Thursday, March 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Migration Flows Raise the Question: Who are the Indigenous Peoples of Russia?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 21 – Sergey Sokolovsky, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, notes that the concept of “indigenous peoples” however strange it may seem entered into Russian anthropological discourse relatively recently and arose first in the sphere of law and administration.

            Sokolovsky, who edits “Etnograficheskoye obozreniye,” says that “when we speak about statuses connected with the particular features of culture and language of communities … as indigenous peoples or national minorities, we inevitably land in [a complicated] inter-disciplinary situation,” where law, “powerful political influence, and everyday understandings” about indigenousness intersect (

            “How are indigenous peoples distinguished from others?” the ethnographer asks. What does this term refer to? Is it just an updating of the now outdated Russian term “tuzemnost’” and what do suggested replacements like “autochthonian, aboriginal, or indigenous” add or contribute to our understanding?

             These terms are synonyms “but not complete” ones, and that creates problems especially when they are used in English or French and have different connotations than they do in Russian. And when these terms are used in legal documents, that causes some of the peoples and institutions involved to use now one and now another of these “nuances.”

                Russian legislation rarely talks about such problems, Sokolovsky says, because Russians have “a quite specific approach to indigenous peoples.” They are defined primarily by their size, with “numerically small indigenous peoples” numbering “less than 50,000” rather than by any other category.

            Peoples who number more than 50,000, he continues, are sometimes considered “indigenous, but not with regard to law.”  That is, “there are no special norms for the defense of such peoples, although of course, the major autochthonian peoples in Russia have their own republics.”  

                “In a certain sense, all residents of the Earth are indigenous if they are not arrivals from somewhere else,” and “in a certain sense, even migrants are indigenous in the framework of the places” from which they come or now are resident.  And the further question arises as to when one becomes indigenous or native if one is from somewhere else.

                In terms of international law, however, the special status extended to indigenous peoples is “based on their refusal to integrate into our global, urban, industrial civilization” and their preservation of “a special way of life based” on traditional forms of economic activity and exchange.
            This approach, Sokolovsky says, reflects “the ideology of anthropological salvation,” the idea that certain peoples should be protected from being overwhelmed by modernity even when members of these communities adapt to modernity very well and when they want to adapt to modern life.

            An alternative understanding of indigenousness, he says, involves the ties between a population and the territory on which it resides. That informs much Russian thinking and can be useful but problems arise because those who are indigenous now may have been invaders earlier, indeed, the people the members of such groups view as invaders may have been there first.

             In the Russian Federation, government support for indigenous peoples is intended to protect them, but Moscow’s approach sometimes creates new problems.  By using size as the chief criterion of such groups, the Russian government sometimes provides funds to people who have assimilated to modern life and who are thus little different from their neighbors of a different ethnic group.

            Thus, in Karelia, Leningrad oblast and Kemerovo oblast, Sokolovsky writes, the Wepsy, a Finno-Ugric community with the status of an indigenous people, receive support even though they are “in no way distinguished by their economic activity from the Karels and ethnic Russians who live among them.”

            Given that, the ethnographer continues, “if we are preserving a way of life, then it is necessary to focus on those families which depend on that type of economy and not give to peoples as a whole,” a shift that might be difficult for the government to manage but one that would more adequately reflect current realities – and limit yet another source of tension.

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