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Problems Brewing for Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Far North

Submitted by on November 15, 2012 – 8:00 pm 8 Comments |  

As GeoCurrents reported in the past, native peoples of the Russian Far North struggle to fit into the modern global village while retaining their ethnic identity and cultural distinctiveness. In recent days, the situation seems to have rapidly changed for the worse, with Moscow threatening to close an indigenous peoples’ NGO and with the director of the Pomor Institute in Archangelsk being accused of treason.

The first issue concerns RAIPON—the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East—which is a non-governmental organization that for over 20 years has played a central role in protecting indigenous peoples’ human rights and legal interests, as well as in promoting their right to self governance. The organization represents some 300,000 people from over 40 indigenous groups that live in a vast chunk of the Russian Federation stretching from Murmansk to Kamchatka. RAIPON has also been instrumental in fostering international cooperation among indigenous peoples of Russia and those of other Arctic states. It has signed an official cooperation agreement with the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and is represented is the Arctic Council. Members of RAIPON’s presidium serve in the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, as well as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Expert Mechanism on indigenous rights, and the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights. Unlike most other local NGOs, the association has been heavily engaged in a number of legislative processes involving Russian Arctic territories. And yet RAIPON has been under increasing pressure from the federal Ministry of Justice, which claims that its statutes are not in line with federal law and that it therefore must be closed down. This charge appears to be a technicality of the sort that, due to federal legislation passed over the last few years, allows Russian authorities to crush bothersome non-governmental entities. RAIPON has reportedly made several attempts to adjust its statutes in line with the requirements of the ministry, but none of its steps taken have been approved. The association has twice gone to court to dispute the ministry decision, but both attempts have failed. RAIPON now intends to appeal the verdicts and to reach out for help from its international partners, but its future remains in the balance.

In the meantime, a criminal case has been brought against a Pomor advocate Ivan Moseev.* Moseev is accused of treason, which can land him in federal prison for 12 to 20 years. The specific charges include spying on behalf of Norway, fomentation of interethnic hatred, and “destabilization of the socio-political situation in Archangel oblast” through calling for a recognition of the Pomor as a separate indigenous group, or even (according to the prosecution) appeals to join “the United States of Europe” (whatever legal entity that might be). Overall, “maintaining the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” appears to be high on the Russian government’s agenda, not only in the European northwest but also in the Pacific Far East as well. In addition to treason, Moseev is also charged in accordance with Article 282 of the Criminal Code for making a comment of an extremist nature on a local Archangelsk website “Echo of the North”. In response to an earlier comment calling the Pomors to “quiet down”, Moseev allegedly wrote: “What will you do to us? You are millions of bydlo [best translated as ‘sheeple’], and we are 2,000 people”. The site’s editor reported the comment to the FSB, which then conducted a “linguistic investigation” that concluded that the word bydlo refers unambiguously to Russians. The person who left the “quiet down” comment has been called to testify at the FSB office; he too claimed that he understood the term as a disparaging reference to himself as an ethnic Russian. In my professional opinion, since the previous commentator did not explicitly identify himself as a Russian, the comment allegedly made by Moseev does not directly indicate who the second person pronoun ‘you’ refers to, so it seems to be a case of offense “in the eye of the beholder”.

According to some reports, even before criminal charges were brought against him, Moseev was hounded down by the authorities for heading the Pomor cultural institute despite not having a graduate degree in humanities. It does not seem to matter that Moseev is a leading ethnographic expert on the Pomors and has dedicated his life to preserving their culture, writing and publishing a dictionary of the Pomor dialect (marked as “1″ on the map on the left). In fact, the prosecution is set to use the dictionary, whose publication was paid for by Norwegian sources, to further incriminate Moseev.


The trial, which started on November 12, has been postponed until later this month due to the defendant’s worsening health, possibly due to the psychological pressure he has been under. Moseev himself denies leaving the online comment as well as all other charges brought against him; moreover, he called the criminal case “a provocation by the FSB”. Some journalists have called the prosecution’s charges “a manifest of judicial madness” and questioned whether the “show trial” against Mossev signifies “a return of 1937” (in reference to the blood purges by the NKVD). Many journalists in Russia and in Norway also compare this trial to that of Pussy Riot earlier this year.



*The term “Pomor”, literally ‘person who lives by the sea’, refers to indigenous inhabitants of the coastal area along the White Sea, the Barents Sea, and the Arctic Ocean. They are largely descendants of ethnic Russian settlers from the Novgorod area, although admixture from Finnic-speaking groups is significant. The distinctive Pomor dialect is a member of the northern Russian dialectal group. It is not to be confused with Russenorsk, a Russian Norwegian pidgin.


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  • Steven

    Hate comes back to you in the end. The more xenophobic mainstream Russia becomes, the more it alienates the other Republics.
    I feel this is going to seriously backfire one day in the future. The Arctic people are too small perhaps, but others are not.

    And let’s face it, Russians do not have much to do with Russia anymore: the Jews have the money, the Georgians the food, Armenians the trade, Ukrainians rule the showbusiness and Central Asians wipe the streets. Let’s see what happens next.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your comment, Steven! You make somewhat sweeping generalizations at the end, but I agree that hate comes back to you in the end. Xenophobia is not new in Russia. Where it’s going to backfire on them seriously or not, I don’t know. But I think in a way it already holds Russians back.

  • James T. Wilson

    This charge of “destabilization of the socio-political situation in Archangel oblast” is an interesting one. You say he is also charged with incitement under Article 282, so I guess this is not that, but I wonder what their theory of the crime could possibly be. It isn’t the deliciously Soviet “hooliganism” of Article 213, is it?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Hmmm, I am not sure if the destabilization charge is part of treason or part of incitement. It does smell of the Soviet-style charges, show trials, etc. The ugliness of it is exactly what caught my eye in the whole affair. Whether the Pomors are a separate ethnic group or not, accusing someone who says they are for TREASON is a bit much, wouldn’t you say? After all, it’s not like the Russians and the Pomors are already at war, and this guy sides with the ENEMY!

      • James T. Wilson

        Well, that is the interesting part. I have only looked at what appears to be a rather good translation of the Russian Criminal Code at, but Article 282 is part of Chapter 29, Crimes Against the Fundamentals of the Constitutional System and State Security, which starts with Article 275, High Treason. It may be that the “treason” referred to is just a violation of this ridiculous Article 282 on “Incitement of National, Racial, or Religious Enmity,” or it may be that they are saying he actually committed high treason, “assistance rendered to a foreign state,” in his assistance to the “United States of Europe,” by trying to get the Pomors to join it. All of these are, of course, fantastical, but it would be interesting to know which of these they were thinking of, or if they were just planning to arrest the man first and think of some justification later.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Oh he is beyond being just arrested. He was already brought to court for a trial (which had to be postponed because he couldn’t actually be in court as he’s hospitalized). From what I understand he is now charged with accordance to Article 282. The treason charge was the “high treason”, Article 275. He was accused of being a Norwegian spy because the Norwegians paid for the publication of his Pomor dictionary. Ergo he is spying for them, right?! Ridiculous, of course. But from what I saw in the press, the “high treason” charge was dropped. Maybe they realized how ridiculous it is. But even Article 282 can be a serious problem for him. We’ll have to see how it develops.

          • James T. Wilson

            And Article 282 is infinitely malleable. Every language teacher, the Patriarch of Moscow, and the president himself could be hauled in under Article 282, depending on how one interprets it.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Ah, that’s the beauty of the Russian criminal code! But more seriously, several journalists commented that if this Pomor guy is being accused of threanening the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, what should be said about Medvedev and Putin, who gave certain (small) chunks of the Russian territory to the Chinese (and in another case to Azeris, if I remember correctly)?! Which is a good point.

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