Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law

(2000) JLP 45: 77-89


Small Nations of the Russian North and Their Rights as Indigenous Peoples:

Some Observations and Preliminary Hypotheses


Lennard Sillanpää




Claims by the ‘Small Nations’ of northern Russia for recognition by the Russian state of some form of indigenous rights to lands they have traditionally used and occupied to derive their livelihood – an issue that has long been dormant – may be emerging as a public issue in the Russian Federation. This would coincide with similar actions initiated by aboriginal groups in other Arctic jurisdictions, such as in Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, and Greenland, and by the Sami of Norway, Sweden and Finland. This paper outlines how a control-consociationalism typology can be utilized to analyze how the Russian Federation and a number of regional administrations have responded to such historic claims by these indigenous minorities. Under a control situation, the cultural identity of a minority is almost exclusively determined by the laws, regulations and administrative procedures of the state. Under a consociationalism model, there would be a continuing dialogue between a state and a minority within an administrative framework that the minority has had a significant role in developing. Such a typology can be used to trace more than four centuries of administrative control by the Russian state and also to examine how existing institutions deal with these indigenous northern minorities. Recent documentation by the government of the Russian Federation indicates that most authorities see collective minority rights as a component of human rights and furthermore that these northern Small Nations constitute an indigenous minority. However, the concept of indigenous land title is likely to be a divisive one among politicians and administrators; many will oppose it or maintain that it is not really necessary. Many indigenous rights activists, on the other hand, see it as a fundamental issue – even one of moral justice – that must be ultimately addressed by the state.