Native Peoples of the North and Siberia

Names: (i) Karelians, Komi (Zyrians), Komi-Permyaks, Saami (Lapps); (ii) Maris (Cheremiss), Mord-vinians, Udmurts (Votyaks), Chuvash; (iii) Mansi, Khanti (Ostyak), Yakuts (Saka), Altais, Dolgans, Khakass, Evenks (Tungus), Eveni; (iv) Nanai, Ul’chi, Udegei, Inuit (Eskimos), Chukchi, Koryaks, Nivkhs; (i) and (iii) Nentsi (Samoyeds)
Location: (i) Northern European (ii) Central (iii) Siberian (iv) Far Eastern regions of USSR
Population: 4.5 million (USSR census 1979), 5 million (est. 1989), ranging from 1,500 Inuit to 1.75 million Chuvash and 1.2 million Mordvinians
% of population: 1.7% (1979 and est. 1989)
Religion: Orthodox Christianity, Shamanism, some Muslims
Language: each of the above nationalities has its own language in the following groups: a) Finnic (Karelian, Saami, Mordvinian, Mari, Udmurt, Komi); Ugric (Khanti, Mansi); Samoyed (Nentsi); b) Turkic (Chuvash, Yakuts, Altais, Khakass, Dolgans); c) Paleoasiatic (Chukchi, Koryaki, Nivkhs); d) Tungusic (Evenks, Eveni, Nanai, UPchi, Udegei)

History and background

These groups represent indigenous populations occupying the territory over which the Russian state has spread since the twelfth century. Thus, the thickly forested areas populated by such Finnic peoples as the Karelians (who were a part of Kiev Rus), the Mordvinians, Udmurts, Mari and Komi, were among the first to be colonized by the Russians; while the Chuvash (a Turkic people probably descended from the Volga Bulgars) had become Russian subjects and Christians by 1551. A similar fate awaited the Turkic Yakuts and related Dolgans by the seventeenth century and, eventually, the groups in Manchuria, the Far North and East of the country. It is customary to distinguish between these larger groups of long-colonized peoples and the smaller, nomadic “peoples of the north” (who in 1979 had a total population of just 158,000, ranging from the 30,000 Nentsi, 27,300 Evenks and 21,000 Khanties to an estimated 97 Aleuts living off the coast of Kamchatka).

Although the older colonized peoples have long been sedentary and have largely assimilated to Russian norms of life (especially the Karelians, Mordvinians, Komis, Maris, Udmurts and Chuvash), this is not the case with the smaller peoples, despite great efforts to stamp out Shamanism and the old nomadic way of life.

In many of the territories, immigrant Russians far outnumber the local population, especially in Karelia (where the Karelians accounted for just 11% of the population in 1979, whereas the Russians formed 70%), Komi (Komis 24.5%, Russians 55%) and Udmurtia (Udmurts 31.7%, Russians 57.4%). Most of the indigenous populations are rural, speak Russian (e.g. 83% of Chuvash) and their own language (82% Chuvash). All use the Cyrillic script, although only the Chuvash have always done so, the Latin script having been widespread in the 1920s and 30s.

Constitution and law

The following peoples have their own autonomous republics (and thus are theoretically able to elect their own legislative, executive and judicial organs and send four deputies each to the Council of Nationalities in the USSR Supreme Soviet): Karelia (population 1.1 million in 1989 — from 1940 until 1956 it was a Union Republic); Komi (population 1.26 million); Mari (population 0.75 million); Mordovia (population 0.96 million — a fall of 3% in the period 1979-1989); Udmurtia (population 1.6 million); Chuvashia (population 1.33 million); and Yakutia (population 1.1 million for a territory more than five times the size of France). The Altai (Gorno-Altai, population 192,000) and Khakass (population 569,000) in the far south of Siberia both have their own autonomous regions (which do not form states or governments and send only two deputies each to the Council of Nationalities) and the following have their own autonomous areas (which each send one deputy): Komi-Permyaks (population 159,000): Koryaks (population 39,000): Nenets (population 55,000); Dolgan-Nenets (population 55,000); Khanti-Mansi (population 269,000): Chukchi (population 158,000), Evenki (population 24,000) and Yamalo-Nenets (population 487,000). In most of these areas Russians outnumber the indigenous populations.

Recent developments in political, economic and social rights

The high degree of assimilation and long exposure to Russian culture has diluted the sense of national consciousness in the older colonized areas, although the heavily outnumbered Karelians understandably relate to the neighbouring and nationalist minded Finns and Estonians. The indigenous population growth tends to be small (in the case of Mordovia and Komi-Permyak it is actually falling) except in areas of rapid industrial development. Thus the formerly most sparsely populated areas of the USSR (e.g. Yakutia, 0.3 persons per square kilometre 1979) and the Evenki Autonomous Area (0.03 persons) have both experienced significant population growth (29% and 55% respectively) in the last decade. The combined effect of industrial development (a high proportion of the USSR’s resources in energy and precious metals lie in these areas, and in 1974 construction commenced on the Baikal-Amur Railway through the region in order to exploit this wealth), environmental degradation and cultural assimilation has had a negative effect on the lives of the indigenous peoples, a fact that was first admitted by a Soviet representative to the International Labour Office in Geneva in June 1989.

In August 1989 the draft programme of the CPSU’s National Policy advocated the convening of a Congress of Representatives of the Native Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East and the formation of an Association to safeguard their interests.

As most of the territory lies in border zones or areas of strategic importance, travel tends to be severely restricted in and out of these regions. A recent breakthrough in this respect was the reunion between Soviet and American Yupik Eskimos in Chukotka in June 1988 (it is worth noting that hitherto had a Soviet Eskimo wished to travel legally the four miles from Big Diomede Island in the USSR to Little Diomede Island in the USA in the Bering Strait, s/he would have had to go round the world to do it). Although sensitive to the aboriginal tribes’ traditional way of life, the Soviet authorities have tried hard to Europeanize the indigenous peoples by means of education in boarding schools, sedentarization programmes and repeated attacks on vestiges of Shamanism (a word which in the 1930s was synonymous with kulak). However, for the most part, the aboriginal peoples have been encouraged merely to modernize their traditional occupations (trapping, fishing, reindeer herding etc.) rather than join the industrial workforce, and have thus kept somewhat apart from the migrant Russians. (In the Stalinist era there was a vast network of labour camps — the Gulag Archipelago — in this area; now workers are lured from the “European mainland” by higher wages.) Nonetheless, it seems likely that the reassessment of the Soviet nationalities’ policy has occurred just in time to save some of the smaller peoples (and possibly the larger ones too) from extinction as distinctive national groups.