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Transformations of coastal arctic communities in the russian Far East: facts, thoughts and reflections

Les transformations des communautés arctiques côtières de l’Extrême-Orient russe : faits, pensées et réflexions
Larisa Yurievna Pisareva


L’article présente les résultats d’études sociologiques menées en 2018-2019 avec l’aide de la Fondation russe pour la recherche fondamentale dans le cadre du projet plus vaste « Transformations de limage socioculturelle des peuples autochtones de la côte arctique de la Iakoutie dans les conditions de modernisation : expérience de recherche interdisciplinaire ». Ce projet décrit l’environnement socio-économique de la population autochtone dans des territoires de l’Arctique oriental russe se trouvant en position très isolée. L’enquête sociologique a été menée dans 4 localités situées sur la côte de l’océan arctique de la Yakoutie. Les conclusions concernent l’influence de la modernisation sur le mode de vie de la population indigène (principalement les Evens et les Evenks) à travers différentes périodes de l’histoire (préindustrielle, industrielle, postmoderne). Une tentative a été faite pour envisager le développement futur de cet espace de l’Arctique côtier, basé sur la situation passée et contemporaine. Les données historiques et contemporaines ont montré que la modernisation entraînant la perte de certains éléments du mode de vie traditionnel ne conduisait pas nécessairement à la disparition de la culture ethnique. Le facteur fort de la durabilité culturelle est l’environnement. De fait, en Arctique, les autochtones sont intimement liés à leur lieu de naissance et l’environnement de celui-ci. De sorte que l’environnement arctique assure la continuité des valeurs traditionnelles.

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Notes de l’auteur

This work was supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research in the frames of the project # 18-49-140005 “Transformations of socio-cultural image of indigenous people of the Arctic coast of Yakutia in the conditions of modernization: experience of interdisciplinary research” [Alexeeva, Pisareva, Baisheva, Sleptsov 2019-2020].

Texte intégral


1Lifestyle (way of life), as a category in sociology, refers to the study of the everyday, ordinary life of people, and serves to detect the ratio and patterns of steady and typical to changeable and individual activities of social groups in different cultures. It provides an understanding of the key factors that make some cultures to thrive and some to decline. Research of lifestyles among indigenous population of Yakutia, primarily the Sakha, was pioneered by a sociological research group led by a native scholar Ivan Argounov. The group made a comprehensive analytical review of the changes that took place in Yakutia during the Soviet period [Argounov 1988]. This work was based on a comparative historical methodology combined with a sociological survey done in the 1980s that proved to be very persuasive in the results. Lifestyle of the Sakha was analyzed through the prism of difference between prerevolutionary and Soviet periods in its development. The record of lifestyle changes among small numbered indigenous peoples of the North, including Evenks, Evens, Yukagirs, was produced by Feodosy Donskoy and his colleagues who studied living conditions of these reindeer herding people and specifically the change from the traditional to industrial model of livelihood [Donskoy F., et al., 2003; Donskoy F. 2006]. Using such an approach to study of indigenous cultures could help to find out the differences in lifestyle at periods and get a better insight of its traditional elements.

2Contemporary researchers of indigenous cultures in Yakutia [Baisheva, et al,. 2019] distinguish and construct the model of traditional life by which they understand the system of norms and values inherited from previous generations and used for interactions within the community and with the natural environment in order to support their existence and development. The traditional model preserved various norms of behavior in the following areas:

  • providing families and households with housing, food, clothing, household items, tools;

  • educating the younger generations;

  • ensuring active life and health of community members;

  • managing, organizing, protecting and interacting within the community.

3The idea of this study was to foresee the future trends in indigenous cultures’ development following the changes that take place in the traditional lifestyle of their population in the course of their long history. For the purpose of this research, three period (preindustrial, industrial and postmodern) have been considered to examine the transformations of the traditional model.

4The preindustrial period begins in the 1640s. It is characterized by first encounters of indigenous groups with the Russian explorers and Cossacks, fights for territories, and yasak payments - natural tax paid by peoples of the outskirts of the Russian Empire, as well as the beginning of the written history. It ends in 1922 with the establishment of the Soviet Power in Yakutia (also named as Sakha Republic). The industrial period runs from 1922 with collectivization and modernization until the collapse of the Soviet power and the USSR in the 1990s. The postmodern period began with the beginning of privatization as the second wave of modernization that coincided with the global trends of postmodernity characterized by constant mobility and change and unclear direction of development [Bauman 1992].

5First, the text presents the four extremely remoted indigenous groups of interest. They live in the Arctic coast of Russian Far East, and were surveyed in 2018-2019. Then, three periods of history listed above are presented from the point of view of these communities. Second, the results of the survey with its 450 interviews are analyzed. Third, the changes are put in perspective and we develop our reflections about the future for those remote communities.

1 Ethnical groups and their historical background

1.1 Presentation of the Ethnical groups and their survey

6To provide the necessary information concerning contemporary situation of remote ethnic groups of the Russian Arctic, a survey was conducted in a sociological approach. The quantitative data has been gathered based on the questionnaire consisting of two main blocks of questions: ethno-cultural and ecology-economic.

  • 1 Ulus is the Yakut name in the Republic of Sakha for the territorial unit named ‘rayon’ elsewhere in (...)

7The survey took place in four communities along the Arctic coast of the Republic of Sakha (fig. 1). They were chosen for their representation of the different ‘uluses’1 along the coast. Two villages represent rural Arctic lifestyle – Saskylah and Kyusyur. The other two are the settlements oriented at production facilities and transport infrastructure – Deputatsky and Chersky. Saskylah - a village near the delta of Anabar River is the administrative center of Anabarsky national (Dolgano-Evenky) Ulus established in 1930-es. Nowadays it’s the area of Diamond mining development. Kyusyur - a village placed at the delta of Lena River was established in 1924 at the territory of traditional livelihood of Tungus (Lamuts) population and it was the center of Bulunsky Ulus until 1957. These days it’s a village oriented at fishing and reindeer herding. Deputatsky - an urban settlement at Selennyakh Range beyond the Polar Circle is the center of Ust-Yansky Ulus that was built in 1958 as the place for the workers of the Deputatsky Tin Factory at the territory of the huge deposit of tin that was found at Selennyakh Range Mountains in 1951. The factory facilities were abandoned in Post-Soviet period though recently tin production project has become again a part of the strategy of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Chersky – an urban village at delta of Kolyma River is the administrative center of Nizhekolymsky Ulus established as the urban settlement in 1963. Administratively it includes the sea port Zelenyy Mys.

Figure 1. Places of survey

Figure 1. Places of survey

8The survey was conducted in 2018-2019 using interviews and surveys method by paying visits to the residents. Almost 450 participants were interviewed on the project with over 54,1% of respondents belonging to small numbered indigenous peoples of the North that are predominantly Evenks and Evens, and also Yukagirs and Dolgas. Sakha population cannot be considered as a small numbered indigenous group especially in the Republic of Sakha. Sakha people represented in the survey 39% (fig.2).

Figure 2. Ethnic structure of respondents (%)

Figure 2. Ethnic structure of respondents (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

9In each of the places about 100 people were questioned that constituted about 4-8% of the living population (fig.3) [Sakha (Yakutia) stat 2018].

Figure 3. Number of participants of the survey (persons)

Figure 3. Number of participants of the survey (persons)

Source: Sakha (Yakutia) stat, 2018 and Alexeeva, et al. 2019

10The gender and age structure of the participants of the survey is presented at figures below (fig.4-5)

Figure 4. Gender structure of the survey participants (%)

Figure 4. Gender structure of the survey participants (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

Figure 5. Age structure of the survey participants (%)

Figure 5. Age structure of the survey participants (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

11The correlations made according to the ethnicity of the respondents made it possible to follow the view of the small numbered indigenous population of the North as the key interest group of this study (fig.6).

Figure 6. Ethnic structure of the survey participants (%)

Figure 6. Ethnic structure of the survey participants (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

12Prior to analyze the results of this survey, one needs to have in mind the peculiar historical background of these ethnical groups. Indeed, they come from mega-changes that can be divided on the base of three historical stages.

1.2 Preindustrial stage

13Indigenous population of the Eastern Coastal Arctic at the beginning of its documented history (middle of 17th century) consisted predominantly of Samoyeds (Yenisey basin), Tungus (Taz, Hatanga, Olenek, Yana basin), Yukagir (Indigirka, Kolyma) and Chukchi (Bering Sea). Their lifestyle at the moment of first Russian encounters who described those people, had been wild and fully dependent on surrounding nature conditions. Traditional model of lifestyle for indigenous family of the North has been reconstructed [Baisheva, Pisareva, Konstantinova 2019] and it includes:

  • The husband and wife are representatives of the same ethnic group and both speak native ethnic language;

  • The main economic activities are hunting, fishing, reindeer breeding, horse breeding, gathering and fur trade;

  • The family uses easily transportable structure for living;

  • The family produces outerwear, household utensils, means of transportation and accommodation necessary for family members;

  • They exchange natural products for individual household items, tools, hunting and protection;

  • It is used inclusive upbringing and education of children for their further involvement in traditional life activities;

  • They use medicinal powers of herbs and shamanism for healing and foresight;

  • It is used unification of households into a clan community which ensures the management of their interaction.

14Ideal model suggests that the fundamental value for indigenous peoples of the North is Nature as the highest manifestation of grace. They perceive themselves as an integral part of Natural space and the environment. The basis of their activity is a dialogue with the Nature that provides awareness of the laws of Nature and sustainability for their family clans.

15Preindustrial period for Northern ethnic minorities by the time of the first encounters with Russians maintains most of the features of the ideal model of traditional lifestyle.

16Reports from the 17th century mentioned that Arctic Coastal minorities refused any new social laws and first of all - Yasak payments, a natural tax composed mostly of sable furs. They used to attack Russians, organizing fighting unions and to hide across taiga in the valleys of rivers Lena, Vitim, Olekma, Viluy, Olenek, in places that could be accessible only after several months of travel. They wandered across even less accessible gorges of “Lamsky land” where they could easier organize the armed resistance to Cossacks’ squads and harbor from Yasak collectors [Mainov 1927]. This was facilitated by the fact that people were nomadic “and not sedentary”. They lived moving from place to place and from river to river [Butsinsky 1893]. The number of population was counted at that time only for the purpose of the Yasak payment. To make the approximation of the real number of inhabitants the later researchers used special coefficients (usually from 4 to 6) making a multiplicative model. Generally if there were about 50-100 Yasak paying people then each community in the surroundings of the built center for getting Yasak payment was about 300-600 persons and the used coefficient for the calculations was 6. In his report about the Expedition for studying the productive forces of Yakutia in 1925-1930, Ivan Mainov [1927] wrote that their number was calculated very approximately. Thus, according to this method, about 12,000 Tunguses lived in Yakutia. The Coastal population was a smaller part of it. For example, along Olenek River there was reported to live 49 Yasak paying Tunguses that could mean that their total number was about 300 persons.

17The mechanism of cultural diffusion - when ethnic groups are adopting some elements of different cultures, started up at this preindustrial period. Russians received knowledge of the territories that could be added to their governance. Communication with indigenous peoples was built through intermarriages or taking hostages. Indigenous wives of Cossacks and the Amanats (indigenous clans’ leaders taken as hostages by Cossacks in order to force the community to pay Yasak) were one of the first local people who learnt the Russian language. Russians invented their architectural traditions of wooden constructions into Arctic territories of Eastern Siberia. They Christianized the population and at the same time, they used the help of shamans when the need was urgent and tied with local traditions [Turaev 2012].

18Russians somehow opened up the way for more intensive movements of different ethnic groups within the North-Eastern territories and contributed to the northward advance of Sakha (called in Russian Yakut) population and therefore, to the process of the so-called yakutification of the local ethnic groups.

19The changes in lifestyle of indigenous population happened in several ways. Indigenous increased the efficiency of their traditional life activities as they borrowed weapons for better hunting, and languages for better communication. Their land possessions and the territories for hunting and reindeer herding decreased as a consequence of industrial invasion. There was an increase of illnesses connected to the first contacts with the unknown viruses brought by the new-comers. New religious ideas and practices were added to shamanism. Those from communities who married Sakha and Russians were marginalized.

20However, the number of indigenous remained quiet stable despite of plague, different battles and land sacrifices for the period of 300 years beginning from the first encounters with Russians. I. Mainov wrote: “Bearing in mind that the territory belonging to the Tunguses from the 17th century until our time has decreased many times and continues to decrease more and more, that their main activity - reindeer herding and hunting - are steadily falling due to the reasons that are unrelated to Tunguses themselves (forest fires, the emergence of gold mining crews at the former Tungus territories), we would have the right to expect a significant reduction in the number of Tunguses living in Yakutia over three centuries of Russian rule, but in fact, if you believe the numbers, this does not seem to be observed, and the total number of Tunguses during this entire historical period has changed very weakly, so that if there hadn’t been evictions and yakutification, they should have discovered some natural growth masked from us by the indicated processes of emigration and denationalization” [Mainov, 1927, p.76].

21According to I. Mainov the materials of Household Census (called in Russian Revizskiye skazki) [Patkanov, 1906] showed that 300 years had been passed without any serious change in indigenous population of Yakutia. There were 19,000 of Tungus and Lamut in Yakutia and Okhotsky region in the 17th century and about 21.000 at the time of the first Census was held in Russian Empire (1897).

22The belonging to ethnic groups appears for the first time in the 4th Household Census (Revizskiaya skazka) held in Russia in 1781-1783 with the term of Inorodsy meaning “foreigners” and appointed Indigenous peoples of the North until the 19th century in Russia. In the research under Mainov’s supervision, the ethnicity was defined anthropologically merely by differences in appearances, language and lifestyle practices as well as by the use of 18-19th centuries statistics – Household Censuses.

23The pre-industrial period lasted from 9 to 10 generations of the documented history. It layered additional components on their traditional elements. The model of the traditional lifestyle changed by the adoption of new practices. There was no longer a permanent confrontation. This is partly because the indigenous ethnic groups had not yet developed their political identity. However, their strong ethnic identity has helped them resist the process of marginalization and maintain basic genetic and cultural elements.

1.3 Industrial transformation

24The contact with industrial innovation took place in Eastern Russian Arctic during the period between the two World Wars. From nomadic organization of life, the indigenous population moved towards an organization of permanent settlements [Smirnov 2018]. Nomadic population tried to struggle for the territories of their hunting, fishing and reindeer herding pastures and to preserve traditional approach of life. The group having adaptive abilities combined the old techniques with new possibilities.

25At that time, there was a lack of political self-identification as a nation and an absence of a common will to protect the land as a resource of the traditional habitat. These features facilitated the process of industrial intervention along the Eastern Coastal Arctic with the introduction of Soviet power and preparation to the confrontation to the World’s powers at the beginning of the 20th century. During the 1920s, there were tremendous infrastructural developments in Russian Arctic connected to the search of Northern Sea Route.

26The strong political will of Soviet leadership of 1930-s and 1950-s had made possible to create the necessary production, transport, power, communication and social infrastructure in the Coastal Arctic in order to facilitate the economic growth of the Soviet Union. By opening up schools, hospitals, post offices, radio and television stations, meteorological posts, research facilities, stone housing, museums and houses of culture, boarding houses for the children of nomads the Soviet state made the second major interference into indigenous culture and persuaded them to lose their nomadic tradition and to accept the newly established Soviet lifestyle which oriented nonindustrial workers to be involved in agricultural production at the premises of collective farms and later at Soviet farms (called in Russian sovkhozy). The pushing was of such a power that most of Tungus, Samoed, Dolgan, Chukchi, Yukagir families obeyed the new rules and converted themselves into ordinary inhabitants of rural Russian counties. During the period of Industrialization the Evens population grew quickly, while the Evenk one began to grow only after Industrial period at the beginning of the twenty-first century (fig. 7).

Figure 7. Evolution of Evenks and Evens population since 1925 in Yakutia (persons)

Figure 7. Evolution of Evenks and Evens population since 1925 in Yakutia (persons)

Source: [Mainov 1927], [Neystroeva, Semenova 2018]

27Many indigenous leaders became the members of the Communist party and got the ideology of Soviet state. Being captured by the new ideology many of them moved into cities where they got high education. The new conditions of living made it possible for Evenks and Evens to get an excess to all educational resources provided by Soviets through the system of prioritized admission to Vocational schools and Universities. It opened a huge perspective for indigenous minorities to bringing up a generation of professionals in all fields of knowledge who changed their lifestyle forever but never lost the connection with the unique culture they were a part of.

28Therefore Industrial period (1922-1990) can be characterized by:

  • Modernization onslaught. The military situation in the first half of the 20th century demanded the mobilization of all the country’s resources, primarily human resources, to ensure victory in the global confrontation of forces. Forcible involvement of indigenous peoples in national projects - transferring of reindeer husbandry to the state format through the creation of Collective and State farms, providing of nationalization of pastures, executing high norms for the production of furs and fish for state needs and usage, participating in geological exploration of deposits of mineral resources as guides along taiga and tundra, taking part in military actions of World Wars as snipers.

  • Social guarantees. The State provided general secondary education as well as free and guaranteed access to higher education by special quotas for indigenous peoples of the North. It provided employment with salaries and natural exchange for worked days, afforded housing and social infrastructure: schools, hospitals, boarding schools, kindergartens, communications, transport services.

  • The eradication of the Christian and Shaman faith, active introduction of Communist ideology and party principles of discipline and loyalty.

29A profound reformatting process of cultural components took place. The ethnical language was replaced by Sakha and Russian. The activities of fishing and reindeer herding were “nationalized” and incorporated into the frame of Kolhozy and Sovhozy - enterprises with wages and natural payments for working days. Self-medication and recovery was replaced by services in polyclinics. Upbringing in the family was substituted by education and socialization in educational institutions. The space that provided the basis for life was rapidly shrinking. It was in the interests of the State to get away from the old way of life and create a person of a new way of life.

30Reducing interaction with Nature threatened the traditional model of lifestyle. Some obvious signs of life degradation began to appear like stress, depression, alcoholism, and self-marginalization. Among indigenous groups, there were those who completely abandoned traditional norms, those who partially replaced the norms with their modern version and those who had preserved the norms and values ​​of traditional culture.

31However, industrialization and Soviet reign managed to break most of cultural elements of indigenous lifestyle. The latter had taken a radically different form. Nevertheless, its essential character had not changed, remaining intrinsically based on Northern nature. What are the future trends in the circle of indigenous history?

2 Sociological review of Postmodern changes

2.1 Survey settlements overview

32With the help of the questionnaire we’ve got the material describing postmodern lifestyle of the population living in the four coastal settlements in the Far Eastern part of Russian Arctic.

33Over 54% participants (241 respondents) of the survey underlined their belonging to the small numbered indigenous peoples of the North that represents well the ethnic structure of the population in the surveyed places. The table below (tab.1) shows the ethnic structure in the surveyed settlements when the 2010 Census was conducted.

Table 1. Ethnic structure of surveyed places (Census 2010) [Sakha(Yakutia) stat, 2010]

1. Name of settlement

2. Total Population

3.     Sakha

4.     Russians

5.     Ukrainians

6.     Evenks

7.     Even

8.     Yukagirs

9.     Chukchi

10.   Dolgans

11.   Other

Overall small numbered peoples (= 6+7+8+9+10)

Share of small numbered peoples

(in %)


































































34The number of small numbered indigenous peoples of the North (Even, Evenk, Yukagir, Dolgan, Chukchi) living in the village Kyusyur (70%, Census 2010) and Saskylah (68%, Census 2010) is surely more than those who live in the urban village Deputatsky (14%, Census 2010) and Chersky (15.1% Census 2010). But because Deputatsky used to be a mono-settlement for the workers of the tin mine, the tendency of growing number of indigenous population represents the processes of their coming back to the native land. History of Deputatsky goes back to the GULAG camps. This settlement was the end point for many prisoners who were exiled there and kept at that destination as the hostages of the Soviet industrialization policy. They mined tin and built the necessary infrastructures such as roads, the airstrip and other facilities that made tin mining possible. The small town, as many places in the Soviet North, was a place of attraction for those who came to earn good money and participated in construction of the tin plant. By the end of the1980s there were up to 13,000 inhabitants in Deputatsky, predominantly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, with exception of small number of Sakha.

35In the mid1990s the area experienced huge wave of outmigration when the factory was closed (table 2). The same is true for Chersky where infrastructure was oriented towards the needs of the Northern sea route services at the beginning of its Soviet time history.

Table 2. Population dynamics from 1939 to 2020 (persons)







No existed

No data






No data





No data





No data





No data






























































Source: [Sakha (Yakutia)stat, 1939-2020]

36In forty years, the ethnic composition of population in Deputatsky and Chersky has changed tremendously from dominance of ethnic Russians in 1980-ies to the increase of Sakha residents (17% in Chersky, 29% in Deputatsky) and Small numbered Indigenous peoples of the North (15.1% in Chersky, 14% in Deputatsky) (tab. 1). As for Kyusyur and Saskylah they had always got the status of a native territory of indigenous ethnic groups with the tendency of enlargement the number of Sakha.

2.2 Postmodern transformations

37New wave of Industrialization started in Russia together with the beginning of Privatization of former state strategic resources companies in the 1990-es. New private stakeholders of mining companies decided to deal with the received access to rich resources of the North bearing in mind the approach of getting profit by the rule of cost reduction. Thus, all the social infrastructural facilities in the North had been left out the zone of new companies’ responsibilities as well as the State authorities’ interest. This policy was regarded later as irresponsible especially in respect of the small numbered indigenous population of the North since their traditional lifestyle was severely transformed in Soviet times from Self-reliance to State-reliance [Kozlovski 1997]. So in the period of Post-Soviet times that we defined as Postmodern, the influence of the liberalization policy brought further changes in traditional model that were analyzed in this study. State companies were replaced by privatized enterprises. Kolkozy and Sovhozy ceased their existence. Indigenous workers were left unemployed while they had to find the way to survive the crisis.

38Analyzing the answers of respondents to the survey questions it’s seen the lifestyle changes in traditional culture of small numbered indigenous population of the North that took place at the beginning of the 21st century.

39The ways of family provision with necessary products and living conditions are mostly substituted by employment and modern housing. This approach is preferable among contemporary indigenous population.

40The survey data shows their active involvement in the public sector of economy: 38.2% are employed in education and healthcare sectors, 5.8% - in self-government, 4.1% - in culture, sport, journalism, 7.9% - in services, 0.8 – police and army. Only 5.8% are agricultural workers and 1.7% are engaged in traditional economy. A very small part of the population officially continues with traditional lifestyle - reindeer herding and fishing. These self-employed people own some pasture lands and they have got more than 100 reindeers in their herds. For most of the participants of the research, however, lack of land ownership is the Postmodern reality. More than 82% of respondents stated the absence of owned pasture lands and reindeer herd.

41But even in families where members are employed by the state, male population takes part in traditional forms of subsistence - hunting and fishing. Over 56% of respondents consume reindeer meet on regular daily basis and 37.3% supplement their diet with fish in everyday diet (fig.8).

Fig. 8 Traditional food consumption (%)

Fig. 8 Traditional food consumption (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

4216.6% of the respondents are fully dependent on traditional food. For more than a quarter of them (27.0%), traditional diet represents more than a half of their everyday food consumption. Thus the majority is either half or fully based on traditional food (fig.9).

Figure 9. Traditional diet share (%)

Figure 9. Traditional diet share (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

4349.4% of the respondents live in the comfortable apartments with heating, sewerage and hot water running. The rest is living in worse conditions – 26.6% - partially furnished apartments, 22.4% live in uncomfortable housing that is lacking facilities for hot water running, central heating, sewerage with the use of outdoor toilet – it’s housing that has lost any traditional architecture.

44Indigenous population have become very dependent on the healthcare system: 14.9% pay visits to their doctors more than once every 2-3 months, 54.4% see their doctors once or twice a year, and only 22.4% require a visit to the doctor’s once in two years. Only 19.4% don’t use medicines while the majority requires medicine all the time (15.4%) or seasonally (64.7%).

45The changes were also marked by a switch from traditional garments as fur coats to clothing made with contemporary fabrics and technology. Over 69% of residents do not use traditional jackets, 77.6 % do not wear leather-soled reindeer or seal fur boots (torbaza), and 71.8% do not require long fur stockings - (kyanchi). Preference is given to modern clothes such as down jackets. The exception is anyway still made to fur boots on felt sole (unty) and fur cap. Modernized traditional clothes (unty) and fur caps continue to be useful elements of life: 83.4% of indigenous respondents continue to wear (unty) and 62.2% wear fur caps.

46In controversy to economic components the socio-cultural elements have gone through the backward effect of coming back to traditionalism in Postmodern period of liberalization and democratization of Russian society.

47The traditional belief system which was practically completely eliminated by the Soviet power began to regain its influence. Village inhabitants (Kyusyur) are restoring the tradition of indigenous’ ceremonies such as Evinek (30%). It is nowadays a reconstruction of the tradition. It is celebrated now in connections with the old rhythms of nomadic and sedentary activities but not necessarily by those who are involved in reindeer herding and who has to keep the track of their livestock. This ceremony is used to be held at the middle of June at the days of solstices at summer pastures where Evens from different family clans met. Early in the morning, Evens dressed in national costumes come out to the clearing and silently holding hands start waiting for the Sunrise [Sleptsov 2011].

48Four percent of respondents pointed Bakaldyn as the preserved tradition of Evenks. Bakaldyn is the holiday of Renewal of Nature for Evenks that is held twice a year - first in Spring after long Winter and then in Autumn before the coming Winter. People of close family clans meet in one particular place making one camp to discuss their Winter events, problems and successes. They stay in a camp for about 6 days dancing and playing games, competing and communicating. After such a warm meeting they dispersed again until next Bakaldyn.

49Feeding the fire is the key ceremony preserved in modern lifestyle of indigenous peoples. It is stated by 17.7% of the survey participants and got the first place in rating. The second place takes the ceremony of meeting the Sun and Sun worship (13.3%). The next goes to the ceremony of Blessing - Algys (8%) and getting rid of all the bad (8.4%) and circle dance (7.5%). On the whole 32% of respondents keep the tradition of ceremonies in their lifestyle.

50Almost one third (29%) of respondents make traditional clothes (unty, fur caps) themselves, 37.8% make some elements of traditional clothes. 55% of the participants have got traditional jewelry, 37.3% have got festive national costume. Over 80% regard traditional wear as a resistant sign of preserved culture. Second component that points at cultural perseverance is traditional food (71.4% of respondents’ view). 90.1% of the respondents are dependent on traditional food, 32.4% make national dishes regularly, 48.1% - mostly on holidays. For example, the priority for Kyusyur population is cooking from offal of a reindeer or a horse as well as using for dishes tongue and liver (70%). The second place gets flour dishes (52%). For Deputatsky it is more common to have fish dishes (36.8%). Second priority is also for flour dishes (23.2%).

51While evaluating the role of traditional activity in their lifestyle, 72% of the respondents in Kyusyur put the highest value (ranking from 1 to 5) to fishery and 61% to hunting. However, in Deputatsky, the highest rank is given both to reindeer herding as well as to fishery and hunting (45.4%, 42.4%, 40.8% of the answers respectfully).

52As for engagement in traditional activities, the answers show that more than a half of the population goes fishing – seasonally or all year round. It’s a very distinct feature for Kyusyur with 60% of involvement in fishery and for Chersky where the amount is 58%. Hunting is less practiced among all the studied groups. On the average it is about 34.6% of the whole surveyed population with 48% dominance of Kyusyur inhabitants. All communities can be regarded as ‘picking plants’ communities since 78.7% of the survey participants in all the settlements are engaged in these practices.

53Among key socio-cultural tendencies, it should be first mentioned the language behavior practices. The trend of loss of indigenous languages started during the industrialization period, continues.

54According to the data of the survey, Sakha and Russian languages are dominating in the everyday life of indigenous population. 81.3% of respondents use Sakha language and 41.1% - Russian language. 56.8% of respondents don’t know their ethnic language. For the rest who have some knowledge of native languages mostly Even and Evenk (15.8% know their native language and 27.4% know a little) only 2.1% spoke Evenk language for family communication. This tendency is growing from generation to generation (fig.10).

Fig. 10. Language behavior of respondents (%)

Fig. 10. Language behavior of respondents (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

55The gap of language competencies between grandparents and grandchildren is about 30% loss. Each generation seems to lose half of the previous potential. 70.1% of the participants consider Sakha language as their native. For 11.2% - Russian is their native speaking language. Nevertheless, still 18.6% have chosen indigenous languages as their native (fig.11).

Figure 11. The distribution of language choices among indigenous languages (%)

Figure 11. The distribution of language choices among indigenous languages (%)

Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019

56At the same time, the substantial part of their life activities is connected to purely traditional way of thinking and behavior.

57The results of survey and the analysis of other data prove the long-established thesis that the lifestyle of indigenous population had been completely dependent on the environment. The interaction with environment was the dominant value in the value system of their culture. Modern tendencies of industrialization created a combined model of life activity where traditional components are connected to the value system of peoples. New elements are oriented more at some practical possibilities of the institutionalized society: education, medicine, social guaranties and employment.

58The high level of competence - 25.7% of participants have got higher education, 23.7% - secondary vocational education, 4.1% - incomplete higher education - is a characteristic of the Arctic shore villages population. This feature supports the ongoing processes of political identification of indigenous rights. Indeed, indigenous leaders criticize ineffective legislation protecting the rights of small Indigenous people. The fact is that 14.5% of participants are ready to participate and support a protest against the construction projects of big industrial companies, 21.2% are almost ready to provide moral support if not make a protest, 1.2% is able to organize the protest movement themselves because they are outraged by the actions of industrialists.

59They understand that this period of their history is a new turning point. They have lost the land control, reindeer herding knowledge and language. They have preserved only their value system. But values are the strongest elements of cultural identity. And they are eager to stand for the right to remain indigenous peoples of the North.

3 Future trends as conclusion

60Russia being the country where severe cold temperatures are common to 2/3 of its huge territory, it should be considered as the biggest Northern society in the world. Its longest coastal line is extended along Arctic Ocean. Nonetheless, Russia’s geopolitics has always got strong Southern orientation and interest. This duality of identification made Russia the country that did not fully understand its territorial status reminding a person who badly controls his body. Russia has never been publicly grateful to its Northern position. The Russian people as a multiple nation has always considered its location as a problem that shortens the warm season turns into a period of three months in almost all its regions and slows most major activities because of the cold temperatures. This neglect of the Nordic identity has helped build the feeling that living in the north of the country is like living in islands far away from the mainland (materik). Islander’s life was lacking the quality of life standards that were present at materik. It shaped the perception of Northern life as unfulfilled, abandoned and deprived of main content. Cold climate conditions cover a big area of Russian Arctic shore and inland territories and they are compensated in the salaries by the so-called “Extreme North coefficient premium”. The average yearly temperatures in Russia are minus 50C. This is the only country with such climate conditions, except Canada.

61Geopolitical position of Russian Arctic zone on the opposite has always been full of potential possibilities of being involved in the Russian transportation system. The study that began in 18th century has not ever been stopped but it never got the approach of mainland native studies. Instead it had always been bearing the scent of an aloof view over the lands that are too far, too cold and are not native. Coastal population was a subject of scientific interest as a part of the complex research that aimed at getting the knowledge of resources that could be used in country’s industrial policy.

62All the previous documented stages in the development of indigenous communities had been the processes of appropriation of the space that used to be uninhabited and consisted of the resources that could be fully consumed for self-provision. Cultural clashes with Russians, Sakha and other smaller ethnic groups had not only changed the anthropological, language and educational characteristics of the peoples of the North but also developed the understanding of the special role they play in the ethnic diversity of the world. So they started to protect their own rights for sustainable development.

63Their natural attraction to the quiet independent life style could be regarded as the key feature that differ this people from other ethnic groups. Using the approach of social construction of reality [Berger, Lukman 1966] it’s possible to summarize that they would prefer a dialog with Nature to a dialog with the Society since Natural environment is the reality of the dominant layer for these ethnic groups. The dialog with Nature needs enough space that they were deprived during the period of their documented history.

64The above analysis provides us with the materials to make some suppositions concerning the future trends.

65First trend will be connected with the increase of industrial invasion. Russian Arctic policy will be deployed in the next 10 years with the realization of the plan to make the Arctic shore a military defendant frontier including scientific infrastructure for organizing the ongoing research of the Arctic resources (oil, tin, mammoth tusk, gold). This will be the third wave of industrialization that can turn several Coastal Arctic settlements into the developed mono towns with the seaport specialization: Tiksi, Chersky, Anadyr, Pevek. This time, it will be much more ambitious in comparison to the two previous ones. Social infrastructure altogether with industrial objects is planned to match the level of life standards of the central part of Russia that will make the living in the North comfortable and attractive to newcomers [RF 2019, RF 2020].

66The reestablishment of the Northern Sea Route can increase the attraction of tourists. Tourism is the economy that could very well resonate with keeping the indigenous traditions and become in some way a tool to protect the cultural heritage.

67Second trend will arise from the struggle for the land between industrial companies and indigenous authorities groups. The chances for establishing mutually beneficial relations in such confrontation are dependent on the competence of the indigenous communities in the sphere of legislation and communication practices. Positive relationship-building is the key to minimizing the damage due to project activities in local communities [Stammler, Wilson 2006]. Collective agency as the capacity to work together introduced by Stammler and Wilson into dialog between oil and gas companies and indigenous communities was regarded as a precondition for predictable and reliable relations on the side of subsurface resources users and traditional livelihood communities. They argued that allowing individuals to resolve matters at the local levels themselves holds an advantage and gave the examples of local activists’ protests that brought results for the communities of traditional natural resources use in Western Arctic. Eastern Arctic territories must be ready to utilize the experience of Western Arctic dialog at the stage of their new industrialization era.

68The third trend is based on the state policy of support and guarantee of the rights of indigenous population for full representation of their ethnicity and tradition. There is a tendency among small numbered indigenous peoples of the North to make a return to their root cultural basis and to find in their identity something that will emphasize their special and unique inheritance.

69All of these trends are connected with different activities that aimed at reconstruction of the lost elements of indigenous culture:

  • providing the possibility of having a nomadic life with introduction of nomadic school;

  • teaching of native languages;

  • supporting the authentic self-identification as the representative of small indigenous ethnicity by making up the personal registry;

  • supporting the opening of the noncommercial organizations that will revive indigenous traditions of sewing and crafts.

70But as the above analysis shows the main trend is rooted in the issue of land ownership. Self-identification of Northern ethnos is strongly based on cohesion with the Arctic environment and the natural landscape they feel a part of. In that perspective the geocultural trend seem to become the dominant element in the system of life activity. Forces of Nature are worshiped and grated. The resources of Nature are taken with grateful praise and sharing attitude.

71The period of Industrial development had brought tremendous changes into the lifestyle of indigenous population. The change was stimulated mainly by infrastructural projects that took place in the Arctic at the beginning of the 20th century. Construction of roads started in the first quarter of 20th century finally opened the route along Arctic shore – Northern Sea Route – and laid track connecting Yakutsk with Trans-Siberian railroad and Okhotsky Sea area. Power lines and diesel power plants were placed all over the Arctic territories. It prepared the exploiting of land resources.

72This situation had become a keen new for the indigenous communities. It had started to change the landscape of their habitat and did not leave a space to run away. The space that had appeared on top of the pre-existing indigenous territories is called by N.Smirnov the geoculture of Industry [Smirnov 2018].

73It is very important to understand that the culture doesn’t die until there are people who identify themselves with it, until they continue to stick to its traditional values – love and dependence on Nature - even if some of the institutional elements of traditional culture: the system of education, treatment and housing has already been lost. History and contemporary data prove that Arctic indigenous population is tied to the place of birth. More than 60% of village inhabitants of Kyusyur were born at the village. 19% has been living there for more than 11 years. Their future depends on their beloved land they should continue to wander!

74Postmodern trends shape the future of the societies as perpetual local transformations where “each momentary state is neither a necessary effect of the preceding state nor the sufficient cause of the next one” [Bauman 1992]. The postmodern condition weakens the impact of the past and prevents colonization of the future by letting time to be “unbind”. This period of randomly emerging and shifting norms can become the best moment for indigenous minorities of the North to win back their lost independent past and retrieve the space for existence by participating in co-spatial development of the Arctic. The Arctic can be regarded today as the potential place of forming “the hybrid’, mobile postmodern localities which members can perceive themselves and be perceived by others, from the outside, as post-nomads who do not have rigid, traditional or even quite multiple modern territorial identities and have, rather, floating, relational, relative - co-spatial identities [Zamyatin 2012].

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1 Ulus is the Yakut name in the Republic of Sakha for the territorial unit named ‘rayon’ elsewhere in Russia

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Places of survey
Fichier image/png, 318k
Titre Figure 2. Ethnic structure of respondents (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 16k
Titre Figure 3. Number of participants of the survey (persons)
Crédits Source: Sakha (Yakutia) stat, 2018 and Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 77k
Titre Figure 4. Gender structure of the survey participants (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 12k
Titre Figure 5. Age structure of the survey participants (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 17k
Titre Figure 6. Ethnic structure of the survey participants (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 9,7k
Titre Figure 7. Evolution of Evenks and Evens population since 1925 in Yakutia (persons)
Crédits Source: [Mainov 1927], [Neystroeva, Semenova 2018]
Fichier image/png, 22k
Titre Fig. 8 Traditional food consumption (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 18k
Titre Figure 9. Traditional diet share (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 13k
Titre Fig. 10. Language behavior of respondents (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 15k
Titre Figure 11. The distribution of language choices among indigenous languages (%)
Crédits Source: survey, Alexeeva, et al. 2019
Fichier image/png, 15k
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Référence électronique

Larisa Yurievna Pisareva, « Transformations of coastal arctic communities in the russian Far East: facts, thoughts and reflections », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2020/3-2021/1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 21 janvier 2021, consulté le 09 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Larisa Yurievna Pisareva

North-Eastern Federal University, Russia - Institute of Economics and Finance

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