• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Russia

Indigenous Peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such; however, Art. 67 of the current constitution guarantees the rights of “indigenous minority peoples”, (literally: “indigenous small-numbered 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 comprising less than 50,000 members who are perpetuating some aspects of their traditional ways of life. According to this and two other framework laws that were enacted during the late Yeltsin era, 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 abolition 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 it continues to be denied, and at least one other, the Kerek, is already extinct. Together, they number about 260,000, less than 0.2% of Russia’s total population, of which ethnic Russians account for 80%. Other peoples, such as, for example, the five million Volga Tatars, and many groups populating North Caucasus, are not officially considered Indigenous Peoples, and their self-identification varies. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, several ethnic groups have come under Russia’s control who self-identify as Indigenous, even though Russia has not recognised this self-identification: the Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks and the Karaim.

The latest official population figures from the 2010 national census do not provide disaggregated data on the socio-economic status of Indigenous Peoples. The results of the 2021 census have not yet been made public. Two-thirds of Indigenous Peoples are rural and depend on traditional subsistence strategies such as fishing, hunting and reindeer herding whereas Russia, on the whole, is a highly urbanised country.

Civil society is affected by continually shrinking spaces as the country’s intelligence service, the FSB, has continually been consolidating power. Since 2013, NGOs that receive foreign funding have been liable to be officially classified as “foreign agents”, leading many of them to close down in order to minimise their exposure to legal risk. Since 2018, the same practice has also been extended to individuals. 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 or used by Indigenous Peoples. The country’s development strategy is largely geared towards further increasing the exploitation of the Arctic’s natural resources. Like many resource-rich countries, Russia is heavily affected by the “resource curse”, fuelling authoritarianism, corruption and bad governance. This in many ways impacts negatively on the status of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights and limits opportunities for their effective protection.

Russia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and nor has it endorsed the UNDRIP. 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 has also ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).

Access to adequate food

An issue resurfaced in 2021 that had basically been unresolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union: a continuing lack of understanding on the part of the Russian authorities of access to adequate food as a fundamental right of Indigenous Peoples.

During 2021, the Russian Federation continued to impose undue restrictions on Indigenous Peoples’ access to fish resources, while affording preferential treatment to commercial fishing enterprises.

In spring, Indigenous Peoples in the Far East were outraged at the impact of new fishing regulations affecting several Far Eastern regions from Chukotka peninsula to Primorsky Krai, which had been adopted by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2020. Indigenous Peoples’ and obshchinas’[1] applications for fishing quotas submitted under the old rules were rejected, as the new rules were applied retroactively. Even those Indigenous persons whose applications were not rejected had to wait for the authorities’ decision until the fish migration season was almost over. At the same time, commercial enterprises received their permits on time, as always.

The new rules adopted by the Ministry[2] foresee a highly bureaucratic procedure for Indigenous Peoples when applying for quotas for traditional fishing. Alexander Asmolov of the Russian Academy of Sciences referred to the new rules as an act of “cultural genocide” against the Indigenous Peoples.[3]

The new rules limit eligibility to Indigenous Peoples living in officially recognised “places of traditional residence and traditional economic activities of small indigenous minorities of the Russian Federation.” The list of such places adopted in 2009,[4] as well as similar lists compiled on the regional level, are criticised for being incomplete and outdated. In many regions, only some of the Indigenous Peoples were listed, while others were often left out and thus rendered ineligible for fishing quotas under the new rules.

In Magadan region, residents from certain settlements, as well as all members of the Chukchi, Eskimo, Kamchadal, Orochi and Aleut peoples, were denied their fishing rights as they were not included on the regional list of Indigenous people.[5]

In order to partly mitigate the impact of these policies, the Magadan administration promised to provide one-off subsidies that would enable Indigenous Peoples to buy three paid recreational fishing licences per Indigenous fisherman.[6]

Similar situations where commercial fishing was prioritised over recognition of the fishing rights of Indigenous Peoples were also observed in Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region[7], Khabarovsk region[8] and Sakhalin.[9]

Responding to the new rules introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Indigenous Peoples of Khabarovsk region held an online rally decrying the decision to delay the start of the traditional fishing season in 2021and to grant negligible fishing quotas to them, while the quotas granted to commercial, recreational and sport fisheries were, as always, considerable and on schedule.[10]

Overall, the Russian authorities’ approach to the fishing rights of Indigenous Peoples can be summarised by the following quote, from the speech by a representative of the Rosrybolovstvo (Federal Agency for Fishery under the Ministry of Agriculture): “... We have completed the overarching task of reducing the number of users of aquatic biological resources among indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East. Our next step should be to determine who among the remaining ones should, in our opinion, ultimately be granted the right to conduct fishery in order to lead a traditional way of life.”[11]

Meanwhile, a new registration system for persons belonging to Indigenous minority peoples is to come into force by 7 February 2022 and is expected to greatly reduce the number of Indigenous Peoples eligible for fishing and hunting rights as well as other prerogatives (See Yearbook 2021). The Rosrybolovstvo appears to have taken matters into its own hands instead of waiting for the list to be finalised, in itself a source of grave concern to Indigenous Peoples.

Migrating fish species, as well as sea coastal and sea mammalian meat, are key components of the traditional diet of most Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic and a lack thereof seriously affects Indigenous Peoples’ health. These actions therefore constitute severe violations of Indigenous Peoples’ right to adequate food and have been fiercely opposed. In the words of Yakutia Republic’s MP, Elena Golomaryova: “By protecting fish too zealously, we are destroying our indigenous people.”[12]

Development without participation

On 26 October, President Putin approved a Strategy for the Development of the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security for the period to 2035. This document inter alia stipulates the establishment of mechanisms to foster the economic and social development of the Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic zone. Pursuant to this stipulation, according to Alexey Chekunov, Russia’s minister in charge of the country’s Far East, Russia has allocated an annual spending of 500 million roubles (approximately EUR 6 million, 21 euro per capita) to support Indigenous Peoples in the draft federal budget for 2022-2024. According to the minister, investment projects relating to Indigenous Peoples will allow the Russian Federation, during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2021-2023), to demonstrate a balanced approach to preserving the environment, improving the quality of life of the population and developing the economy in the Arctic.[13] However, currently, only cultural activities appear to be receiving any funding.

The “Programme of State Support for Traditional Economic Activities of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation”, approved on 15 April 2021, makes it clear that most of the modest funds (approximately 21 euro per capita) allocated will not go to Indigenous organisations.[14] While the document states that its objective is “the establishment of a sustainable basis for the development of indigenous minority peoples”, the recipients of the funding will be intermediate structures such as commercial enterprises, who inter alia employ members of Indigenous Peoples. The document repeatedly states that certain actions should happen “with the participation of indigenous minority peoples” rather than be carried out and owned by Indigenous Peoples themselves.

The role of Indigenous Peoples themselves in this programme is limited. They are expected to produce traditional crafts for external and internal markets, make themselves ready to receive tourists and be able to meet “professional standards for the category of workers engaged in traditional economic activities.”

The programme makes no mention of the role of Indigenous Peoples’ institutions of self-governance and the concept of “Indigenous communities” is not mentioned at all. Further, the programme fails to address the key problem facing traditional nature use: the conditions for access to territories and resources, especially the government’s failure to implement the Federal Act on Territories of Traditional Nature Use of 2001 (see below), and commercialisation of fishing and hunting areas.

Once again, the right of Russia’s Indigenous Peoples to adequate food, development and culture continues to be violated as many communities have no land on which to graze their reindeer and other livestock, nor have they places to fish and hunt because their land is occupied by commercial entities. How the legal and environmental damage accumulated over past decades to the “ancestral territories and traditional ways of life” of Indigenous Peoples will be dealt with is not reflected in the programme.

Indigenous Peoples confront mining giant Nornickel

Nornickel is Russia’s largest mining company, owned by oligarch Vladimir Potanin. The company’s main operations are based in the north of Krasnoyarsk region, around the city of Norilsk, with major impacts on the Dolgan and Nenets communities on Taimyr peninsula, as well as Murmansk region near the Norwegian border, where its operations affect the Sámi people. The city of Norilsk has a reputation of being one of the world’s most polluted cities and in 2020 was the site of a major diesel fuel spill (see Indigenous World 2021) that robbed downstream Indigenous communities of fish as their most important source of nutrition. Since the mining giant has refused to directly negotiate adequate compensation with the affected communities, Indigenous activists have turned to international allies, first targeting Elon Musk’s Tesla, which was considering purchasing from Nornickel, with a campaign under the hashtag #AnswerUsElonMusk,[15] after which Tesla did not pursue its intent to purchase metals from Nornickel any further.

The coalition of Indigenous Peoples and support organisations later addressed the German chemical corporation BASF, one of Nornickel’s major European customers. BASF responded to an initial joint open letter by rejecting responsibility and deferring the coalition to Nornickel itself but later agreed to hold talks.[16] At a later point, Nornickel itself became part of the talks.

While the company thus displayed some willingness to talk to the international coalition, the situation on the ground remains concerning. The company has been pursuing a divide and rule strategy, on one hand exerting pressure on local Indigenous communities[17] while on the other creating its own “Indigenous Council” on Taimyr, luring Indigenous communities to it with monetary incentives. Meanwhile, leading activists have been the target of legal threats from the regional administration. [18]

Nornickel eventually announced its intention to join the IRMA (Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance),[19] a leading multistakeholder initiative in the extractive sector with regard to respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights; however, this process may take a long time to complete. Towards the end of the year, Nornickel embarked on the piloting of a FPIC procedure with an Indigenous community that was due to be resettled. However, in doing so, it imposed its own protocols on the community rather than allowing the Indigenous side to develop their own.[20]

Land rights in limbo: “Territories of Traditional Nature Use” dysfunctional and weakened further

“Territories of Traditional Nature Use” (TTNU) are, within the Russian legal system, what come closest to recognising and delineating Indigenous Peoples’ territories. However, since enactment of the Federal Law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use[21] in 2001, the government has failed to establish any Territory of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) with federal status, while the legal situation of TTNU with local or regional status is extremely unstable.

The most recent refusal to establish a federal-status TTNU was issued in December 2021 by the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs (FAEA) to an organisation of the Sámi people of Murmansk region.[22] The refusal was justified by the notion that draft amendments to the Federal Law are currently being discussed within the FAEA.

2020 and 2021 demonstrated anew that TTNUs must have federal status in order to be properly protected, as federal government bodies in charge of issuing concessions to extractive industries do not take into account the existence of regional-status TTNUs.

The most recent example of such a situation is a regional TTNU in the Republic of Khakasia inhabited by Indigenous Shors. In 2020, the Shors learned that some 30 concessions had been issued for gold extraction on their TTNU. When confronted, Khakasia's regional administration explained that while their TTNUs had regional status, the concessions were awarded by federal agencies, hence there was nothing that the regional authorities could do to resolve the situation. The Federal Ministry of Natural Resources, for its part, informed Shor activists that since it had no information on the boundaries of regional TTNUs in Khakasia, the concessions had been issued legally. The Shor communities demanded revocation of the concessions and a moratorium on new ones. In response, the gold mining company, Artel Starateley Khakasia, supported by the local authorities, began coercing the Shors into signing “cooperation agreements”. In December 2021, the authorities organised village gatherings in the settlements where Shors constitute a minority, thus rubber-stamping the agreements.[23],[24]

The other weakness of the TTNUs with regional status is the danger of being dissolved because much of the territories that Indigenous Peoples rely on is classified as federal land. This is what happened in Yakutia where, in December, the Ust-Maisky municipal council voted to liquidate the municipal Territory of Traditional Nature Use following a request from the local Public Prosecutor's office.[25] According to this office, this step was necessary because it included forest lands which, according to Russian legislation, are the property of the federal government.

International human rights and remedy mechanisms

Due to COVID-19, none of the periodic reports submitted by Russia to UN treaty bodies were considered in 2021. Instead, their analysis has now been moved to 2022 and beyond.

In April 2021, with two years’ delay, Russia submitted its 5th periodic report under the European Council’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM).[26] The report mentions Indigenous Peoples but fails to provide disaggregated data on their socio-economic status and gives an evasive statement regarding the issue of Indigenous Peoples’ right to FPIC.[27]

In February, the Centre for Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the North, one of the leading independent organisations working on the promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Russia, submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, appealing its forced closure in 2020 by the Russian Ministry of Justice. In April, the court registered the complaint. The court also registered a complaint by German Indigenous rights defender Johannes Rohr, appealing his 50-year travel ban to Russia, handed down in retaliation for speaking out in 2018 at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights on the situation of Indigenous Peoples in Russia.[28]

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 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 Federal Security Service (FSB), banned him from the country for 50 years.


This article is part of the 36th edition of 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 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] Literally: “communities”, Indigenous not-for-profit cooperatives.

[2] RuLaws.ru. ‘Ministerstvo Sel'skogo Hozjajstva Rossijskoj Federacii Prikaz G. N 673 “Ob utverzhdenii form zajavok na predostavlenie vodnyh biologicheskih resursov v pol'zovanie dlja osushhestvlenija rybolovstva v nauchno-issledovatel'skih i kontrol'nyh celjah, rybolovstva v uchebnyh i kul'turno-prosvetitel'skih celjah, rybolovstva v celjah akvakul'tury (rybovodstva) i rybolovstva v celjah obespechenija tradicionnogo obraza zhizni i osushhestvlenija tradicionnoj hozjajstvennoj dejatel'nosti korennyh malochislennyh narodov severa, sibiri i dal'nego vostoka rossijskoj federacii i porjadka ih zapolnenija, 10 November 2020.” https://rulaws.ru/acts/Prikaz-Minselhoza-Rossii-ot-10.11.2020-N-673/

[3] Moskovskaya Gazeta. “Akademik RAO Asmolov nazval ogranichenie prava kolymchan na rybalku zhestkim kulturnym genotcidom korennykh narodov.” Moskovskaya Gazeta, June 23, 2021. https://mskgazeta.ru/obshchestvo/akademik-rao-asmolov-nazval-ogranichenie-prava-kolymchan-na-rybalku-zhestkim-kul-turnym-genocidom-korennyh-narodov-7809.html

[4] List available at http://government.ru/docs/30064/

[5] Chigarskikh, Igor. “‘My ne znaem, chto delat’. Vlasti zapretili korennym narodam Kolymy zanimatsia traditcionnoi rybalkoi.” Sibreal, April 7, 2021. https://www.sibreal.org/a/31191737.html

[6] Balan, Roman. “Na Kolyme nashli vozmozhnost obespechit krasnoi ryboi vsekh aborigenov.” Kolyma Plus, 21 June 21, 2021. https://kolymaplus.ru/news/na-kolyme-nashli-vozmozhnost-obespechit-krasnoy-ryboy-vseh-aborigenov/15176

[7] Russian State Duma. “Proekt postanovleniia Zakonodatelnogo Sobraniia Iamalo-Nenetckogo avtonomnogo okruga «O zakonodatelnoi initciative Zakonodatelnogo Sobraniia Iamalo-Nenetckogo avtonomnogo okruga po vneseniiu v Gosudarstvennuiu Dumu Federalnogo Sobraniia Rossiiskoi Federatcii proekta federalnogo zakona «O vnesenii izmenenii v Federalnyi zakon ‘O rybolovstve i sokhranenii vodnykh biologicheskikh resursov.”’ Accessed on February 9, 2021. https://sozd.duma.gov.ru/bill/7-1649

[8] Transsib Info. “V Khabarovskom krae korennye narody ostavili bez kety i gorbushi.” Transsib Info, June 27, 2021. https://transsibinfo.com/news/society/27-06-2021/v-habarovskom-krae-korennye-narody-ostavili-bez-kety-i-gorbushi

[9] Fishkamchatka. “Kto ostanovit eto bezumie? Novosti ot sosedei po regionu.” Fishkamchatka, August 9, 2021. http://fishkamchatka.ru/articles/exclusive/41903/.Minutes of Sakhalin Anadromous Fish Management Commission. Operational summaries of catches and data on spawning ground fill, provided by Sakhalin Environment Watch

[10] Habacama. “Onlain-miting korennykh narodov Khabarovskogo Kraya po situacii s rybolovstvom.” Youtube, July 17, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfwDaBnuuf8

[11] CSIPN. “‘Magadanskaia problema’ - poiavilsia novyi termin v oblasti rybolovstva korennykh narodov.” CSIPN, May 4, 2021. http://www.csipn.ru/glavnaya/novosti-regionov/5535-magadanskaya-problema-poyavilsya-novyj-termin-v-oblasti-rybolovstva-korennykh-narodov#.YKEcGaZR2iQ.

[12]  Golomareva, Elena. “neobosnovannye ogranicheniia v chasti rybolovstva KMNS negativno otrazhaiutsia na sotcialnoi obstanovke.” Press-sluzhba Il Tumena, September 12, 2021. http://yakutiakmns.org/archives/16822

[13] TASS, “Chekunkov soobshchil, chto v AZRF prorabatyvaiutsia bolee 500 investproektov." TASS, December 3, 2021. https://tass.ru/ekonomika/13102297

[14] Consultant Plus (КонсультантПлюс). Rasporjazhenie Pravitel'stva RF ot 15.04.2021 N 978-r (red. ot 24.12.2021) “Ob utverzhdenii Programmy gosudarstvennoj podderzhki tradicionnoj hozjajstvennoj dejatel'nosti korennyh malochislennyh narodov Rossijskoj Federacii, osushhestvljaemoj v Arkticheskoj zone Rossijskoj Federacii.” Consultant Plus (КонсультантПлюс). http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_382421/

[15] https://twitter.com/ - #AnswerUsElonMusk

[16] Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “CSOs call on BASF to take action to address Nornickel's impacts on indigenous peoples of Russia’s Far North.” Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, March 16, 2021. https://www.business-humanrights.org/en/latest-news/csos-call-on-basf-to-take-action-to-address-nornickels-impacts-on-indigenous-peoples-of-russias-far-north/

[17] iRussia - Indigenous Russia. “Andrey Danilov, a well-known Sami politician, was detained by the police at the Imandra Viking Fest in the Murmansk region.” iRussia - Indigenous Russia, August 29, 2021.  https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/15665

[18] Direct communication from local activists.

[19] Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). https://www.responsiblemining.net

[20] Direct communication from local activists.

[21] Another possible translation is “Territory of Traditional Resource Use.”

[22] MONSAAMI. “FADN vtorichno otkazal v sozdanii TTP.” Kola Sápmi, December 6, 2021. https://kolasapmi.com/2021/12/06/2021-38/

[23] Borlovskaya, Olga. “Vlasti Khakasii obsudili moratorii na vydachu litcenzii zolotodobychikam.” TV RTS, October 22, 2021. https://tvrts.ru/index.php/rts-novosti/obshchestvo/item/26818-vlasti-khakasii-obsudili-moratorij-na-vydachu-litsenzii-zolotodobytchikam. iRussia - Indigenous Russia. “Zaiavlenie shorskikh obshchin o zasedanii Soveta predstavitelei korennykh malochislennykh narodov pri Pravitelstve Respubliki Khakasiia (sostoiavshegosia 8 dekabria 2021 g.).” iRussia - Indigenous Russia, January 10, 2022. https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/18035. Murashko, Olga. “Shorskie obshchiny Khakasii poluchili proekt Soglasheniia s nedropolzovateliami, podpisaniia kotorogo tak uporno i druzhno dobivaiutsia vlasti Khakasii i OOO «Artel staratelei Khakasiia.” i-Russia – Indigenous Russia, January 10, 2022. https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/18042

[24] i-Russia - Indigenous Russia: “Zaiavlenie shorskikh obshchin o zasedanii Soveta predstavitelei korennykh malochislennykh narodov pri Pravitelstve Respubliki Khakasiia (sostoiavshegosia 8 dekabria 2021 g.)." iRussia - Indigenous Russia, January 10, 2022. https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/18035

[25] Isakov, Andrey. “Opasnyi pretcedent po likvidatcii TTP v Iakutii.” iRussia - Indigenous Russia, December 28, 2021.  https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/17956

[26] The fifth state report submitted by the Russian Federation (ACFC/SR/V(2021)002) has been made public by the Council of Europe Secretariat in accordance with Article 22 of Resolution CM/Res(2019)49 on the revised monitoring arrangements under Articles 24 to 26 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. The report has been prepared under the sole responsibility of the Russian Federation. https://www.coe.int/en/web/minorities/russian-federation

[27] The state report says: “The fulfillment of any principles, including the principle of prior, free and informed consent in judicial precedents, calls for further exploration of the relevant forms and mechanisms, including through implementation in national legislation.”

[28] Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial (ADC Memorial). “ECtHR Registers Complaint From Environmentalist and Human Rights Defender Johannes Rohr, who was Banned From Entering Russia for 50 Years by the FSB.” ADC Memorial, October 28, 2021. https://adcmemorial.org/en/news/ecthr-registers-complaint-from-environmentalist-and-human-rights-defender-johannes-rohr-who-was-banned-from-entering-russia-for-50-years-by-the-fsb/



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