Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law

(2000) JLP 45: 91-113


The Construction of ‘Indigenousness’ in Russian Science, Politics and Law


S.V. Sokolovski




It is already a well‑worn truism that there is no commonly accepted definition of 'indigenous people' either in the current literature on international law, or in the contemporary legal regulations on the state level. One of the common explanations for this state of things is the existing diversity of indigenous groups and domestic legal regimes. The report is aimed at an outline of the Russian domestic treatment of the terms 'native', 'indigenous' and 'minority peoples' as they are perceived by jurists, politicians and peoples themselves, as there are some notable deviations from international standards that merit attention, discussion and critique.


The concepts of 'indigenous' or 'native' have in Russian several layers of meaning, sometimes melted into one major meaning of being 'rooted' in the land, sometimes, as they appeared in different periods of the Russia's political history, as being non‑Russian, non‑Orthodox (pagan), a nomad, a newcomer, a migrant etc. This conceptual field of related notions has always been a source of borrowing and active usage by political elites, for it seems to be an inalienable quality of a central state to draw distinctions among various social and cultural groups as to their relationship to land and to the central authorities. Cultural and linguistic 'kin' were treated on average more favourably than barbarophonoi [Homer. Iliad 2.867]. Differentiated sets of societal proximities linking rulers with the ruled have at the same time been operating as a set of effective filters or barriers, sorting people of the country into internal 'ours' and 'others'. The names for 'others', initially less differentiated, were subject to diversification with growing knowledge at expert (scientific or special) levels, remaining less differentiated at the level of the common public. Political jargon remains 'suspended' between these, the expert and lay versions of the interpretation of ethnic reality.


Only during the last ten-year period have various ex‑Soviet ethnic groups voiced more than 300 territorial claims. At least one-tenth of these claims have been instrumental in ethnic mobilization campaigns and outbreaks of ethnic violence. Legitimation and justification of this violence is rooted in particular conceptual structures of political discourse on ethnic issues, which could be termed as naturalization and territorialization of ethnicity. The relevance of these tropes in political discourse to the current law‑making activities in the sphere of indigenous rights protection in Russia is analyzed in the report.