Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Faces Some New Ethnic Challenges in the Far North

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 11 – Moscow faces a rising tide of anti-Russian attitudes among the numerically small nationalities of the northern portions of the country, a trend that could create difficulties for the center even though these groups are both small and dispersed and even though their attitudes are unlikely to crystallize into national movements.
There are three reasons for that conclusion: First, the lands where these peoples live are precisely the territories in which much of Russia’s enormous natural wealth is located. Second, these groups have supporters among certain Russian nationalist groups who view them, whatever they may think, as defenders of a Russian heartland.
And third, these nationalities have forged close links with the Arctic peoples of other countries via the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, and consequently, they can almost certainly count on the attention of their co-ethnic communities in Norway, Denmark (which owns Greenland), Canada, and the U.S. to pay attention to their problems.
The attitudes of these peoples have been little studied, and both their size and isolation mean that few in Russia have paid much attention to them. But an interview with a leading Russian scholar about nomadism in the North and a spate of articles over the last two months about Sakha provide some new insights on this question.
On Monday, featured an interview with Konstantin Kuskin, the director of the Russian Museum of Nomadic Culture, a specialist at the Moscow Institute of Open Education, and a longtime student of the Nentsy, Khanty and other semi-nomadic peoples of the Russian North (
These peoples, Kuskin said, had benefited from Moscow’s neglect beginning under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Central officials from that time forward generally “forgot about them and stopped putting pressure on them” to integrate into the broader Russian society.
As a result, he continued, “people were forced to return to the nomadic way of life” of reindeer hearing, and those who did so just like those who returned to nomadism in Tuva and Kazakhstan not only survived but flourished. While others may have suffered from this time of troubles, it worked to the benefit of the nomads.
Indeed, Kuskin argued, throughout almost all of their history, “the attention of the state is the worst thing of all.”
He said that Soviet and then Russian intervention in the lives of these peoples had helped to destroy their cultures. Young people were taken away from their homes and placed in often well-appointed but culturally destructive residential schools. On their return, they seldom fit in.
Both men and women were negatively affected, he said. Boys did not learn the many secrets of reindeer herding, one of the most difficult occupations in the world. And girls did not learn the secrets of the household. As a result, the more educated a girl is in these cultures, the less she is valued as a wife and the lower the bride price.
And these trends, which have been limited by the collapse of state institutions in these areas in recent years, were exacerbated when the teachers involved were ethnic Russians, Kuskin reported. Such teachers never penetrated into the lives of their students and their families and were little respected by them.
That is because, the Moscow ethnographer argued, “for centuries, [these peoples] have not seen anything good from Russians.”
Now, however, the numerically small peoples find themselves in a vice, one that reflects the increasing role that oil and gas companies play in determining their lives and Moscow’s continuing neglect, something that under these new conditions they can no longer afford.
Indeed, given the enormous and largely uncontrolled power of the petroleum industry, he argued, the small peoples of the North have no choice but to hope that the central government will change its approach, become their defenders, and help them create conditions for the survival of the national ways of life.
Given the Kremlin’s current reliance on oil and gas industry, that may prove to be an unrealistic hope. But if it is, these peoples are likely to become increasingly angry about Russia and the Russians, and the “Russian super ethnos” will suffer from that and from the destruction of an important source of its own vitality.
The other source of information about anti-Russian attitudes concerns Sakha (Yakutia), an enormous region in Russia’s Far East which has attracted the attention of Putin and indeed the world not only because of its enormous natural resources but because of a series of meetings there this year of ethnic groups from across the country.
On May 18, Moscow’s “Izvestiya” newspaper published a long article on relations between ethnic Russians and ethnic Sakha as part of its series of stories about the status of ethnic relations in non-Russian regions since the collapse of the Soviet Union (
Sakha, the article suggested, is “a clear example of how easy it is to awaken nationalism” where none had existed before. The authorities there, the paper continued, have encouraged some members of the titular nationality to believe that Russians “should wash floors and we should go about with briefcases.”
“Intelligent Yakuts,” the paper continued, know that they can’t get along without Russia and the Russians, but under the former president, Mikhail Nikolayev, they were not running the show. Instead, the government operated on the basis of a kind of “national romanticism” which heightened ethnic tensions.
More Sakha were given positions in government, instruction in the schools was changed over from Russian to Sakha, and members of the titular nationality were given preferences in education and hiring. As a result, the paper said, the number of ethnic Russians in the republic fell by a third between 1989 and 2002.
Perhaps most unsettling for a Russian reader was the report by “Izvestiya” of its journalists efforts to gather information on how Russians still living in Sakha feel even now after a new republic president, less supportive of the Sakha national agenda, has taken office.
The journalist, Dmitriy Sokolov-Mitrich, noted that Orthodox Church officials in Sakha were unwilling to comment about Russian-Sakha relations. One of them said that “the Church must not divide people. The Church must unite them.” But 15 ordinary Russians were willing to share their feelings.
Some complained that in Sakha now “it is impossible for their children to receive free education.” Others expressed resentment that “in many schools instruction is in Sakha” rather than Russian. And still others complained that officials ignored them and that the militia looked the other way when Sakha gangs attacked Russians.
Sokolov-Mitrich said he listened and wrote all this down and then asked for names. “One Russian gave his name, then a second and a third, but the fourth asked that his name not be used” in the story. All 11 others said the same thing, “and then the first three reversed themselves and said they did not want to be named as sources either.
This article sparked denials all around by Sakha officials, but it brought a confirmation from an officer of the Russian Community of Yakutsk who said that everything in it was true even though he resented its somewhat light-heaerted tone (
Perhaps as a result and certainly to keep things quiet before the June 21-24 meeting there of the Congress of Peoples of Russia to which more than 500 people attended (, Yakutsk “deregistered” the Russian Community for failing to file the necessary paperwork, “Russkiy vestnik” reported last week (
The leaders of the Community say they are confident that they will be vindicated in court, but that will take them six months – and in the interim, they will not be able to function, “Our activity is temporarily paralyzed,” they say. “The powers that be have achieved their goal.” But at a price – heightened inter-ethnic tensions in the republic.
Those remarks now underscore another complaint that Russians there made to the “Izvestiya” journalist in May They expressed anger that they often had “to read in the local newspapers articles on the theme that ‘we Yakuts must unite still more closely so that should Russia again weaken, we will be able to acquire complete independence.”

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