Monday, October 19, 2020

‘Small but Not Little’ – Association of Numerically Small Peoples Marks 30th Anniversary

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 17 – Thirty years ago this week, activists from the peoples of the North and Siberia created the Association of Indigenous and Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East to defend their rights against outside development and take control of their own destinies.

They had some reason for hope. While the 40 plus nations in this grouping totaled fewer than half a million people, they sat astride nearly a third of the territory of the Russian Federation, and they formed an increasing share of the population of that region with the collapse of Soviet-era subsidies that had brought Russians and other outsiders in.

            In the first decade, this organization achieved some remarkable successes in that regard, uniting to limit untrammeled development in the North and Far East, gaining expanded legal recognition, and developing contacts with other numerically small peoples abroad and with the international community more generally.

            But under Vladimir Putin, the organization has been gelded. Its original leadership has been ousted as too independent minded, Moscow has backed the development of the North over the survival of these peoples, limited the contacts of these peoples with the outside world, and  has given the FSB the power to decide who is a member of them and who can represent  them ( and

            These Russian policies threaten the future of these peoples, many of whom are at risk of having their lands destroyed and their numbers reduced to the point that they cannot survive. Moscow, however, does provide them some verbal support both to cover its attacks on larger nationalities in the Russian Federation and to put on a positive face for Northern peoples abroad.

            Both sides of Russian policy were on view this week at the commemoration of the anniversary of the organization. Vladimir Putin in his message to a meeting of more than 500 people in the Russian capital celebrated the Association for its “constructive cooperation with the organs of power” (

            And Russian outlets noted all the programs that the Russian government is slated to adopt to support the numerically small peoples in the coming decades, programs that even if they are adopted and fully funded are unlikely to prevent these peoples from losing their traditional ways of life, their languages, and ultimately their identities.

            The Association came into existence because activists from many of these groups, the largest of which numbers only 44,000 (the smallest, only four), recognized that they could not hope to stand up to the power of economic and pollical interests from the outside world. But their efforts were too much for the Kremlin, and so they have been gelded.

            The Association remains and will be celebrated as it has been this week; but the Russian government seems willing to maintain this arrangement only because it has managed to eliminate any real possibility at least for the foreseeable future that the group will be able to achieve what its founders hoped for.


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