The Situation of the Indigenous Ethnic Groups of Russian-controlled Northern Eurasia

By Aleksandr I. Pika and Boris Prokhorov

Their ancestors came here thousands of years ago, examined these harsh lands and made them their home. They pooled all their knowledge of nature, worked out special ways to survive under extreme natural conditions and managed to create lively and original cultures. Their roots, their hopes for the future are deeply tied to this area. These are the peoples of the North and, at the present time, their life is not easy.

For many years and decades, a lot was said in our country about the unprecedented progress of the indigenous peoples of the Soviet North who had performed a gigantic leap from a primitive communal structure to socialism. But the picture of reality was often distorted and embellished. Serious economic, social and demographic researches had not been made for a long time, and acute full-blown problems were silenced and ignored. This has contributed to the fact that today the nature of the north and its closely integrated indigenous inhabitants have almost reached a dangerous boundary beyond which their further existence and development in harmonious and historical continuity can not be guaranteed. Many things could change irreversibly and disappear.

In recent years, disturbing signals from this area - honest and caring scientific reports, whose fate even recently was to end up in the drawers of writing tables and the archives of various establishments - appeared on the pages of newspapers and journals, were openly discussed at conferences and were broadcast on television. Dozens of commissions of high state and party organizations visited the far North to investigate the facts.

So, what is really happening to the indigenous ethnic groups of the North at the present time? The national populations of the North occupy about half the territory of the USSR - from the Kola Peninsula to the Lower Amur and Sakhalin. In 1925, by a special decree of the Central Executive Committee and the Soviet of Peoples Commissars, the Tsarms, Nenets, Khanty, Mansi, Enets, Nganasans, Selkups, Kets, Evenks, Evens, Dolgans, Yukagirs, Chukchi, Koryaks, Eskimos, Aleuts, Itelmens, Tofalars, Ulchii, Nanaaians, Nivahks, Udege, Negidals, Orokhs, Orochs, and Chuvans were distinguished as a special group of small ethic nations of the North. Their total population is now greater than 160,000 people.

An important historical stage was reached in 1930 with thc creation of national (now autonomous) regions of peoples of the North. In the years after the War, industrial development in the area of the indigenous inhabitants of the North was growing quickly. Owing to migration from other regions of the country the population increased here many times over, whereas the population of the indigenous inhabitants increased insignificantly. Their proportion has decreased and today ranges from 23 percent in the Koryak region to three percent in the Khanty-Mansi region. In the economic balance of the region, the production generated by the indigenous northerners, mainly trade and farming, has become almost unnoticable against the huge industrial capacity.

The autonomous regions where the nationalities of the North are living can have their interests defended constitutionally. But the figures for the standards of living of the indigenous northerners are significantly worse than those for the newly arrived population. It is possible to state with complete certainty that their social and living conditions are most unfavourable in comparison to all the other nationalities and ethnic groups of the USSR. The ethnic settlements have a marked deficit of housing: provisions do not exceed on average four square metres per person. There is a lack of facilities in the majority of inhabited centres: only three percent of houses have gas, 0.4 percent have water and 0.1 percent have central heating. There is no sewage and no water reservoirs to satisfy sanitary and ecological demands. The housing fund is largely run down; the buildings are from the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. The social infrastructure of the settlements is not developed. The supply of food products and industrial goods is meagre.

The situation in the Khanty-Mansi autonomous region is quite typical for all the North. The Khanty and Mansi are now living in 72 national settlements. In many of them there is still no electricity and people use kerosene and oil lamps as in the old days. Furthermore in those places where there are electricity stations, their power is often inadequate and light is only provided for some hours of the day. In many settlements there are no hospitals, schools, clubs, bakeries, saunas, and sometimes not even a single shop. There are also certain settlements which are officially considered 'liquidated" non-existent but people continue to live in them. They completely lack amenities and the inhabitants have only themselves or their neighbours on whom to rely.

Since the end of the 1930s in the North, a state policy of converting the population to a settled way of life has been carried out (although even up to the present clay more than 15000 people - almost 10 percent of the indigenous inhabitants - continue to migrate throughout the year and have no permanent home). The policy of conversion to a settled way of life has no scientific basis and leads to the destruction of the tradtional economy and also to the dissolution of the indigenous population, to their disappearance as a unit of original ethnic formation and to the loss of national and cultural distinctiveness. The latter, precisely because of the conception of the "cultural inferiority" of the nomadic way of life, has for several decades been officially considered as a sort of "temporary existence" which ought to be abolished. Thus, the installation of modern living comforts for the nomadic families has not been planned; it was assumed that the reindeer farming population would be using such things in permanent settlements.

The traditional branches of the economy are the basis of the national and cultural individuality of the indigenous peoples of the North. At the present time, less that 43 percent of the working population of the indigenous northerners are involved in deer farming, fishing and hunting (only three decadfes ago it was more than 70 percent). All these occupations are in a state of crisis because of the unbalanced economy, non-rational methods of trade and deterioration of pastures and natural areas, and the influence of industry. But mainly it is a crisis in the leadership of the economy. This has a social basis.

The commercial wealth ot the northern rivers, forests and tundra, and also of the domesticated reindeer and almost all means of production, have, for a long time, stopped being the collective property of the indigenous people. These means of production have reached the state where they have actually become the "departmental" property of Gosagroprom, Minribkhoz, Rospotrebsoyuz, Glavokhota, etc. These organizations are only ruled by considerations of narrow, departmental, immediate interests. They cannot link their activities to the essential requirements of the northern peoples and to the perspectives of their development. The results of their leadership of the economy are very clearly expressed in poetry:

"Economy became saturnine and by the distant northern river Khanty fishermen purchase southern sardines."
One could not put it more correctly: fish are brought thousands of kilometres by aeroplane from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to be processed at the Surgut and Salekhard fish factories. For feeding the animals on the fur farms in southern Yakutia meat is being brought from Moscow and fish from the Far East. Almost all commercial agricultural production in the North is expected to make a deficit. In the sovkhov "Udarnik" in Chukotka, the cost of one polar fox skin is 150 roubles but it is sold for 65 roubles, 13 kopecks. It is not difficult to calculate the loss knowing that the sovkhoz produces 5,000 fur skins per year. As a result of the uncontrolled activity of the government departments, the number of domesticated reindeer in the country now totals only 1.8 million head - the lowest in the whole history of reindeer farming in this century (in 1965 there were 2.4 million). The intensity of the development of hunting areas and the production of the 'northern" wild furs are also decreasing. The fishing resources in many internal waterways of the North are close to exhaustion and in rich commercial areas as Kamchatka and Sakhalin the indigenous population are being squeezed out from the local fishing by more active newcomers who, in their haste for quick profits, mercilessly undermine the natural potential.

Plans for the industrial development of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of the world and also other regions where indigenous peoples are settled hare always been greeted with great unease. Social and governmental organizations demand reliable guarantees from companies for the conservation of the interests of the local inhabitants. These demands are fixed in an international 'Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention.' The experience of foreign countries shows that there exist real possibilities to combine the interests of the indigenous, ethnic groups with industrial development but for this it is necessary to study the possibilities carefully.

How are the interests of the population of the North of our country being defended? The answer to this question can only be: depressingly badly. Their interests were not taken into consideration when the atomic explosions in the Arctic were carried out in the 1950s; their interests are not considered during the search for deposits in the taiga and tundras during the extraction of oil and gas and during the construction of gigantic pipelines on their pastures and hunting grounds.

We have been conducting field research in the northern regions for many years. It is painfill to see how the few improvements in the lives of northern people, which technology and all the processes of industrial development have brought, are more than cancelled out by the damages from the organizations developing these regions. Over many years, day and night, the gas-burning flames around Nizhnyevartovsk have been lighting everything in a crimson glow, oil has been floating on the tributaries of the Ob, the forest has been cut down on the shores of the Taz and the Iceland moss in the reindeer pastures of Yamal have been perishing under the tracks of cross-country vehicles and through burning. And all this is because of the endless haste. indifference, and obvious neglect of the land providing the wealth.

Thus the construction project for the gas pipeline corridor on the Yamal peninsula, which was expected to remove 36,000 hectares of reindeer pastures, was rejected on the advice of Gosplan USSR. In fact, had this project gone ahead, the area of lost pasture could have been three to four times bigger. It is a sad paradox that the Yamal-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi autonomous regions are world fuel suppliers. But the indigenous inhabitants not only received nothing from the common "energy-fuel pie", but suffer constantly from the invasion of the oil and gas giants.

Through their unskillful work, the Magadan specialists in land reclamation destroyed the plankton in many rivers of Chukotka - the feeding base for Siberian salmon, hump-backed salmon, char, white salmon and other delicatessen fish.When the Yermak came to Siberia on the shores of the Sob, the left tributary of the great Ob, the nomadic camp of the Khanty had already existed for a long time and has been gradually turned into the Khanty settlement Katrovozh. The local people fished here, and trapped animals and birds. Many places in the river valley were always considered "sacred" and it was categorically forbidden to catch fish, go hunting, cut the forest or make fires. It was sometimes forbidden to even take water from these places. In such a way, the fish-spawning periods, hibernation quarters and the nests of water fowl were preserved. And what surprise, indignation and confusion there was among the Khanty several years ago when powerful equipment began to excavate the bed of the Sob. The constructors were in need of a sand-gravel mixture; thc sig and salmon disappeared from the river and people who had been fisherrnen all their lives lost the natural basis of their livelihood.

There is no end to the list of crimes against nature and, therefore, against the indigenous population itself. The Evenk author, Alitet Niemtushkin, who was a delegate at the Nineteenth Congress, writes about the project of the Turukhanskaya Hydroelectric Station (GES) which includes plans to build on his homeland:

Whole ethnic groups could find themselves on the edge of extinction when under the guise of benevolence, they want to flood the best commercial grounds and reindeer pastures, in other words to deprive us of the basis for our life... Any extinction is a catastrophe. But here, unique features of national character ethnic appearance, language and lifestyle could disappear forever from the culture of mankind and from its genetic fund.
During the development of the regions where indigenous peoples are living, there appear problems, not only of scarred earth, destroyed pastures, and poisoned fish, but of two cultures colliding over the vast spaces of the taiga and tundra: an ancient culture, unique and, one might even say fragile; and modern culture, assertive, self-satisfied and technocratic.

The people who are developing this severe region are very well known to us through common activities on boreholes, long conversations around the taiga firesides and through meetings concerning the construction of new cities and railways. Some of their characteristics - stamina, devotion to their profession, courage, mutual help and modesty - we admire Only such people could live and work in the North. But the problem is that they constantly hear and read about their outstanding character, about themselves as explorers, and at this point it seems everything has been said. They are never, or extremely rarely, reminded about the ecology and about the culture and communication with the local population, about the necessity to respect other customs and other lifestyles.

The processes which are taking place in the North, especially the negative aspects, are reflected in the young generation of indigenous inhabitants. Young people do not willingly enter the traditional branches of employment because of their backward economies and bad organisation. But when the indigenous northerners transfer to any other sphere of occupation, they generally have to be satisfied with only low-paid, low-prestige jobs.

The percentage of the indigenous population occupied in unskilled physical work (as cleaners, porters, auxiliary workers, etc.) in the employment structure is constantly growing and already comprises more than 30 percent (compared to 13 percent in 1959). This process of "lumpenization" of the small ethnic groups is interpreted by some scientists ("optimists") as a "new progressive phenomenon - the growth of the working class" - whereas the deep social alienation, passivity and pessimism produced by this situation are judged as "the remnants of a tribal, patriarchal past."

Socio-economic changes in districts inhabited by the small ethnic groups of the North are visibly reflected in the most important social indices, in the state of health of the people, and in the demographic situation. They are signalling a great warning. The indigenous people are turning for rnedical help and are being hospitalized due to circulatory and oncological diseases. Illnesses of the ear, nose and throat are significantly more common among the northern ethnic people than among newcomers living in the same districts but under significantly better living conditions.

The number of indigenous deaths from these illnesses are higher. Infant mortality is high. The mental health of the indigenous northerners is also under threat. The level of their social-psychological adaptation to the quickly changing conditions of life is decreasing. The growth of drunkenness and aggressiveness is an indicator of this process. From 1970-1980, one in two deaths among the indigenous population was caused by injuries in the home, accidents at work or murders and suicides (approximately 70-90 cases per 10O,000 people which is 3-4 times higher than the national average).

From the middle of the l960s, the small ethnic groups of the North entered a period of so-called demographic transition during which high levels of birth and mortality should supposedly have replaced the low ones. But today the birthrate is still decreasing. All this is caused by a special crisis in the family-marriagc relationship and is very closely related to the general process of cultural assimilation. Incomplete families are growing up in the settlements, mainly single mothers and widows with children.

Overall mortality among the peoples of the North has not decreased over several decades, remaining at an extremely high level which is two to three times the prevailing index for the Russian Federation. The life expectancy of the indigenous population of the northern regions is 45 years for men and 55 years for women. This is 18 years less than the average for the €whole USSR. The industrially developed countries and many of the developing countries in the world do not have such low indices. Because of this high mortality, the population growth of the small ethnic groups of the North between the censuses of 1970 and 1979 decreased by a factor of five, but in seven out of 26 ethnic groups the numbers of people actually decreased.

Among the problems which are especially alarming for the small ethnic groups of the Soviet North is the absence of work in the national settlements for indigenous people, a poor knowledge of the mother tongue or even a total ignorance of it among the youth, and the alienation of children from their families and from the traditional economic activities as a result of their long residence in boarding schools. Other phenomena are also alarmingly negative, for example, the psychology of "willy-nilly dependence" which has been produced as a result of the defective system of relationships between,the organs of local ppower (which consist primarily of persons of a non-indigenous nationality) and the indigenous northerners. There is a widespread desire among local administrators to solve problems which are far removed from the interests of the indigenous population while maintaining the outward show of caring for the people.

The author, Vladimir Sangi, has told how on Sakhalin they are fulfilling the resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR and the Council of Ministers of the USSR "on measures for further economic and social development of the areas occupied by small ethnic groups of the North" (1980). In the district centre, Nogliki, there are about 700 Nivkhs (this is almost 65 per cent of the total indigenous population of the district) who in their time were forcibly settled here from the small areas. Using the money issued for their economic and cultural development, the local authorities are offering, besides oil pipes, graders and cars which will doubtfully reach the indigenous northerners though they can only partly use them, a thousand pairs of plastic skis with titanium stocks, 200 typewriters, 500 pocket calculators and the same number of "Kompakt" toilet bowls.The academic, A.P. Okladnikov, wrote:

The present hunting-fishing ethnic groups of the North, whose creativity goes back thousands of years, contribute to the cultural achievements of the world in the same way as other nations on the planet... For us, the probleln is not whether to save the original culture of the northern people but how to save it in the best way under the pressures on one side, from the technological revolution, and, on the other, from the tendency to internationalize cultures.
Naturally, in order to save their culture it is necessary at first to preserve the people themselves.

All these problems have common roots, closely linked with the policy (precisely the absence of any end-directed and scientifically based policy) which is in operation with the indigenous population. These problems can only be solved as a whole, and the main role in their solution no doubt belongs to the true northern natives. All attempts to put into practice measures (however valuable) from above, from Moscow or from Tyumen, from Magadan or Krasnoyarsk, are destined to fail. This has already been demonstrated by previous experience. In the capital of our country, in the provincial, regional and district centres, we have first of all to stop the expansion of the ministries to the North and to force them to respect and consider the interests of the indigenous people in practice. So far; regretfully, thev cannot do it themselves.

The Nineteenth All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of the USSR confirmed the right of every nation of the USSR to the revival and development of national cultures and the speeding of progress in previously backward regions. In the resolution "about the relationships between nations," it was said:

It is important that in every national region, economic and social progress be accompanied bs spiritual progress with emphasis on the cultural individuality of nations and small ethnic groups. This is entirely appropriate to the situation existing in the regions of the smaller ethnic groups of the North. Built on to the basis of their social-economic and cultural progress in recent decades must be the ideas for preserving their national-cultural individuality and the 'independent character' for their development. Firstly this implies special socio-economic and cultural forms of state national policy directed tovards the northern small ethnic groups with the aim of supplying support, not only for the people living in the far, cold North but for all nations with a desire to ensure their survival and to preserve their ethnic individuality.
This means somewhat more than simply supplying "equal rights" and "equal opportunities" for all the population of the North so that, under equal conditions, the strongest and those who "know the rules of the game" better always win. Unfortunately, so far the northern people on their native land are not in this position. Secondly, the only possible means and way for their survival is through an independent development, because if the hurdle of social passiveness and alienation cannot be overcome by the indigenous people themselves they will find no support from outside. The compulsory participation of northerners in all regional and local programmes of development at all stages - from ideas and discussion to realization - must be considered as a most important political principle. It seems to us that the foundations of "new thinking" in the approach to the old problem are held in these two ideas.

At the present time, the conception of economic and cultural development in the areas inhabited by the small ethnic groups of the North is being worked out. The scientists who were invited to give their recommendations and representatives of state power also take part in this work. The co-operation of the government institutions with the research collectives in solving complicated national-cultural and social problems can only be welcomed. This is a step forward, but even so, it only reflects the needs of yesterday. Moreover, the concept of "state care" of the indigenous people of the North leaves no room for the political will, the national-cultural aspirations, and the wishes of the latter.

At the moment, it is not foreseeable that serious discussion of planning measures will include the direct participation of the indigenous peoples themselves. It is possible that all the legal, financial and socio-economic levers of development of their "small motherland" will again be put into the hands of the rninistries and departments, i.e. to those who have already demonstrated over decades their disinterest in the affairs of the small ethnic groups of the North.

Decisions about complicated national political questions must certainly not be taken quickly or be resolved simplistically by disinterested people. Furthermore, it would be correct to enlist for this task people who are active and who enjoy the respect and trust of the people from the far northern settlements and nomadic camps: the national creative intelligentsia, doctors, teachers, workers of the Soviet and Party organisations, deputies of local and regional Soviets, and representatives from the northern autonomous regions in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. In addition, their participation must be integral and not in the form of an invitation during the final conference to acquaint them with, and get their approval of, the "scientific conception" or draught of the resolution.

The time has come to create a real representation for the northern nationalities. They need a national-cultural and social institution towork permanently on the present problems. The proposal to create such an institution, an association of northern nationalities, was put forward by Vladimir Sangi at the sitting of tine secretariat of the Union of Writers of RSFSR. It received approval from scientists.

It will be necessary to gather all the instructions and wishes from the local areas, to discuss them in the press and at village meetings, and then to prepare them as a document reflecting the real interests and future hopes of the peoples of the North. If the indigenous inhabitants are not enlisted in the difficult, and probably lengthy work to solve their problems, any new resolution will have little effect and will create, as happened earlier, new problems and dead-end situations.

International experience of socio-cultural changes among ethnic groups which were not long ago at pre-industrial stages of development, including the foreign North, shows that, in those cases where they were not consulted about the forthcoming reorganizations, the changes did not bring anything to people except feelings of resentment and helplessness - and instead converted them into passive executives of an alien will and consumers of "handed down" goods. It is only necessary to help the indigenous inhabitants to organise themselves and sometimes to help them understand the serious nature of the reorganizations Let the people themselves decide what is best for them: traditional ways or industrial development, reindeer or oil, state bonuses or economic perspectives.

Awakening the self-awareness of the indigenous population of the North is only possible with social-economic prosperity. Under the present conditions, it is difficult to expect positive changes in the consciousness of people whose interests have been ignored. The governmental departments which exploited the natural treasures of the North and significantly undermined the natural basis of the traditional occupations of the indigenous population must compensate for the damage caused. They must compensate, not simply with money, but by creating modern, comfortable settlements by building schools, hospitals, clubs, industrial workplaces and a transport system. The leadership of the government departments and the indigenous population must clearly understand that this is not a good deed but just, and far from complete, compensation. This side of the question is very important.

Undoubtedly, the most important problem in the organization of normal life in the North is to bring the economies of the indigenous inhabitants themselves into proper order. It is clear that the main aim of economic activity must not be the transportation of production beyond the geographic limits of the North but primarily for supplying the population through their own labour. The production of consumer goods from outside the region must become secondary.

Production which is unprofitable and unsuited to the North, e.g. dairy products, Arctic pig breeding etc., should be gradually curtailed. It is expedient to stimulate the independent character of northern companies and to propagate and inculcate family contract work, especially in reindeer farming, tenancy agreements and other forms of co-operation. The indigenous inhabitants must again feel themselves the complete, powerful masters of the taiga and its rivers, the tundra pastures and reindeer herds, and not day-labourers for the "comrade with a briefcase." We must strive so that genuine socialist co-operative ownership of the means of production will take the place of the "departmental" ownership which serves as the feeding ground for a specific northern bureaucracy and for the over-population of the northern settlements by a large number of newly arrived "specialists and administrators." Only economic self-government and the possibility to be independent masters of co-operative property in the northern communities can bring a personal and social sense of purpose back to the local people. This is the most important thing to give them because it will help them in their desire for self-preservation and cultural individuality.

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