The Ob-Ugrians and the Samoyeds have been living in the extremely harsh climate of Siberia and Far North for thousands of years and so they have worked out the ecological traditional culture that is most fit for these conditions. The culture of these small nations is fragile and in its nature rather unable to resist the expansion of the technological civilisation. The Soviet national policy of the 1930s, in itself destructive for culture (extermination of the shamans, isolation of children from their parents and from their traditional environment into the boarding schools) was followed in the second half of the 1950s by the expansion of oil and gas industry, which proved catastrophic for the environment of these peoples. Millions of hectares of reindeer grasslands have been destroyed, rivers and lakes once rich in fish have been polluted, and the indigenous peoples are deprived of their traditional livelihood. The Komi oil leakage in 1994, which mainly carried to the Nenets-inhabited territories in the North, is unusual only in its extent. The Siberian oil pipes leak constantly, gradually polluting the environment. The gas pumped out with the oil has been burned in the atmosphere for years, so that in places the snow is pitch black before it thaws in spring. The reindeer, who play a significant role both in the culture and in the economy of the indigenous peoples, fall ill and die because they graze on polluted moss.

With the exploitation of the oil and gas deposits on the Khants and Mansi habitation areas the immigration has shot up: between 1938 and 1989 the population has multiplied twelve times. The Khants have been forced to leave the rapidly growing industrial areas. With the growing number of immigrants, the Khants and Mansis have become insignificant minorities in their own historical territories. This process is illustrated by the following table, showing the percentage of the Khants and Mansis from the total population of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District:

Year 1939 1959 1970 1979 1989
Khants 13,0% 9,2% 4,5% 1,9% 1,8%
Mansis 6,2% 4,6% 2,9% 1,1% 0,6%


The expanding utilisation of natural resources threatens to place the Nenets and other Nordic peoples in a similar situation. From the whole Arctic population (nearly 180,000 people) less than 2% are employed in industrial production facilities. The industrial cultivation of the environment has brought about a deprivation of the language and cultural traditions of the Arctic peoples.

The majority of the industrial migrants have settled in Siberia only temporally and they have neither the desire nor the opportunity to understand the way of life, culture, customs or traditions of the indigenous people. The cultural conflict between the immigrants and the local people has added to the even so criminal influence of the newcomers: as a rule, crimes against the indigenous people and their property, as well as ecological crimes, are never punished or even registered. Immigrants kill the local inhabitants’ reindeer, steal their catch of fish, empty their store-houses and then burn them down. They have even begun to plunder the graves and sanctuaries of the local people, hoping to find valuables. Forest fires have become frequent.

The children of the peoples inhabiting the northern parts of Russia must spend the greater part of the year in boarding schools, separated from their families. Only during the summer holidays (some children also during the winter holidays) can they be at home. So the younger generation is estranged from the family, from the mother tongue and the traditional culture of their people. Even the native-language primary education that has been introduced in the most recent years does not compensate for the separation from one’s own cultural environment. For the generations educated at boarding schools hunting, reindeer-herding and fishing are not reputable ways to earn one’s living. Those young Khants who still work in traditional fields of occupation are often unable to have families.

Due to racial differences it is not possible for those estranged from their own culture to be fully integrated into the Russian society, at least not in Siberia or Far North. Those occupations that require secondary education are mainly held by non-indigenous immigrants. The racially different Ob-Ugrians and Samoyeds are quite openly discriminated against in everyday situations. Russians do not regard them (partly because of cultural differences) as full and equal individuals: they cannot get proper jobs, they are derided. The indigenous inhabitants, having lost their identity and unable to find another, become social outcasts, as does the older generation, who has lost the traditional livelihood and, due to substantial differences in culture, is unable to conform with the industrial mode of living. Therefore alcoholism has acquired unprecedented proportions and suicidal rate is high, especially among middle-aged men. From the 1970s on we can observe ethnic dispersion: many representatives of the Arctic peoples settle outside their traditional ethnic territories.

Because of sparse population, insufficient economic foundation for medical services, racial discrimination in everyday situations (in hospitals, representatives of the indigenous peoples are placed in inferior conditions) and inadequacy of communication, the majority of the indigenous inhabitants cannot get access to modern medical services. Cases of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases are numerous.

Some hope can be found in the fact that several legislative acts of Russia include articles that give a special status to the “small Arctic peoples”. The Agrarian Code and the Forest Statute provide special conditions of forest exploitation in their habitation areas. The Law of the Mineral Resources provides that a part (although an inadequate one) of the profit from the exploitation of natural resources must be spent by local administrations to improve the social and economic conditions of those peoples. In the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District the Decree of Giving the Communal Land to the Aborigines for Termless Use was adopted in 1992, while in the subsequent governmental Agrarian Code the corresponding period is 25 years. According to the Decree, oil industry must not be expanded to the territory possessed by the indigenous inhabitants without the owner’s permission. Sadly enough, opportunities have been found to evade it; also, there have been cases when oil companies have bought the required agreement for a trivial amount of commodities and food, which the local inhabitants cannot afford or which they have no opportunity to buy. Also there have been cases when the agreement has been extorted or cheated out of the owners with alcohol.

In 1989 the Association of Aboriginal Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation (Associaciya korennyh malochislennyh narodov Severa, Sibiri i Dal’nego Vostoka Rossijskoj Federacii) was founded. The association includes – besides the Russian Sámis, Ob-Ugrians and Samoyeds – also representatives of other Nordic peoples (e.g. Chukchis, Koryaks, Evenks). The above-mentioned regulations have been adopted largely thanks to the pressure exercised by this organisation.

And yet, the Ob-Ugric and Samoyed peoples are still in danger of cultural, or even physical extinction and more effective methods are required to save them than those that have been applied so far, including international economic, intellectual and moral aid. Their future would be more secure, if the local officials adhered more to the laws. Also, it would be necessary for the 169th Convention of ILO to be ratified by Russia. Further industrial activities on the territories of habitation of the indigenous peoples should call for contracts to be made and damages to be redressed.


www.suri.ee: Uralic Peoples of Siberia and Russian Northern Europe