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Oil Derricks or Reindeer? A Clash of Economics and Traditional Lifeway in Russia’s Far North

Reindeer in Naryan-Mar, Russia.


This piece is part of a report for the field research project “Rising Voices of Northern Indigenous People in the Context of Growing Pressure of Russian Nationalism,” implemented with the financial support of the Kennan Institute.

It is widely perceived, and supported by some research, that people who work to revive indigenous cultures are for the most part well-educated urban dwellers with an international reach, while those who pursue traditional lifeways often lack such communication opportunities and are not part of the political process in general. Events over the past few years in Russia’s North have stood this belief on its head. The emergence of a new actor in regional politics, Voice of the Tundra (Golos tundry), a network-type mass protest community, in the Yamal Peninsula has affirmed not only indigenous people’s ability to use social media strategically but also to mobilize to protect a robust, land-based culture. Moreover, the movement’s leader is not an urban activist but a young reindeer herder, Eiko Serotetto.

Factors Driving Indigenous People’s Activism

The political clash that gave rise to Voice of the Tundra devolves from the resource problems of the Russian North, and specifically from discrepant views on how the land is to be used. The Yamal Peninsula is located at the center of Russia’s major gas production and transportation projects. Beneath the permafrost lie some of the largest untapped natural gas deposits in the world, and the port of Sabetta is a key component of the Northern Sea Route. Over the past decade, the pace of land exploration and development by oil, gas, and mining industries has accelerated considerably.

The Yamal Peninsula is also the largest center of reindeer herding in the world, and the Nenets people, Yamal’s primary indigenous population, still link their well-being and ancient nomadic lifeways to the reindeer, traveling across the land in a six-season migration cycle. That connection has come under stress in recent years from weather-related phenomena and other natural shocks, including the development of an extensive ice crust in the winter of 2013–2014, considered responsible for the loss of 22 percent of the herd to starvation, and an outbreak of anthrax in the summer of 2016, which led to another major die-off. The reindeer migration route now crosses roads and pipelines, a further threat to herd survival.

In 2012–2013, Russian authorities imposed reorganization and leadership changes on the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), the key non-governmental organization defending the rights of the indigenous peoples. The new leaders of the group would prioritize interests of the oil industry to those of the local communities. But in recent years an objection came from the grass roots, from the tundra, and this objection was vocalized by Voice of the Tundra.

The leader of the new initiative, Eiko Serotetto, posted a petition on social media addressed to the Russian president and asking to keep the livestock numbers at the same level. He complained about violations of aboriginal people’s rights and accused local officials of failing to understand the needs and grievances of tundra dwellers and indigenous people. His petition, “To preserve the home of the Nenets,” advocated against oil and gas production. It claimed that the gas-producing industry would profit from reindeer livestock reduction (“Nomads and their reindeer are the last obstacle on the path of oil and gas companies”). It was thanks to Eiko Serotetto that many of the problems of Yamal’s indigenous population became widely known.

In broadly publicizing the contest over lifeways and the control of natural resources, Voice of the Tundra considerably complicated the life of the regional authorities, who were not prepared for events to unfold in such a manner. Officials began to see the group as subversive. The leadership of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Area (YNAA) accused the reindeer herders of waging an information war. Officials went so far as to label Voice of the Tundra activists “foreign agents,” which has become a fallback term for the Russian authorities. For instance, Sergey Klimentyev, director of the YNAA Internal Affairs department, argued before the regional parliament that “a stress point is being artificially created in the region in order to create a new political reality.” He went on to characterize Voice of the Tundra as “a major offensive information operation” promulgating its own narrative. In a similar vein, the Moscow newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow), a media outlet of Russian nationalists and pogrom-mongers, published an article accusing Yamal Peninsula activists of preparing a "Polar Maidan" and comparing the movement’s leader, Eiko Serotetto, to the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

One might think authorities would pay attention to pressing societal issues instead of announcing hasty accusations and claiming that activists are engaging in subversion. According to the local reindeer herders, the biggest problem they face is declining pastureland as acreage is seized for industrial needs. Competing uses for land lie at the heart of the negative attitude that indigenous communities in the Russian Arctic show toward the fuel and energy industry.

Resistance and Self-Identity

The case of the Nenets herders and Voice of the Tundra poses interesting questions about the intersectional nature of resistance and self-awareness. It seems clear that over the past few years, the self-awareness and identity of some indigenous populations have been taking shape based on ethnic and tribal mobilization at the grassroots level, and that environmental activism, care for the ancestral land, and language solidarity have been contributing factors. Persistence of indigenous ethnicity is growing as a response to environmental and technological challenges. All these factors contributed to the emergence of the Voice of the Tundra protest movement.

Examples of resistance provide valuable material for understanding the culture and concerns of indigenous communities. An interesting follow-up observation is that resistance to industrialization of the North helped shape the indigenous population’s self-awareness. This flies in the face of certain anthropological tenets that identity and self-awareness are already fully formed before indigenous community members became participants in resistance activities.  Insofar as resistance contributes to shaping self-awareness, resistance as an analytical concept can be especially useful in cases where the government undertakes new offensive campaigns for the sake of economic exploration and exploitation of the North that inevitably change the foundations of indigenous lifestyle.

About the Author

Arbakhan K. Magomedov

Former George F. Kennan Fellow;
Visiting Professor, Kansai University
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more