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In Russian North Official Ethnic Discrimination Only Makes National Identities More Important – OpEd


Russian officials have fallen into a trap that many in other countries have as well. When they discriminate, especially in violation of their country’s constitution and laws, against members of particular ethnic communities, they only succeed in making the identities of these communities not only stronger but often directed against the state itself.

The Russian government has proposed rules that would prevent anyone not a member of a numerically small people of the Russian North from having fishing and hunting rights, a measure that might seem designed to protect them from outsiders but that in fact subverts their rights and the rights of others.

The draft is available online at It has been criticized by members of the communities of the Far North ( And it is the subject of an analysis by Anatoly Bednov on the AfterEmpire portal today (

“As residents of Russia have known for a long time,” Bednov writes, “the action of any, even the most justice and vitally necessary laws is reduced to nothing, neutralized or even entirely eliminated by administrative rulings and instructions. And even the action of paragraphs of the Constitution are subject to such ‘corrections.’”

The latest such case involves fishing rights in the Far North. According to the draft instruction, officials will not give fishing rights to any community there living by traditional ways of life if any of the members of that community are not full-blooded members of nationalities defined by the state as indigenous numerically small peoples of the North.

“If in a list of a Nenets community there are ethnic Russians, for example, Pomors or Ust-Tsilems, and in the list of a Yukagir community, there are Yakuts (also indigenous but not numerically small) … the community will be deprived of the right to exploit the bio-resources of waterways.”

Three outcomes are then possible, Bednov says. First, those who are not members of the numerically small indigenous peoples could be expelled from the community. Second, they could change their nationality – thus, a Pomor could declare himself a Saam or a Yakut a Yukagir or Chukchi. And third, anyone married to “an outsider” could get a divorce.

Officials are presenting this measure as a defense of these communities, but in fact they are just the reverse and they are reminiscent, the AfterEmpire portal writer says, of ethnic discrimination of the kind found in “the Nuremberg race laws of Hitlerite Germany,” where an ethnic German with a non-Aryan spouse would be subjected to repression.

The most likely outcome of the introduction of this new measure, he continues, will be that ethnic Russians and other “’not numerically small’” peoples will begin to reidentify as members of those groups that are on the list of numerically small indigenous peoples, possibly making them too large to remain on it or undermining the ethnic group itself.

Besides being a violation of the Russian Constitution, such actions by officials and the response of the population raise some interesting questions. “How will government bureaucrats define whether a citizen belongs to the category of the numerically small indigenous peoples or not? There is no ‘nationality’ line in passports anymore.”

Will they use language as the marker? But many indigenous peoples don’t speak their national language. Or will they use some sort of “anthropological signs” and measure the skulls of the peoples of the North to make sure that only they and no one else gets to fish in the waters of the region.

The Russian constitution bans such ethnic discrimination and makes clear that communities given special rights because they engage in a traditional way of life have them not because they are members of this or that nationality but because of their economic activities. Thus an ethnic Russian who does so has as much right to that as any Evenk.

Bednov concludes his detailed analysis of what Moscow is planning to do by suggesting that it is time to repeat the demand of dissidents in Soviet times: “Observe your own Constitution! Although,” he says, he “fears that this will sound like the latest voice crying in the desert of in this case in the tundra.”

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Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

2 thoughts on “In Russian North Official Ethnic Discrimination Only Makes National Identities More Important – OpEd

  • June 7, 2017 at 10:43 am

    Why am I not surprised to the see the by-line? Motto should be “ever hopeful”.

  • June 7, 2017 at 11:27 am

    Russia should follow the example of Canada, giving home rule to the native Siberians in their territories, so that they are all equal republics in the Russian federation.


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