• 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
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    2007: Russia abstains from voting for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
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Indigenous World 2020: Russian Federation

Indigenous Peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such; however, Article 69 of the current Constitution guarantees the rights of ‘Indigenous minority peoples’. The 1999 Federal Act “On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of the Russian Federation” specifies that Indigenous minority peoples are groups of less than 50,000 members, perpetuating some aspects of their traditional ways of life and inhabiting the Northern and Asian parts of the country. According to this, other framework laws, which were enacted during the late Yeltsin era, guaranteed that Indigenous minority peoples have rights to consultation and participation in specific cases. There is, however, no such concept as ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ enshrined in legislation. The last two decades have seen a steady erosion of this legal framework and a heavy re-centralisation of Russia, including the dismantling of several Indigenous autonomous territories.

Of the more than 160 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 40 are officially recognised as ‘Indigenous minority peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East’. One more group, the Izhma Komi or Izvatas, is actively pursuing recognition, which is continually denied, and at least one other, the Kerek, is already extinct. Together, the Indigenous Peoples number about 260,000, less than 0.2% of the total population of Russia, of which ethnic Russians account for 80%. Other peoples, for example the five million Volga Tatars and many groups populating the North Caucasus are not officially considered Indigenous Peoples, and their self-identification varies. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, several ethnic groups self-identifying as Indigenous have come under Russia’s control: the Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks and the Karaim. Russia hasn’t recognised them as Indigenous.

Two-thirds of Indigenous Peoples are rural and depend on traditional subsistence strategies such as fishing, hunting and reindeer herding.

Civil society is affected by a continually shrinking space. Since 2012, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that re-ceive foreign funding can be officially classified as “foreign agents”, which led many of them to close down in order to minimise exposure to legal risks. Many foreign NGOs have been banned as “undesirable organisations”.

Russia’s export revenues are largely generated from the sale of fossil fuels and other minerals, often extracted from territories traditionally inhabited by Indigenous Peoples. The country’s development strategy is largely geared towards further increasing the exploitation of the Arctic’s natural resources. As many resource-rich countries, Russia is heavily affected by the ‘resource curse’, fuelling authoritarianism, corruption and bad governance, all of which impacts negatively on the state of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights and limits opportunities for their effective protection.

Russia has neither ratified ILO Convention 169, nor has it endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The country has inherited its membership of the major UN Covenants and Conventions from the Soviet Union: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It also has ratified the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe.

Siberian wildfires 2019

2019 was a year where the impacts of a rapidly warming Arctic became more tangible than in any prior year. The wildfires especially affected two regions inhabited by Indigenous Peoples:  Yakutia and Krasnoyarsk. The former is Russia’s largest constituent territory, followed by the latter, which includes the formerly autonomous regions of Evenkia and Taimyr. By the end of July, 2.6 million hectares of forest were burning, equalling approximately the size of Belgium. It was estimated that between the start of the year and end of August, fires had destroyed between 8.5 and 14.5 million hectares of Siberian forests.1 Citizens have denounced the government’s inaction and demanded that an emergency be declared and acted upon.2

The wildfires were especially damaging for the Indigenous Peoples of Siberia, given that some of the most affected areas are remote territories mostly inhabited by them, and they have a high dependence on the forest and its resources. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that forest fires have come on top of the damage caused to their ancestral land by rampant logging, mostly driven by demand from China.

Evenks denounce forest policy, leading to ecocide of their ancestral land

In connection with the forest fires, the Evenk association Arun (Evenk for ‘revival’) appealed to the leadership of the Krasnoyarsk Region, President Putin and the UN,3 as well as submitted proposals to the Parliamentary hearings on the orest policy, which took place on 5 November 2019 in the State Duma, Russia’s Parliament. The appeal gives a critical appraisal of the forest exploitation in Krasnoyarsk Region, which has led to the destruction of the ancestral land of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

According to  Arun,  currently  19  Indigenous  obshchinas  (kinship-based Indigenous cooperatives) in Evenkia have use rights to forest lands through lease agreements for roughly 13% of the district’s area. In accordance with the Forest Code, Indigenous obshchinas that have entered such agreements covering a forest area of more than 200 hectares, must, as Arun writes “fulfil far-reaching obligations, pay a lease fee which, amounts to more than 25 million roubles (USD$400,000) for a period of 49 years”, as well as to ensure, among others, that fire-fighting facilities are deployed over huge areas that have no roads and consist of many mountain ranges, marshes and rivers. These communities are also obliged to pay taxes and fees for hunting and fishing on their own ancestral land and make mandatory payments to the pension fund, among other fees. Failure to fulfil these obligations is severely punished and the legal status of the community can be revoked, thus depriving the obshchina of use rights to their land or waters.

What makes matter worse is that article 25 of the Forest Code allows for the forest plots already leased to Indigenous obshchinas to be given to logging companies without consultation with the affected communities. In this case, even though a commercial logging company cuts down the forest, the obshchina’s responsibility for fire protection along with all the other obligations remains unchanged. It is still expected to pay the same amount under the lease agreement, even though it no longer has effective control of the land, and its value is greatly diminished by the logging activity. According to Arun, outdated data – obtained over 20 years ago – when the forests were still teeming with animals is being used; while today, the animals are mostly gone due to logging and forest fires.

In Evenkia, large-scale logging projects are being implemented without tenders and without reforestation obligations for the logging companies. At the same time, neither the local population nor the Indigenous Peoples are being informed by the authorities about the largescale investment projects that affect their traditional livelihoods: hunting, fishing, reindeer herding and gathering.

When forest land is transferred to logging companies no forest management is carried out. Companies such as JSC ‘Krasles Invest’ are not certified by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and yet, according to media reports, their timber is exported abroad. It is estimated that between 2019-2020 the total forest area leased to logging companies in Evenkia is more than five million hectares. Arun is concerned that if this goes unabated in the coming years, huge swaths of forest, containing important pastureland, waters, and hunting and fishing grounds in Evenkia will be destroyed by logging companies. As a result, a large part of the Indigenous Peoples and local population will be deprived of the opportunity to carry out their traditional economic activities and crafts that form the basis of their livelihood.

The clear-cutting carried out by logging companies in the permafrost regions causes the permafrost to thaw, which leads to landslides and erosion;4 former forests are turned into swamplands and the removal of plant cover means that the surface is fully exposed to solar irradiance during the summer months. Later, the swamps dry out and that increases the risks of wildfires, further exacerbating the harm caused by global warming as gases are released into the atmosphere. Apart from the disastrous effect forest fires and clear-cutting have on the traditional lifestyle of Indigenous Peoples of Siberia, they also make it difficult for Indigenous obshchinas to fulfil their obligations of the Russian State and thus increase the risk of them losing their tenure and status.

To remedy the situation Arun proposes the following:

  • Urgently introduce amendments to the current legislation,5 ensuring actual respect for and protection of the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples during planning and implementation of industrial logging;
  • To study the impact of logging in the permafrost zone; and
  • To ensure that the federal law regulating the establishment of Territories of Traditional Nature Resource Use (TTNU), the only existing mechanisms aimed to protect the rights and interests of Indigenous Peoples, is put into

Responding to the damage caused by the Siberia forest fires in 2019 the VII Congress of Indigenous Peoples of Krasnoyarsk Region issued a collective appeal to the UN and to the head of state of China in September, calling for a moratorium on the purchase of timber harvested on Indigenous territories in Russia by Chinese companies, as well as to create a register of Russian companies engaged in supplying timber to China without indicating the location of origin and the legal grounds of the origin of the wood. The petition posted on change.org gathered over 10,000 signatures.6 At the time of writing there was no known reaction from Chinese leadership.

Proposed “register of Indigenous Peoples” in stalemate

In 2018, the government had published a draft amendment to the federal law “On Guarantees of the rights of Indigenous minority peoples”, and in August 2019 the amendment was submitted to the State Duma for deliberations. The bill, according to which the government aims to “minimize the overuse of social and economic benefits provided to Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation”7 introduces a register of Indigenous persons in addition to the already existing register of Indigenous Peoples. Only persons registered as belonging to one of the groups on the list will be recognised as Indigenous. Registration is reserved to those who lead a traditional way of life, which has to be based on the activities listed in the register of traditional economic activities of Indigenous Peoples, and also to those who are residents in one of the areas listed in the official register of territories inhabited by Indigenous Peoples.8 This runs counter to the right to “determine and indicate ones national identity”9 set out in Article 26 of the Russian Constitution.

The draft bill has been widely discussed by Indigenous Peoples throughout 2019. Indigenous activists have concluded that the bill will leave out those of them who will not be able to provide documentary evidence that they lead a traditional lifestyle and live in places of traditional Indigenous residence and economic activities.10 The very narrow list of traditional activities and locations was approved by the Government in 2009.

While the state-controlled national umbrella organisation Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) officially endorsed the amendment proposed by the government, independent Indigenous activists overwhelmingly rejected it, pointing out that once the amendment is adopted all social and economic benefits will be granted only to persons listed in the register. This includes the right to protection of their ancestral land, preservation of their traditional lifestyles and the use of the necessary natural resources, the right to an alternative civil service instead of mandatory draft, the right to conservation and development of Indigenous culture, and the right to implementation of territorial civic self-government based on national, historical and other traditions. The proposed bill negates the Indigenous Peoples’ right of self-determination at a fundamental level by denying them the right to decide who is a member of a given people and who is not, and by atomising peoples who are collective subjects of international law into individuals and converting what should be collective rights into individual benefits.

Land rights in limbo

In 2019 no progress was made on the implementation of the 2001 Federal Law “On Territories of Traditional Nature Resource Use of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”,11 whose realisation is one of the core demands of every international human rights mechanism reviewing the situation of Indigenous rights in Russia. Neither has progress been made on the issue of compensation for damage caused to their ancestral land, even though back in 2009, the now defunct Ministry of Regional Development adopted a ‘Methodology for the calculation of damages’.12 The same is true for the long-standing demand to legislate the mandatory conduct of ‘ethnological impact assessments’ for commercial projects affecting Indigenous Peoples and their territories.

Civil and political rights

After restricting Western activists from working in Russia, including banning the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs’ (IWGIA) former Russia Coordinator from entering the country for 50 years in late 2018, Russia in 2019 moved to revoke the registration of one of the leading independent Indigenous organisations in Russia, the Centre for the Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (CSIPN).13 The federal Ministry of Justice is seeking the organisation’s closure on formal grounds related to its statutes. Not unexpectedly, in November, Moscow’s city court confirmed the Ministry of Justice’s move. This prompted the EU External Action service to voice its concern vis-a-vis the Russian government.14 By the end of the year, the court battle was still ongoing, with a decision pending by the Court of Appeal.

This decision affects one of the best established and last remaining internationally known Indigenous organisations in Russia. CSIPN has UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) consultative status and its director, Rodion Sulyandziga, is a member of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), as well as a key contributor to many international processes such as the Indigenous Peoples’ advocacy efforts around the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN climate negotiations. Forfeiting ECOSOC consultative status as a consequence of the organisation’s closure would greatly inhibit participation of independent Indigenous activists from Russia in these processes. It is conceivable that this is the goal behind the ministry’s decision, as Russia is investing considerable resources into brushing up its image within the UN, which includes facilitating the participation of government-obedient Indigenous organisations while preventing the representation of critical independent voices.

International human rights mechanisms

In 2019, no international human rights mechanisms have considered the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Russia. The UN Working Group on the issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises has received a formal invitation to Russia for 2020.


Notes and references

  1. “Ploschad’ prirodnykh pozharov vyrosla v Sibiri”. Info: 23 August 2019: https://tayga.info/148386
  2. “Ploshchad’ lesnykh pozharov v Sibiri perevysila 2,6 mln ”. Novaya Gazeta, 28 July 2019: https://novayagazeta.ru/news/2019/07/28/153741-ploschad-lesnyh- pozharov-v-sibiri-i-yakutii-prevysila-2-6-mln-ga
  3. Arctic Consult Indigenous Peoples Documentation of the Rights On Lands, Resources and Self-Determination. “Obrashchenie Assotciatcii KMNS Evenkii «ARUN» (Vozrozhdenie) k Putinu V.V. po probleme zakliucheniia okhotkhoziaistvennykh soglasheni”. 11 December 2019: https://arctic-consult. com/archives/16137
  4. “Logging in Yakutia has been acused of thawing of the permafrost”. Tass-nauka, 20 October 2019: https://nauka.tass.ru/nauka/7061591
  5. Among others: Forest code of the Russian Federation, Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation “On priority investment projects in forest development”, dated 23 February 2018 № 190
  6. Appeal (in Russian): Nikita Kaplin: Zashchita iskonnoi sredy obitaniia korennykh malochislennykh https://www.change.org/p/генеральный- секретарь-цк-кпк-си-цзиньпин-президент-россии-в-в-путин-защита- исконной-среды-обитания-коренных-малочисленных-народов .
  7. Explanation given in: Pojasnitel’naja zapiska k proektu federal’nogo zakona N 785133-7 “O vnesenii izmenenij Federal’nyj zakon ‘O garantijah prav korennyh malochislennyh narodov Rossijskoj Federacii’ v chasti ustanovlenija porjadka ucheta lic, otnosjashhihsja k korennym malochislennym narodam”. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://base.garant.ru/77511017/
  8. Rasporiazhenie Pravitelstva RF ot 8 maia 2009 g. № 631-r Ob utverzhdenii perechnia mest traditcionnogo prozhivaniia i traditcionnoi khoziaistvennoi deiatelnosti korennykh malochislennykh narodov RF i perechnia vidov ikh traditcionnoi khoziaistvennoi deiatelnost. Accessed 2 March 2020: https:// www.garant.ru/products/ipo/prime/doc/95535/ 
  9. In Russian ‘national identity’ refers to ethnic affiliation, not citizenship.
  10. Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North / Russian Training Center of Indigenous Peoples of the North (TSSKMNS / RITC). “Еще раз об «учете лиц, относящихся к малочисленным народам». 2 September 2019: http://csipn.ru/glavnaya/novosti-regionov/4695-eshche-raz-ob-uchete-lits-otnosyashchikhsya-k-malochislennym-narodam#.XWz-meBR2iQ
  11. Decree of the Government of the Russian Federation of 8 May “O territoriiakh traditcionnogo prirodopolzovaniia korennykh malochislennykh narodov Severa, Sibiri i Dalnego Vostoka Rossiiskoi Federatcii” (s izmeneniiami i dopolneniiami.) Accessed 2 March 2020: https://www.garant.ru/products/ipo/ prime/doc/95535/
  12. Federal Law of 7 May 2001 № 631-r Ob utverzhdenii perechnia mest traditcionnogo prozhivaniia i traditcionnoi khoziaistvennoi deiatelnosti korennykh malochislennykh narodov RF i perechnia vidov ikh traditcionnoi khoziaistvennoi deiatelnosti. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://base.garant. ru/12122856/
  13. See: Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North / Russian Training Center of Indigenous Peoples of the North (TSSKMNS / RITC). http://www.csipn.ru
  14. EU External Action. Statement by the Spokesperson on the Human Rights developments in the Russian Federation. 7 November 2019: https://eeas.europa. eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/70111/statement-spokesperson- human-rights-developments-russian-federation_en

Olga Murashko is a Russian anthropologist and one of the co-founders of the former IWGIA Moscow office. She has been working to support Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Russia since the early perestroika years. 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. In 2018, the Russian intelligence service FSB banned him from the country for 50 years.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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

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