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I. Définir, identifier, dénombrer les populations autochtones : qui est autochtone ?

Introducing a Registry of Indigenous Persons in Russia: Rationale and Challenges

L’introduction d’un registre des personnes autochtones en Russie : décryptage et défis
Gail Fondahl, Viktoriya Filippova et Antonina Savvinova


De nombreuses lois reconnaissent des droits aux peuples indigènes au sein de la fédération de Russie. Ces populations ont pourtant des difficultés à accéder à ces droits et les leaders autochtones demandent depuis deux décennies au gouvernement russe de prendre en compte leur situation. Une loi a été adoptée au niveau fédéral en janvier 2020 pour la création d’un registre des personnes autochtones. Dans cet article nous insistons d’abord sur la genèse du problème, les mesures provisoires que les différentes régions ont prises pour traiter ces difficultés et les défis qui restent à surmonter pour envisager l’application de cette loi. Pour aborder ces différents points nous nous appuyons sur leur couverture médiatique dans la presse, sur le débat scientifique qu’ils suscitent ainsi que des entretiens avec les leaders autochtones et leurs alliés au sein de la fédération de Russie. Nous en arrivons à l’idée que ce registre reste problématique et controversé car l’Etat continue de délimiter l’indigénéité et l’exercice des droits autochtones de manière restrictive.

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We thank the numerous people who agreed to converse with us and shared information and views, in Yakutsk and Moscow. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive input. This research was supported by SSRHC grant 435-2016-070 and NORRUS grant 257644/H30.

1. Introduction

1Imagine an Indigenous hunter, who has harvested an animal ‘out of season’, meeting a game warden in the forest. Due to his being Indigenous, this hunter actually has the right to harvest year-round for subsistence purposes. Yet, what if he has no way ‘prove’ his identity as a member of an Indigenous people? The game warden may charge him with poaching, leading to a fine or even incarceration. Or imagine an Indigenous villager on a tight budget trying to access the free medicine for which she is eligible. What if she has no way to prove her Indigenous identity, but cannot afford to pay? In numerous countries around the world, membership in an Indigenous people is essential for the enjoyment of certain legally protected rights and benefits. Yet for almost two decades, Indigenous Northerners in Russia have faced the predicament of notionally enjoying legally guaranteed rights and entitlements beyond those of other citizens, yet lacking any efficacious way to prove their status as Indigenous persons. The need to prove one’s Indigenous status, yet inability to do so easily, has resulted in Indigenous persons having their rights denied, or having to spend much time and money to defend these rights in court. Indigenous leaders have sought resolution to this problem since its advent. The Russian government has recently (January 2020) passed law stipulation the creation of a registry of Indigenous persons to address it — a move that has triggered both endorsement and concerns. This article examines the evolution of the ‘proof-of-status’ problem that confronts Indigenous persons in Russia today, the various stop-gap measures instituted in various regions of Russia to address it, the recent decision to create a registry of Indigenous persons, and the challenges posed by a registry. Key challenges include issues of inclusion and exclusion, what documentation is required to prove Indigeneity, and issues of who holds the power to make decisions regarding eligibility.

2. Why is a Registry of Indigenous Persons deemed necessary?

  • 1 Translation of Russian legislation, other than the Constitution, is that of the authors.
  • 2 Other than the numerical criterion, this definition roughly accords with the “widely accepted defin (...)
  • 3 The seven other Indigenous peoples live in various areas of the Russian Federation, and share no co (...)

2Russian legislation has established as a specific legal category of ‘Indigenous numerically small peoples’ (korennye malochislennye narody) (Russian Federation Constitution 1999). Criteria for inclusion include “living on the territory of traditional settlement of their ancestors; maintaining a traditional way of life, economy and trades; numbering fewer than 50,000 persons in the Russia Federation; and considering themselves a distinct ethnic community.”1(RF 1999, Article 1).2 The Russian Government recognizes 47 peoples of its nearly 200 “nationalities” (ethnic groups) as meeting these criteria (RF 2000a).” Of these, most (40) are further recognized as ‘Indigenous numerically small peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East’ (korennye malochislennye narody Severa, Sibiri i Dal’nego Vostoka) (RF 2006).3 These peoples traditionally pursued reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, gathering and marine mammal hunting. Identified as deserving of special protection during the Soviet period [Slezkine 1994; Donahoe et al. 2008], they continue to enjoy certain legal rights, entitlements and benefits beyond those enjoyed by other citizens of the Russian Federation, granted by the State in recognition of their distinct ways of life, their small numbers, and their ‘threatened’ cultures. Such rights and benefits range from priority hunting and fishing rights (e.g., hunting without buying a license) to entitlements in the spheres of pensions, culture and military service [Donahoe et al. 2008; Kryazhkov 2010]. Any Indigenous person is entitled to such rights.

3While the very construction of the category of Indigenous peoples itself an outcome of colonial racism [Harris 2002; McKay 2019], we leave that discussion aside. We also note that, while over the past two decades much has been written about the failure to implement and realize Indigenous peoples’ rights in the Russian Federation [e.g., Balzer 2016; Kryazhkov 2010; Vinokurova 2018], yet unexplored in the non-Russian literature are the obstacles Indigenous persons (individuals) face, in trying to exercise their rights as members of Indigenous peoples. Until 2002, one’s ‘nationality’ (ethnic identity) was indicated in one’s internal passport, a Russian citizen’s main identity document. Thus, needing to prove one’s status as an Indigenous person, one simply presented one’s internal passport. However, after 2002, information on one’s nationality was removed from the internal passport (as explained below). Since then Indigenous persons have had no easy, expedient way to confirm that they are indeed a member of a one of the Indigenous peoples as recognized by the State. In the absence of proof of Indigenous ‘status’, Indigenous individuals have suffered penalties for exercising these rights. For instance, in numerous cases over the past decade Indigenous hunters and fishers have been accused of poaching, charged with fines, and/or had their harvest confiscated, due to not being able to prove their status as a member of an Indigenous people [e.g., Leukhina 2009; Verkhoturova 2018].

  • 4 Interestingly, the 2020 Law use the term “numerically small peoples”, eschewing the adjective “Indi (...)

4In February 2020, to address this problem, the Russian government adopted a law to establish a list of persons belonging the country’s numerically small peoples (RF 2020) – that is, a registry of Indigenous persons.4 The law announces the intent to create such a registry, and stipulates that it must be operational within two years. Details remain to be worked out.

3. Methods

  • 5 Sakha Republic (Yakutia), located in the eastern part of the Russian Federation, and the largest ju (...)
  • 6 These were the Olekminsk District (administrative centre Olekma; Tyanya village; 2016), Neryungrisk (...)
  • 7 The production of Russian legislation on Indigenous rights regularly involves the use of ‘Expert Gr (...)

5Our interest in the challenge facing Indigenous persons of needing to prove their status as Indigenous, without having a means to do so, arose during interviews we carried out in the first year (2016) of a broader project, “Indigenous Territorial Rights in the Russian Federation: A Quarter Century Onward.” This problem continued to be mentioned during our 2017 and 2018 field seasons; thus, we felt it expedient to explore it in greater depth. For the larger project, we carried out interviews in Moscow, Yakutsk (the capital city of Sakha Republic (Yakutia))5 and Chita (the capital city of Zabaykalsk Territory), as well as in the administrative centres of four districts (rayony/ulusy), and in five mostly-Indigenous villages within those districts6. Interviewees included individuals holding, or having recently held, senior position in the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON, the main organization representing Russian Indigenous peoples at the national and international level) and the Associations of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and Zabaykalsk Territory, several Indigenous parliamentarians and/or their staff at the federal and Sakha Republic government officials, and individuals (mostly academics) who have consulted on the drafting of legislation regarding Indigenous rights in the Russian Federation7. We also interviewed over 40 additional Indigenous individuals living in villages, including both those working in ‘traditional’ fields such as reindeer herding and hunting, and those working in other professions (e.g., teacher, nurse, administrator). The choice of interviewees was guided by the focus of the larger project, not this article’s specific topic. Yet many of those interviewed, both in urban centres and in the villages, addressed the problem of lacking a way to ‘prove Indigenous status,’ while answering our broader questions about Indigenous territorial rights.

6This article also draws on our reading of the legislation (in draft and final form), and discussions of its various drafts as it evolved, including on official governmental and Indigenous organizations’ websites, as well as in a number of federal government reports. In considering the challenges posed by a registry, we also utilize critiques regarding the State’s defining and recording of Indigenous persons, authored mostly by Indigenous scholars from Canada and the United States, two states that maintain registries of Indigenous persons.

4. Legal Definitions and Delimitations of Indigenous Rights in Russia: A Brief Overview

7We provide a brief overview of legislation on Indigenous rights in Russia, as context for our later discussion on challenges posed by the registry, including those on inclusion and exclusion (for more detail see Fondahl & Poelzer 2003; Kryazhkov 2010, 2013). According to the Russian Federation’s Constitution (1993), “The Russian Federation shall guarantee the rights of the indigenous [numerically] small peoples according to the universally recognized principles and norms of international law and international treaties and agreements of the Russian Federation” (RF 1993). To achieve this ideal, in 1999 the Russian government adopted the Law “On Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the Russian Federation.” (RF 1999; henceforth ‘Law on Guarantees’). This law, as well as providing a definition of Indigenous Peoples as noted above, laid out numerous rights specific to these peoples. These include the right to: ‘free-of-charge use of lands necessary to carry out traditional activities, as well as of common minerals’; compensation for damages to their ancestral lands; priority employment in their areas of specialization within traditional fields of the economy; social services as set out by other Russian legislation; free medical help: among others (Article 8.2). Thus, this foundational Russian law on Indigenous rights recognizes numerous rights of Indigenous peoples, and by extension rights, entitlements and benefits of Indigenous persons who are members of those peoples.

  • 8 A ‘clan community’ (obshchina) is “a form of self-organization of persons belonging to numerically (...)

8Other Russian laws also encode rights and privileges for Indigenous peoples. For instance, the 1995 Law on the Animal World provided Indigenous peoples with priority access to the use of fauna, including first choice of hunting grounds, privileges regarding when, where and how many animals can be harvested, and exclusive rights to hunt for specific species for subsistence purposes [Todyshev 2013]. Under provisions of the Forest Codex (2006) Indigenous people have the right to free use of wood for their personal needs for firewood. Russia’s 2000 Tax Codex exempted the income of members of Indigenous clan communities8 from taxation, and freed them from taxation on faunal resources that they harvest for subsistence purposes and on land used for ‘traditional way of life’ [Todyshev 2013]. In addition, Indigenous clan communities and Indigenous business entities have the opportunity to use a simplified tax system. Russia’s Pension Law stipulates a lower age of qualification for pension for Indigenous northerners, and provides for a social pension for persons belonging to these peoples [Pensii, 2018; Todyshev 2013].

9Two other foundational federal laws on Indigenous rights, specifically for Indigenous northerners, followed the 1999 “Law on Guarantees”. A 2000 law empowered persons who are members of Indigenous northern peoples to establish ‘clan communities’ for the pursuit of traditional activities, and to receive use rights to land parcels (of tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares) to do so (RF 2000b). A 2001 law enabled the creation of ‘Territories of Traditional Nature Use’; Indigenous northerners could petition local governments to create such Territories, which provide some (limited) protection against industrial encroachment on their ancestral lands (RF 2001). Only Indigenous persons may establish and head clan communities; only Indigenous persons may petition for the creation of Territories of Traditional Nature Use.

10While some of these Indigenous rights and privileges have been legislatively eroded over the past two decades [Kryazhkov 2010, Balzer 2016; Murashko & Rohr 2019], individuals belonging to Indigenous peoples still legally enjoy a number of priority rights and entitlements based on their status as a member of these peoples. However, only with the adoption of the law calling for the establishment of an Indigenous registry (RF 2020), has the issue started to be addressed on how an individual who is a member of an Indigenous people can authenticate her or his claim to be indigenous, in cases where such is required. While the 2020 “Law on Introducing Changes” makes a step in this direction many issues remain to be resolved.

5. The origin of the problem and regional initiatives to address it

11Article 26 of the Russian Federation’s Constitution states: “Everyone shall have the right to determine and indicate his nationality. No one may be forced to determine and indicate his or her nationality.” (RF 1993). During the Soviet period each individual’s nationality was indicated in her or his internal passport – an identification document every Soviet citizen obtained at adulthood. However, based on Article 26, a 1997 ruling prohibited recording nationality in internal passports [Todyshev 2013]. As of 2002, all new internal passports issued included no indication of nationality. Indigenous Northerners thus lost the main means of documenting their Indigenous status.

12The problem has become more acute with the passage of time, as increasing numbers of Indigenous persons hold passports that don’t record nationality. In turn some have been deprived of access to their rights, entitlements and benefits. As just one example, without a way to prove their Indigenous ‘status’, numerous hunters have experienced difficulty getting the appropriate mark on their hunting ticket that indicates that they hold broader rights than the average citizen (e.g. the right to hunt ‘out of season’), and chance being charged with, and fined for, poaching.

13Many Indigenous leaders argued for the reintroduction of a place to record one’s nationality in the internal passport, and making its use voluntary, as the easiest way to address this situation (Interviews with indigenous leaders, in Yakutsk, August 2016, May 2017, March 2019; in Moscow, February 2017, March 2019; Golomareva 2017). Citizens have the option of having their blood type and/or their identification number (akin to a social security number) so recorded. Proponents of this approach asserted that the option of voluntarily recording one’s nationality in the internal passport would not contravene Article 26 of the Constitution. In March 2014, State Duma deputies Vladimir Kashin and Vladimir Fedotkin proposed adding columns for both "nationality" and "religion" to the internal passport, to be filled if desired. The Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building rejected this initiative, on the basis of costs to the federal budget (V gosdume 2015). In February 2015, a member of the Federation Council, Z. Ivanova, made a similar proposal, stressing the voluntary nature of indicating one’s nationality. However, her proposal, deemed ‘non-constructive,’ was also unsuccessful [V gosdume 2015].

14The idea of creating a registry of Indigenous persons, long discussed, gained traction as initiatives to reintroduce nationality into the internal passport failed. A number of other countries maintain registries of Indigenous persons, including Canada and the USA. The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and the Federal Agency for Peoples’ Affairs (FADN) collaborated on a draft federal law that would institute such a federal registry of Indigenous Northerners [Ledkov 2016], a process which took over five years. In the interim, federal subjects with Indigenous populations adopted a variety of approaches to deal with this problem.

  • 9 Issuing such inserts was eventually deemed in contravention of an RF Regulation forbidding recordin (...)

15Sakha Republic (Yakutia) adopted the practice of issuing an insert (vkladish) to one’s internal passport that stated one’s nationality (RS(Ya) 2000; Polishchuk-Molodozhenya 2017), and pursued this practice until it was deemed unlawful in 2016.9

  • 10 Oblast’ is often translated as ‘region’, or sometimes ‘province’; Kray as ‘territory’, and ‘okrug’ (...)

16Buryat Republic, Magadan Oblast’, Khabarovsk Territory and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug-Yugre (KMAO-Yu), distributed certificates (spravka) indicating one’s (Indigenous) nationality [Gorbunova 2016; Kuchinskiy 2016; Polishchuk-Molodozhenya 2017]10. In some areas of the Russian North, such as Irkutsk Oblast’, individuals have had to turn to the court system to obtain documented confirmation of their Indigenous status. Courts have also served as a last resort in other areas, when for various reasons some Indigenous individuals have not been able to access inserts or certificates. However, court hearings are not accessible to many Indigenous persons, due to distance, cost, and/or lack of knowledge about processes involved [Shadrin 2016; Polishchuk-Molodozhenya 2017].

17Registries had already been initiated in several regions of the Russian North, including Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO), (KMAO-Yu, Sakhalin Oblast’, and Amur Oblast’ [Gorbunova 2016]. In YNAO, a registry has been in place since 2012, and served as a model for the proposal for a federal level registry. However, registries maintained at the local or regional level, are not accepted by federal institutions, thus failing to solve the problem of accessing supports from the federal government [Gorbunova 2016].

18This variegated landscape of rules, procedures and processes that Indigenous individuals must navigate to confirm their Indigenous status in order to enjoy their rights and entitlements was recognized as unjust, and as evidence of the need for a unified, national level approach and common set of rules. Numerous regional parliaments petitioned the federal government to address this issue.

6. The Law to Instigate a Federal Registry of Indigenous Persons Passes

19President Putin repeatedly iterated the need to develop and realize measures to improve the quality of life and cultural protection of Indigenous Northerners (e.g. 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018), including the development of procedures, rules and processes on how to recognize individuals as members of Indigenous Northerners, and the adoption of legislation enshrining these rules. Those tasked with their development reviewed the regional experiences – of passport inserts, certificates, registries, etc. They also reviewed international approaches, including the Canadian Registry of Status Indians. The conclusion of this group was that a registry would be the best solution [Shadrin 2016]; while posing significant challenges, a single, federal registry of Indigenous persons seemed acceptable to many Indigenous leaders (Interviews with indigenous leaders, Yakutsk, August 2016; Moscow, February 2017; Yakutsk, May 2017; Moscow & Yakutsk; March 2019; TASS 2019).

20Registries are used for other groups of Russian citizens that enjoy certain benefits, such as invalids, families with many children, pensioners and veterans [Kuchinskiy 2016]. These registries are mostly maintained at the regional level [Kuchinskiy 2016].

21The establishment of Indigenous registry was legislated via a law with the rather unwieldy name, “On introducing changes to the Federal Law ‘On guarantees of the rights of Indigenous numerically small peoples of the Russian Federation’” (henceforth ‘Law On Introducing Changes’) (RF 2020). Several earlier drafts of this law met with negative reception from Indigenous leaders and their allies, during their circulation for discussion and input among Indigenous peoples’ associations throughout Northern Russia. As well, various ministries opposed some of the text. Discussions about its content occurred in Russia’s federal subjects at the parliamentary level, resulting in numerous recommendations for improvements. Several submissions noted that the law must not worsen the situation of the indigenous peoples [Sovershenstvovanie 2018]. The law was passed by the State Parliament in late January 2020, signed off by President Putin on 6 February 2020, to come into force on 7 May 2020, and setting a date of 7 February 2020 for the full implementation of the registry (RF 2020).

7. Challenges Inherent in an Indigenous Registry

22The 1999 “Law on Guarantees” has been branded frequently as ‘declarative’, depending on by-laws to spell out the details of its implementation [Kryazhkov 2010]. Grigory Ledkov, president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Persons, has noted that ‘declarative’ nature of the ‘Law on Introducing Changes’ as well, characterizing this lack of details as providing ‘flexibility’ [Reestru 2020]. Numerous concerns have been raised about the details of implementing a registry of Indigenous person, from groups as diverse as the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Ministry of Justice. Below we recount key concerns, as contended by Indigenous leaders, but also in light of discussions of the limitations such registries in Canada and the USA. We focus on three issues: exclusion and inclusion in the registry; the burden of proof of indigeneity; and the question of who ultimately decides who is Indigenous. Hopefully the flexibility noted by G. Ledkov will allow adequate addressing of such concerns as the details of building the registry are worked out over the next two years.

7.1 Who Might be Excluded from the Registry

23Hotly contested is the issue of who might be excluded from the registry, based on the criteria of indigeneity laid out in Article 1 of the ‘Law on Guarantees’, as noted above. We consider in turn three of those criteria here: where a person lives (“on the territory of traditional settlement of their ancestors”); how a person lives (“maintaining a traditional way of life, economy and trades”); and self-identification (“considering themselves a distinct ethnic community”). The ‘Law on Introducing Changes’ proposes to include in the registry those persons identifying as Indigenous Persons (and recognized as such on the basis of a variety of documents) as listed in the Unified List of Indigenous Peoples (RF 2000). What is less clear for northern Indigenous peoples is how two other Lists confirmed by orders of the Federal Government will come into play: the ‘List of the Places of Traditional Residence and Traditional economic activities of Indigenous numerically small peoples of the Russian Federation’ (RF 2009a) and the ‘List of the Types of Traditional Economic Activities of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the Russian Federation” (RF 2009b).

7.1.1 Limitation by Place of Residence

24While among some Indigenous nations (e.g., the Nentsy of northwestern Russia) the percentage of persons living in ‘place of traditional habitation’ is high, among others (e.g., the Evenki) it is quite low. Moving away from such places resulted from state policies and systematic pressures to settle nomadic groups throughout much of the Soviet period (sometimes within their ‘place of traditional habitation”), relocation of Indigenous populations from smaller settlements into larger, more central ones (and the liquidation of the smaller ones). Indigenous persons (and especially women) continue to move to urban centres, for education, employment, health services, etc. The reporting, record-keeping and funding applications that pursuing traditional activities require also cause many Indigenous women to live in district centres, in order to support their husbands and sons in pursuing reindeer husbandry and hunting. Environmental destruction of Indigenous homelands by industrial development has forced some Indigenous persons to vacate their homelands. These various processes have affected some areas of the Russian North more than others.

25Even when Indigenous individuals remain within the general area of their ‘place of traditional habitation’, they face inadequacies in the ‘List of Places’ approved in 2009 (RF 2009a). Many places where Indigenous individuals live and work – their homelands - are not included in this list [Sovershenstvovaniye 2018]. Numerous authorities from Russian Federation’s subjects, from Arkhangelsk Oblast’ to Sakha Republic (Yakutia), have requested that the list be updated to include many places where Indigenous northerners live and pursue their traditional activities. However, the official list remains incomplete [Chem grozit 2017].

7.1.2 Limitation by Occupation

  • 11 Chair of the Standing Committee on Issues of Indigenous Numerical Small Peoples of the North and Ar (...)

Unfortunately, the emphasis [in the draft law] is only on those Indigenous peoples who pursue traditional economic activities. (Elena Golomareva11)

  • 12 For instance, recent changes to supports for reindeer husbandry have involved a shift from subsidie (...)

26To have her or his name entered in the registry, would an Indigenous northerner not only have to live in a place listed on the federal ‘List of Places’ (RF 2009a), but also have to “carry out traditional way of life, pursuing traditional economy and traditional trades/crafts”, as per the federally sanctioned ‘List of Activities’ (RF 2009b)? The rules around this are not yet clear. During the years leading up to the passage of the law, this concern was voiced repeatedly. Such a condition would eliminate an even greater number of Indigenous persons from the registry. While most Indigenous Northern nations are recently experiencing (modest) population growth, a declining number of Indigenous Northerners pursue traditional activities. Indeed, both historic and current state policies have contributed to the (often forced) outflow of Indigenous northerners from ‘traditional activities’ [Shadrin 2016, p.39],12 as well as from ‘traditional places of habitation, ’as noted.

27Indigenous northerners who pursue ‘non-traditional’ employment, such as teachers, medical workers, shop keepers, administrators, etc., may less frequently utilize some of the land-based resource rights critical to those pursuing ‘traditional activities’ (hunting, reindeer herding), but would still benefit from general entitlements, such as medical assistance, alternative military service, and tax- pension-related benefits. Moreover, such traditional activities as reindeer herding and hunting may be of critical importance to their identity as Indigenous persons, whether or not they actively engage in such activities regularly. Indigenous persons of pension age don’t officially pursue such activities, whether or not they did prior to becoming ‘pensioners.’ This requirement, of pursuing a ‘traditional activity’ as the main form of employment, if implemented, would appear to contradict key provisions in the 1999 ‘Law on Guarantees,’ which applies to those Indigenous persons living in their traditional homelands, but for whom traditional activities are ancillary. Some experts suggest the need to expand the list of ‘traditional activities’ to include supporting occupations in health, education, and so forth, if such a requirement for registration is maintained [Murashko 2019], as without these occupations, it is argued, the traditional activities would be impossible. A further criticism is that this approach represents ‘traditional activities’ as simply one of many employment options, rather than ways of life, the persistence of which is essential to Indigenous identity.

28The ‘Law on Introducing Changes” lists as information to be gathered from applicants for registration: “information about the carrying out or non-carrying out of a traditional way of life, the implementation or non-implementation of traditional economic activity (indicating the types of activities in accordance with the list provided for in Article 5.2.2 of this Federal Law), including if such activity is auxiliary to the main type activities, as well as work in organizations engaged in traditional economic activities of small-numbered peoples” (Article 7.4.9). How this information will be used to include or exclude applicants will likely be the domain of the by-laws that will establish processes, procedures and the necessary details to back-stop the ‘declarative’ law.

29Restricting registration, and thus rights, based on locale of residence and/or occupation of strikes some Indigenous leaders as appalling:

So we have come to this. It is proposed that our people be divided into categories depending on where they live and how they are employed. That is, now, in enforcing the law, we will be divided into the fully-valued and the inferior! [Shadrin 2016, p.39]

30Scholar considering the implementation of Canada’s Indian Registration system, whereby only some First Nations persons enjoy legal status as Indians, have noted that how the Indian Registry fragments Canada’ First nation population into “classes citizens” with different rights and entitlements, increasing inequalities [Clatworthy 2007:114]

31Vyacheslav Shadrin, an Indigenous leader in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) further lamented in more detail of the possibility of such exclusion (during the law’s drafting):

... Today we have already talked about the registry of Indigenous peoples of the North as one of the tools. But in some cases, for example, in the same the draft explanatory note itself, there are provisions that simply leave us at a dead end, that even force us to oppose this change. Because it clearly lays out the division of the Indigenous peoples of the North into three categories. That is, only those living in places of compact residence and traditional activities will be included in these lists. Well, okay, this can still be somehow understood. But second - the lists will only include those … leading a traditional lifestyle. So those teachers of our native language, those children who live in villages, those old people who are retired, the unemployed – these persons will not be included in the lists (Sovershenstvovnie 2018).

7.2 Is the Intent to Limit/ Reduce Numbers of ‘Rights Holders’ and ‘Beneficiaries’?

32Establishing a registry has been touted as the optimal way to ensure that Indigenous persons can enjoy their legal rights. Yet the concern about authenticating ‘status’ derives from numerous directions. The issue of how to define Indigenous and thus who to include in the Registry is inextricably linked to the issue of which citizens ought to benefit from entitlements. “How ethnic group boundaries are defined and delineated is an intensely political process that is tied to resources and who can access them,” notes Tahu Kukutai [2004, p.103]. In terms of faunal resources that are harvested (especially fish), state officials responsible for controlling the use of such resources suspect that many people who are not Indigenous nevertheless claim status as Indigenous Northerners to benefit from priority access rights [e.g. Rozhkov 2019]. This situation of ‘ethnic fraud’ can compromise the sustainability of the hunt or fishery, an issue of concern to both Indigenous Northerners and environmentalists, biologists and other scientists [Leonov, Shevareva 2017]. A registry would also (ostensibly) serve to exclude such non-Indigenous persons from taking advantage of Indigenous rights and entitlements.

33Non-Indigenous persons claiming Indigenous status also means lower tax revenues for the state, given the tax breaks provided to Indigenous Northerners. Other entitlements and benefits provided by the state, such as free medicine and earlier pension, incur costs to the state, which, especially in this time of fiscal crisis, it wants to limit. Indeed, an ‘Explanatory Notes’, appended to one version of the draft law that would introduce an Indigenous registry addresses this concern directly, noting that such a registry would help to minimize corruption and “reduce the number of abuses in the sphere of providing benefits” [Poyasnitel'naya 2017, p.204]. Yet numerous Indigenous scholars in Canada and the USA also identify ‘mercenary,’ ‘tactical exclusionary measures’, purportedly driven by state financial self-interest, to reduce the numbers of Indigenous persons for which the state must provide benefits [McKay 2019; see also Napoleon 2003, Palmater 2014]. Pamela Palmater asserts that “the priority with regards to Indian registration remains their legislative extinction over time and the perceived associated financial gains that attach to reduced numbers of Indians” [2014, p.37]. Some Indigenous activists and their allies in Russia question whether the limiting conditions are driven by a desire to limit the number of persons who might exercise such rights and entitlements.

There’s a fear that too many people will claim being Indigenous. But there are 250,000 or so Indigenous northerners. So, if we start seeing 400,000 registry – well, that’s the bureaucrats’ problem. It should not be devolved to the Indigenous peoples themselves, many of whom don’t have much money, and live far from centres - it’s unfair to put the burden on them. (Legal specialist on Indigenous issues, Moscow, March 2019)

34Indigenous activists identify an insidious slippage from a discourse of ‘rights’ to one of ‘privileges’ (lgoty) and preferential treatment due to their neediness (Indigenous Leader, Moscow, March 2019). This discourse imbricates and also collides with new legislation that portrays hunting lands and fishing sites as preferably leased to the highest bidder (rather than available for priority use by Indigenous persons because of their rights), and increasingly positions Indigenous persons as poachers on their homelands.

7.3 The Burden of Proof

35Under the proposed scenario, people wishing to be entered in the registry would submit a set of documents to prove their Indigenous status. For those in possession of older internal passports, with their ‘nationality’ still listed, the process would be simple. Their internal passport, which shows where they live, would need to indicate a place on the state-sanctioned List of Places of Traditional Habitation (RF 2009a). For those who do not have a internal passport that indicates nationality, a variety of other ways of proving Indigenous status are listed as acceptable: a birth certificate which shows the nationality of at least one parent to be from an Indigenous Northern nation, a court decision that the person is member of an Indigenous Northern nation (or that a person’s parent, sibling or child is Indigenous), or other official document that indicates nationality of the citizen.

36One’s tax identification is also required (Article 7.4.6), and one’s compulsory pension insurance numbers (Article 7.4.7). At its draft stage, critics of the law queried the relevance of such data, asking if the lack of such a number, or refusal to provide such, might be cause for the state to deny registration of an Indigenous individuals. The law contains the phrase ‘if such exists’ after each of these requirements, perhaps in answer to such concerns.

37During the law’s drafting, Indigenous leaders stressed the need for a liberal approach that would not unduly burden Indigenous Northerners with proving their membership in an Indigenous nation, and that would recognize the difficulties of accessing historic documents that indicate a parent’s or grandparent’s (Indigenous) nationality in some cases, and especially among nomads (TsS KMNS/RITTs 2018). A severe burden of proof is tantamount to exclusion. The list of possible documentation for proving one’s Indigenous status seems generous, and not aimed at constraining numbers or registrants.

7.4 Who Decides Who is Indigenous?

38The law creating the registry was criticized in its draft form for not providing for any role for Indigenous peoples in developing the rules for the creation and maintenance of the registry nor in the establishment of the registry itself (TsS KMNS/RITTs 2018). This did not change in the adopted version in any substantive way. Power remains with the federal government to ultimately sanction who is entered in the registry. Such an approach may disregard provisions in the 1999 ‘Law on Guarantees’, which provide for Indigenous participation in matters that effect their interests. It contravenes international law, which “strongly advocates for communities to make their own decisions about identity and belonging.” [Jacobs 2019, p.150]. The Russian state will continue to construct and enforce (official) Indigenous identity, via the registry: the registry can be considered yet another site that restricts and marginalizes Indigenous agency. In Russia, as in Canada and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples and persons are “subject to colonial diktat about what it means to be Aboriginal – always relative to the authoritative arbiter of knowledge in colonial academies, bureaucracies, governments, mass media, and law.” [Green 2009, p.41]. While Indigenous leaders have had the opportunity to help shape the Russian laws that determine the recognition of their rights, their power is limited, and many of their concerns are addressed only partially.

8. Conclusion

The registry will help the government, but it won’t help the people. We still need to figure out how to deal with this. The constitution says that a person can determine and show her/his nationality (Personal communication, Indigenous bureaucrat, Yakutsk, May 2017)

39While many Indigenous leaders appear to consider a registry the most realistic option for a better realization of Indigenous rights and protections, and some have celebrated the passage of the law that requires the creation of such, concerns remain about the limitations on who will be eligible for registration, what efforts that will involve and who defines this. The Center for Assistance to Indigenous Peoples of the North / Russian Training Center for Indigenous Peoples of the North has labeled a late draft version of the law as ‘anti-constitutional’ and ‘discriminatory’, an attempt “to undermine the foundations of a key constitutional federal law for Indigenous numerically small peoples” and (TsS KMNS/RITTs 2018). Adaptations to the final version did not address these concerns. Trepidation about who will qualify and who will be left out remain.

40Kuchinskiy [2016, p.3] reminds us that the presence of information about a person in the registry must be a result of the presence of the person being a member of an Indigenous nation, and not the reverse, warning that to ”create a registry, which would assign such status, is to swap cause and effect.” Registries affect a person’s lived reality in far-reaching ways, by their virtue of inclusion or exclusion [cf. Palmater 2014]. The Russian Federation has legislated a registry of Indigenous persons: it will now be incumbent on policy-makers to consider the nuances and complexities of its just implementation. Regarding revisions Elena Golomareva cautioned “if a change, then only to improve.” Let her words motivate the realization of the registry.

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1 Translation of Russian legislation, other than the Constitution, is that of the authors.

2 Other than the numerical criterion, this definition roughly accords with the “widely accepted definition of indigenous peoples [as] peoples who: (a) usually live within or maintain attachments to geographically distinct ancestral territories; (b) tend to maintain distinct social, economic, and political institutions within their territories; (c) typically aspire to remain distinct culturally, geographically and institutional rather than assimilate fully into national society; and (d) self-identify as indigenous or tribal.” (Kukutai 2004, footnote 3, p.87, referencing Special Rapporteur J. Martinez-Cobo’s 1986 UN Report on Indigenous populations).

3 The seven other Indigenous peoples live in various areas of the Russian Federation, and share no common history as objects of state policy during the Soviet period. For a map of Indigenous Northerners see:

4 Interestingly, the 2020 Law use the term “numerically small peoples”, eschewing the adjective “Indigenous” (RF 2000a).

5 Sakha Republic (Yakutia), located in the eastern part of the Russian Federation, and the largest jurisdiction (federal subject) of the Russian Federation, holds a reputation for being at the forefront of Indigenous rights legislation within the Russia Federation

6 These were the Olekminsk District (administrative centre Olekma; Tyanya village; 2016), Neryungrisk District (administrative centre Neryungri; Iengra village; 2017), Aldan District (administrative centre Aldan; Khatystyr village; 2017), all in Sakha Republic (Yakutia), and Kalar District (administrative centre Novaya Chara; Staraya Chara, Chapo Ologo villages; 2018) in Zabaykalsk Territory.

7 The production of Russian legislation on Indigenous rights regularly involves the use of ‘Expert Groups’, whose members include Indigenous persons, ethnographers, legal experts, and others, tasked with considering the proposed content, wording and impact of the draft law, prior to its proceeding toward formal adoption.

8 A ‘clan community’ (obshchina) is “a form of self-organization of persons belonging to numerically small peoples and uniting along blood-relation (family, clan) and/or territorial-neighbor attributes, created with the goal of defending their ancestral lands of habitation, and maintaining and developing traditional ways of life, economic activity, trades and culture…” (RF 2000b, Article 1).

9 Issuing such inserts was eventually deemed in contravention of an RF Regulation forbidding recording of nationality in passports, and ceased to be issued in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in 2016 (RS(Ya) 2016).

10 Oblast’ is often translated as ‘region’, or sometimes ‘province’; Kray as ‘territory’, and ‘okrug’ as district. We retain the Russian terms for clarity. A map of Russia’s federal subjects is available at

11 Chair of the Standing Committee on Issues of Indigenous Numerical Small Peoples of the North and Arctic Affairs, of Sakha Republic’s State Assembly (Il Tumen). Golomareva also served as expert on the sub-committee on Issues of Indigenous Numerical Small Peoples, of the Committee on Nationality Affairs, State Duma of the Russian Federation. [Golomareva 2017]

12 For instance, recent changes to supports for reindeer husbandry have involved a shift from subsidies based on the number of reindeer herders, to subsidies based on how many reindeer a person is herding, thus incentivizing some herders to leave the field, handing their reindeer over to others, so that at least some individuals are meeting state-set limits and receiving the subsidies. While meant to stimulate the maintenance of reindeer numbers, this system of support inadvertently has encouraged a loss of people involved in this traditional activity (Personal communication, Indigenous bureaucrat, Yakutsk, May 2017).

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Gail Fondahl, Viktoriya Filippova et Antonina Savvinova, « Introducing a Registry of Indigenous Persons in Russia: Rationale and Challenges », Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2020/1-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2020, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Gail Fondahl

Professor, Geography
University of Northern British Columbia
3333 University Way, Prince George, BC V2N 4Z9 Canada

Viktoriya Filippova

Senior Researcher, History
The Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North, Siberian branch, Russian Academy of Sciences
1 Petrovskogo, Yakutsk, 677027 Russia

Antonina Savvinova

Associate Professor, Geography
M.K. Ammosov North-Eastern Federal University
58 Belinskogo, Yakutsk, 677000 Russia

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