• 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.
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    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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The Indigenous World 2021: Russian Federation

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 Law “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 who continue to live on their ancestral lands.[1] 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, 47 are officially recognised as “Indigenous Minority Peoples”. Of those, 40 inhabit or used to inhabit places in “the North, Siberia and the Far East”. The latter together number around 260,000, less than 0.2% of the total Russian population, of which ethnic Russians account for roughly 80%. One more group, the Izhma Komi or Izvatas, is seeking recognition, which continues to be denied, and at least one other, the Kerek, is already extinct. Seven more Indigenous Minority Peoples live in European Russia.

Larger peoples, for example the Tuvans and Yakuts, are not officially considered Indigenous Peoples, and their self-identification varies. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, several ethnic groups who self-identify as Indigenous have come under Russia’s control: the Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks and the Karaim; however, Russia has not recognised this self-identification.

Two-thirds of Indigenous Peoples are rural and largely depend on traditional subsistence strategies such as fishing, hunting and reindeer herding, while Russia as a whole, is a highly urbanised country.

Civil society in Russia is affected by continually shrinking civic space. Since 2013, NGOs that receive foreign funding can be officially classified “foreign agents”, leading 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 or used by Indigenous Peoples. Like many resource-rich countries, Russia is heavily affected by the “resource curse”, fuelling authoritarianism, corruption and bad governance and which, in many ways, impacts negatively on the state 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 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), International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (ICEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). It also has ratified the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe.

New constitution

The legislative change with the most impact on the country on a whole was the amendment of the constitution, which inter alia, allows serving President Vladimir Putin to remain legally in power until 2036.[2]

The updated constitution has preserved all of the most important norms concerning the rights of Indigenous Peoples. However, prior to amendment, Article 69 exclusively dealt with Indigenous Peoples, guaranteeing the rights of Indigenous Peoples in accordance with international treaties, principles and norms, thus emphasising, inter alia, the rights of Indigenous Peoples to the lands and resources traditionally used by them. In the amended version, however, this is diluted by the inclusion of two new paragraphs, including one on protecting the cultural identity of ethnic Russians abroad.

Other laws and executive measures

A Federal Law entitled “On State Support for Entrepreneurial Activity in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation[3] was adopted on 13 July. Under public pressure, and at the suggestion of the parliament of Sakha Republic (Yakutia), an Article 28 was added entitled: “Targeted state support measures for traditional economic activities of Indigenous Minority Peoples of the Russian Federation carried out in the Arctic zone”.

According to this article, in order to protect and support the traditional economic activities of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic Zone, the government will approve a programme of state support. Furthermore, the federal body in charge will, in coordination with the Arctic Zone's public council, approve a “responsibility standard for residents of the Arctic Zone in relation to the Indigenous Minority Peoples of the Russian Federation residing and/or carrying out traditional economic activities in the Arctic Zone”. At the time of writing, this programme was not available to the public, while the Responsibility Standard, although approved by the Arctic Zone Civic Council in September 2020, is still pending approval by the government.

In October, the president issued a decree “On the Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and on Ensuring National Security for the Period until 2035”.[4] In an open letter issued by the Indigenous Network Aborigen Forum (AF) in response to the decree, Indigenous activists pointed to the lack of conditions in the Strategy for a self-determined development of Indigenous Peoples and, in particular, to Russia’s long-standing failure to implement the 2001 Federal Law On Territories of Traditional Nature Resource Use, which would require Indigenous territories to be delineated and titled prior to the granting of concessions to business enterprises or the deployment of military installations. AF further noted that Russia was duty-bound to ensure good-faith consultations and respect of the right to FPIC when it came to Artic development.[5]

In September, the Russian government issued a decree regarding consultation and compensation for Indigenous Peoples for damages inflicted on the areas of their traditional occupation.[6] The Evenk association “Arun” noted that the decree is informed by a strategy that seeks to support and promote an extractivist agenda and further deepen the dependence of the government and many regional governments on oil, gas and other mineral revenues.[7]

The decree violates the right to FPIC by establishing government-picked regional Indigenous Councils who are going to represent the Indigenous side in any written agreements, even though they are not legally incorporated. According to the decree, draft agreements will be announced to the public via the media, and people will be able to comment; however, this process in no way complies with the state’s duty of good-faith consultation with Indigenous Peoples.[8]

The “List of members of Indigenous Peoples” – ending collective rights

A highly consequential decree was passed by the government on 23 September, entitled “On the Approval of the Rules for the Maintenance of the List of Persons Belonging to Indigenous Minority Peoples”.[9]

The decree operationalises a new provision “on the registration of persons belonging to Indigenous Minority Peoples” that had previously been added to the framework Federal Law “On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Minority Peoples of the Russian Federation”. Confirming the worst fears of the Indigenous activists, the addition limits most of the rights and entitlements of Indigenous Peoples in Russia to persons included on the List, thus officially turning most substantive rights from collective into individual rights that can be granted or withheld by authorities, signalling a final departure from a rights-based approach to legislation.

The new Article 7.1 of the law “On Guarantees” introduces a complicated bureaucratic procedure for those wishing to be included on the List, including an 11-page-long application template. In addition to proof of ethnicity, the applicant is required to provide several pieces of documentary evidence, including registration of residence, traditional occupation, membership of an Indigenous community, taxpayer identification number and social security number, which most nomadic or semi-nomadic Indigenous people do not have.

At the same time, the decree specifies that, to be eligible for inclusion on the List, an applicant must be registered in an area listed on the federal register of traditional settlements and that he or she must engage in a traditional activity listed in the federal register of traditional economic activities of Indigenous Minority Peoples, both documents adopted by the Russian government in 2009.[10]

Both registers have long been criticised because, for some territories, the register of settlement areas lists only the settlements themselves and not the places where their hunting, fishing, gathering and reindeer herding activities are carried out. The register of traditional economic activities is also outdated. It has been criticised for not including traditional activities related to the preservation and development of native languages, traditional culture and its promotion, teaching of traditional knowledge, activities and skills, including those related to the development of ethno-tourism.

The legislation adopted in 2020 reflects a paradigm shift. While the 1999 Federal Law on Guarantees reflected the “traditionalist” view, whose proponents believe that the Indigenous Peoples themselves must decide on their development and the state should limit itself to a protective role, since the early 2000s proponents of the state-led “modernisation” concept, similar to that implemented in the Soviet period in 1930-1970s, have gained the upper hand in defining the state’s approach to Indigenous Peoples.[11] The “modernisers” reject ideas fundamental to international human rights law such as the special relationship Indigenous Peoples have to their land and traditional way of life and their right to freely choose their path of development and the right to autonomy.

Before the introduction of the amendments, some 260,000 Indigenous people of the North had the prerogative of priority use of traditional natural resources, tax exemptions for their use, early retirement and other rights and entitlements. While pretending that the new legislation is introduced in the interests of Indigenous Peoples, the Russian government seems to be seeking to dramatically reduce the number of beneficiaries of state benefits, disempower Indigenous Peoples as collective rights holders, and erode their Indigenous identity.[12]

Gennady Shchukin, a Dolgan activist and member of the local council of Taimyr peninsula, a formerly autonomous Arctic territory belonging to Krasnoyarsk Krai commented:

You [the government] have already divided our people, separating our intelligentsia from the tundra people, children from parents, pensioners from grandchildren, wife from husband, by the List even before it has come into force. The people cannot be divided into "asphalt" and "dirt road" people. A people cannot be on the List or not be on the List. A people is one entity, in its diversity.[13]

Indigenous territories hit by environmental disasters

Meanwhile, in May, a major industrial accident affected the Indigenous territories of Taimyr when an oil storage facility owned by a subsidiary of the mining giant Norilsk Nickel spilled some 20,000 tonnes of oil products, which leaked into soils, rivers and lakes near the mining city of Norilsk.

In July, the Russian Agency for Environmental Monitoring estimated the amount of environmental damage from the spill at 148 billion roubles, or approximately 2 billion Euro. [14] The head of the Federal Fisheries Agency estimated that it would take at least 18 years to recover fish stocks in the Taimyr.[15]

The disaster had a major effect on the Indigenous communities of the area for whom freshwater fish from the lakes and rivers of Taymyr is an important source of food.[16]

In December, seven months after the disaster, it was announced that a total of 699 people would be compensated by the company responsible for the disaster.[17] A total of 174 million roubles, 1.9 million Euro had been allocated, meaning that each party on average will receive a total of 2,750 Euro in compensation for having lost their livelihood, probably for good. The compensation agreement was rubber-stamped by the government-controlled national umbrella organisation of Indigenous Peoples, RAIPON.[18] There is no assistance earmarked for those victims who will have to change their place of residence, buy a new house, take up a new profession, look for a job, etc.

In August, Indigenous rights activists form Russia appealed to Elon Musk,[19] the head of Tesla – one of the largest consumers of Nornickel products – to not buy from Nornickel unless the company:

  • Undertakes an assessment of the cumulative environmental damage in the Taimyr Peninsula and Murmansk Region [another Russian region with Nornickel production facilities];
  • Compensates the Indigenous Minority Peoples for damage to their traditional way of life caused by the company's operations;
  • Prepares and funds a remediation plan for the territories in the Taimyr Peninsula and Murmansk Region contaminated by the company;
  • Revises its policy on Indigenous Peoples to include the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on the right to free, prior and informed consent.

Industrial projects without consent

In Chukotka, Indigenous reindeer herders are being threatened by a major industrial project already approved by the Russian government, but without consent from local Indigenous communities: the construction of a mining and processing complex, a road linking it to the bay, and the construction of a new port at Cape Nagleynyn.

Cape Nagleynyn and the entire Chaun Bay are surrounded by nature reserves that protect the spring migration of geese and other waterfowl. The port will be right on the Cape, known to locals as the heart of Chukotka. On both sides of the bay are two villages, Rytkuchi and Ayon, where a total of 600 people, families of Indigenous reindeer herders, live.

In desperation, the Indigenous Chukchi wrote a letter to the governor and their senator, with a copy to the UN representation demanding a halt to the construction and organisation of proper consultations with the affected communities. In response, the communities received a letter from the local authorities informing them that consultations had already taken place albeit in other locations.[20]

In the Murmansk region, a government-approved project to develop the Fedorov Tundra platinum deposit, located in areas traditionally inhabited by Saami Indigenous Peoples, is also underway. Saami leaders are trying to get in touch with Rostekh, the company that won the tender, to no avail.[21] The Saami know all too well the consequences of such projects, for these have been developed on their ancestral lands since the Soviet industrialisation of the 1930s. As a result, land and water bodies in large areas of Murmansk region are now contaminated and vast stretches of forest destroyed.

International human rights mechanisms

The only human rights mechanism that concluded a review in 2020 was the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe (COE). On 8 December, the COE’s Council of Ministers adopted resolution CM/ResCMN(2020)14[22] concluding its review of the Russian Federation, which as the first item on its “recommendations for immediate action” asks Russia to:

Take resolute measures to guarantee full and effective equality for persons belonging to national minorities; strengthen efforts to implement the Concept Paper for the sustainable development of indigenous small-numbered peoples; ensure that conditions are in place for persons belonging to Indigenous Peoples to maintain and develop their cultures in the widest sense and provide for their effective participation in matters concerning them, including the use of land and resources.

Meanwhile, on 14 August 2020, the UN Committee on Civil and Political Rights/Human Rights Committee adopted a list of Issues on the Russian Federation (UN Document CCPR/C/RUS/Q/8),[23] paragraph 16 of which requests Russia to respond to its previous concluding observations and

describe the measures taken to respect and protect the rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to recognition as indigenous, and to ensure their free, prior and informed consent in any decisions affecting them, especially with regard to the operations of extractive industries.

It refers to the case of the Shor village of Kazas, whose sacred mountain has been desecrated by mining, and the situation of the two leading Indigenous rights defenders from this village, now exiled in Sweden, asking Russia to:

Indicate the measures taken in law and practice to prevent the pollution of the air and soil, the degradation of drinking waterand the destruction of sacred sites and burial sites, such as the sacred mountain Karagay-Lyash, as a result of industrial operations. Respond to the allegations of the harassment of indigenous human rights defenders, including Vladislav Tannageshev and Yana Tannagesheva, and the forced liquidation of indigenous organizations, such as the Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North.




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 35th 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 2021 in full here

Notes and references 

[1] Russian Federation. “О гарантиях прав коренных малочисленных народов Российской Федерации.” http://pravo.gov.ru/proxy/ips/?docbody=&nd=102059473

[2] ГОСУДАРСТВЕННАЯ ДУМА, ФЕДЕРАЛЬНОГО СОБРАНИЯ РОССИЙСКОЙ ФЕДЕРАЦИИ. “Constitution of the Russian Federation as amended in 2020.” 2020. http://duma.gov.ru/news/48953/

Adopted by popular referendum on 12 December 1993 and amended by a nationwide referendum on 1 July 2020.

[3] Russian Federation. "O gosudarstvennoj podderzhke predprinimatel'skoj dejatel'nosti v Arkticheskoj zone Rossijskoj Federacii" Law N 193-FZ, 13 July 2020. http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_357078/

[4] Ukaz Prezidenta Rossijskoj Federacii.“O Strategii razvitija Arkticheskoj zony Rossijskoj Federacii i obespechenija nacional'noj bezopasnosti na period do 2035 goda.” g. № 645, 16 October 2020. http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/45972

[5] Indigenous Russia. “Открытое заявление Абориген Форума о Стратегии развития Арктической зоны Российской Федерации и обеспечении национальной безопасности на период до 2035 года.” https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/8894

[6]Постановление Правительства РФ."Об утверждении Положения о порядке возмещения убытков, причиненных коренным малочисленным народам Российской Федерации, объединениям коренных малочисленных народов Российской Федерации и лицам, относящимся к коренным малочисленным народам Российской Федерации, в результате нанесения ущерба исконной среде обитания коренных малочисленных народов Российской Федерации хозяйственной деятельностью организаций всех форм собственности, а также физическими лицами" N 1488, 18 September 2020. http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_362663/

[7] Indigenous Russia. “Обращении общественной организации КМНС Эвенкийского района Красноярского края “Арун” в органы власти по вопросу о несоответствии действующему законодательству Положения о порядке возмещения убытков, причиненных КМНСС и ДВ РФ в результате нанесения ущерба исконной среде обитания коренных народов.” 12 October 2020. https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/8862

[8] Ibid.

[9]Постановление Правительства РФ."Об утверждении Правил ведения списка лиц, относящихся к коренным малочисленным народам Российской Федерации, предоставления содержащихся в нем сведений, а также осуществляемого в связи с его ведением межведомственного взаимодействия." N 1520, 23 September 2020.


[10] Контактная информация. Pravila vedenija Spiska lic, otnosjashhihsja k korennym malochislennym narodam Rossii. 23 September 2020. http://www.consultant.ru/document/cons_doc_LAW_363124/f137c37d1b99e9cdc923c63d3039b9f12ae39049/

[11] Tishkov V.A. Rekviem po etnosu: Issledovanija po social'no-kul'turnoj antropologii. M.: Nauka. 2003. S. V. Sokolovskij Nasel'niki i nasil'niki: opyt kriticheskogo analiza ponjatij "korennye narody", "men'shinstva" i "migranty": Novye etnicheskie gruppy v Rossii. Puti grazhdanskoj integracii (pod red. Stepanova V.V., Tishkova V.A.) — M.: FGNU “Rosinformagroteh”, 2009.

[12] Britskaya, Tatiana. “Учти меня, олень! ФСБ берет под полный контроль малые народы. Это-то еще зачем?!.” Novaya Gazeta, 9 September 2020. https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/09/09/87006-uchti-menya-olen

[13] Ibid.

[14] See RBC. “Rosprirodnadzor ocenil summu jekologicheskogo ushherba ot razliva TJeC-3.” Noril'skogo Nikelja, 2 October 2020. https://www.rbc.ru/business/02/10/2020/5f748a779a79478068822a48

[15] Kommersant. “Росрыболовство оценило ущерб от аварии в Норильске в 3,5 млрд рублей..” 25 September 2020 https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4508805

[16] Pimenov, Dmitry. “My poterjali vozmozhnost' pit' chistuju vodu”: kak avarija na TJeC v Noril'ske otrazilas' na zhizni narodov Tajmyra.” Enisey, 22 September 2020, https://www.enisey.tv/news/post-25017/

[17] Сибирь Реалии. “"Норникель" заплатит компенсацию коренным народам Таймыра.” 22 December 2020. https://www.sibreal.org/a/31012882.html

[18] Agentsvo Neftegazovoi Informatsii. “Na Taimyre korennym narodam nachali vyplachivat kompensatcii za razliv topliva.” 24 December 2020. www.angi.ru/news/2885870-На-Таймыре-коренным-народам-начали-выплачивать-компенсации-за-разлив-топлива/

[19] Indigenous Russia. “#AnswerUsElonMusk! A Global Appeal by Aborigen Forum.” https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/6719

[20] Новая Газета. Обменяли на стекляшки: Почему чукотская деревня пожаловалась в ООН и при чем здесь Роман Абрамович. 4 September 2020 https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/08/28/86870-obmenyali-na-steklyashki

[21]Фёдоровы тундры. Призыв к СП «Ростеха» о начале диалога с саами. 21 June 2020


[22] Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers. “Resolution CM/ResCMN(2020)14 on the implementation of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities by the Russian Federation.” 8 December 2020. https://search.coe.int/cm/pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=0900001680a07744

[23]United Nations, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “List of issues in relation to the eighth periodic report of the Russian Federation.” CCPR/C/RUS/Q/8, 14 August 2020. http://undocs.org/CCPR/C/RUS/Q/8



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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