Indigenous People: Conceptualization in International, Soviet, and Russian Legislation

Andrei Tarasov
The practical implications of conceptualizing the term “indigenous people” are significant, as indigenous people’s rights are central to both international and national law. As noted by British anthropologist Andrew Gray, “the term ‘indigenous’ is not simply a matter of analysis. It is a matter of life and death for the millions of people covered by the term...” (Gray, 1995:41). This concise introduction explores the use of the term in the USSR and present-day Russia, illustrating how certain aspects of international legislation were rejected or incorporated into legislative acts in the national context.

International approach

Despite some practical attempts dating back to the 1920s – when North American indigenous groups approached the League of Nations – substantial development with regard to indigenous communities and their rights occurred only after World War II. International attention was gained mostly in reaction to self-determination movements, decolonization and the rise of the global human rights framework.

The first international definition was introduced in 1957 by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which adopted Convention No. 107. Article 1 of this convention defined “indigenous people” based on several basic criteria: a) they should be a tribal or a semi-tribal population; b) their economic and social conditions should be less advantageous in comparison to other groups; c) they should have their own customs and traditions; d) they descend from a geographical region where they lived in line with social, economic and cultural institutions before conquest or colonization. The latter point was conceptualized as the “First Nation” principle (Dahl, 2009; Roy 2009: 2).

An even broader definition was proposed by former UN Special Rapporteur José R. Martinez Cobo in 1981: he regarded “indigenous people” as those who having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present, non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.”Martinez Cobo’s contribution to the debate was an explicit reference to indigenous peoples in Northern Europe and Asia, thus making the notion more inclusive (Dahl, 2009).

The definition evolved further in the 1989 ILO Convention No.169, which introduced the idea of the “distinguished position,” instead of the “disadvantaged position,” of indigenous peoples. The convention also emphasized the retention of the indigenous group’s institutions and made “self-identification” a fundamental criterion.

These broad definitions gave birth to various approaches to identifying groups that could be covered by the concept of “indigenous people.” As a result, the term does not currently enjoy a universally accepted definition either in academic or activist discourses. Another reason for the existing variation is that some groups considered indigenous by external entities do not agree with the imposition of formal criteria, or their classification as indigenous was done without their knowledge or consent. For example, some sources treat the Ainu from Hokkaido or the Mayans from Central America as indigenous; however, these groups assert the need for flexibility in self-definition and oppose the imposition of definitions by external actors (Williams, 2020: v.1, p. xxi).

By and large, all definitions of the term “indigenous people” can be united into two large groups representing different socio-political and historical contexts. The essentialist approach is based on establishing the selection criteria. This approach tends to emphasize fixed, unchanging characteristics that are deemed essential to a particular group of people. Proponents of this approach see the necessity to clearly define the boundaries and characteristics of indigenous groups. It was adopted by many NGOs, especially with regard to the indigenous people of the Americas (Dahl, 2009). However, the need for a more flexible approach became evident with the expansion of the geographic boundaries of indigeneity, as different groups from different continents claimed their status as indigenous, like the Adivasi people in India (a common name for indigenous people there), the Sami in Europe and the Maasai in Tanzania (Williams, 2020: v.1, p. xxiv).
IWGIA-logo. Source: Wiki Commons
The second, relational approach was summarized by Danish anthropologist Inger Sjørslev (1998), who stipulated that the definition should concentrate on the protection and development of the rights and self-determination of these peoples. At the practical level, this approach was promoted by the Denmark-based International Work Group for IndigenousAffairs (IWGIA), the leading global human rights NGO concerned with the promotion of the collective rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.
Nenets children, 2016. Source: Wiki Commons
The Soviet approach

How did legislation develop in Russia in the 20th century? The first law recognizing the rights of groups that would fall under today’s definition of “indigenous people” was adopted on October 16, 1925. The decision by the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR introduced tax benefits for “tribes (plemena) in the Northern peripheries” of the USSR. These tribes included the Samoyedic peoples, the Yuraks (today known as Nenets) and the Aleuts (some of whom prefer to be identified as Unanan), among others. The legislative acts of 1925-32 further introduced and standardized the terms“small nationalities of the North” (malye narodnosti Severa), native nationalities and tribes (tuzemnye narodnosti i plemena), where narodnosti was a smaller unit in the hierarchy, below so-called “titular nationalities” (e.g., Tatars) and nations (e.g., Belarus). The Leninist approach presupposed the equality of nations and their unconditional right to self-determination, hence the Soviet authorities saw these groups as minority nationalities rather than indigenous communities.

Based on two criteria, the category of “small nationalities of the North” encompassed 22 groups. The geographic criterion allowed only people of the North to be considered indigenous, even though the geographical conceptualization of the “North” was not stable throughout the Soviet era (Missonova & Sokolova, 2006). The second criterion, ethno-territorial, emphasized the community-based, nomadic structure of the communities (Stammler-Gossmann, 2009).

At the practical level, groups mentioned in these legislative acts enjoyed a lot of benefits, including exemption from common state and local taxes, as well as from labor and military obligations; liberal rules on the use of arms; and centralized supply of provisions, and household and hunting equipment. At the symbolic level, the implied status of being “less developed” remained, and the Soviet authorities retained full ideological control. These practical benefits were introduced to help these people to “civilize” and get them from the “stone age to socialism” (Stammler-Gossmann, 2009).
The Soviet Union 1933 CPA 415 stamp (Peoples of the Soviet Union. Evenks). Source: Wiki Commons
The term “native”(tuzemnyi, tuzemtsy – literally “people who inhabit ‘these lands’”), used in some of the definitions of these communities, replaced the term “aliens” (inorodtsy – “those of different kind/kin”), a category used in tsarist Russia. Sokolovsky (2000: 93) explains that “tuzemtsy are not regarded as aliens, but neither are they regarded as citizens of the country: they are relegated to a category of a special kind of citizens. Natives, as the population of ‘these lands,’ were incorporated into the state in the same manner, as the lands where they lived were ‘attached to,’ developed and incorporated into Russia.” The meaning of “from these lands” referred to the remoteness of indigenous territories from the center: the area behind the Ural Mountains that was peripheral and underdeveloped. The Soviet idea to use tuzemtsy instead of inorodtsy was to highlight the “native” characteristic of these people rather than their distinction, but their “less developed” status remained in the term.

Note that the translation of the term “indigenous people” of korennye narody was absent in Soviet legislation. In fact, Soviet authorities considered inapplicable the conceptualization of ILO Conventions, for according to the USSR’s official stance, the international definition of indigenous people was linked to a pre-colonization context, and since the Soviet Union was not colonial, the decolonial language was not applicable to its realities (Barsh, 1986).

In summary, the Soviet authorities refrained from using the term “indigenous people” in legislation, opting for an alternative conceptualization based on geographic dissemination and ethno-territorial origin. This categorization positioned indigenous people at the lowest level within the Soviet state’s ethno-territorial hierarchy.
RAIPON Logo. Source: Wiki Commons
The legislation of the Russian Federation

The newly emerged Russian Federation, which in the early 1990s saw rapid political liberalization, initially aimed to align its legislation with international practices. This led, among other legislative acts, to the adoption of international language into Article 69 of the 1993 Constitution, which guaranteed the rights of small-numbered indigenous groups (korennye malochislennye narody), in line with international law and treaties, although the ILO Convention was not officially ratified. An important driver of this political development was also increased activism on the part of ethnic minorities, which became pronounced as early as the late Soviet years. So, already in 1990 the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (today the Association of Indigenous, Small-Numbered Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation, RAIPON) was established.
Today, there are several federal laws that explicitly regulate the rights of indigenous people in Russia. The most basic one is the Law on Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Small-numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation, signed in 1999. In 2000, Decree 255 “On the Unified Register of Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation” introduced an official list of indigenous communities in Russia. After several amendments, by 2021, it had come to include 46 indigenous peoples.

In comparison to Soviet legislation, the concept of the “North” has been expanded to include the macroregions of Siberia and the Far East. In addition, several groups from the ethnically diverse southern regions of Russia (especially the Caucasus) have gained recognition in the official Unified Register: for instance, the Abazins (Karachay-Cherkessia) and the Shapsugs (Krasnodar Region). However, the number of them in the Register is comparatively much smaller than Northern communities.

In contrast to international norms, Russian legislation provides a legally binding definition of indigenous people as those who: a) reside on traditionally inhabited ancestral territories; b) maintain traditional lifestyles and economic activities; c) number fewer than 50,000 people; and d) identify as separate ethnic communities. This definition represents an attempt to synthesize the international and the Soviet approaches to indigenous people. The last criterion (d) is a clear reference to the ILO Conventions where self-identification serves as a binding principle to define a group as indigenous. Meanwhile, the Soviet heritage lies in the geographical criteria and ethno-territorial dimension.

Russia’s conceptualization of indigenous people is based not only on qualitative but also quantitative criteria, notably articulated in the second criterion (b), capping the number at 50,000 – a departure from both Soviet and international norms. This quantitative criterion, a hurdle for ratifying the ILO Convention of 1989, sets Russian legislation apart.

Reactions from the communities

The criterion of self-identification, as penciled in to the post-Soviet legislation, incentivized several groups to apply for recognition as indigenous. At least two large communities should be mentioned in this regard. In November 1992, the city of Syktyvkar in Komi Region hosted the First World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples, an event to be held annually in different countries. The congress represented a modern revival of the organization established in 1926 to coordinate cooperation between Finno-Ugric states (back then only Finland, Estonia and Hungary); the Finno-Ugric communities that were part of the Soviet Union became active in the 1980s, driven primarily by Estonian-based Finno-Ugric cultural initiatives.
Moksha girls. Source: Wiki Commons
The 1991 event was attended by representatives from Estonia, Russia, Latvia, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Hungary. The joint declaration “expressed concern about the condition of the Finno-Ugric peoples” and sought “the realization of international standards in the spheres of peoples’ right to self-determination.” This initiative was important because it exemplified cross-border solidarity. Moreover, it led to the eventual recognition of some Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia as “indigenous,” e.g. the Vepsians and the Besermyan; though other groups were refused the status (e.g. the Mokshas and the Erzyas). In 2021, Russia withdrew from the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples.
Another remarkable event happened in Dagestan in 2000. There, the local government issued a decree recognizing 14 ethnic groups from the region as “indigenous” and suggested they should be added to the Unified Register. The list included the Nogais, Rutul, Tsakhur and Tabasarans. The document deserves attention because, first, it was issued by regional authorities seeking to ensure the rights of indigenous people through federal legislation. Second, this initiative was an attempt to challenge the existing geographical bias in the federal list of indigenous peoples by which Nordic peoples are by far the majority. The attempt, however, failed, as none of the groups was included in the Unified Register, mainly because their numbers exceeded the limit of 50,000.

Ruptures and continuations

This concise exploration of the concept of indigenous people in both the international and Russian contexts highlights key disparities in these approaches, rooted in historical developments. Whereas the international definition has been shaped by the recognition of European and American colonial history, Soviet and contemporary Russian historiography rejects the colonial nature of the Russian Empire’s expansion. Another distinction lies in the presence of multiple definitions in the international approach, which allow the inclusion of diverse ethnic groups. In contrast, the contemporary Russian definition imposes strict quantitative criteria and confines communities to their historical geographical area of habitation. Even though recent expansions of the legislation cover communities in Russia’s Far East and South, the Unified Register is still dominated by indigenous peoples of the North.
Russel Lawrence Barsh, “Indigenous peoples: An Emerging Object of International Law,” American Journal of International Law, 80.2 (1986): 369-385.

Jens Dahl, IWGIA: A History. Copenhagen: IWGIA, 2009.

Andrew Gray, “The Indigenous Movement in Asia,” in Indigenous Peoples in Asia, edited by R. H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury (Ann Arbor: Association of Asian Studies, 1995), 35–58.

Raja Devasish Roy, The ILO Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations, 1957 and the Laws of Bangladesh: A Comparative Review. Project to Promote ILO Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and ILO Office, Dhaka, Bangladesh (2009).

Inger Sjørslev, “Activism and Research: After 30 Years, What Do We Need To Know?,” Indigenous Affairs 3 (1998): 6-10.

Anna Stammler-Gossmann, “Who is Indigenous? Construction of ‘Indigenousness’ in Russian Legislation,” International Community Law Review 11.1 (2009): 69-102.

Victoria R. Williams, Indigenous Peoples: An Encyclopedia of Culture, History, and Threats to Survival. 4 vols. London: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2020.

Ludmila Missonova & Zoya Sokolova, “The Phenomenon of Stability of the Uilta Ethnic Identity in the Context of History of Ethnic Self-Designations Among the Peoples of the North (the late 19th - the Beginning of the 21st Centuries)”, Ethnographic Review 1 (2006): 129-145.

Sergei Sokolovski, “The Construction of ‘Indigenousness’ in Russian Science, Politics and Law,” The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 32.45 (2000): 91-113.
  • Andrei Tarasov

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