communities or families collectively. A further concern is that a person has to provide proof of his or her engagement in one of the traditional livelihood activities listed in the “State register of traditional subsistence activities.”2 This means that indigenous teachers, doctors or any other workers in non-traditional professions would not be eligible to register as indigenous, unless they are directly employed by indigenous-owned cooperatives or enterprises operating in one of the traditional spheres.

In addition, in the current text it is not clear to which list of officially recognised indigenous peoples it applies. There is a list of indigenous minority peoples of the Russian Federation from March 2000 as well as a list of indigenous minority peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation from April 2006.

Generally the fear is that the law will narrow the scope of recognised indigenous peoples to tundra and taiga dwellers while excluding those who – as a result of Soviet involuntary sedentarization – live in villages and towns. As a consequence the number of people that are entitled to the use of resources, but also to early pension and other rights guaranteed in Russian law for indigenous peoples,may be feared will be drastically reduced, further deteriorating the the socio-economic status of the indigenous peoples.

Right to fishing and hunting

2018 was another difficult year for indigenous communities who depending on hunting and fishing for their livelihood. Regardless of federal legislation, which says that indigenous minority peoples are free to fish as part of their traditional way of life without the need for permits and without limits, the reality is that in Kamchatka as in many other regions, fishing is highly regulated by state authorities. Indigenous peoples cannot independently decide where and when they fish, nor what types of fish they catch. The fishing season of 2018 saw record amounts of salmon, but indigenous representatives reported that the region’s authorities had. One complaint said that community members had been assigned fishing places 150 km away from their settlement. Five rivers bar the way to those designated fishing places along the sea banks, they are also patrolled by armed Federal Security Service (FSB) border guard boats who have reportedly intimidated indigenous fisherfolk.3

In the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Area, Russia’s largest gas extraction region, indigenous inhabitants complained of recurring raids by the “Bioresources Conservation Service” of the regional government, which undertook regular helicopter flights patrolling indigenous camps without indigenous representatives on board to monitor their conduct. The flights were marked by arbitrary confiscations of food and arms used for hunting. In one instance, all arms were confiscated from a Nenets man, despite him being in possession of a licence. The man is a widower and sole caretaker of his two underage children. In their immediate neighbourhood polar bears were hunting, therefore firearms were vitally important to ensure their safety. Further, the service men confiscated the frozen fish he had prepared for the winter, even though he had applied for and received a fishing quota for himself and his children. Many other incidents involving the Bioresources service were reported, including a beating and shooting incident in Panayevsk village, which led villagers to be concerned about their safety.4

Extractive industries

In 2015, the right of local authorities to control land use and participate in decision-making regarding the allocation of land for construction purposes in indigenous territories had been erased from the Land Code together with its 31st article. After protests it reappeared in a weakened form in article 39. Article 31 explicitly stated that local governments must inform the population on possible land withdrawal; may hold gatherings and referenda; and must base their decision on the results of such gatherings and referendums. However, the 2015 wording does not say who has to inform the public, organize the gatherings and referendums and take the results into account. Ever since, companies have tended to withhold information on their projects and to refrain from meaningful public consultations with indigenous peoples and their representative authorities.

In 2018, in an increasing number of cases, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) were no longer made publicly available. The same was true for information on the place and time of public hearings, despite provisions in Russian environmental legislation on the procedure for public consultation during the EIAs. Many companies have stopped to publishing information about projects on publicly accessible websites, as required by law, and have organized public hearings in cities hundreds of kilometres away from where the project was to be implemented, or in a very remote location, which external experts – who would assist the local population in asking the right questions and formulating demands – were unable to reach. Consequently, such hearings mostly took place without participation from the parties most affected by the impacts.

On the indigenous “Territory of Traditional Nature Resources Use” (TTNRU), which had been established according to the legislation of Yakutia, gold extraction operations had commenced without notifying local authorities of the “Iengra” municipality and without any negotiations with the Evenks reindeer herders, who herded their deer in the area and had the legal title to do so. The reindeer herders submitted an appeal to the local administration and told Yakut news media: “Since April, they have been cutting trees, diverting rivers, deploying gold washing equipment and erected more than 10 buildings for the miners. On 3 June, 60 to 65 people, mostly non-locals, have begun to work.”5

In September 2018, a village meeting was held, where outraged villagers asked representatives of the company whether the company was aware that it was working illegally. Company representatives responded: “Yes, we know that we transgress from the law, but still the operations will not be stopped [...] It is just a republican law! And the license is a federal one.” Similar situations have been observed in other indigenous areas of Yakutia including the Momski, Oymyakon and Ust-Yanskiy districts, where extractive companies have received federal licenses and started operations without notifying the local authorities.

At the same time, Russia is stepping up its efforts to market its fossil fuels internationally. At the end of 2018, Russia and Germany were jointly pursuing the construction of another gas pipeline through the Baltic sea, which would mostly transport natural gas extracted at Gazprom’s Bovanenkovo operations on the Yamal peninsula.6 This is home to the world’s largest nomadic reindeer herding community. The Yamal area, a region the size of France, is a closed “border zone” and can only be entered with secret service permission, so that information on the actual situation of indigenous communities in gas extraction areas is extremely hard to come by, while local indigenous organisations’ activities are closely monitored by the state. Still, Germany is considering export guarantees for the NordStream 2 project, which is opposed by almost all its neighbours. In doing so, the German export credit agency Hermes explicitly disregards its supply chain responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, regarding the origin of the natural gas.

International mechanisms

In May 2018, the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) considered the Russian Federation under its third review cycle. Recommendations concerning indigenous peoples it received from other states are7:

  • Ratify ILO Convention 169 (Madagascar, Paraguay, Honduras, recommendations 18);
  • Formally endorse the UNDRIP and implement its principles in national legislation (Norway, 21). 

Both recommendations were rejected by Russia, together with all other recommendations for the endorsement or ratification of additional human rights instruments, with the rather unspecific justification that “Decisions of this nature will continue to be taken on the basis of a thorough analysis of the existing situation, including the whole range of essential factors and conditions to be taken into account in becoming party to international agreements.”8 Russia accepted recommendations by Nicaragua and South Africa to protect indigenous languages and strengthen the legal framework on indigenous sustainable development. It also accepted two recommendations by Bolivia which both began with “continue to”, implying that these are things Russia is already doing: “actively involve the representatives of indigenous peoples in international activities relating to the protection of their rights” (147.295) and “strengthening policies for the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples’ rights” (147.296). It did not accept Estonia’s recommendation to “improve the precarious situation of indigenous peoples” (147.297) and only partially accepted Hungary’s recommendation to “harmonize the various laws on the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly regarding access to land and natural resources, and pay specific attention to the protection of their natural environment” (147.298), without specifying which part it accepts.

During 2018, the fourth review cycle of the European Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) continued, but its report on Russia is to be published in 2019.

Several indigenous rights defenders suffered what seem to be reprisals for cooperating with UN mechanisms, specifically the CERD’s Urgent Action and Early Warning Mechanism. Together with IWGIA, indigenous Shor human rights activists from the Kazas community in Kemerovo region in South Siberia had submitted a complaint to the CERD in 2015, prompting it to exchange letters with the Russian government on the situation of the community whose village had been destroyed by the mining industry. In 2017, the CERD had issued its final recommendations to the Russian government on the case. However, instead of these recommendations being fulfilled, the leading activists were subjected to threats and harassments, prompting them to leave the country and seek asylum in Europe. In December 2018, IWGIA’s senior advisor on Russia, who had assisted in the preparation and submission of the complaint, received a 50-year entry ban for Russia without further explanation, two weeks after delivering brief comments on the situation of Russia’s indigenous peoples in resource extraction areas during the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.


Notes and references

  1. The draft amendment demands: Information about family members (direct descendant relatives) and the ascending line (children, including adopted, grandchildren, parents, grandparents), full and incomplete (having a common father or mother) brothers and sisters, as well as relatives of the third degree of kinship) with their written consent. About modification of the Federal law “On guarantees of the rights of indigenous minority peoples of the Russian Federation” regarding establishment of the order of the account of the persons belonging to indigenous minority
  2. See the state register at, “Rasporiazhenie Pravitelstva RF ot 8 maia 2009 l 631-r Ob utverzhdenii perechnia mest traditcionnogo prozhivaniia i traditcionnoi khoziaistvennoi deiatelnosti korennykh malochislennykh narodov RF i perechnia vidov ikh traditcionnoi khoziaistvennoi deiatelnosti” 18 May 2009. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T5Vvsi
  3. See ru: Aborigeny Kamchatki pozhalovalis Putinu na bezzakoniia Rosrybolovstva Proisshestviia«Eto prosto nichem ne prikrytyi rasizm!» 13 February 2019. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T3lCA1
  4. See Info Pressa, “Na iamalskikh KMNS obiavili oblavu. Chinovniki IaNAO podozrevaiut v ekspropriatcii Rosgvardiiu i Rybnadzor” 1 October 2018. Available at: http://bit.ly/2T7jQ0R
  5. Assotsiatsiia Korennykh Malochislennykh Narodov Severa Respubliki Sakha (Yakutiya): Zolotodobytchiki: My ne priznaem vashi zakoni!” (6 September 2018). Available at: http://bit.ly/2T4ZTI0
  6. NordStream 2: Fakten und Available at: http://bit.ly/2T7jY0l (accessed 25 February 2019).
  7. Report of the Working Group on the universal periodic review: Russian Federation A/HRC/39/13 (12 June 2018).
  8. Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Russian Federation. Addendum: Views on conclusions and/or recommendations, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review. A/ HRC/39/13/Add.1 (3 December 2018).

Olga Murashko is a Russian anthropologist and one of the co-founders of the former IWGIA Moscow. She works as a consultant for the Centre for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (CSIPN).


Johannes Rohr is a German historian who has been working with indigenous peoples’ organisations in Russia since 1995, focusing on their economic, social and cultural rights. He is currently working as a consultant for IWGIA and INFOE.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand