• Indigenous peoples in Russia

    Indigenous peoples in Russia

    Of the more than 180 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 40 are officially recognised as indigenous. While the Russian constitution and national legislation set out the rights of “indigenous minority peoples of the North”, there is no such concept as “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in legislation.

The Indigenous World 2024: Russia

Indigenous Peoples are not recognized by the Russian legislation as such; however, Article 67 of the current constitution guarantees the rights of “Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples”. The 1999 Federal Act “On Guarantees of the Rights of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation” specifies that Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples are groups of less than 50,000 members, perpetuating some aspects of their traditional ways of life.

According to this and two other framework laws that were enacted during the late 1990s, Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples have rights to consultation and participation in specific cases. There is, however, no such concept as “free, prior and informed consent” enshrined in legislation. The last two decades have seen a steady erosion of this legal framework and a heavy re-centralization of Russia, including the abolition of several Indigenous autonomous territories.

Of the more than 160 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 47 are officially recognized as Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples, including 40 that are recognized as Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East. One more group, the Izhma Komi or Izvatas, is actively pursuing recognition, which continues to be denied. Together, Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples number over 315,000, including some 265,000 that belong to Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, around 0.2% of Russia’s total population of over 147,000,000 (of which ethnic Russians account for approximately 72%).[1] Many other peoples whose numbers exceed 50,000, such as the Sakha (Yakut) and Buryat of the Russian Far East, the Volga Tatars, Bashkirs and many groups populating the North Caucasus are not officially considered Indigenous Peoples, and their self-identification varies.

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, several ethnic groups who self-identify as Indigenous have come under Russia’s effective control, even though Russia has not recognized this self-identification: the Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks and the Karaim. In 2021, Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, adopted the Law on Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine recognizing the three groups as Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine.[2]

Two-thirds of Indigenous Peoples are rural and depend on traditional subsistence strategies such as fishing, hunting and reindeer herding although Russia, on the whole, is a highly urbanized country.

Civil society is affected by continually shrinking space as the country’s secret police, the FSB, has gradually been gaining power. Since 2013, NGOs that receive foreign funding can be officially classified as “foreign agents”, which led many of them to close down in order to minimize their exposure to legal risks. Since 2018, the same practice has been extended to individuals as well. Many foreign NGOs have been banned as “undesirable organizations”. Following the start of the war in Ukraine, the Russian government has intensified its crackdown on dissenting voices, leading to the closure of many civil society organizations and independent media.

Russia’s export revenues are largely generated from the sale of fossil fuels and other minerals, often extracted from territories traditionally inhabited or used by Indigenous Peoples. The country’s development strategy is largely geared towards further increasing the exploitation of the Arctic’s natural resources. Like many resource-rich countries, Russia is heavily affected by the “resource curse”, fuelling authoritarianism, corruption and bad governance, spurring negative consequences for the state of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights, and limiting opportunities for their effective protection.

Russia has neither ratified ILO Convention 169 nor endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The country inherited its membership of the major UN Covenants and Conventions from the Soviet Union: the ICCPR, ICESCR, ICERD, ICEDAW and ICRC. Russia has ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM); however, in October 2023, President Putin signed a decree stipulating Russia’s exit from the FCNM.

War in Ukraine

In 2023, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in many ways exacerbated the situation of Indigenous Peoples, both due to the disproportionately high number of casualties among them, but also because the needs of a war economy and the consolidation of authoritarianism have further eroded the remaining safeguards for Indigenous rights and opened up their territories to ever more intense and unmitigated exploitation.

Economic sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries did not relieve the pressure on Indigenous Peoples’ territories. In some sectors, and most notably in what is referred to as “transitional minerals”, Russia’s exports even increased.[3]

The pressure on Indigenous territories and Indigenous Peoples’ restricted access to natural resources and traditional livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and reindeer herding are a key factor as to why Indigenous Peoples today are severely impoverished and this, in turn, is the main reason why Indigenous youth have become easy targets for mobilization into Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The disproportionate number of war casualties among Indigenous servicemen has a tangible demographic impact. For example, according to estimates by independent media, as of 19 September 2023, 212 servicemen from the Murmansk region had died in the war in Ukraine, including regular servicemen and mercenaries recruited from among prisoners. Many of the dead were residents of Lovozero district, at the heart of the Russian Sámi territory. Some Sámi activists are suggesting that up to 3% of the male Russian Sámi population has already perished in the war. [4]

Population Census

On 31 December 2022, the all-Russia Population Census data on the ethnic composition of the Russian population 2020 was finally published.[5] The census revealed that seven Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples of the Far North have shown a noticeable or moderate demographic growth when compared to 2010 census data. For example, the number of Nenets increased by 11.5% (49,787 in 2020 versus 44,640 in 2010) bringing them very close to the number beyond which they will no longer be considered a Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples, as stipulated by the existing laws.

Many Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples continue to experience a decline in the number of individuals who self-identify as belonging to them, most notably the Sámi of the Kola peninsula, whose numbers – according to the latest census – have decreased by 15%. The accuracy of the census numbers has, however, been described as highly questionable, so any trendlines derived by comparing the results of subsequent censuses is unlikely to yield meaningful results.[6] Crucially, the censuses fail to provide socioeconomic data disaggregated by ethnicity such that they do not, for example, reveal how income, child mortality or life expectancy vary between ethnic groups.

Artisanal gold mining

In April, the government introduced a draft federal law to the State Duma (parliament): “On prospecting” (so-called law on freebooting).[7] If it is adopted, individuals registered as individual entrepreneurs will be able to independently mine gold on the plots allocated to them. Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yuri Trutnev expressed hope that, if adopted, the law would start working in pilot mode as from March 2024 in the Far East and the Arctic.[8]

Licences for gold mining are currently only granted to registered companies. According to the bill, an online platform for prospecting activities will be created through which residents of the Far Eastern and Arctic regions will be able, once they have registered as individual entrepreneurs, to select plots for prospecting. A plot of land for prospecting, up to 10 hectares in size, will be granted for a period of three years. Gold mining will only be possible with simple hand tools and at a depth of up to 5 metres. Upon expiry of the period, the miner will need to rehabilitate the site.

According to some experts, if implemented, the bill threatens the ecosystem of the Far East and Siberia.[9] There are fears that it will bring about deforestation and land degradation in areas affected by gold mining. Mining companies might be able to use individual operators as their front men and get access to larger plots of land for gold mining. There are also serious doubts as to the ability and possibility of monitoring the prospectors’ compliance with the law.

Unregulated gold mining is already very common in remote corners of Siberia and the Russian Arctic. In most places where it takes place, it affects the traditional livelihoods of Indigenous communities as it results in deforestation, pollution of water sources and the swamping of areas around mines. In July, the local press in Yakutia reported how a group of reindeer had died in an area flooded by the nearby gold mine in Neryungri district. Indigenous community members told reporters that they had filed numerous written complaints to the authorities about the actions of prospectors who are polluting the taiga. Surprisingly, just before the inspectors come to follow up on the complaints, all the work on the mining site stops and they have no-one to bring to account. Once the inspectors leave, the work resumes, almost as if the miners were informed of inspection’s impending arrival.

The law passed its first reading in the State Duma in July.

Draft amendments to the law “On fisheries”

A bill that suggests abolishing the declaratory principle on traditional fishing has been introduced to the State Duma.[10] Among the authors of the bill is Gregory Ledkov, member of the upper chamber of Russian parliament and current president of RAIPON. The authors of the bill claim that it would remove unnecessary bureaucratic barriers such as the annual filing of separate applications for each family member when exercising the right to fishing for personal consumption on the part of Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous activists and Indigenous Peoples’ rights experts concluded that, in spite of the optimistic publicity around the suggested amendments, the bill would result in further limiting of Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples’ access to aquatic biological resources and their ability to lead a traditional way of life.[11]

According to the existing federal law “On wildlife” N 52-FZ, Indigenous Peoples have the right to priority access to natural resources, which includes giving citizens and their associations a priority choice of fishing grounds, privileges with regard to the timing and areas of natural resource extraction, the volume of extracted wildlife objects, and the exclusive right to extract certain wildlife objects. In the draft, these federal law norms with regard to aquatic wildlife, and the issue of the priority access of Indigenous Peoples to aquatic bioresources, are not even mentioned. Instead, it proposes establishing an annual quota of catch for each region whereby those exceeding the quota will be punished with a considerable fine. At the same time, just like the existing law, the draft does not explain how the Indigenous Peoples’ needs for aquatic resources for their survival will be determined, and how such quotas will be established and thus creates a space for arbitrary decision-making by the authorities. According to the current legislation, an Indigenous person decides and specifies in the application how much fish they and their family need to ensure a decent life, although in practice the authorities in some regions introduce annual quotas for fishing. The new bill deprives Indigenous Peoples of the right to decide for themselves and, instead, grants local authorities the right to establish the annual quota.[12]

According to the draft, the quota will be established “for each citizen who is included in the list of Indigenous minorities formed by the Federal Agency for Nationalities”. People who are not included on this list will be able to fish using documents confirming their nationality only during a two-year transition period. However, the decision to be registered in the registry of Indigenous Peoples is a voluntary, highly bureaucratic and cumbersome procedure. Only a minority of Indigenous persons are included on it, in part because many have not applied in the first place, and in part because the authorities have not processed many applications. The draft does not take into account the rights of those that choose not to be included on the list of Indigenous minorities.[13]

EMPRIP study on militarization repeats government’s talking points

In July, at its 16th session, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) presented and adopted a thematic study on the issue of militarization and Indigenous Peoples.[14] Both independent Indigenous activists from Russia and representatives of the Crimean Tatars, whose ancestral territory – Crimea – was annexed by Russia in 2014, submitted inputs for the study. However, the draft version, presented by EMRIP, reflected none of their input and instead repeated the Russian government’s version of the situation, for example, claiming that Indigenous persons can enter do an alternative civil service instead of joining the army (which is true only in times of peace), ignoring the disproportionately high casualty rate among Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples and failing to consider the alleged forced drafting of Crimean Tatars to fight against Ukraine, something that might constitute a breach of international humanitarian law.

A large number of Indigenous representatives from government-sponsored organizations attended the July session at which they focused their interventions on disputing the legitimacy of the independent activists from the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia (ICIPR). Independent activists’ protests[15] went ignored and the study as presented during the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council remained unchanged in the part concerning the situation in Russia.

Russia’s exit from the European Framework Convention on National Minorities

In October, President Putin signed into law Russia’s exit from the European Framework Convention on National Minorities (FCNM).[16] The FCNM, although originally designed for national minorities and not for Indigenous Peoples, has been the only option for Indigenous Peoples in Europe seeking protection of their rights at the regional level. The exit from the FCNM follows Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe, which hosts the FCNM. The decree was published in the midst of the FCNM’s 5th review of Russia.



Olga Murashko is a Russian anthropologist and one of the co-founders of the former IWGIA Moscow office. She has been working to support Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Russia since the early perestroika years.


Johannes Rohr is a German historian who has been working with Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in Russia since 1995, focusing on their economic, social and cultural rights. He is currently working as a consultant for INFOE (Germany). In 2018, the Russian intelligence service FSB banned him from the country for 50 years.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Federal State Statistics Service. “Outcomes of the All-Russia Population Census 2020. Volume 5 National composition and language proficiency.” 31 December 2022. https://rosstat.gov.ru/vpn/2020/Tom5_Nacionalnyj_sostav_i_vladenie_yazykami

[2] Library of Congress. “Ukraine: New Law Determines Legal Status of Indigenous People.” 2 August 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2021-08-02/ukraine-new-law-determines-legal-status-of-indigenous-people/

[3] Viktor Sulyandziga. “Russia: Europe imports €13 billion of ‘critical’ metals in sanctions blindspot.” Batani, 13 November 2023. https://batani.org/archives/2536

[4] Sever Realii. "Nas vsego poltory tysiachi v Rossii ostalos". Korennoi malochislennyi narod saamy i voina. 23 September 2023 https://www.severreal.org/a/narod-zapugan-podavlen-chto-zhdet-saamov-iz-za-voyny/32606238.html

[5] Federal State Statistics Service. “Outcomes of the All-Russia Population Census 2020. Volume 5 National composition and language proficiency.” 31 December 2022. https://rosstat.gov.ru/vpn/2020/Tom5_Nacionalnyj_sostav_i_vladenie_yazykami

[6] 'Garbage in, rubbish out': why the outcome of the 2021 census is questionable.” Tatar Inform, 13 January 2023. https://www.tatar-inform.ru/news/musor-na-vxode-musor-na-vyxode-pocemu-itogi-perepisi-naseleniya-2021-vyzyvayut-somneniya-5892857

[7] “The bill on gold mining by individuals has been submitted to the State Duma”. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 25 April 2023. https://rg.ru/2023/04/25/ruki-moiut.html

[8] “Trutnev: we hope that the law on ‘free will offering’ will be adopted by the end of the year.” East Russia, 18 April 2023. https://www.eastrussia.ru/news/trutnev-nadeemsya-chto-zakon-o-volnom-prinose-primut-do-kontsa-goda/

[9] “Nature or Gold: How the law on legalization of artisanal mining may turn out for Yakutia.” Yakutia.info. 24 April 2023. https://yakutia.info/article/208915

[10] “Indigenous Peoples could be allowed to fish without submitting applications.” Parlamentskaya Gazeta, 7 March 2023. https://www.pnp.ru/politics/korennym-malochislennym-narodam-khotyat-razreshit-rybalku-bez-podachi-zayavok.html

[11] “Fisheries bill with discriminatory regulations against Indigenous Peoples.” CSIPN, 10 November 2023. https://www.csipn.ru/glavnaya/novosti-regionov/6540

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Indigenous peoples of Magadan region gave a negative assessment of the draft law ‘On Fishing’.” CSIPN, 6 July 2023. https://www.csipn.ru/glavnaya/actual/6442-korennye-narody-magadanskoj-oblasti-dali-otritsatelnuyu-otsenku-zakonoproektu-o-rybolovstve

[14] UN Human Rights Council. UN Doc A/HRC/54/52. “Impact of militarization on the rights of Indigenous Peoples: Study by the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” 8 August 2023. https://undocs.org/Home/Mobile?FinalSymbol=A%2FHRC%2F54%2F52&Language=E&DeviceType=Desktop&LangRequested=False

[15] Yana Tannagasheva. “16th EMRIP session. Oral intervention. Agenda item 3: Study and advice on the impact of militarization on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Indigenous Russia, 18 July 2023 https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/34374

[16] Kremlin. Federal Law of 19.10.2023 No. 500-FZ. http://kremlin.ru/acts/bank/49879

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Biodiversity, Cultural Integrity



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