The number of indigenous people in Russia has been declining for decades, but the war in Ukraine has accelerated the trend. Already vulnerable, indigenous groups are more likely to be mobilized and bear the brunt of Western sanctions.
While Russia continues its supposed mission to “denazify” Ukraine, back on home turf its own indigenous people are bearing what may be the heaviest consequences of the Kremlin’s war.
There are 47 indigenous groups living in Russia, some of them with populations of less than a hundred or even a few dozen. The 2021 All-Russian Population Census showed that the number of indigenous people has substantially declined in the last 10 years.
Russian independent news site Vazhnyye Istorii (Important Stories) reports on certain groups that were already on the verge of extinction, and how their situation has gotten even worse after Russia unleashed a full-scale war in Ukraine.
The tragedy for these peoples is not only the disproportionately high numbers of mobilized men, but also the effect of Western sanctions as well as the reduction of state benefits that are now being spent on war.
According to the 2021 All-Russian Population Census, 67% of indigenous groups have substantially decreased in size compared to the previous census in 2010. Most of them have been decreasing in number throughout the history of modern Russia, but the trend has accelerated in the last decade.
Dmitry Berezhkov, editor of the Russia of Indigenous Peoples website, and a representative of one of the indigenous groups, the Itelmens, says that census data should be treated with a certain degree of skepticism. The government has been known to “draw up” figures for the sake of propaganda or solving government budget tasks. For example, according to the 2010 census, the smallest indigenous group was the Kereks living in Chukotka. There were only four of them a decade ago, but in the 2021 census they numbered 23.
Another example is the Nenets, the largest of the indigenous peoples. In the 2021 census, 49,787 people were recorded as Nenets. “There is a big suspicion that this is a political figure that has been drawn up,” Berezkhov said. “If the Nenets cross into 50,000, they will no longer be considered an indigenous people under Russian law.
Berezkhov said he believe that their number has already grown beyond 50,000 but the authorities have artificially reduced it in order to maintain this indigenous status for them — as they are one of the groups most involved in traditional nature management, reindeer herding and other types of traditional economic activities.
"Removing them would affect the government’s framing of indigenous people,” he explained
However, the state also plays an insidious role. There are, for example, no state benefits that come with identifying oneself as an indigenous person. A different state policy is required, different legislation and basic principles in the country so that the rights of minorities, the rights of vulnerable groups of the population are respected.
Uprooted and assimilated
The authorities consider indigenous peoples to be an objectionable obstacle blocking up these territories: they shouldn’t be there, they’re unnecessary and interfering with the development of the country. This leaves indigenous people with nowhere to earn money, nowhere to live and develop: they are driven out of their own land.
Berezhkov cites the example of the village of Kazas in the Kemerovo region, which used to be a national village where the Shors lived. Most of its inhabitants were engaged in traditional crafts — hunting, fishing etc. In 2012, the Yuzhnaya coal company commissioned a pit in the area. Because of this, the ecology suffered greatly, the Lysaya mountain, sacred to the Shors and whose spirit was considered the guardian of the village and keeping in touch with the world of their ancestors, was destroyed.
In the same year, the company demanded that the residents of the village sell their houses to it in order to develop coal deposits. Under pressure, the residents were forced to move. “The village was destroyed, houses were burned, these families were forced to leave. They moved to the cities, and their children assimilated in the urban environment, they forgot the language,” says Berezhkov.
Men disproportionately drafted
The war in Ukraine has and will continue to hit Russia's indigenous people hard, most of all because indigenous men are being disproportionately mobilized for the war.
“If losses in war affect large ethnic groups for generations, then for small groups, even the death of several people is already a great tragedy,” Berezhkov says. “If the group is made up of only 200 people, and two young men died in the war, that’s two ethnic families that won’t ever exist,” he laments.
According to Berezhkov, it is the male population that suffers the most in the war and this has a particular influence on the preservation of indigenous peoples. “Men [among representatives of indigenous peoples] are more involved in traditional nature management: their activities allow them to maintain the status of a people who conduct traditional hunting, fishing and forest activities,” the expert explains.
“Women are much more mobile, in many cases they choose more comfort for their children: they move to larger villages, and from larger villages to cities, where it is easier for them to start a family. They marry representatives of other nations and to a greater extent [than men] assimilate.”
Mobilization is taking place disproportionately in the country's ethnic outskirts, Berezhkov says. The expert cites the example of Gvasyugi in the Khabarovsk Territory — this is a national Udege village. A local television report said that 14 representatives of the Udege people were mobilized from there, and judging by the size of the male population of the village, this constitutes 30% of those in the village who are potentially eligible for mobilization. “This is a gigantic figure, which, of course, does not compute with the data given by Shoigu and Putin [that the mobilization will affect 1% of the population],” says Berezhkov.
“Ethnic activists say that the authorities are purposefully destroying these peoples, calling up as many of them as possible,” continues Berezhkov. “However, this may also be due to the fact that indigenous peoples live in poor suburbs, where people have poverty and loans, and they trust the authorities, they believe they can make money from fighting.”
He explains that indigenous peoples have fewer sources of information than the rest of the population: they watch and trust one state propaganda channel. "And this is natural, because the main concern for them is to hunt, fish and think less about politics,” says Berezhkov.
A reindeer herder and reindeer near the Merlenke nomadic school in Eveno-Bytantaysky, Russia
Sergei Karpukhin/TASS via ZUMA
This thesis is confirmed by the data of other researchers. Aleksey Bessudnov, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Sociology at the University of Exeter in England, revealed ethnic disparity in the mortality of Russian military personnel in Ukraine. He found out that, for example, a man from Buryatia is 100 times more likely to die in a war in Ukraine than a man from Moscow.
“I am, however, skeptical about the idea that the state deliberately conducts ethnic cleansing,” says Berezhkov. “The state, by and large, does not care about the small indigenous peoples.”
The situation of indigenous peoples is also affected by the economic situation that has developed in the country due to the war. “In remote villages where indigenous people live, this is manifested in the fact that planes no longer fly there so frequently: it has become unprofitable for businessmen to take food to shops, people have to get to larger villages for food themselves. There are problems with medical equipment and modern medicines,” says Berezhkov.
Indigenous peoples were also hit by the withdrawal from the Russian market of Western companies that worked in their places of settlement. “Western business meant Western standards. We, the indigenous communities, could approach these Western companies with demands to comply with the standards of international law in terms of the environment, and the rights of indigenous peoples. Now they have left, the standards are rapidly falling. Indigenous peoples can no longer appeal to international law. And Russian companies do not take into account our interests,” Berezhkov says.
No money, no language
In 2023, the authorities also reduced the amount of subsidies to support indigenous peoples. According to Berezhkov, cuts in spending on indigenous peoples are also due to the war, which is of course affecting the country's budget dearly.
“This language is our greatest cultural wealth, but, unfortunately, we are losing it.”
“Financial support from the state has always been insufficient,” says Berezhkov. According to him, in Russia, regional authorities use money to support indigenous peoples but only if it comes with benefits for themselves. For example, in the Murmansk region, under a program for indigenous peoples, an apartment building was constructed. But in the end only one Saami family was settled there. The rest of the apartments were given to non-indigenous people on a waiting list.
Support from the state is not enough for the preservation of languages. Berezkhov says that the preservation of such languages is highly dependent on government programs; in foreign countries, unlike Russia, attention is paid to dying languages. For example, in Scandinavia, the Sami language is now being revived. In Russia only 10% of the Sami people use it, according to the census data.
Even Vladimir Putin admitted that little attention is paid in Russia to the preservation of indigenous languages. At the request of a resident of the Udege village of Krasny Yar in Primorsky Krai to introduce teaching of the Udege language, Putin replied: “This [the languages of the minority peoples of Russia] is our greatest cultural wealth, but, unfortunately, we are losing it.”