by Andrei V. Golovnev

[Published in: Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Special Issue on the North. Ed. By Gurli Aagaard Woods, Vol. 13. 2000–2001. Pp. 22–34]

For centuries, and especially during the last decades, the Russian North endured harsh extremes in the fluctuation of the natural and political climate. Political tides were sometimes even less predictable and adaptable than arctic winds and weather. Ideologically and practically, Soviet power challenged the North as the most forbidden area to be “subdued”; this entailed severe pressure over peoples and nature. When the triumphant Soviet North was abruptly turned into the depressing post-Soviet North, with newly-established settlements rapidly emptied and useful mineral resources appearing to become useless, it seemed that an  advance of a glacier barely could have been able to do more harm. This post-Soviet decade demonstrates on the one hand how ephemeral the structures, persistently built and maintained by the centralized regime, could be, and on the other hand, how tenacious the ethnic cultures could be.

The political collapse was followed by an ethnic boom similar to what had happened once before at the beginning of the 20th century during the Revolution of 1917. Those Northern indigenous groups who kept their traditional lifestyle found themselves on more favourable ground than those who had been strongly involved in the Soviet “modernization process”. Despite the all-embracing devastating effect evoked by the rapid crash of the centralized system, some traditional, mostly nomadic, cultures survived and even partially improved their circumstances. An additional lesson drawn by northerners, both natives and newcomers, was that economic and social sustainability could be based mostly on their own requirements and capabilities, and on their own cultural potential. The critical issue to be viewed in this respect concerns the models of governance which exist historically or which are currently considered to be favourable to the Northern regions of Russia.

Two Types of Russian Statehood

Archaeologically, in the early Medieval period (at least from the seventh century AD), on the threshold of the first Russian (Rus’) state, East Slavs differed in their cultural traditions so distinctively that a contrast between Northern and Southern groups (see Kirpichnikov et al. 1986:200) could be taken as evidence of their affiliation with different cultural traditions. Northern Slavic culture was essentially influenced by neighbouring Baltic, Finnish and Scandinavian cultures while the Southern Slavic culture was imbued by Scythian-Sarmatian and Turkic features. Archaeologist Dmitry A. Machinski noted that ancient Slavs migrated widely in the area between the two cultural “volcanoes”: Central-Asia and West-Baltic, when one of these cultures were periodically dormant (1981:113–114). The volcano metaphor could be supplemented with one addition: Both Southern and Northern Slavs participated directly in the “eruptions,” being fused in ethnogenetic streams along with initial the shakes of volcanic activity. Moreover, the distinction between Southern and Northern groups meant that they would associate with opposite cultural centres: Steppe-Eurasian and North-European groups respectively, which entailed involvement in their different political systems.

Northern Slavs paid tribute to the Vikings, Southern groups to the Khazars. From the ninth to the eleventh centuries, Vikings and Northern Slavs raided the South along the Baltic-Pontic route several times, conquering Southern Slavic territories and defeating the Khazars.  The Northern Viking-Slavic, or more precisely, the Viking-Slavic-Finnish-Baltic alliance known as Rus’ spread its power over a vast area as far as the Black sea, although the political hearth of the state remained in the North, first in Ladoga (Aldejgja) and later in Novgorod (Hólmgarđr). Although the alliance was split by hostile Christian factions, it kept its dominance in the area up to the early 13th century when the Central-Asian “volcano erupted” again  as the Mongolian-Tartarian invasion.

As a result, a major part of the Rus’ became subjugated to the suzerain Steppe state, the Golden Horde, and only the northern area of Russia, Novgorod and Pskov, stayed independent and retained its previous statehood. The southern power established a political (tax-collecting) centre within Russia, in Moscow, which thereafter became a persistent rival to the adjacent political entities including Novgorod. During the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Russia experienced a dramatic confrontation of two political traditions, the “Nordic” tradition (represented by Novgorod) and the “Turkic” tradition (inherited by Moscow). The collision was not just an opposition of centrifugal and centripetal trends (as it is usually presented by official Russian historiography), but rather a clash between two different cultural and political models. It was actually a fulfillment of the Horde’s mission when Moscow  eventually defeated Novgorod in 1570.

After the political defeat, however, the “Nordic”-Russian tradition did not disappear totally. It was carried away by Novgorodian fugitives to the North and to the East. The North-Russian “exodus” triggered the emergence of a new cultural entity: the Russian Pomors who rapidly migrated East across the Urals and Siberia as far as to the Pacific, retaining or even strengthening their opposition to the Central-Russian policy of opposing serfdom and State Religion (most of the Pomors were rigid Old-Church-believers). This blitz migration could be seen, on the one hand, as a consequence of the Pomors’ cultural flexibility, ecological compatibility, economic and social self-reliance and, on the other, as evidence of their previous long-term practice of distant trade voyages. Historically, Novgorod preceded Moscow for half a millenium in its various contacts with Northern and Siberian peoples and territories starting from as early as the eleventh century.

The “Turkic”-Russian tradition implemented colonial expansion and, simultaneously, the centripetal political doctrine meant that Moscow had borrowed from the Horde the basic tools and terms of governance (e. g. the words for “treasury”, “money”, and “tax” entered the Russian lexicon from Turkic and Mongolian). To cite Nikolai Trubetskoi’s words: “The Russian Czar was the heir to the Mongolian Khan,” and the “overthrow of the Tartarian yoke was reduced to the replacement of the Tartarian Khan by the Orthodox Czar, and to the transference of the Khan’s headquarters to Moscow” (Trubetskoi 1995:157). Generally speaking, the “Nordic” and the “Turkic” traditions  contrasted as democracy (the Novgorodian Republic) and despotism (Moscow Czar), respectively. The principle difference in their colonial methods was that Novgorod produced a multilateral trade network and a chain of autonomous settlements. Moscow produced a centralized administrative system with  a vast subservient area controlled in an authoritarian style. The duel between the two political traditions did not end after Moscow defeated Novgorod in 1570. On the contrary,  it is a still continuing conflict in Russian political life, in the form of centralization versus regionalization.

Borders and Leaders

The key component of the legacy which Moscow borrowed from its predecessor,  the Horde, was the predominance of state property over private forms of property regarding land (Mukhamedyarov 2000: 86–88). For a long time, the State’s procuring of furs and other goods from the North and from Siberia consistently reinforced the system of administrative dependency for the indigenous peoples and, at the same time, enacted “protective” laws against Russian merchants and traders. Similarly, though more explicitly, the role of “state peoples” had been given to the Northern minorities in the Soviet epoch in order to restrict any private (non-governmental) activity and spread the state monopoly over all spheres of property in the North. In the 1930s, the heyday of the Soviet totalitarianism, the State used northern minorities as titular nations constructing “national” regions which in fact were doomed to be a veil for the State, mostly Gulags, domain. Any attempt by the “state peoples” to stand up for their own values and rights (series of revolts from the 1920s to the 1940s) was  used by the authorities as a trigger to strengthen state rule over Northern territories. In the late Soviet and post-Soviet period, the issue of “titular nations” led to frequent arguments between various governmental agencies and state-offspring industrial companies for control over  Northern areas and resources.

The administrative borders in the North built up by the Russian Empire and modified  by the Soviet regime had nothing to do with actual ethnic boundaries. Ethnographically,  the indigenous system of ethnic communication provided consolidation rather than dissociation in the arctic territories. The Saami and Samoyeds covered a vast area along the Arctic ocean from Scandinavia to the Taymyr peninsula. Intensive horizontal links have unified the Samoyeds (Nenets) into a monolithic cultural entity and allowed them to keep speaking one dialect despite the fact that their territory stretches over an immeasurable tundra area from  the White sea to the Yenisei river. The boundaries which divided or connected the Saami, Samoyeds, Ostiaks, Tungus, Chukchi, and others, were adequate for traditional activity,  but sometimes they were consecrated by intertribal centres of trade and rituals. The Natural (Native) boundaries were continuously changing due to migrations, conflicts, epidemics, or climatic fluctuations. The northern system of communication was considerably broader in the past or, rather, it had been oriented toward another set of priorities.

In the twentieth century, the centralized policy and state-operated economy formed an ethnic mosaic and centrally operated regions in the Russian (Soviet) North. The State  established artificial borders in the North splitting northern territories and peoples; nowadays, the Nenets, Khanty, Selkup, Evenks, and other minorities, are disjointed in several administrative units within Russia. Administrative borders serve to keep inter-ethnic and even intra-ethnic relations transmitting through the central authority’s filter. A multifaceted structure consisting of local (city, village, rural settlement, nomadic camp), district (raion), autonomous region (okrug), province (oblast), territory (krai), republic (respublica), recently established  federal region (federalnyi okrug), and enormous federal authorities, functions as an insurmountable barrier for any ethnic, local, or regional initiative. Endless administrative corridors have become a blind maze for political actors, especially regional and ethnic leaders.

The tangle of the leaders’ intentions and attitudes can be seen, for instance, in the current Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON)[1] and in the State Committee on Social and Economic Development of the Northern Regions (Goskomsever). Both organizations appeared almost simultaneously, in 1990, during the post-Soviet ethnic and regional tide, although both have been established under the aegis of the federal power, and during the past decade they have not been able to overcome the notorious centripetal stereotypes.

The RAIPON consists of about 30 organizations or local subdivisions. Logically, one might expect that these organizations would be tightly correlated with the northern minorities which are also about 30 in number.[2] Ethnologically, one might expect the same since the top-priority minorities’ goal seems to be in strengthening their own ethnic identity and structure. It could be so, if RAIPON didn’t imitate, accidentally or deliberately, the administrative pattern of the Russian Federation. Instead, most of the northern ethnic associations correlate with administrative divisions, e. g. the Nenets are represented in five different regional organizations, the Evens in six, and the Evenks in eleven.[3] Symptomatically, there are no “All-Nenets” or “All-Evenk” associations, either within or outside RAIPON.

Today, the indigenous elite has at least two roots: traditional and political. The Native societies survived in the Soviet regime because of their flexible traditional egalitarian models of leadership. At the same time, the local ethnic elite was formed in accordance with the policy of the “national” cadres and their representation in various branches of power. Some of these organizations were just showcases, but others became a “social base” of the State by being nurtured in the atmosphere of socialistic “enlightenment”, collectivization, sedentarization, and forced relocation from rural areas into urban or semi-urban settlements. Nowadays, the majority of native leaders are residents of large villages or even towns. They are formally educated and integrated into the government system. From the point of view of their own people, they are to a large extent leaders on behalf of the state. However, from the point of view of the central authorities, they are leaders on behalf of the Natives. The real function of these leaders is to act as intermediaries between the two opposite sides, native culture and state policy. The very ability of the Nenets leaders to go back and forth between the city and the tundra, the tent and the office, is a manifestation of the idea of “having two faces.” This shuttling can be seen as a new type of nomadism merging traditional and administrative styles of leadership (for more details see: Golovnev 1997).

However, the gap between the two styles is so evident that even the most talented leaders hardly keep them balanced. The only feasible middle link between them would be a reorientation of state policy towards regionalism and, even further, towards interregionalism. Meanwhile, today this political field is crossed by a hot front line between the central power and the regional authorities. Even RAIPON, as an association of associations, let alone individual leaders, cannot manage its position on an interregional level. RAIPON still plays two opposite roles simultaneously, splitting peoples on the regional level and joining the same peoples on the federal level. Sergei Khariuchi and other leaders of RAIPON emphasize the necessary shift of the association’s activities from the federal level to the regions (Khariuchi 2000:25). Hopefully, this would mean, in practice, the development of intensive interregional cooperation, otherwise RAIPON can be gradually reshaped into an explicitly “vertical” institution with an obscured mission of central-local communication.

The call for interregionalism might also be drawn from the story of the Goskomsever which was organized as a copy of the Committee of the North which had existed in the early Soviet period, from 1924 to 1935. Then, for the next thirty years, there was not any particular body controlling the northern minorities, until the Department on Issues of Economy and Cultures of Northern Peoples was established within the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federation in 1965. Founded in 1990, Goskomsever was integrated into the Ministry of Nationality Affairs and Regional Policy, and then, in 1996, it was reestablished as a separate entity (Osherenko et al. 1997:33). Recently, in the late Spring of 2000, the Goskomsever was disbanded again as an authorized body and merged into the Ministry of Trade and Economic Policy.

The liquidation of this governmental body did not entail considerable negative or positive consequences for whomever it was supposed to serve. More likely, the Goskomsever  was targeted in order to liquidate the address of the agency-on-duty whose ten-year activity was inseparably linked with the overall crisis in the Russian North. From the central power’s point of view, the move also meant that the North is no longer the arena of particular attention and that all its problems should be solved in an ordinary way. From the viewpoint of Northern regions, this signifies the federal state’s avoidance of its responsibility and its inability to deal with Northern self-reliance. The latter invokes the necessity for intensive interregional and international cooperation properly based on northern demands and abilities.

Post-Soviet Case Studies

The old discussion on circumpolar cultures, or models of circumpolar cultures, is being updated to the current reality. This raises the issue of the way in which modern northern cultures are balancing their adaptations to the natural and social environments. For indigenous peoples, so called “newcomers” may be recognized as a major part of the superimposed social and political environment which is no less challenging than the treacherous arctic weather. Some northern cultures, especially nomadic cultures, have managed to develop specific adaptive mechanisms within the severe political environment of the Soviet regime. These cultures survived in spite of numerous authorities’ attempts to dissolve them within the “Soviet nation”. However, the immediate effect of the Soviet regime’s collapse on two similarly enduring cultures, the Nenets and the Chukchi, varied considerably. Today the Nenets regard themselves as winners and the Chukchi as losers.

Both peoples, the Nenets and the Chukchi, are nomadic reindeer herders of the Russian North. They were recently named champions in cultural survival owing to their very high level of social self-sufficiency and economic autonomy. Both cultures made similar choices when reacting to outside sociopolitical intrusions during the Russian and Soviet periods of colonization. They had been subjugated neither by the gun in the seventeenth century, nor by the Cross in the eighteenth century, nor by the law in the nineteenth century. Located far away from each other, the Nenets in the western parts and the Chukchi in the eastern parts of the Russian Arctic, both peoples avoided administrative dependency by converting from hunters into pastoralists. The flight into nomadism allowed the Nenets and the Chukchi to occupy the most forbidden territories and to save and even strengthen their ethnic identity. Until today, the Nenets and the Chukchi have kept their traditional heathen beliefs and customs.

During the twentieth century, the Nenets and the Chukchi represented two strongholds of pastoralism and heathenism in the Russian North. Both became so-called “titular nations:” homonymous National/Autonomous Regions. The Nenets (totalling 34,665 in 1989) belonged to the Nenetskii Autonomous Region (6,423 of 53,912 — 11.9% of the Region’s population), the Yamalo-Nenetskii Autonomous Region (20,917 of 494,844 — 4.2%), and the Dolgano-Nenetskii Autonomous Region (2,549 of 55,803 — 4.6%), whereas the Chukchi (totalling 15,183 in 1989) belonged to the Chukotskii Autonomous Region (12,858 of 163,934 — 7.9%). In 1989, the Chukchi and the Nenets were the wealthiest peoples in the Russian North and close to one another by quantity of reindeer: in the Chukotskii Region — 499,000, in the Yamalo-Nenetskii Region — 495,900, in the Nenetskii Region — 191,500, and in the Dolgano-Nenetskii Region — 76,888 (Narody 1992:186-188, Tabl. 21).

The next shift can be clearly seen by a comparison of the Yamalo-Nenetskii and Chukotskii Regions, central areas of Nenets and Chukchi pastoralism, where in 1990 an almost equal population of domestic reindeer was counted: 490,000 and 491,000 respectively. Five years later, in 1995, the number of reindeer in the Nenets area had increased to 508 thousand, while in the Chukchi area, the index had decreased to 236 thousand (see Belikov and Boltunov 1999:16, Tabl. 4). The same opposite trends continued during the next five years triggering two different crises: overgrazing of the pastures in Yamal and a catastrophic drop of domestic reindeer in Chukotka. The latter is close to the point of no return after the number of reindeer has dropped to 1/3 of the 1990-level and continues to decline in geometric progression. The emptying pastures of Chukotka are being repopulated today by growing herds of wild and feral reindeer, and the Chukchi more and more often invoke the ancient practices of their forefathers, the hunters.

 Among the various explanations I have been told by the Nenets and Chukchi concerning these phenomena, the key one relates to the ownership of reindeer. In the Soviet/post-Soviet transition period, the Nenets rushed to enlarge their private herds by all available means thereby neglecting the so-called “collective” (state) demands, whereas the Chukchi failed in a few similar attempts and eventually remained poor employees thereby wasting the rest of the herds which had actually remained ownerless. Today the average number of private reindeer per person among the Chukchi is near or below zero — many herders and ex-herders actually owe reindeer to collective farms.

Chukotka has succeeded in demolishing the previous social and political environment first of all by seceding from the Magadan Province and signing the Federal Treaty of 1992 as an equal “constituent unit” of the Russian Federation. As far as the Yamalo-Nenetskii Region is concerned, it has failed in its attempt to proclaim itself a “republic” and is formally staying within the Tiumen Province, but with the necessary financial and administrative independence. The Yamal Region preserved its social and demographic structure despite a temporary deflux of mostly Ukrainian newcomers towards the end of 1989 and beginning of 1990. In Chukotka, the drain of the newcomer population became massive: by 1996, it dropped to an estimated 80,000, which is less than half of the 1989 figure (160,000). The first people to leave were technicians, teachers, doctors, accountants, and other qualified workers (Vakhtin and Krupnik 1999:31). During the whole decade the number of newcomers in Chukotka has fallen to about 1/3 of the 1990 level.

The simultaneous two-third drop of both newcomers and reindeer population in Chukotka may be seen as an accidental or even odd coincidence. Several years ago, the general opinion in the North was that the boiling point of the Northern tensions is caused by a clash between the newcomers’ activities and the local indigenous peoples’ traditional occupations. One might expect that the decrease in newcomers will inevitably facilitate a traditional economy, first and foremost improving reindeer herding with its demands for vast isolated pasture areas. It might be the case if strong and devastative effects did not hinder the recovery of reindeer husbandry. The Chukchi have lost the social environment to which their culture has been adjusted for many years. This multilateral environment has now abruptly been replaced by an atmosphere of havoc and looting. Furthermore, the collapse of the other local economies has led to enormous consumer pressure on reindeer breeding.

Both the Yamal and the Chukotka cases show an apparent regional trend towards a convergence of needs and attitudes among the indigenous peoples and the “local newcomers.” There are no longer favourable conditions (northern wage increments, retirement benefits, etc.) for a majority of northern newcomers who, incidentally, nowadays should be seen as hostages rather than invaders. The process of regionalization must take into account the rights of the newcomers to use the land and resources along with the rights of the indigenous peoples. Moreover, the rights of both peoples cannot be resolved separately from one another and without the special attention of non-governmental organizations and regional authorities.

The Yamal and the Chukotka are endowed with comparable resource potential based on gas and gold respectively. An obvious reason for the current Chukotka gold-mining fiasco compared with the Yamal’s gas development relates to the “difficulties of distant transportation”. There is no way to avoid this difficulty but to get rid of measuring the Russian North by the “distance” to or from the federal centre. Large-scale interregional cooperation in the Russian North involving regions of neighbouring countries (Finland, Norway, and Sweden) promises to constitute the main channel in regulating the local economic and transportation problems as well as facilitating northern participation in a macro-economic system.


Several months ago, the heyday of the Russian centralized regime seemed to be way behind. Political-administrative reforms launched by President Vladimir Putin appeared to be ambiguous. On the one hand, they strengthened “vertical power”, the impulse back to centralization; on the other hand they corresponded to some aspects of the newly-formed federal regions, i.e. they were a well-timed move towards interregionalization. The President’s initiatives could be seen, by regional leaders, as a challenge and touchstone for their capabilities to maintain the balanced dialogue with central authorities and, at the same time, welcome the initiatives as appropriate tools in promoting regional and interregional interests.

Until today, the greatest hindrance in the Russian North, blocking both interregional cooperation and reasonable dialogue with the federal centre, is the depressing ideology of provinciality. In order to traverse this barrier, the regional leaders need to complement their social and political intuition with the historical and cultural knowledge contained in the crop of persuasive models of resilience and self-reliance among the northern cultures of Russia (the Pomors, Komi, Samoyeds, Yakuts, etc.).




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Golovnev, Andrei V. 1997. Indigenous Leadership in Northwestern Siberia: Traditional Patterns and Their Contemporary Manifestations. Arctic Anthropology. Vol. 34. No 1. Pp. 149–166.

Khariuchi, Sergei N. 2000. Dvizhenie korennykh malochislennykh narodov Severa na poroge XII veka (Movement of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North on the Turn the the 21st Century). In: Severnye narody Rossii na puti v novoe tysiacheletie (Northern Peoples of the Russian North on a Way to New Millenium). Moscow: RAIPON. Pp. 21–26.

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[1] In March 1990, the first “Congress of the Numerically-Small Peoples of the North” was held in Moscow where the RAIPON (Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North” has been formed with its leader, Vladimir Sangi (ethnically Nivkh).The next Congress in 1994  replaced him with Yeremei Aipin (Khant), then in 1997 Sergei Khariuchi (Nenets) was elected and up to today is the Acting President of RAPON.

[2] According to the last (1989) census, 26 officially recognized ethnic minorities in the Russian North were accounted totally 184,478; at the beginning of 2000 their number grew up to 30. Then, by the Russian Government’s decree of 24/03/2000, the official list of Russia’s minorities contains 45 peoples living on the North, Siberia, or Far East. The largest by number and territory are Nenets (34,665), Evenk (30,238), Khant (22,521), Even (17,199), Chukchi (15,183): smallest Oroki (190) on Amur and Enets (209) on Yenisei (Narody 1992:13-14, Tabl. 1). Besides, two peoples, Komi and Sakha (Yakut), due to their large population sizes (respectively 344,519 and 381,922 in 1989) are not included in the “Northern numerically-small” classificatory group.

[3] For example, Nenets participate in “Yasavei” (in Nenets Autonomous Region), “Yamal — Potomkam” (in Yamal-Nenets AR), Association of the Native Peoples of Taymyr (in Dolgan-Nenets AR), “Spasenie Yugry” (in Khanty-Mansi AR). These and other local subdivisions of RAIPON have specific names and programmes approved by local authorities.

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