A hallmark of post-Soviet life has been new possibilities for group expression and organization. However, these possibilities sometimes combine and collide with increasing conflict between indigenous peoples and developers. At an 8 March 2010 Kennan Institute talk, Marjorie M. Balzer, Research Professor, Georgetown University, and Editor, Anthropology and Archeology of Eurasia, discussed the intertwined nature of politics, economics, culture and ecology in the North of the Russian Federation.

Balzer focused her discussion on the Sakha Republic (also called Yakutia) where she has done intermittent fieldwork since 1986. Roughly the size of India, the Sakha republic has a population of about one million; it is mixed ethnically, with the Sakha around 45%, the Russians slightly less, and other minorities (Even, Evenk, and Yukagir) considerably less. Sakha elites worry that Russia's administrative recentralization is downgrading republic status and Sakha influence in the republic's south, center of the country's diamond industry. "The Sakha north, like all of Russia's northern lands, is a zone of poverty, soaring unemployment, industrial over-extension, and instability," stated Balzer. Northern economic dependency on the Russian "mainland" has exacerbated ethnic tensions in the republic.

One particularly serious threat to the wider regional environment is a planned "Evenk" hydroelectric dam on the Lower Tunguska in Krasnoyarsk Krai. The vice-president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) has called this project "a covert kind of ethnocide" through "ecocide." In 2009, locals voted against the dam in a referendum; it remains to be seen whether it will be erected, especially after the Sayano-Shushensk dam collapse. Balzer stressed that other ambitious mega-projects are being endorsed between Moscow's Ministry of Regional Development and the increasingly compliant, non-elected republic and regional governments. "Ecological oversight is pro forma or corrupted," said Balzer, adding that problems are also due to a "fox in a chicken coop bureaucracy" where environmental oversight is under the aegis of the Ministry of Regional Development.

Culturally, recent ecological changes such as river floods and swampy springs are challenging the traditional way of life in the Sakha North, limiting hunting and forage areas for people and animals, respectively. Sakha ideas about climate change derive from an amalgam of Turkic and indigenous Northern spiritual beliefs, and many consider the increasing distortions of nature to be the result of constant ruptures in the delicate interrelationship between humans and nature. "The Sakha Republic Ministry for the Protection of Nature is doing an uphill job of monitoring ecological devastation and of planning for more Sakha preserves in the face of huge pressures for further development of the republic," asserted Balzer.

Politically, larger indigenous groups with their own republics, such as Sakha, are better able to preserve their environment than are indigenous groups without their own organs of state power. Balzer noted that the concept of "nature taking revenge" is prevalent in the Siberian North. While some are fatalistic about how much they can do to stop environmental harm, activism has been expressed in diverse ways and at various levels, although it has also been repressed or taken to court. Balzer stressed that indigenous groups are not fighting against all development, but rather for increased control over their own resources and for sustainable environmentalism.

Balzer warned against romanticizing stereotypes about "primitive" or traditional people, citing statistics about Siberians' rate of internet usage as one of the highest in Russia. Rather, "folk knowledge" about climate change has merged with broader scientific reporting and accelerated indigenous people's concerns in interactive ways. "Siberians never needed scientists to tell them that their food chains were more fragile than other areas farther south," said Balzer, nor did they need to be told that all-terrain vehicles and Russian mining were destroying lichen, reindeers' main food source.

Development planners who tout potential positive aspects of climate change, such as harnessing methane gas for energy and easier trade through the Northern Sea route, are met with skepticism by most indigenous residents of the Far North, who "well know the ramifications of losing traditional means of subsistence," said Balzer. Likening Siberians to "canaries in the mine," Balzer concluded that their experience warns of the ripple effects of disruptions in delicate northern ecologies. This is the context of their "nick of time" programs of cultural revitalization. As one Sakha resident said after enumerating diamond, coal and petroleum industry devastations, "It all goes together. What is in the atmosphere comes from what we do on the ground. Our ancestors knew this."

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute