Tag Archives: Russia

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.

Atomic Orthodoxy: Russia and the End of the World

by Jude Lobo

Patriarch Kirill,Vladimir Putin - Religion News Service
Courtesy of Alexander Zemlianichenko via AP Photo

At a pro-war rally held in the center of Moscow on March 18th, 2022, passionate sentiments of pride on the anniversary of Russia’s reclamation of Crimea and support for the ongoing efforts of Russian soldiers fighting to “liberate” Ukraine were shared, broadcast across Russia by state sponsored networks. The crowning moment of the pro-war rally occurred during a speech given by Putin himself, who paraphrased the Bible in an effort to justify the invasion of Ukraine to over 200,000 Russians in attendance: “There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends” (John 15:13) (Quay 4). This curious mixture of religion and propaganda that has been taking a hold of Russian politics in the last two decades is explained in part by Maria Engstrom’s essay on “Contemporary Russian Messianism and New Russian Foreign Policy”, particularly through the concept of “Katechon” and its resulting effects on Russian foreign policy and security doctrine.

Engstrom brings to light the understanding of Russia as “Katechon”, a Christian Orthodox term popularized by 20th century right-wing intellectual circles to serve as the “unofficial” official ideology of post-Soviet Russia. “Russia as Katechon” portrays Russia to be the world’s ‘shield’ against the apocalyptic forces of chaos, with the Russian state itself existing to defend against the Antichrist and the resulting end of times (Engstrom 357). Engstrom points out that this neoconservative understanding of the inherent purpose of the Russian state is not an aberration paraded by a handful of fringe conservative groups. Rather, it is literally embedded into the policy goals of Russia itself. For example, Russian foreign policy and state security doctrine have regressed to an outlook of the world that is more at home with religio-medieval dogma than modern international relations theory. For example, all states beyond Moscow’s control are interpreted uniformly as in league with the “external antichrist” (i.e. the decadent “Great Sodom” that is the West), whilst those within Russia’s borders not in agreement with official state ideology are considered the “internal antichrist”, no less dangerous than its external counterpart (Engstrom 363). Thus, because the Russian state is always understood to be under attack within this framework. Seemingly contradictory statements such as the following, spoken by influential young conservative publicist Egor Kholmogorov, make perfect sense: “Russians always “defend”, even when it might seem that they attack” (Engstrom 365).

Thus, it is in such a way that one sees the doctrine of “Atomic Orthodoxy” take shape, Russia’s “double shield”, composed of Orthodoxy to secure Russia on the ideological front and the atomic military-industrial complex to secure Russia’s physical frontiers (Engstrom 368). An oxymoronic environment which produces phenomena such as Orthodox priests blessing atomic warheads, this “double shield” policy delivers one clear neoconservative message: If it means saving the world from the clutches of the Antichrist, Russians are more than ready to “remove the lid”, as it is understood to be their sacred duty (Engstrom 368). The Russians will stop at nothing to achieve their interests, because ‘they are the third empire, and there shall not be a fourth. After Russia is only the Apocalypse” (Engstrom 368).

In line with Engstrom’s 2014 analysis, one can see Russia’s “Double Shield” out in full force eight years later, with Putin pushing neoconservative Orthodox dogma on the home front whilst his army liberates Ukraine from “evil” abroad, all the while flexing Russia’s nuclear capabilities should the West ever think of interfering with Russia’s “holy” struggle (Quay, Guardian 1). Critically speaking, in an effort to extend Engstrom’s analysis, one cannot help but wonder what Russia’s approach means for the world order: Is the cultivation of a Messianic destiny, backed by nuclear weapons, all one needs to supersede the global order? As thousands of years of political history mired in religious dogma have shown, it is hard to debate against “god” or even an idea which claims to be backed by “god”; Thus, one cannot expect the Russian people to emancipate themselves from such a compelling line of propaganda, one no less backed by the threat of overwhelming military violence. The prospect of this unique “double shield” threat, in my view, warrants the development of a “double sword” doctrine to meet it, namely, one that seeks to delegitimize the Russian leadership at every level, exposing the fact that their support for Orthodoxy and Messianic destiny is a loose ploy to legitimize their own control over their state (First Sword), and further, one that dares to tread the Cold-War-era path of nuclear diplomacy, enforcing the idea that playing hard and fast with nuclear weapons does not lend one free reign over the established global order (Second Sword).

Russia’s actions warrant global action, as Putin’s eyes are not only in Ukraine, but are on the entire globe. Both his methods and his aims are global in nature: his call for fighters from around the world to join the Russian Army to expel “evil” from Ukraine are not unlike the calls put out by various Islamic terror groups, calling fighters to help in the establishment of a “Global Ummah”. The phenomenon of “Atomic Orthodoxy” in Russia is certainly unusual, but by no means is it historically unique. The West would do well to ensure that the threat of ending history (and the world) outright does not invite history to repeat itself, with religion once again being misused towards politically immoral ends.

Works Cited

Engström, Maria. “Contemporary Russian Messianism and New Russian Foreign Policy.” Contemporary Security Policy, vol. 35, no. 3, 2014, pp. 356–379., https://doi.org/10.1080/13523260.2014.965888. .

Guardian. (2022, February 28). Putin signals escalation as he puts Russia’s nuclear force on high alert. The Guardian. Retrieved March 21, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/27/vladimir-putin-puts-russia-nuclear-deterrence-forces-on-high-alert-ukraine

Quay, Grayson. “Putin Quotes Jesus to Justify Invasion of Ukraine.” Yahoo! News, Yahoo!, 2022, https://www.yahoo.com/news/putin-quotes-jesus-justify-invasion-155344994.html.

A Review of Russia, by Dmitri Trenin

by Pengyu Chen

           Dmitri Trenin declares in his preface that Russia is a book intended for readers who are unfamiliar with Russia’s history. As such, Trenin aims to present Russian history in a way which differs from the West’s understanding of Russia as “negative and controversial” (vii). In doing so, Russia takes the reader on a 200-page excursion of 120 years of Russian history, detailing the historical and political development, which explains much of Russia’s contemporary behaviour. Trenin treats Russia as having its own “version of exceptionalism,” which makes it distinct from other nations (8). He suggests that there is a “bedrock” underneath Russia that continues to strengthen the “core features of the nation’s existence, its self-image, and its worldview” and that the reader can only understand these changes by examining the “collective experience” of the Russian people (3). The book’s central thesis holds that, while Russia has experienced changes to its ruler and government, it nonetheless remains a “succession of states and represents the continuity of a country” precisely because Russian society has retained the core features which make it exceptional (9). Trenin presents two momentous and recurring features which have shaped the last 120 years of Russia’s political development. First, Russia’s strong rejection of foreign domination persists alongside her acquiescence toward domestic authoritarianism (9). Second, Russia’s “essentially lonely” nature (despite having a high degree of contact with other countries) (9). And Russia’s frequent contact with foreign countries is often the source of external threats and modernization (9). While his analysis of Russia’s ‘loneliness’ is a noteworthy observation, the reader should pay more attention to how Trenin imagines the boundary of Russia, as well as what he means by being Russian.

            Russia gives the reader a quick survey of Russia’s 20th century, presenting important themes such as culture, economy, society, and ideology. The reader will learn about the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian arts, the New Soviet Man, refugees escaping Communist Russia, the GULAG, economic developments and policies, protest movements, state-society relations, and much more. Trenin’s discussion of the state and its leaders, foreign relations, and elite politics is the most emphasized component. By giving a brief historical account of Russian history—from the 1917 Russian civil war to Putin’s 21st-century ascension—through which he illuminates the causes of critical events, Trenin highlights the persistent and significant role of a strong state and authoritarian leader in providing stability during times of upheaval in Russia’s history. Further, Trenin asserts that evil consequences often ensue after state collapse (179).

            Tracing the collective experience of the Russian people, Trenin makes the case that while leaders of Russia had extraordinary agency in shaping the country’s political trajectory, it is the enduring feature of the people’s will to reject foreign domination of Russia at the expense of their “own domestic sovereignty vis-a-vis [the state]” that prevented the breakdown of Russia in challenging times (9). Trenin believes that this forfeiture of individual autonomy to the authoritarian rule at home is the “supreme national value” and is deeply embedded in the “Russian psyche” (7, 9). However, while there is much evidence one can point to, such as the 1812 Napoleonic War, or the Great Patriotic War, there is also ample evidence that challenges the reading that Russians see their submission to authority as a “supreme national value.” Notably, Trenin himself remarks that the 1905 and 1917 peasant revolutions in Tsarist Russia were a key pretext for the rise of the Bolsheviks (26-34). Also, he notes that many Russians fled to Europe to escape Communist rule (125). Furthermore, considering Pyotr Stolypin’s implementation of martial law, Lenin’s Cheka, Stalin’s Purge, and the tradition of the Russian security agency, all to maintain social stability, fearing uprising and unrest from societal groups, the reader should seriously question the merit of Trenin’s argument that there has been a consensus, tacit or explicit, between the ruled and the ruler on the “supreme national value,” even in times of crisis (9).

            Moreover, the reader is left wondering, by the end of the book, whether Trenin’s claim about the recurring core feature of Russian’s acquiescence toward authoritarianism (and the persistent pattern of authoritarianism itself) will continue to be a ‘recurring’ feature. Indeed, Trenin himself points to the possibility that generational change and existing political conditions could lead to a state that is less authoritarian in nature (163). Even though Putin and the state are authoritarian, the establishment of democratic electoral institutions and a growing middle class in Russia could one day transform this core recurring feature.

            To be more charitable, the reader can concede that Trenin is suggesting an account that Russian exceptionalism derives from a transcendental conception of Russia as a nation that conceives an amorphous territory and a population that inheres Russia’s millennium-long history and the two core recurring features as its national mentality and traits. However, it is equally important to examine who are the “Russian people” and what Russia is as an “unbroken whole” (9, 11). While Trenin explains what Russia is not—that today’s Russia is not a different country from the USSR and the Russian Empire—he fails to give an affirmative account of what Russia is. Indeed, there is not a definitive answer to this, and expecting Trenin to answer it persuasively in a 200-page book is unreasonable. Nevertheless, this absence should make the reader (re)consider his formulation of Russia as an “unbroken whole.” The fact that Russia’s territory has been reduced substantially after the collapse of the Russian Empire and again after the dissolution of the USSR has central implications for the conception of Russia. This geopolitical decline seriously challenges his conception of Russia as a whole, given that many of the populations formerly belonging to the Russian Empire and USSR are not a part of contemporary Russia. It is also questionable to claim the population who were once within the territory of the Russian Empire and the USSR as “Russians.” According to NKVD records, “half-million Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Belarusians fought the Soviets in rural areas” (Colton 53). Also, anti-Soviet ethnonationalist movements during and after the Soviet rule also challenge Tenin’s reading of Russia as an “unbroken whole” (153-154).

            Trenin’s account of the second core feature is more compelling and conforms to the charitable reading of Russia as a nation that persistently embodies “a Russian psyche” In the last 120 years, Russia has been lonely and exceptional in its vain search for national security amidst an unfriendly, modernizing world. Japan challenged Russia’s presence in the Far East, leading to a major defeat in 1905 for the Russian Empire (25-26). In 1917 Russia was forced to fight against Germany but was never invited to the 1919 Versailles peace conference and the League of Nations (46). In the 1930s, Britain and France had little concern for the fate of the USSR, so Russia, relying on itself, was pressured into signing a non-aggression pact with Germany (78-79). Trenin argues that Russia had to rely on itself in challenging times and thus often finds itself isolated. Indeed, increased connectivity with China, Britain, and the U.S. in the 1940s ended soon thereafter upon the rise of the Cold War. Meaningful and friendly engagement with the West since then never occurred, despite the disintegration of the Union and the introduction of capitalism and electoral democracy in the 1990s (145-146). Confrontation with the U.S. and NATO became more real after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria (173-174). However, its relationship with China grew closer (174). Russia, Trenin argues, has been estranged from the West but is “by no means isolated” (173-174). Indeed, current events support Trenin’s analysis: the ongoing Russian-Ukraine War has deteriorated US-Russia and EU-Russia relationship while Russia has become closer to China.

            The reader can strengthen Trenin’s account of Russia’s relative isolation by arguing that Russia’s geography and historical legacies played a deterministic role in shaping the political attitude and choices of the Russian elites. Russia is vast, remote, and difficult to access by sea. While this geographical limit prevented Russia from naval invasions, it also foreclosed the reach of sea merchants and the exchange of ideas (Poe 49). The centrality of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia’s closed borders also stifled any intellectual and cultural exchange with the West (Poe 41). Moreover, the relative proximity with Western Europe—and the extraordinary technological and military ascendance of the former circa 1500-1600—threatened Russia and agitated its reform process, eventually producing a distinctly Russian form of social organization (Poe 38-57).

            Even if the reader rejects the persistent “bedrock” underneath Russia, Trenin’s analysis of Russia’s political pattern—1) authoritarian rule as a persistent feature and 2) relative isolation—offers a good measure by which the reader can judge Russia’s contemporary political development. When the authoritarian state is absent, Russia will likely reverse into political instability (9). Trenin suspects that “a political crisis following Putin’s final departure is virtually pre-programmed” (162). And, while Trenin makes clear in Russia’s conclusion that post-Putin Russia might not embrace liberal capitalism and conform partially to the West, his analysis of Russia’s relative isolation gives freshness and trenchancy to his interpretation of a “Russian’s Russia” and provide the non-specialist reader with a good historical account of where “Russia is coming from.”


Colton, Timothy J. Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Poe, Marshall T. The Russian Moment in World History. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Trenin, Dmitri. Russia. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.