Friday, December 6, 2019

‘We Must Speak Even When There is No Hope,’ Russia’s Saami Echo Norwegian Counterparts

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 3 – In 2008, the Norwegians released a film about the revolt of the Saami in their country in 1852.  Entitled “The Uprising in Kautokeyno,” it has now gone viral online ( and has had an important impact on the Saami community in Russia.

            One of the leading figures in the film says “we must speak even when there is no hope!”  and that had become almost the mantra of Saami in the Russian North who are seeing their rights stripped away and who can only hope against hope that eventually they will gain the power that Saami communities Norway and Finland now have.

            In those countries, regional Saami parliaments have veto power over development projects in the regions of their traditional settlement and are thus able to defend their national language and national cultures to an extent that Saami inside the current borders of the Russian Federation can only dream about.

            The Saami of the Kola Peninsula number only 1600 now, although at one time they controlled two-thirds of that enormous land.  In Soviet times, they were treated as enemies to be suppressed because they did not recognize borders and they weren’t interested in being confined to collective farms or having their children sent to boarding schools.

            Their resistance to Soviet policies led to charges that they were separatists and to the mass repression of Saami activists in 1938, but negative attitudes toward them on the part of Russian officials have not disappeared.  In 2015, the Russian authorities prohibited them from commemorating their losses, and now the Saami of Russia face a new and troubling challenge.

            As Tatyana Britskaya of Novaya gazeta reports, in order to secure the rights guaranteed to indigenous peoples, members of the Saami community are having to go to court to prove they are Saamis and not members of some other community claiming that status to get benefits (

            Because of the disappearance of the nationality line in Russian passports and because officials control birth and death records and feel free to challenge anyone claiming to be a member of a group that might benefit from being a member, that is no easy task, the journalist says.

            She recounts the case of Andrey Danilov, a Saami activist who has been in trouble with the authorities because of his efforts to keep the memory of Soviet repressions against his people alive and now faces the task of proving he is a Saami so that he can hunt and fish on the lands of his people without paying a fee.

            He is a pensioner, has worked in town, and wants to hunt because that is part of his nation’s tradition. But for officials, a Saami must “live in the tundra exclusively by hunting and fishing and it appears that it is desirable that he or she be illiterate as well,” the Novaya gazeta journalist says. 

            A few years ago, Danilov raised the Saami flat on Indigenous Peoples Day and that led to denunciations but not a formal charge that he was a separatist and extremist. Now, the Russian courts want to declare that he isn’t even a Saami.  They have their reasons, of course, Britskaya says.

            Not long ago, activists in Murmansk put on a play about the Saami based on hundreds of interviews with the remaining members of that national community.  The Saami of Russia have suffered much, they said; and they resent being reduced to part of “the tourist cluster” of the Murmansk Oblast.  Britskaya reports that at the performance, the audience cried.

            That is an indication that Saami self-consciousness is not dead and that the Saami of Russia are being inspired by the Saami of Norway and Finland, something that the powers that be in the Russian Federation clearly fear could lead to problems. Hence the court case against Danilov, one designed to intimidate but that may have the opposite effect.

            It took the court of first instance only 20 minutes to find that Danilov is not a Saami and therefore doesn’t have the right to any benefits as a member of a numerically small people of the Russian North. At this, Danilov simply “smiles,” Britskaya says. He will appeal until he wins, right up to the highest courts in Russia and perhaps beyond.

            Had the Russian court acknowledged his rights, that might have been the end of it. But by taking this absurd decision, it has guaranteed that Danilov’s case will continue and attract ever more attention.  The evidence for that conclusion is the Novaya gazeta article. A Moscow paper would never have covered a local court decision on this issue had that decision been reasonable.

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