Staunton, May 28 – Between 1989 and 2002, the overall Russian population fell by 16 percent, but the number of people who were members of recognized numerically small (under 50,000 each) peoples rose by 17 percent, not because of any demographic advantage but because Moscow policies gave real advantages to those who identified as such.
The level of self-consciousness among these people rose; and those who had identified as part of larger nations shifted to identify with their historical roots in order to gain government support as long as they agreed to retain their traditional ways of life (versia.ru/gosudarstvo-ne-znaet-chto-delat-s-korennymi-narodami-severa-a-sami-narody-xotyat-bolshe-deneg).
At the end of Soviet times, there were 26 such peoples; now there are 46, most of whom had earlier been part of larger communities like the Sakha, the Komi or the Altai. And unlike in Soviet times when the authorities promoted the modernization of these peoples, the post-Soviet Russian government has promoted traditional ways of life like reindeer herding.
To support these peoples, Moscow must spend 3.5 times more on each of the members of these groups than it does on Russian elsewhere but typically extends these larger subsidies to members of the surrounding communities, including on occasion, ethnic Russians. Moreover, oil and gas firms are often forced to provide assistance as well.
Versiya journalist Aleksey Privalov says that the situation is not without its problems. On the one hand, because the Russian law governing these subsidies seeks to promote nomadic ways of life, those who have shifted to sedentary lifestyles often get less help than they need from the government.
And on the other, this focus on keeping these peoples in a way of life that is ill-adapted to the 21st century not only leads many to try to escape these arrangements but also to the kinds of corruption that offend others. For example, some “nomads” take money from the government to buy expensive cars, including in at least one case a Porsche.
Another set of problems involves schooling. Moscow has promoted mobile schools in place of the residential facilities the Soviets imposed. But it has trouble keeping them staffed with teachers, providing them with necessary equipment, or even keeping students in them, as local officials often see little use for any education beyond the most rudimentary.
Thus, young members of these nationalities are allowed, even encouraged to drop out of the schools by local officials and thus lack any possibility of acquiring new and more promising jobs. If they don’t continue to work as nomadic herders – and there are fewer and fewer of them – they become a serious burden on society.
Not surprisingly, many Russians see the enormous sums spent on these small communities as money that could be more usefully spent on others; but the problems Moscow now faces, while not unique to Russia in dealing with numerically small peoples of the north, are compounded by Moscow’s insistence on manipulating officialized ethnic identities.
Indeed, in addition to the unintended consequences of smaller groups emerging out of larger ones that Privalov points to in this article, there is the more general Russian effort to weaken larger nations by having smaller people broken out from them officially such as has happened with the Kryashens among the Tatars.
But what makes the case of the numerically small peoples of more general importance is that their situation is the clearest case where ethnic identities approved by the state are breaking down and reconstituting themselves, a reminder that such identities are not eternal but rather fluid and that the Russian state’s attempt to freeze them is ultimately doomed to failure.