A Glimpse of Russia’s North: Indigenous Resistance and the Rise of the Voice of the Tundra

by Pengyu Chen

The Voice of the Tundra (Golos tundry) is an activist community on Russia’s media platform, “V Kontakte,” which represents the voices of Arctic Indigenous peoples in Russia’s Northwest Yamal Peninsula. Organized by and under the leadership of Nenets reindeer breeder Eiko Sérotétto, this local activism emerged in response to the state’s ongoing and intensifying industrialization in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YaNAO). Specifically, Golos tundry is concerned about environmental degradation, loss of land to extractivist industries, impoverishment of traditional Indigenous lifestyle, and state curtailment of Indigenous political organization.

As political scientist Arbakhan K. Magomedov recently noted, as a result of the state’s push for accelerated industrial development in YaNAO, the social tension between the Indigenous peoples of this region, the Nenets tundra aborigines, and the state and businesses have been “pushed to the limit” (Magomedov 220). The Russian government has turned the YaNAO into its “new oil-and-gas province” at the expense of the habitat and Indigenous way of life (Magomedov 216). Relying on Magomedov’s research, this article brings to light some of the material and political challenges the Indigenous peoples of this intensely industrialized region face.

Similar to Indigenous struggles against settler colonial states in Canada, the United States, and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples of the Nenets tundra perceive themselves as struggling against the Kremlin’s extensive encroachment of their land and aggressive deprivation of the Indigenous way of life. This social change and tension were triggered by the state’s industrial development plans as early as 2009. The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug has been experiencing extraordinary transformative changes in its resource-extraction capacity compared to other regions in the last decade (Magomedov 220). In September 2009, the then-premier of the Russian government, Vladimir Putin, declared during a conference in Salekhard that “The fields discovered on the peninsula can and must become our new oil-and-gas province” (Magomedov 220). Numerous industrial large-scale development projects soon followed. For example, the massive gas project Bovanenkovskoe was launched in 2012, and it was followed in 2013 by the construction of the USD$27 billion “Yamal LNG” (Liquefied Natural Gas) project, which consists of the production, liquefaction, and delivery of gas at the Yuzhno-Tambeiskii field. Additionally, the “Arctic LNG-2” project is set to launch this year. As of 2019, there were about sixty oil-and-gas companies (Magomedov 226).

These industrial development projects of the past decade have altered the natural landscape within Indigenous communities. For example, large areas previously used by Nenets for breeding and grazing reindeer are now occupied by oil-and-gas companies to extract, store, and transport natural resources. At least 6 percent of the land previously used by the locals for grazing is in the grip of the “Yamal LNG” project in Sabett (Magomedov 226-227). Eleven million hectares of land are in the hands of “Gazprom,” the partially state-owned multinational energy corporation (Magomedov 227). Infrastructure of all sorts, from gas pipelines to airfields and highways to settlements, had led to “the further contamination and degeneration of tundra expanses” (Magomedov 227). A significant amount of water surface area has been siphoned for the port of Sabetta, and a large amount of the Gulf of Ob’s aquatic area has been claimed for oil-and-gas industries (Magomedov 277). All of these industrial developments contribute to making the resources and land scarce for Nenets, contributing to the emergence of the Golos tundry.

Moreover, Indigenous peoples’ material well-being is at stake. Because economic actors are unwilling to give up these oil-and-gas industries, which contribute to the region’s economic growth and revenue, it is impossible for oil-and-gas companies to return former Indigenous kin-group land. Nenets, therefore, cannot access their land for breeding and grazing their reindeer. Many Yamal reindeer breeders expressed that they will face a depletion of land for reindeer husbandry, the threatened starvation and malnutrition of reindeer, and, as a result, loss of income (Magomedov 224).

In fact, the acute social tension between the Nenets and oil-and-gas companies is exacerbated by the disruptive intersection between the large-scale industrial complex and the largest reindeer herd in Russia (Magomedov 226). Natural disasters further exacerbate this predicament. For example, in the winter of 2013-14, about 90,000 reindeer perished due to a severe ice storm, and, in the spring of 2018, many more perished from a cold spring and an ice storm in addition to the shortage of grazing lands (Magomedov 232). Neither the state nor industrial enterprises compensate for these losses, although they are responsible for excluding reindeer breeders from using the land. Many reindeer breeders indicated to Magomedov that “an atmosphere of living on the edge, frequent environmental and natural cataclysms, and persistent risks have created an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear for tomorrow” (233-234).

Another pressing concern of the Indigenous peoples is the absence of leadership and formal representation in the system. There is a lack of statistical representation of Indigenous concerns. According to Magomedov, because the social interests of the Indigenous peoples and organizations are inherently contradictory from the alliance between the state and the capital, “the authorities are not going to support such research, as this threatens the reputation and status of the official Indigenous organizations supported by the state” (231).

In his interview with many Nenets, Magomedov notes that the“existing official Indigenous organizations and leaders are not defending the rights and interests of aborigines” (231). Seventy percent of the respondents expressed that they would “count only on themselves, friends, and relatives,” while 17 percent of them responded that they could rely on the help of “organizations and civic movements representing the interests of the region’s Indigenous peoples,” and only 13 percent of the respondents believe they can rely on “local, okrug, and federal organs of power (Magomedov 231).

This reality reflects the severity of the state’s curtailment of Indigenous organizations. While its activity was suspended in late 2012 by the Russian government, the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East (RAIPON), which represents the interests of about 300,000 Indigenous peoples, was reinstated in March 2013 with government pressures to reorganize its leadership in a new direction (Magomedov 221). The current elected president, Grigorii Ledkov, is a pro-government United Russia member and State Duma deputy (Magomedov 221). According to Magomedov, this change of leadership seemed forced. The loyal president Sergei Khariuchi was removed, and so were two brothers, Rodion and Pavel Suliandziga, who acted as vice presidents. The latter, Pavel Suliandziga, emigrated to the United States in 2017 because he was subjected to state persecution (Magomedov 241).

The Nenets ethnographer and anthropologist Galina Khariuchi remarked on the Kremlin’s encroachment of Indigenous organizations and Indigenous lands: “I compare the current situation with the 1990s. Then we were deciding our fate ourselves. We freely spoke out and argued at congresses. These days everything is written out for us. Now only delegates can be present at congresses of organizations of Indigenous peoples; they don’t allow ordinary people” (Magomedov 222). For Sergei Khariuchi, this change was not only a “new extensive turn towards industrialization of northern territories” but also the reflection that “[Indigenous peoples] are one of the last barriers standing in the way of companies and states in the extraction of these resources” (Magomedov 222).

Worse, according to Magomedov, the state has double-downed on Indigenous activism in the Okrug. In response to increasing Indigenous activism—the politicization of Indigenous and environmental issues—the authorities of the Okrug perceived it as a “subversive activity” and accused the reindeer breeders of “waging an information war” (Magomedov 235). They also declare Golos tundry as “foreign agents” (Magomedov 235). Furthermore, the director of the YaNAO department of internal policy, Sergei Kliment’ev, declared in the regional parliament that “a stress point is being artificially created in the region, to create a new political reality,” indicating that the concerns of Indigenous peoples are falsely exaggerated (Magomedov 235).

Despite the state’s effort to curtail its movement, Golos tundry continues to raise awareness of its predicament on social media platforms (https://vk.com/golos_tundry) in tandem with the region’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The leader, Eiko Sérotétto, established a political alliance with CPRF to contend with the Kremlin, becoming the authorized representative of Pavel Grudinin (Putin’s political opponent in the 2018 presidential elections) and, in 2018, a candidate for deputy to the regional parliament as a member of the CPRF (Magomedov 237). Sérotétto expressed his motivation for becoming a deputy: “I am troubled by the poverty and lack of protection of the Yamal’s Indigenous population, the reduction in the size of the reindeer herds and fishery resources. I am worried by the issue of preserving the nature of the tundra. This is our home, we must safeguard it for future generations.”

All of the above is but a glimpse of Russia’s North. As Magomedov’s research shows, political contestation and negotiation between the alliance of the state and capital and local Indigenous peoples have been “pushed to the limit.” And here in this article, I invite the reader to take a step back (but not look away) from the well-covered and hotly discussed ongoing Russo-Ukraine war and learn about the less-talked-about state intervention and capital accumulation in Russia’s peninsula.

Work Cited

Magomedov, Arbakhan. “How the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic Defend Their Interests: The Social, Economic, and Political Foundations of Indigenous Resistance.” Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia, vol. 58, no. 4, 16 Nov. 2019, pp. 215–245., https://doi.org/10.1080/10611959.2020.1811560.

See also:
Kharyuchi, Galina. “Sacred Places in the Nenets Traditional Culture.” Sibirica, vol. 17, no. 3, Dec. 2018, p. 116–137., https://doi.org/10.3167/sib.2018.170310.

Liarskaya, Elena V. “Settlement Nenets on the Yamal Peninsula: Who Are They?” Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, vol. 41, Apr. 2009, pp. 33–46., https://doi.org/10.7592/fejf2009.41.liarskaya.

Magomedov, Arbakhan K. “Oil Derricks or Reindeer? A Clash of Economics and Traditional Lifeway in Russia’s Far North.” Wilson Center, 22 Feb. 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/oil-derricks-or-reindeer-clash-economics-and-traditional-lifeway-russias-far-north.

Mirovalev, Mansur. “In Russia, Indigenous Land Defenders Face Intimidation and Exile.” Indigenous Rights | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 23 Jan. 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2022/1/23/in-russia-indigenous-land-defenders-face-intimidation-and-exile.

Staalesen, Atle. “In Russian Tundra Tragedy, up to 80,000 Reindeer Might Have Starved to Death.” The Independent Barents Observer, 3 Mar. 2021, https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/climate-crisis/2021/03/russian-tundra-tragedy-80000-reindeer-might-have-starved-death.

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