The Arctic area of the Russian Federation stretches from the Norwegian border in the west to Ostrov Ratmanova in the east, nearly halfway around the world.

Slideshow

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Total and indigenous population in different regions of Arctic Russia.

Chart of Artic Russian population groups

According to the 1989 census, the total population of Arctic Russia is approximately 2 million people, of whom approximately 67,000 are indigenous minorities. An additional 260,000 non-indigenous residents live in the Norilsk mining area in northern Siberia. Seventy-five percent of the indigenous population live in rural areas.

The indigenous minorities of Arctic Russia are the Dolgan, Nganasan, Nenets, Saami, Khanty, Chukchi, Evenk, Even, Enets, Eskimo (or Yupik), and Yukagir. Another five groups live close to or within the Arctic region: the Selkup, Chuvan, Mansi, Ket, and Koryak; see table to the right. Another indigenous group, the Yakut, live in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia). They are too numerous to be considered a minority in Russia, but their traditional way of life includes reindeer herding and activities common to the other indigenous groups in the area.

Most immigrants have arrived in the past century and are engaged in industrial enterprises and related activities. They live in cities and large towns. In the western areas of the Russian Arctic, ethnic Russians known as Pomors have lived in the area for five centuries and have a traditional lifestyle similar to that of indigenous people. Other “old settlers” live in other areas of the Russian Arctic.

Traditions vary in the different regions of the vast Russian Arctic. However, the lives of all Arctic peoples are closely connected to the history of Russian exploitation of the north.

Resource exploitation has disrupted traditional lifestyles

The Russian north contains large amounts of natural resources, including timber, oil, gas, coal, and minerals. For centuries the resources have been exploited, and today they provide one-fifth of Russia’s gross national product. The growth in this development has been tremendous during the past century and is expected to continue, especially considering large hydrocarbon reserves in the Naryan-Mar region and offshore near Novaya Zemlya.

This resource exploitation has taken place in the traditional homelands of the indigenous people of northern Russia. The consequences have been severe. State enterprises have ignored traditional knowledge and patterns of land use, and many people have been forced into collectives. Private ownership is now being reintroduced, but it is too early to determine what effects it will have.

Industrialization has damaged the land. Land and rivers that were once used for reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting have been lost to industrial expansion and pollution. The upheaval has also carried high social costs as traditional cultures have been shattered. Difficulties in taking advantage of higher education have kept most indigenous people from any real opportunity to participate in the industrial economy.

Economic crisis has worsened the plight of northerners

The predicament of the north is accentuated by the recent economic changes in Russia. Supply lines have been disrupted and many people have less to eat, especially of imported foods. Moreover, reorganization of collectives and state farms along with depletion of fish stocks, closure of forest plots, and reduced investments have led to increased unemployment among indigenous people, reversing a previous upward trend in employment. Unemployment is now between 25 and 30 percent, and is higher among young people and women. Most indigenous people work with traditional activities, such as reindeer herding, fur trapping and farming, hunting, fishing, and making handicrafts.

Housing is in short supply and most buildings are overdue for improvements. Over 30 percent of the indigenous population lives in substandard housing or traditional tents, often because housing in rural areas and along migration routes is not available.

Sickness and social distress lead to shorter lives

Statistics on mortality and the incidence of various diseases bear witness to a dismal health situation. In the north, the mortality rate in 1989 for the indigenous minorities was 10.4 per thousand, compared to 6.6 per thousand for other residents of the area.

At the end of the 1980s, life expectancy was 54 years for men and 65 for women, which is 10 to 20 years lower than the Russian average. Trauma, infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease, parasites, and respiratory disease are common causes of death. Many health problems are related to alcoholism. Infant mortality is very high, at 30 per 1000 among indigenous people. Among Koryak, the infant mortality rate is as high as 52.6 per thousand and among Eskimos 47.6 per thousand.

Certain diseases are particularly common. One is “northern lung,” a suite of respiratory diseases that are widespread among indigenous people. Chronic ear infections are also common. The incidence of tuberculosis is 2.5 to 3 times higher than among newcomers to the region. Dietary changes, including more carbohydrates compared with traditional foods, may in part be responsible for the high incidence of gastrointestinal disorders. Up to 95 percent of the population suffers from vitamin deficiencies or dental diseases.

The risk for disease reflects lifestyle patterns. A study in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug showed that the rates of disease were 50 percent higher in the settled population compared with those living on the tundra. Psychological disorders were 2.5 times higher among the settled populations.

The incidence of disease, as well as traumas, has increased several hundred percent since 1970.

The future of the indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic is unclear. The Russian Federation has passed some laws to protect minority interests, but implementing the new legislation will take time and effort. One hope is that traditional practices connected to economic activities such as reindeer herding and fur farming can provide some opportunities.

Environmental contaminants are not the greatest threat but are nonetheless a serious concern. They strike at the heart of traditional ways of life as they affect both the food supply and opportunities to make a living off the land.

Chart of Artic Russian population groups

Reindeer provide food and employment across Russian north

The figure gives a picture of the importance of different foods in Arctic Russia.

Murmansk Oblast

Most people in the Murmansk Oblast live in urban areas. The primary indigenous group is the Saami. Reindeer meat is an important food source for all residents because it is relatively inexpensive and is available in the region. Other important foods are mountain hare and moose.

In the traditional lifestyle, fish and birds add to the summer diet. Salmon and trout were customarily taken in large numbers, but there is currently a quota system limiting the salmon harvest to 25-30 kilograms per person per year.

The major industry is metal processing. It is also the largest polluter.

Among indigenous people, reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, and producing reindeer fur for handicrafts are the most common occupations. The herding teams include Saami, who are joined by Nenets and Komi from neighboring regions, and Russians. The reindeer are driven on to the Kieva Plateau in the summer and south in the winter. The migration routes cannot support more animals and thus limit the growth of the herds.

Nenets Autonomous Okrug

About ten percent of the Okrug’s population are Nenets, of whom most live on the tundra. Reindeer meat is the primary food source in the Okrug. Additional sources include moose, brown bear, bighorn sheep, and alpine hare. Lesser sources are seal, beluga, ptarmigan, ducks and geese, and snowy owl.

The main occupations of indigenous people are reindeer herding, hunting, fishing, and fur and leather craftsmanship.

The tundra and forest-tundra have extensive marshes with excellent summer ranges for reindeer, and the Okrug is the major reindeer breeding area in Russia. In the fall, the herds move south along strictly defined passages to the southern tundra, forest tundra, and taiga. The availability of reindeer moss limits the size of reindeer populations in the Okrug.

Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug

The indigenous population of Yamalo-Nenets include the Nenets, the Khanty, and the Selkup. Together with other indigenous peoples, they make up about 6 percent of the population.

Reindeer and fish are the most important staples in the diet. Additional sources are similar to the neighboring Nenets Autonomous Okrug. The traditional occupations are also similar.

The main industries are oil and gas production, which have had a major impact on the local environment, reducing the productivity of the reindeer industry. For example, 6.8 million hectares of reindeer rangeland have been polluted by oil seepage and other spills, destroyed by vehicles, or otherwise lost to the herders.

Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous Okrug

The Taimyr (Dolgan-Nenets) Autonomous Okrug includes vast range land for reindeer, which surrounds the administratively separate mining complex and city of Norilsk. The indigenous people of the region are the Dolgan, Nenets, Nganasan, Evenk, and Enets. They make up about 16 percent of the population.

As in neighboring Okrugs, reindeer meat is the main source of food. Fish and birds are also significant. One of the specialties in the traditional diet is sliced frozen fish (stroganina) during the winter. The major fish species are cisco, whitefish, herring, Siberian sturgeon, Arctic char, nelma, muksun, Arctic grayling, pike, perch, and smelt. Secondary food sources include moose, common seal, beluga, bearded seal, ducks, geese, snowy owl, and ptarmigan. Marine mammals are a relatively small food source, however.

Mining and metal processing is the main industry in the area, and also a major polluter. Small enterprises, including reindeer herding, account for less than 10 percent of the economy. The migration routes from the tundra to the tundra-forest have been overgrazed, limiting the growth of the herds. Year-round navigation of the Yenisey River and the construction of a pipeline between Messoyakha and Norilsk have made large areas of rangeland inaccessible. Hunting of wild reindeer is important for Nganasans.

Sakha Republic (Yakutia)

The Arctic zone of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) includes a large population of Yakuts plus Even, Yukagir and Chukchi, who make up about six percent of the population.

Reindeer meat, fish, ringed and common seal, and birds are the main sources of food. The emphasis is on fish in coastal areas and on meat inland. Secondary food sources include moose, Kolyma moose, alpine hare, ptarmigan, brown bear, whitefish, ducks and geese, Siberian sturgeon, pike, berries, roots, nuts, and herbs.

The main occupation for the indigenous minorities is reindeer herding, but commercial hunting and fur trapping are also important. Northern Sakha produces one third of Russia’s Arctic fox pelts. On the inland forest-tundra, several villages are located at good fishing sites, while coastal people are involved in marine mammal hunting and fishing.

Chukotka Autonomous Okrug

The Chukotka Autonomous Okrug includes the Chukchi as its largest indigenous minority group and also has Eskimo (or Yupik), Even, Chuvan, and Koryak communities.

Thirty percent of the indigenous Chukotkans live in sedentary villages along the coast. They eat marine mammals, as well as reindeer meat from inland. The inland dwellers eat mostly reindeer in winter, while fish and marine mammals from trade with the coastal people add to their summer diet.

The main occupations are reindeer herding, terrestrial and marine hunting, and producing ivory and fur for handicrafts. For Yupiks, fur farming, marine hunting, and fishing are the chief occupations. The large state farms for reindeer are currently being dismantled and are being replaced by individual farms and smaller ventures, a transition which has decreased the production of the herds.