Problems Brewing for Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Far North

Oct 9, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in November 2012]


Native peoples of the Russian Far North struggle to fit into the modern global village while retaining their ethnic identity and cultural distinctiveness. In recent days, the situation seems to have rapidly changed for the worse, with Moscow threatening to close an indigenous peoples’ NGO and with the director of the Pomor Institute in Archangelsk being accused of treason.

The first issue concerns RAIPON—the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East—which is a non-governmental organization that for over 20 years has played a central role in protecting indigenous peoples’ human rights and legal interests, as well as in promoting their right to self governance. The organization represents some 300,000 people from over 40 indigenous groups that live in a vast chunk of the Russian Federation stretching from Murmansk to Kamchatka. RAIPON has also been instrumental in fostering international cooperation among indigenous peoples of Russia and those of other Arctic states. It has signed an official cooperation agreement with the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and is represented is the Arctic Council. Members of RAIPON’s presidium serve in the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, as well as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Expert Mechanism on indigenous rights, and the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights. Unlike most other local NGOs, the association has been heavily engaged in a number of legislative processes involving Russian Arctic territories. And yet RAIPON has been under increasing pressure from the federal Ministry of Justice, which claims that its statutes are not in line with federal law and that it therefore must be closed down. This charge appears to be a technicality of the sort that, due to federal legislation passed over the last few years, allows Russian authorities to crush bothersome non-governmental entities. RAIPON has reportedly made several attempts to adjust its statutes in line with the requirements of the ministry, but none of its steps taken have been approved. The association has twice gone to court to dispute the ministry decision, but both attempts have failed. RAIPON now intends to appeal the verdicts and to reach out for help from its international partners, but its future remains in the balance.


In the meantime, a criminal case has been brought against a Pomor advocate Ivan Moseev.* Moseev is accused of treason, which can land him in federal prison for 12 to 20 years. The specific charges include spying on behalf of Norway, fomentation of interethnic hatred, and “destabilization of the socio-political situation in Archangel oblast” through calling for a recognition of the Pomor as a separate indigenous group, or even (according to the prosecution) appeals to join “the United States of Europe” (whatever legal entity that might be). Overall, “maintaining the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” appears to be high on the Russian government’s agenda, not only in the European northwest but also in the Pacific Far East as well. In addition to treason, Moseev is also charged in accordance with Article 282 of the Criminal Code for making a comment of an extremist nature on a local Archangelsk website “Echo of the North”. In response to an earlier comment calling the Pomors to “quiet down”, Moseev allegedly wrote: “What will you do to us? You are millions of bydlo [best translated as ‘sheeple’], and we are 2,000 people”. The site’s editor reported the comment to the FSB, which then conducted a “linguistic investigation” that concluded that the word bydlo refers unambiguously to Russians. The person who left the “quiet down” comment has been called to testify at the FSB office; he too claimed that he understood the term as a disparaging reference to himself as an ethnic Russian. In my professional opinion, since the previous commentator did not explicitly identify himself as a Russian, the comment allegedly made by Moseev does not directly indicate who the second person pronoun ‘you’ refers to, so it seems to be a case of offense “in the eye of the beholder”.

According to some reports, even before criminal charges were brought against him, Moseev was hounded down by the authorities for heading the Pomor cultural institute despite not having a graduate degree in humanities. It does not seem to matter that Moseev is a leading ethnographic expert on the Pomors and has dedicated his life to preserving their culture, writing and publishing a dictionary of the Pomor dialect. In fact, the prosecution is set to use the dictionary, whose publication was paid for by Norwegian sources, to further incriminate Moseev.

The trial, which started on November 12, has been postponed until later this month due to the defendant’s worsening health, possibly due to the psychological pressure he has been under. Moseev himself denies leaving the online comment as well as all other charges brought against him; moreover, he called the criminal case “a provocation by the FSB”. Some journalists have called the prosecution’s charges “a manifest of judicial madness” and questioned whether the “show trial” against Mossev signifies “a return of 1937” (in reference to the blood purges by the NKVD). Many journalists in Russia and in Norway also compare this trial to that of Pussy Riot earlier this year.



*The term “Pomor”, literally ‘person who lives by the sea’, refers to indigenous inhabitants of the coastal area along the White Sea, the Barents Sea, and the Arctic Ocean. They are largely descendants of ethnic Russian settlers from the Novgorod area, although admixture from Finnic-speaking groups is significant. The distinctive Pomor dialect is a member of the northern Russian dialectal group. It is not to be confused with Russenorsk, a Russian Norwegian pidgin.


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