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Native `land claims', Russian style.


Native claims in Canada, in the words of Peter Usher in the 1982 volume of this journal, are a "chief means of reordering the relationship between native northerners and the rest of Canadian society; a chance to put an end to generations of injustice and to secure their future as a people" (Usher 1982, 187). Since Usher penned these words, First Nations treaty negotiations have advanced throughout Canada. If geographers have paid relatively little attention to this process until recently (Peters and Wolfe-Keddie 1995; Peters 2000, 2001), media coverage has encouraged a general public awareness. Our knowledge of similar processes elsewhere in the world is rather limited, though the occasional article on Australia, New Zealand or Alaska graces the pages or screens of the mass media. Another process that rarely receives attention is that across the Arctic Ocean in the Russian Federation. Critical commonalties shared between Canada and Russia -- federalism, a dependence on northern resource development, the persistence of distinct and robust aboriginal ways of life, especially in northern regions -- make the Russian case especially interesting for geographers and others interested in comparative approaches to aboriginal re-territorialization.

We use the term `aboriginal' in this paper as shorthand for the Russian phrase `indigenous numerically small peoples of the North' [korennye malochislennye narodoy Severa], a legally distinct subset of indigenous [korennye] peoples. These peoples are defined as "the peoples living in the regions of the North, Siberia and the Far East on the territory of traditional occupancy of their ancestors, maintaining traditional ways of life, economy and trades, numbering less than 50 thousand persons, and considering themselves distinct ethnic communities." (Ob obshchikh 2000, [section] 1). (1)

In the post-Soviet period of `transition' aboriginal leaders in Russia have seized on the narratives of reform to demand a reformulation of their relationship with the State in terms of legal codification of territorial rights. This effort is analogous to First Nations leaders in Canada appropriating the `rights revolution' of the 1970s and 1980s to advance treaty negotiations (Blomley and Pratt 2001). As in Canada, aboriginal leaders in Russia have underscored how re-territorialization is paramount to ensuring economic independence and cultural persistence -- and how resultant territories must be legally guaranteed. They have negotiated the creation of law in order to legislate aboriginal spaces, and then have attempted to harness this law to produce the material spaces enabled by the law.

Informed by cognate processes underway in Canada and elsewhere, the Russian models of `land claims' nevertheless have taken distinct routes. The Russian Federation has not yet chosen to address aboriginal rights through a process of government-to-government treaty negotiations, as has Canada. Nor have court cases played a significant role in forwarding the process, as a reformed court system itself is still in its infancy (Smith 1996). Yet aboriginal re-territorialization is proceeding, via processes shaped by a new body of legislation dedicated to aboriginal rights.

A number of rationales underpin the process in the Russian Federation, some similar to, some distinct from, those animating land claims in Canada. First, the massive social, economic and political transformations in post-Soviet Russia have spawned a rethinking of optimum land tenure organization across the country's vast extent, as Russia moves toward some variant of a market economy. The resultant fabric of land tenure must include the threads of aboriginal territoriality somewhere in its weave, at least in the parts of the country where aboriginal peoples constitute a significant share of the population. This is mainly in the rural North. Second, marked decreases in state subsidies to all areas of the country, but especially discernible in the North, demand the design of new, ideally self-sufficient forms of economic organization that meet the requisites of marketization. Third, human rights issues also figure into the equation, as the Russian Federation pursues an image of a democratizing state. The need to address the full-blown crisis in aboriginal communities was finally admitted in the twilight of the Soviet period (cf. Pika and Prokhorov 1988). As in Canada, aboriginal leaders and their supporters have repeatedly underscored the criticality of recapturing some level of control over land in tackling the social and cultural malaise that plagues their communities. Fourth, of import also is the role aboriginal re-territorialization can play in sovereignty struggles between the federal government and its constituent units or `subjects' (sub'yekty) -- its provinces, territories and republics -- (as it is in Canada). all these factors, discussed in more detail below, have contributed to specific spatial approaches to `land claims' in the Russian North.

The resulting landscape of aboriginal territories in the Russian North is multifaceted, drawing as it does on different approaches which have varied in acceptance over space and, indeed, over the short span of the past decade. Two major approaches characterize current aboriginal re-territorialization in the Russian Federation. (2) In several regions, the approach focuses on the delineation of `territories of traditional nature use' (TTPs), the granting of special protected status to such territories, and the regulation of aboriginal activities within these territories. Prior to the passage of the federal law on TTPs in May 2001 (O territoriyakh 2001) several constituent units of the Russian Federation -- the Koryak and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Districts, Kamchatka and Irkutsk Provinces, and Primorsk Territory -- passed laws or adopted temporary statutes which guided the formation of TTPs (Kryazhkov 1994, 1999).

The other primary approach lies in the (re)construction of aboriginal obshchina territories. Aboriginal persons can organize into obshchinas -- roughly translatable as `communes' -- and petition for land in order to practice `traditional' activities, such as hunting and reindeer herding. Based on a pre-Soviet form of aboriginal socio-spatial organization, obshchinas have been promoted from a variety of quarters, envisioned as a panacea to political and cultural challenges facing aboriginal peoples, as well as a tonic to some of the economic problems facing the state in its northern arena. This approach has predominated in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), where it is supported by republican law. In the Khabarovsk Territory a law also underpins their formation. Obshchinas have also proliferated in the Sakhalin Province, where temporary statutes guide the formation of obshchinas, in the Evenki Autonomous District and in the northern counties of the Chita Province. A federal law on obshchinas was adopted in mid-2000.

This article focuses on the re-territorialization of aboriginal peoples through the organization and territorializing of obshchinas. After discussing the forces generally encouraging aboriginal re-territorialization in the Russian Federation, we explain the concept of the obshchina as a unit for `land claims'. We then describe the legislation that authorizes the obshchina, at the federal and sub-federal levels, using the Sakha Republic as an example of the latter. The legislation inculcates a belief of what the obshchina should be, an ideal contested or upheld in officials' commentaries, and in front porch and fireside discussions in aboriginal communities.

The laws, federal and Sakha, lay out the procedure for establishing obshchinas and providing them with a territorial base. Yet, as geographer Nicholas Blomley (1994, 46) has noted, "law is not simply imposed upon a local setting, but is instead interpreted in and through that setting." We offer the history of obshchina construction in three aboriginal communities (Figure 1), examining how local interpretations of the law directed its implementation. We note how the actual processes of aboriginal re-territorialization diverge in various ways from the processes imagined in the laws.


Sakha Republic provides a fascinating area in which to study aboriginal re-territorialization, and specifically the obshchina movement. (3) Some of the earliest obshchinas appeared here, and the republic passed the first law on obshchinas. Its trajectories of aboriginal re-territorialization, both legal and material, may be considered vanguard and prototypal, rather than representative of trends elsewhere in the Russian Federation. A complex ethno-political landscape, in which a Sakha majority government has sought to assert cultural autonomy over a plurality of non-Sakha (mainly Slavic) citizens within the Republic has informed the development of aboriginal re-territorialization, in legislation and practice, an argument we develop elsewhere (Fondahl et al. 2000). Interestingly, this may have contributed to the proliferation of aboriginal land claims in areas rich in subsurface resources (e.g. in the southern gold-mining regions), rather than their fierce contestation (as in the oil and gas regions of Western Siberia; cf. Novikova 2000; Balalaeva et al. 1999). `Land claims' have admittedly had a different gravity within Sakha than in other regions of the Russian North, for a multiplicity of reasons.

Why might the study of the `land claims' processes in the Russian North be of direct interest to Canadian scholars and policy makers? First, as a complex federal state Russia, like Canada, must grapple with the dynamics of centre-regional relations in working out aboriginal-state relations, including questions over aboriginal lands. Exploring the legal provisions in comparative federal context elucidates similar processes in Canada. Second, the forms of land claims, and in particular, the obshchina, may suggest alternatives as settlement units for Canada. Canada's federally-countenanced model of land selection, whereby a First Nation is obliged to choose a single, coterminous land base, and extinguish claims to the other lands it considers as its homelands, has encountered serious challenges. For instance, in areas of British Columbia, Native land use and ownership, based on clan and house lands, conflicts directly with the traditional land selection model. The Russian experience, while inappropriate to mimic, may provide insights to creative solutions. Third, with increasing Canadian participation in resource exploration and development in the Russian North, it is important that Canadian policy makers, businesses, environmental organizations and others understand the general contours of aboriginal rights to land in the Russian context, both on paper and in practice.

The Russian Context for `Land Claims'

Russia's northern territories are homelands to more than forty aboriginal peoples, from the Sami in the northwest to the Eskimosy and Aleuty in the Northeast. (4) Together, these peoples number about 250,000 and comprise around 2 percent of the total population of Russia's North. A large part of the aboriginal population remains rural. As late as 1989 approximately 30 percent of the aboriginal population was officially employed in `traditional', land-based activities, such as hunting, reindeer herding, and fishing.

In a democratizing society, the treatment, and condition, of minority populations is often seen as one marker of success (O'Loughlin et al. 1998). Aboriginal peoples in Russia surfer from markedly poor conditions across a wide spectrum of indices. They currently experience life expectancies almost a generation shorter than their Russian counterparts' low levels (45 years). Aboriginal suicide is three to four times that of Russia's average. Numerous groups showed absolute declines in population over one or both of the past two censuses (1979, 1989). Unemployment is around 60 percent, rising as high as 97 percent among some groups. One of the foundations of aboriginal livelihood for many peoples, reindeer herding, demonstrates a crisis situation as well, with the domestic herds declining 46 percent (Sakha Republic) to 78 percent (Evenki Autonomous District) in the last decade (Agitaev 2000, Baskin 2000, Fronina 2000; Krupnik 2000).

Since the late 1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) allowed freer public discussion of social concerns, aboriginal leaders have openly fought for greater self-determination, as a critical component in dealing with such social and cultural malaise. Their demands are explicitly territorial. (5) Leaders have resoundingly linked the potential for cultural and physical survival to control over their homelands. In a political system where aboriginal people were repeatedly relocated, from nomadic camps to small villages, and then to larger settlements, we observe the emphatic assertion that people's collective identity -- and cultural and physical health -- is intimately connected with place. Aboriginal re-territorialization in effect is presented by aboriginal leaders as a requisite to rectifying the ills of aboriginal communities caused by Soviet policies and to ensuring futures for these peoples. (6) Re-territorialization involves grandiose conceptualizations of reoccupying ancestral territories, but also a more modest, concrete and immediate agenda of establishing and implementing legal rights to control over the lands most critical for current survival.

As in Canada, the emphasis on land embodies at least two main purposes. Aboriginal leaders desire to secure an ensured territorial base on which aboriginal groups can pursue activities that will afford them a sustained means of livelihood. This encompasses both `traditional' activities, important culturally as well as economically, and non-traditional activities, involvement in which often economically facilitates participation in the traditional ones. During the Soviet period, the traditional activities (reindeer herding, fur- and meat hunting, gathering) were institutionalized as wage- and commodity-producing activities in a way that was never pursued to the same degree in Canada. Today, control over land is sought to revitalize and restructure these `traditional' activities as components of a marketizing economy, and to profit as well from renewable and non-renewable resource extraction of other kinds from aboriginal homelands.

Aboriginal peoples also desire authority over their homelands in order to protect these homelands -- and thus the traditional activities they support -- from exogenous development. They wish to practice close control over any resource extraction by outsiders, not only to enjoy a share of the profits on what they consider rightfully their land, but to ensure that such extraction does not compromise other economically, culturally, and spiritually important activities that they pursue on the same territorial base. The land indeed in its own right merits protection as a form of respect (cf. Novikova 2000).

Such demands by aboriginal leaders for territorial rights have interfaced with a larger state project requiring the re-organization of space. A new conceptual framework for state-building, more-or-less affirming capitalistic market reforms and a democratic polity, is giving rise to a host of new laws and policies, including those governing land relations (Wegren 1998; Sharlett 1999). As everywhere, control over land and the resources it holds plays a pivotal role in equations of power, a fact not lost on the federal government or on aboriginal groups. Yet, if issues surrounding land and resource tenure are perceived as central to reform of the Russian system, new legislation on land ownership has been slow to develop, given clashing ideologies over the role of private ownership (Bystrov 2000). Thus, aboriginal `land claims' in Russia proceed in communion with a contentious debate on the rightful loci of property rights of various types, and are shaped under the aegis of evolving property relations.

One notable political development is the devolution of authority over land and resources, if not of actual land ownership. This shift has been negotiated through the demands of the Russian Federation's `subjects' on the federal government for greater autonomy. (7) County (rayon/ulus) governments are making similar demands on the republics and provinces. In one of the most dramatic responses to these demands, a 1991 federal law on self-government situates the locus of power over significant numbers of resources at the county level, or even further down the administrative hierarchy (O mestnom 1991). Lower-level administrative-territorial units, including predominantly aboriginal units, have seized an increased level of control over the spaces they use and inhabit. The 1991 law, especially in concert with the 2000 federal law (Ob obshchikh 2000) which stipulates obshchinas as potential loci of self-government, provides aboriginal groups with the (hypothetical) opportunity to further capture significant decision making capacity over land-based activities and resource use from higher political-administration levels. Aboriginals underscore the potential role of the obshchina in receiving transfer payments directly from the (federal or republican) government, thus circumventing the inevitable `skimming off' of part of the monies directed to aboriginal issues by intervening levels of administration. However, it bears repeating that, in sharp contrast to the Canadian context, the devolution of control over aboriginal lands does not originate out of any notion of pre-existing aboriginal rights which were not extinguished or were not addressed in an existing treaty, but rather out of more general structural and economic reforms that valorize the relocation of decision making to the units most informed about, and potentially affected by, such decisions.

The federal project of democratization and marketization proceeds, if fitfully, via legislation and policy generation. Within this, the legal situation of aboriginal peoples bas improved on paper. On the ground the situation of almost all Northerners, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, has deteriorated in the face of the state's economic collapse. A common circumpolar feature of northern settlements, northern enterprises, northern transportation systems -- in short, `modern' northern life -- is subsidies (cf. Bone 1992; Mote 1998). The shrinking federal budget has resulted in the withdrawal of many subsidies, creating immense insecurity. Thus northern residents and those officials overseeing northern regions have faced an economic imperative of searching for locally appropriate, non-state forms of economic organization. Pre-Soviet aboriginal organizational forms are imagined and promoted from some quarters as ones that realized self-sufficiency, a critical feature of northern life today. If during the Soviet period state and collective farms facilitated the extraction of economic surplus from aboriginal activities, today the state has as its goal simply encouraging a decreased need for state subsidies. Lands of previous state institutions that have no economically significant non-renewable resources (or commercial timber or military/strategic significance) provide a source from which to carve out obshchina territories, with the expectation that the obshchina will become economically self-sustaining and, if not a contributor to the market economy, at least less of a burden on state coffers. Thus, economic concerns may serve as much as stimuli for land claims as do concerns over cultural revitalization and political empowerment. In this respect, Canadian governmental policy makers confront a similar objective (though not faced with the dire economic situation): `land claims' and the larger treaty negotiations of which they form a part are often `sold' to the public in terms of their long-term ability to reduce transfer payments to aboriginal communities.

An equally fascinating imperative in the shaping of `land claims', both legally and on the ground, is the role such processes may play in the power struggles between the federal government and its subjects (Fondahl et al. 2000). We note that this function has its parallels in Canada: for instance, the federal government's failure to provide timely legislation regarding Metis rights provided a window of opportunity in the 1930s for the Alberta government to pass its own special provincial legislation creating a land base in the form of eight Metis colonies (Poelzer 1997).

Aboriginal re-territorialization in the Russian North thus is imbricated with the larger and multifaceted Russian project of `transition'. The project itself involves struggles between federal and subject legislation, and between central dictums and the interpretation of these at local levels. The fulcrum of these struggles is most often land and resources. As in Canada, the territorial dimensions of cultural identity and political autonomy are of paramount concern to both aboriginal people and the numerous political-administrative units in which they are encapsulated. The new juridical spaces of aboriginality evince a search for both cultural symbolism and economic efficacy (cf. Blomley 1994, 18).

Russian legislation, however, has not recognized aboriginal groups as peoples with whom to negotiate on government-to-government terms, but rather as a distinct variant of `ethnic groups' with certain specific needs, including territorial ones, for cultural preservation, via protectionist policies. Constitutionally, specific aboriginal rights in Russia include the protection of the environment where they live and their `traditional way of life' (Konstitutsiya 1993, [section] 72). More diffusely, the Russian constitution "guarantees the rights of aboriginal peoples in accordance with generally recognized principles and norms of international rule" ([section] 69). Such clauses are vague and do not offer anything like the same protection as do sections 25 and 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982. In Canada the precedents of legal rights embodied in such documents as the Royal Proclamation, the pre-Confederation treaties, and the numbered treaties, further strengthen the constitutional protection of Aboriginal rights. (8) Russia has no similar body of documents. Nor is its legal system based on common law, as is the Anglo-Canadian model, but rather on a Roman model of statutory law.

The Obshchina as Concept and Unit of Territorial Individuation

From whence arises the concept of the obshchina as an appropriate territorial unit for aboriginal re-territorialization? What exactly is this unit?

Many Russian ethnographers identify the "family-clan obshchina" as the basic form of aboriginal socioeconomic and political organization extant prior to the Soviet period throughout much of the Russian North (Pika 1999, 63ff). Clan organization, in its classic sense, had given way by the 19th century, to more territorially-based units "consisting of groups of relatives, by blood and by marriage, through various genealogical lines." (op cit., 65). These units were termed obshchinas, a designation borrowed from agricultural units in the Russian heartland. (9) Aboriginal obshchinas were "relatively stable, economic and demographic collectives, oriented to self-sufficiency and reproduction, which were able to exert real control over their territory, and effectively use local natural resources." (op cit., 67). The Tsarist state referred to these units as `administrative clans' or `territorial-clan obshchinas', and, with the adoption of the 1822 `Charter of Administration of Siberian Aliens' (10) positioned in the obshchina the locus of native political autonomy within the state. Relatively little attempt was made to alter these units, as an overwhelming thrust of Tsarist policy toward aboriginal peoples was to expedite the hunting and delivery of furs -- an activity which Tsarist officials recognized was most effectively pursued with minimal interference from the outside.

Despite over rive decades of Soviet interference in the organization of aboriginal life, the obshchina as a socio-spatial entity was not fully eradicated. Rather, in places it persisted, subsumed within the structure of Soviet institutions such as the collective farm and state farms. Reindeer herding brigades, the organizational cell on many northern farms, regularly embraced the same group of relatives (or their descendants) who, prior to Soviet power, had nomadized together as an obshchina. Obshchina territories, used over generations, became the territorial bases of the brigades' pastures. Likewise, hunters not infrequently continued to hunt on the traditional obshchina territories of their ancestors, within the state system, though now turning over their harvest to the state instead of sharing it within obshchina networks (cf. Konstantinov 2000).

The State's re-authorization of the obshchina provided a seeming solution to several of the above challenges facing the state. It would assumedly provide a more self-sufficient economic unit that could be used as the basis for re-organization of northern land-based activities in the face of the collapse of state farms. It might serve as a political-territorial unit for aboriginal self-government, as well as a socio-spatial unit to revive aboriginal culture. It could, in optimistic theory, empower aboriginal peoples while disencumbering the state, economically and politically, in ways that would appear to endorse the current discourse of political and economic reform. These multiple possibilities are differentially provided for in the laws on obshchinas at the sub-federal and federal level.

The Legal Status of the Obshchina

In March 1992 the federal government issued a decree calling for the rapid development and passage of a law on `clan, obshchina and family lands' for aboriginal groups (Ob uporyadochenii 1992). The law was to govern the processes by which obshchinas could be established and land could be transferred to them. Within weeks of this decree, President Boris Yeltsin issued an edict ordering the transfer of lands important to traditional activities "to clan obshchinas and families of the numerically-small peoples of the North, connected with traditional activities and trades" for "life-long possession, with inheritance rights or for lease" (O neotlozhnykh 1991, [section] 1). The presidential edict was to serve as an interim measure allowing native northerners to receive land while a federal law on obshchinas was drafted.

Drafting the federal law on obshchinas turned out to be a protracted process, only culminating in July 2000 (Ob obshchikh 2000). The edict meanwhile initiated significant activity in some regions of the Russian Federation, both in terms of subjects drafting their own regional obshchina legislation, and in terms of aboriginal persons launching the process of establishing such obshchinas. One of the earliest sites of activity was the Sakha Republic (Yakutia).

Sakha Republic Law

The Sakha Republic adopted a law on `nomadic clan and clan-tribal obshchinas' a mere eight months after the presidential edict (O kochevoy 1992). (11) It did not compose this law in a complete vacuum: drafts of the federal obshchina law, and clauses regarding obshchinas for potential inclusion in other federal laws were circulating. Indeed, some members of Sakha's aboriginal intelligentsia participated in the discussions of drafts of both laws. Those assigned to draft the republican law had an idea of the general parameters that would guide the federal law. If the republican law was informed by these, it hardly slavishly followed them.

The republican law defines the obshchina as
   a voluntary union of representatives of aboriginal peoples, or also
   representatives of other indigenous peoples and ethnic communities of the
   North who pursue a nomadic way of life, on the basis of membership and
   joining of property shares for joint activities connected with traditional
   occupations and trades on their age-old territories of occupancy (Ob
   izmeneniyakh 1996, [section] 3).

It stipulates the procedure for creating obshchinas, membership, administration, obshchina property, land relations, and permissible activities. A level of state protection is guaranteed, via privileges including exemption from taxes, land rents, and certain duties and other payments, and priority rights for the use of biological resources.

A major distinguishing feature of the Sakha law is the provision that the obshchina can unite not only aboriginal peoples, but "also representatives of other indigenous peoples" [e.g., Sakha/Yakut people] and "ethnic communities." [e.g., Old-Believer Russians], as long as they are involved in activities considered `traditional' for aboriginal peoples. While the rationale for this is discussed elsewhere (Balzer and Vinokurova 1996; Fondahl et al. 2000) the point worth underscoring here is the elevation of `traditionality' over `aboriginality' as a defining criterion which permeates the Sakha law.

In terms of land, a county government is required to grant an allotment of sufficient size to support the traditional activities proposed in the obshchina's founding charter. On their lands obshchinas enjoy permanent rights to free-of-charge use of the renewable natural resources required by such traditional activities. Fee simple title to the land is not transferred (as in some Canadian land claims agreements); rather, rights transferred to the obshchina include substantial exclusionary rights, moderate usufruct rights, and limited disposition powers. (12) The land however remains the `property' [dostyanie] of "the peoples of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia)," according to this law. As in Canadian land claims provisions the land is held collectively by the obshchina rather than individually by its members. The obshchina is exempt from paying land taxes on its territory.

The obshchina legally enjoys usufruct rights on its territory to all renewable resources required for traditional activities (game, fish, fur animals, reindeer pasture) (O kochevoy 1992, [section] 8 Additionally, it enjoys the rights to use, or allow the harvest by outsiders of, mammoth ivory and remains ([section] 12). The forest remains property of the government, although use of its resources for subsistence is permitted, and an obshchina can petition to commercially develop timber resources and has priority rights to receive such licenses ([section] 16). The obshchina collectively owns the products of hunting, fishing and other traditional activities ([section] 7). As well as enjoying such rights, the obshchina is vested with the responsibility to ensure the protection of its land base and sustained biological productivity of the fauna and flora on the territory, sharing this responsibility with the county-level government ([section] 13).

Disposition rights apparently only extend to inheritance; even the extent of this right is not clearly stated in the law. In terms of exclusionary rights, the obshchina controls the ability to sign contracts (or not) with others interested in exploiting the same renewable resources to which it has rights. It can control the transport of dogs, guns and other hunting and harvesting equipment over its territory ([section] 12). It cannot deny alienation of its land base by the government, but such alienation requires compensation, including in the form of land of equal value to that removed from the obshchina's territorial base. The law also requires a referendum of indigenous peoples to allow any industrial or other development on lands allocated to obshchinas ([section] 8).

The law presupposes the application for a land base coincident with lands traditionally used by the obshchina members or their ancestors ([section] 9). It stipulates what must be done if the `return' of the land is impossible ([section] 9). This clause is of special interest, not so much in its provisions of allocating land of equal value, but in its terminology -- the use of the term `vozvrat' [return, restoration] suggests a legal recognition of prior possession of the land by aboriginal people.

Thus, under Sakha law, the obshchina is conceptualized largely as an economic unit to promote traditional aboriginal activities, among both aboriginal peoples and those who have adopted similar life ways. (13) Its role as a form of land-protection is also stressed in the law, which underscores the obshchina members' and the state's joint responsibilities in this arena. The law provides `permanent' tenure rights, with significant protection against alienation, including by the state. (14)

Federal law

The Sakha law on obshchinas offers an example of an early and relatively generous approach to aboriginal re-territorialization, if one not fully meeting the desires of aboriginal leaders regarding self-government stipulations. Other subjects used this law as a model in crafting their own laws and temporary statures. So did the federal government. However, when the federal law finally was adopted it differed substantially.

The federal law on obshchinas followed a more general law on the rights of aboriginal peoples (O garantiyakh 1999), (15) which the governmental decree and presidential edict of the early 1990s had also enacted. The two must be considered together, in that several provisions in the general law on rights precluded the need to deal with some issues, other than by reference to `other existing laws,' in the obshchina law.

The federal obshchina law, unlike its Sakha counterpart, addresses solely aboriginal rights. It does not provide for the creation of obshchinas by non-aboriginal peoples: that is, `aboriginality' takes precedence over `traditionality', although the continuance of a `traditional way of life' is one defining characteristic of aboriginal peoples, as put forth in the law (Ob obshchikh [section] 1). Obshchinas are defined as:
   forms of self-organization of persons belonging to numerically small
   peoples and joined by blood-clan (family, clan) and (or)
   territorial-neighbor indications, created for the goals of defense of their
   age-old surroundings, and the maintenance and development of traditional
   ways of life, economy, trades and culture. ([section] 1)

While the law stipulates different types of obshchinas -- `family (clan) obshchinas', `territorial-neighbor obshchinas' -- all are explicitly composed of aboriginal persons. Indeed membership clauses restrict, though do not fully preclude, non-aboriginal participation [subsections] 8, 11).

The law forbids local (e.g., county) governments to hinder the functioning of obshchinas ([section] 7). As we describe below, extant obshchina/county relations suggest the great need for enforcement of this clause of the law.

Astonishingly, the federal obshchina law remains absolutely silent on the issue of land. The Sakha obshchina law, in contrast, dedicates eight of its 25 articles to spelling out the structure of land relations. Other subjects' laws give similar attention to this critical issue (Kryazhkov 1999, 228ff; 250ff). For guidance in the federal situation, we must turn to the law on the rights of aboriginal peoples (O garantiyakh 1999) to deduce policy on aboriginal re-territorialization at the federal level. This law provides aboriginal peoples with the right to "possess and use ... land of different categories necessary to the realization of their traditional economic activities ..." in places traditionally occupied and used by these peoples ([section] 8.1.1, 8.2.1). However, it does not specifically mention obshchinas as a form of territorialization.

The federal obshchina law, upon adoption, came to apply to all obshchinas, extant and future, across Russian space (Ob obshchikh [section] 3). Sub-federal laws are now to be brought into compliance with this law. How the Sakha Republic, and other subjects with obshchina laws that differ in significant ways from that of the new federal law, will legally negotiate such compliance will merit attention. President Putin's emphasis on the dominance of federal law bodes ominously for such negotiations, though several scholars and officials have underscored to us the more `pragmatic' nature of the `traditionality' approach, given the complex and deeply rooted `ethnic' landscapes of the Russian North. We note that our description of the creation of obshchinas in the Sakha Republic which follows recounts processes that occurred prior to the passage of the federal law, and thus conformed with the precepts of Sakha law.

In summary, several substantive characteristics of the Russian `land claims' process, as stipulated both by federal and sub-federal law (using the example of Sakha Republic), differentiate it radically from that of Canada. The unit of individuation often differs dramatically. In Canada relatively large sub-nation units (such as the Cree of James Bay or the Inuit of the Western Arctic, the Inuvialuit), as well as small communities (such as the Yakoochee of British Columbia or the Lubicon Cree of Alberta), have pursued land claims with the federal and provincial or territorial governments. In the Russian Federation it is smaller and more localized obshchinas, involving at most the aboriginal population of a village and often just a few families, that usually pursue re-territorialization. (16) The process in Russia is not, moreover, embedded in government-to-government treaty negotiations.

As in Canada, land rights are transferred to the collective, not the individual; but, again, the collective is usually a much smaller unit. And the transfer of land rights does not involve a transfer of title. Sub-surface resources rights are not granted, though rights to exclude development of such are acknowledged in the sub-federal law (and, less directly, in the federal law on aboriginal rights [O garantiyakh 1999], to which the federal law on obshchina alludes).

Specific features of the Russian approach merit attention. Aboriginals in Russia face greater potential threats of externalities affecting their lands, simply due to the archipelagic nature of `land claims' as negotiated by small groups. On the other hand, they have not been required to `extinguish' claims to areas outside of their obshchina territories. The process in the Russian Federation has not allowed for a situation arising such as among the Nisga'a of British Columbia, where the land allotment embraces a small number of family territories (Nisga'a wilp or `houses') and the test of the families have had their de-territorialization substantiated, via legal extinguishment by the Nisga'a Final Agreement. Indeed, the Gitxan, a nation neighbouring the Nisga'a, have rejected the federal governments insistence on such a land selection model as antithetical to their legal system of land tenure. They hold that no chief has the right to make decision regarding any lands other than those of her/his own house territory (Sterritt et al. 1998). Given these challenges, the obshchina, based on families' territories, is an archetype worthy of consideration (though obviously not mimesis), in pursuing solutions that respect varied Aboriginal land tenure systems within the Canadian legal system.

In practice, as in Canada, part of the impetus for defining native lands is to define what is not Native, and thus potentially open to resource extraction without consultation of Native populations. In areas of current resource extraction, the actual situation is that choice of land for traditional activities is severely circumscribed by resource development.

Re-territorializing: Examples of Lived Experiences

The legal codes of sub-federal subject governments, and more recently that of the federal government, lay out how an obshchina may organize and apply for a territory. Responses to the opportunities afforded by the law(s) have varied regionally, temporally, and also procedurally. Ideally, the formation of obshchinas is imagined in the law as a voluntary, bottom-up aboriginal initiative to assert control over land and resource decisions in an attempt to pursue culturally invigorating (and economically supporting) activities. An obshchina forms; it petitions for a land base based on the traditional lands of its members or their ancestors. The county level land reform office grants such lands after checking for contacts with other current and potential users. That is, its role is one of facilitator. To what extent is this legal imagining grounded in reality? Research in three native townships (naslegi) of the Sakha Republic (Figure 1) and discussions with officials in the republican capital of Yakutsk indicate a variety of paths to, and obstacles confronting, obshchina re-territorialization. Personal and colleagues' observation of similar processes in other parts of the Russian Federation indicate a yet more complex and variegated picture (see, e.g., Gray n.d.; Klokov 1998; Sirina 1998; Balalaeva et al. 1999; Anderson 2000; Ziker 2000). Critical are the intersections of federal and republican legislation and policies, the agendas of county-level officials who interpret and implement the laws, and the goals of aboriginal individuals and groups who seek to employ the legislative acts to their purposes. As law mediates the experiences of individuals and groups in their struggles for greater control over land, these same struggles contribute to local interpretation of the laws -- by both aboriginals and state officials -- and to the material spaces produced (Clark 1989; Blomley 1994). The following recounting of re-territorialization initiatives offer an incipient glimpse into some of the issues faced by aboriginal groups trying to re-assert territorial control. We note that in none of these townships is industrial activity widespread; in all, `traditional activities' predominate as the main generator of income, although in one, the potential for gold-mining exists, and lies at the heart of the inability of the obshchina to re-territorialize.

Berezovka: Land allocated

Berezovka is situated in the montane taiga of Srednekolymsk County (Figure 1). The aboriginal Evens comprise 87 percent of the population of 346 (1 August 1998). Berezovka came into existence a generation later than the other villages examined in this article; the Evens became workers of a state farm only in the early 1960s, having consciously isolated themselves from most interactions with Soviet institutions from 1932 on (Donskoy nd; Popova 1976). A significant portion of the township's population remains dispersed in remote reindeer herding camps (50 adults plus their pre-school children in 1998).

The formation of obshchinas in Berezovka hardly represents the `ground-swell', voluntary approach envisioned in either republican or federal legislation. Six years after the event, several villagers remembered the process as one of exogenous intervention:
   From Yakutsk and Srednekolymsk there came a commission and it allocated us
   a parcel [of land]. Nothing was discussed with us, all was done from above.

   When the sovkhoz began to fall apart ... it was mainly the idea of Filippov
   and Vassiliy Afanasevich to establish obshchinas. (18) They did it as it
   had been in the old days: our people, after all, had lived in clan

Yet while Even and Sakha intelligentsia from `outside' directed the form the post-state-farm economic organization of the community would take, and its timing, the actual decision of how many obshchinas appears to have been an internally resolved matter. Indeed, it followed notable and candid debate at village fora, regarding options of forming one village-wide obshchina or smaller units (Protokol 1992). From the decision of how many obshchinas naturally followed the issue of land allocation.

The community chose to form four obshchinas, along the lines of the four reindeer herding brigades that had existed under the state farm. Each obshchina received the territory used by its predecessor brigade. The brigades themselves had been organized in the 1960s largely along (pre-Soviet) obshchina lines. Their wishes to keep their lands intact were respected:
   Thus, land was allocated by herds; where the herd was based, on the whole,
   it remained there. Their [the herding brigade members'] territory, along
   with their hunting grounds. This suggestion came from the reindeer herders

Interviews with village members (19) indicated that few felt that the allocation of land was an issue, other than in the case of minor disputes over small fishing grounds allocated to each obshchina along the Kolyma River. River fishing historically held little importance for the Berezovkans; the value of the grounds today lies in their potential for small-scale commercial fishing leases. Only two common complaints regarding land use surfaced in our interviews. One involved the failure of the county administration to enforce rules regarding the obshchinas' rights to control exogenous hunting: parties of European hunters occasionally arrived by helicopter, and took `the best breeding moose', with no permission by, or compensation to, the obshchinas on whose land they had hunted. The other complaint involved the indeterminacy of who was responsible for dealing with forest fires. While the law spells out that this is a governmental responsibility, a few individuals held that the county administration had intermittently attempted to devolve this responsibility:
   When we ask how to put fires out, our administration says, take care of it
   yourself, it's not out forest.

However, this appears a misunderstanding embedded in the county's inability to pay for fire-surveillance and fighting.

If charged with financial inefficiency and impotence, the county administration was not accused of hindering in any way the land allocation to the obshchinas. Rather, its role in respecting the villagers' wishes on this account, and facilitating their implementation was applauded.

The one enduring concern among a number of Berezovka Evens is whether the choice to divide the community into four obshchinas, and thus disunite the land base, was in fact the wisest solution. Some individuals consider that it would have been better to form a village--wide obshchina:
   The territory should not be divided amongst us; it should be that the
   territory is one.

   The idea of forming bounded nomadic obshchinas was offensive. The idea of
   dividing the land between areas was inappropriate.

Others support the division:
   We didn't form one obshchina, because people were different, their
   characters were different. People work differently ... for instance,
   `Chubukulakh' [one obshchina] doesn't work. We would have been supporting
   them. So we broke into separate obshchinas, so that we each live on our own

In Berezovka, thus, we observe a case of externally-mediated organization of obshchinas, with space created for (and by) the local configuration of these units. While the decision to create a number of territorialized entities (versus one) is contested by part of the population, the approach to realizing their territorialization is not. Territorial disputes have been minimized, in part due to the fact that the `voluntary unions' of people reproduce the Soviet reindeer brigades, which in turn mapped closely to the pre-Soviet obshchinas, which were functioning as late as the early 1960s.

Nelemnoe: Land refused

Nelemnoe, a settlement of 300 persons, is located in Verkhnekolymsk County. Yukagirs comprise slightly over half of the population. The Yukagir people traditionally pursued hunting and fishing. In the early 1930s, those Yukagirs nomadizing along the tributaries of the Kolyma River south of present-day Nelemnoe were collectivized into the `Bright Life' collective farm, and settled. Their village was subsequently relocated a number of times, due to flooding. The Bright Life farm was merged with a mainly Sakha collective farm in the late 1950s; shortly thereafter this was re-organized into a state farm, `Verkhnekolymsk'. This farm split apart in 1986; Nelemnoe remained part of the smaller `Verknekolymsk' state farm.

Upon dissolution of the state farm in 1991, a group of scientists from Yakutsk encouraged the formation of an obshchina. Again, these elites, including aboriginal representatives, would have been privy to drafts of the federal and republican laws (as such drafts are widely circulated for comment), which suggested possible advantageous credit, loan and subsidy terms, as well as a way by which to assert substantial control over a territorial base.

Villagers initially formed a single, village wide obshchina, `Yukagir', in 1991. This later splintered into three obshchinas, which by 1993 had merged again into one, `Tekki Odulok'. (20)

Neither Tekki Odulok nor its predecessors has been able to gain the land desired for pursuing traditional activities. A small amount of land was allocated to the obshchina for haying and horse pasturing (412 ha). However, no lands have been formally allotted for hunting. The obshchina, now representing all the Yukagirs in Nelemnoe still officially employed in traditional activities (and their family members), put forward its `land claim' based on the lands that its members, or their ancestors, had used prior to collectivization. These same lands were surveyed in the early Soviet period and designated as the land base of the `Bright Life' collective farm (O zemleustroitel'nom 1958). Indeed, in the 1950s, the hunting lands used by the Yukagirs of the Bright Collective were transferred to the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic from the neighboring Magadan Province, after the village of Nelemnoe itself was relocated upstream several times on account of flooding, eventually ending up on the Yakut side of the border. This meant a substantial redrawing of the republican boundary southward. Villagers consider this move a clear official acknowledgement of their rights to the land, and thus an important precedent for today's debate. When `Bright Life' farm later became part of a larger state farm, its territory became part of that organization's land base at the same time its members became state farm employees.

The territorial dispute that has ensued revolves around an auriferous river basin (Shamanika) in the eastern part of the `claim', which Nelemnoe villagers contend is rightfully part of their obshchina territory, as the age-old sable hunting land of their ancestors and the land of the initial collective farm. In 1991, perhaps sensing the threat of aboriginal re-territorialization, the Verkhnekolymsk County administration declared the Shamanika Basin a `neutral zone', belonging to the county as a whole (Spravka 1994), and under the direct control of the county administration.

The county government's refusal to allocate this land to the Yukagir obshchina angers members on several accounts. Many ardently argue their rights to the territory occupied and used by their ancestors. The Shamanika basin contains hunting grounds used by generations of local families. If the landscape is peppered with hunting cabins, burial platforms, and other structures which physically document longitudinal use, people's mental maps of family tenures also reaffirm deep ties to the land. "This is where the Turbanov family hunted, the D'yachkov family hunted here, we gave a whole description, the Shalugins [hunted] here." (Interview with Yukagir man over 1:100,000 topographic sheets, Nelemnoe, June 1997) Anguish over the government's refusal to acknowledge territorial rights stems both from the economic importance of the land for hunting, and from spiritual connections to the territory.

Coupled with such sentiments regarding inherent rights to the territory are concerns that gold-mining will desecrate the environment, at least if carried out by outsiders. Many Yukagirs feel that their involvement in the territory's management would ensure better compliance with environmental regulations. Finally, many Yukagirs would like to benefit preferentially from the gold industry's proceeds. They consider this wish wholly justified, given their ancestral claims to the territory. Possession of the Shamanika basin as part of Tekki Odulok's territory would afford such possibilities. As one Nelemnoe inhabitant mused:
   [I] f it had been allotted [to the obshchina] we could have brought suit
   against the geologists, `please restore it, and give us some percentage'
   but the county evidently decided that this was too rich for us.

County administration documents and officials stress that the Yukagirs are not excluded from the area, and may continue to hunt sable in this region (Spravka 1994; interviews, Verkhnekolymsk, June 1997). They have not provided for priority benefits from any gold mining. Meanwhile, county officials have applied charges of corruption and incompetence against the previous leader of the obshchina, a tactic seemingly pursued to delay, or even evade allocation of hunting lands.

Here, the formation of the obshchina(s) combined local initiative and external encouragement. The sequential restructuring proceeded from a combination of internal dissatisfaction with leadership along with external (republican-level) encouragement to consolidate under an effective leader. Under none of the obshchina iterations have the Yukagirs received a legally sanctioned territorial base for pursuing traditional (or other) activities, as called for in the republican law. County officials have refused to abide by the process legally stipulated. As one Yukagir recounted:
   In 1992 ... we raised this issue [of refusal on the part of the county
   government to grant obshchina lands] with the government of the Republic. A
   reprimand came to the county administration, telling it to not interfere in
   the obshchina. The administration interpreted this to mean: `we will not
   impede the obshchina, nor will we help it.' And we were left, for all
   purposes, to fend for ourselves. (21)

While chided by the Republican government, county officials have not been forced to change their tactics of avoiding aboriginal re-territorialization. Whether the Yukagirs of Nelemnoe will be able to harness the federal law toward their goal of re-territorialization remains to be seen.

Tyanya: Competing `land claims'

Tyanya is located in Olekminsk County. Evenkis comprise 77 percent of the settlement's 324 persons (July 1999). The traditional economy of this taiga region is one of small-scale reindeer husbandry, hunting and trapping. While many villagers (especially the non-Evenkis) practice subsistence farming (garden vegetables, haying and horse-raising), the traditional economic activities still comprise the township's economic backbone.

Here the initiation of obshchina formation predated actual laws enabling such territorial entities. In 1989, Mikhail Bagaev presciently exercised his rights as a citizen to forma `peasant farm,' which he then, as an Evenki, converted into the `Cheroda' obshchina, once legislation permitted. After initial refusal on the part of the county administration to allocate land, Bagaev received 1,285,000 ha "for free-of-charge use with no term limitation" (O predostavlenie 1991). The allotment included the territories used by ancestors of his wife, in the remote, southern part of the Tyanya township. Cheroda initially involved 60 members of the community.

Controversy renewed around the territorial allocation, however, as other groups of Evenkis in Tyanya sought to organize other obshchinas, and as some of Cheroda's members opted to leave this obshchina and join others. Given its initial high membership, a substantial part of the township (54%) had been allocated to Cheroda, allegedly leaving insufficient territory for newly forming obshchinas. Bagaev was unwilling to part with any of the territory allocated to Cheroda. While the republican obshchina law addresses the right of individuals to leave obshchinas, and remove with them their shares of non-land property, it does not address the reallocation of territory under such conditions (O kochevoy 1992, [section] 2).

Another Evenki, Arsenty Nikolaev, spearheaded the formation of the `Tyanya' obshchina in 1993 and assiduously pursued a land allocation for this new entity. Nikolaev convinced the county administration to look into the issue of land re-allocation: it passed a resolution declaring that in the initial allocation "other categories of population had not been taken into consideration" (Ob otmena 1993). An elder who sided with Nikolaev recounted in 1999:
   The obshchina Cheroda was given such a territory that the local population
   was appalled; why were they given such a large territory, when we have five
   obshchinas, some of the four obshchinas, they then should be left without
   land? The head of the county gathered us together and said: "Find a common
   language, create an association, and I will transfer the land act to an
   association of obshchinas. The obshchinas on the territory of the Tyanya
   Township should use the land equitably, I will transfer the land act to the
   chairperson of the Association, and you can divide it however you want...."

An Association of Obshchinas would deal with re-allocation among its members, as obshchinas formed, grew, shrank, disbanded and reformed in different constellations of individuals and families. After preparing the groundwork, the county administration called for a referendum in Tyanya. This initiative passed by democratic vote, though without Bagaev's acquiescence: the county and township administration now consider Cheroda's territory as the territory of the Tyanya Association of Obshchinas, and Cheroda as one of the association's five member obshchinas (O sozdanii 1994; Svedeniya 1999). Bagaev continued to contest the action through the evolving legal structures of the Republic.

At the same rime, Cheroda experienced an added challenge to its (functionally reduced) territoriality. The Sakha Republic in 1994 adopted a goal of committing 20 percent of its territory to `nature reserve' status of one sort or another (O merakh 1994). A World Wildlife Fund sponsored `resource reserve' created in 1997 engulfed a substantial part of the township's territory, and of Cheroda's land base. On paper, the reserve allows for traditional activities within part (but not all) of its boundaries (World Wildlife Fund n.d.). Some Evenkis complained of experiencing limitations on their rights when attempting to hunt and fish in this territory, allegedly by overzealous reserve guards (Interviews, Tyanya and Bekit Cheroda, August 1999).

Tyanya's experience speaks to the inadequacy of the current laws to deal with the complexity of processes of new obshchinas devolving from initial ones, or forming after the main drive for obshchinas bas already passed. `Late-comers" rights to enjoy the same opportunities afforded to the `early-birds' is problematic and not worked out in terms of how claims to certain parcels of land are adjudicated. Nor are the specific ways in which a group can `prove' its ancestral rights, and have these legally affirmed. Certainly, customary law regarding the validation of specific families' (or obshchinas') rights to land, or the adjudication of territorial disputes between aboriginal groups, has not been harnessed, although the new federal laws invoke such legal pluralism in cases among/within aboriginal populations (O garantiyakh 1999; Oh obshchikh 2000; cf. Novikova 2000).

The situation in Tyanya also speaks to the power of local authorities to interpret the laws in order to resolve issues by innovative, if extra-legal, means -- in this case by creating an association as the land-holder, and in the process overriding the rights of the individual obshchina. Finally, the power of outside interests -- such as international conservation agencies -- in reconfiguring aboriginal rights to granted land, indicates that the articles governing exclusionary rights enjoy, in practice, superficial recognition. (22)


`Land claims' in Russia do not have the same legal and constitutional protection as those in Canada, in part because of the historical precedents of treaty-making in Canada, in part because of the much stronger legal institutionalization of property rights. Nevertheless, the significance of legal recognition of aboriginal territorial rights in Russian should not be understated. Aboriginal `land claims' affect the future geographies of resource development, and can play an important role in the tug-of-war between regional governments and Moscow, as well as sculpting the opportunities of aboriginals to determine their own futures. However, the strength of aboriginal land claims will depend upon broader forces shaping Russian state and society, particularly those influencing the emergence -- or not -- of a state based on the rule of law (cf. Hendley, 1997; Sharlett 1999). Most poignantly, they will depend on the development of efficient mechanisms to enforce the law. Most aboriginal representatives with whom we talked (1997-1999) praised the evolving law, and damned the lack of its enforcement:
   Each year the government adopts laws on the aboriginal peoples. If they
   reached our obshchina, it would be a great help (Berezovka, 1998).

   These laws, you read them, and you simply are exalted, but they don't come
   to fruition, they don't work, what you read on paper, in the newspaper
   (Tyanya, 1999).

That such `claims' have different valences in different places produces a highly variegated experience of land claims for aboriginal claimants, especially in the face of spatially uneven enforcement of re-territorialization laws.

As legal barriers to aboriginal land claims are removed, or as legal bridges are built, we see more clearly how the politics of land claims are constituted by, and constituting of, the places in which they are effected, whether among the First Nations of Canada or aboriginals of the Russian North. To elucidate this situation in the Russian case, we have examined the rift between the newly crafted legal rights to land and the de facto realization of these rights in three specific places.

Notwithstanding enforcement issues, the Russian model of obshchinas as one route to re-territorialization does provide insights for Canada, particularly in jurisdictions where treaty negotiations are especially problematic. The Canadian government's insistence on a singular path -- the federally approved land selection model -- to First Nations re-territorialization in Canada falls to respect the diversity of First Nations, and the existence and persistence of their own legal systems. Developing alternative strategies seems only just.

The routes taken in Russia toward aboriginal re-territorialization deserve attention by a wider population, including those interested in pursuing work in the Russian North, whether as investors, humanitarian aid distributors, environmental agitators, aboriginal activists or others. If foreigners understand the existence, and general content of the fragile, and frequently unenforced legal reforms that can affect aboriginal re-territorialization, and if they comprehend the possibilities for local interpretations and `translations' of these laws in the implementation phase, they can choose whether to encourage the observance and enforcement of these reforms, when engaged in their own work.


We acknowledge: the generous support of the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the University of Calgary-Gorbachev Joint Trust Fund, and DIAND's Circumpolar Liaison Office; the hospitality of the communities of Nelemnoe, Berezovka and Tyanya; Antonina Avvakumova and Tamara Andreeva for invaluable contributions to the research; Georgina Martin and Mikhail Prisyazhnyy for interviewing help; Galina Balaganchika for Even-Russian translation, and Harald Finkler for legislation. We also thank Yulian Konstantinov, Natasha Novikova, Gail Osherenko, Peter Clancy and three anonymous reviewers for constructive critiques of earlier drafts, not all of which could be addressed due to space constraints.


(1) The term `indigenous' embraces both aboriginal peoples so defined, and other peoples whose homelands were colonized by the Russians, but whose numbers are larger than 50,000. While many indigenous peoples are pursuing re-territorializing strategies, our focus in this article is limited to aboriginal re-territorialization.

The terms `de-territorialization' and `re-territorialization' maintain the concept of physical space (contra their use in some recent geographic writings) and draw on R. Sack's definition of territoriality as "the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence or control people, phenomena and relationships, by delimiting and asserting control over a geographical area." (Sack 1986, 19). `De-territorialization' involves the abrogation of a group's ability to control its geographical area; `re-territorialization' refers to the process of re-establishing control over such an area.

(2) These two approaches, and a third approach, that of creating aboriginal administrative units such as `national counties' (natsional'nye rayony) or `national townships' (natsional'nye selskie administratsii) are outlined in Fondahl 1998. The third approach, promoted in the early 1990s, has not developed to the extent that the first two have. See also Sirina 2000.

(3) Of course, more mundane rationales also informed our choice of the republic as locus of research, including location of researchers' home institutions, past research histories, and institutional ties.

(4) As amended last on 24 April 2000, the Governmental list included 44 aboriginal peoples (Sulandziga and Murashko 2000, 5-6). This number has grown from 26 at the end of the Soviet period, as the state has recognized peoples who assert their independent identity, but who were previously lumped with other peoples.

(5) For aboriginal leaders' comments on the need for legal rights to land and resources (including both rights to use and protection) see, e.g., Materialy 1990; Sulandziga and Murashko 2000; and various issues of the journals Severnye prostory and Mir korennykh narodov and the bulletin Zhivaya arktika. English sources include Pika et al. 1996 and the Arctic Network for the Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic (ANSIPRA) bulletin. See also the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North's tri-lingual web site,

(6) See, e.g., articles by native leaders (Kharyuchi, Kirillin, Todyshev) in Sulandziga and Murashko (2000), and in past eight years of the journal Severnye Prostory. Lopulenko (2000) provides a recent convenient compendium of further relevant articles from the Russian press; see esp. pp. 133-140 regarding assertions regarding the criticality of territory.

(7) The Russian Federation is comprised of a nested series of political-administrative units: 89 `subjects' -- republics, provinces (oblasti) and territories (krai) -- make a second layer of governance, while these are further broken into rayony or ulusy (`counties'). Autonomous Regions (avtonomnye okruga) inhabit a contested rung, embedded within provinces or territories, but enjoying in many ways a status equivalent to the units that encapsulate them. Townships (sel'skie adminstratsii, naslegi) form the smallest administrative units. Second-order subjects, including okrugs, can pass regional legislation.

(8) This is not to argue that there is no legal basis for comprehensive `land claims' in Russia. See Osherenko 2001 for further discussion.

(9) Not all ethnographers accept this concept of obshchinas generally replacing clans.

(10) The 1822 Charter was the first piece of legislation to comprehensively address state-indigenous relations. See Raeff 1956 for discussion. During this period the term `alien' (inorodets) was used to refer to indigenous Siberians.

(11) The law was later modified (Oh izmeneniyakh 1996).

(12) See Osherenko (1995, 1086ff) for a discussion of various types of land rights.

(13) Aboriginal leaders fought for recognition of obshchinas as loci of self-government; while drafts specified such a role the final version omitted this. The federal law stipulates obshchinas as loci of self-government. The legislation enabling aboriginal self-government in Russia constitutes the topic for another paper.

(14) For a review of other republican laws that touch on land issues in the Sakha Republic, see Sirina 2000.

(15) This law outlined rights of all numerically small peoples of the Russian Federation, not just those of the North. In its several drafts the law flipped back and forth between including all numerically small peoples and just those of the North: many northerners felt the final, more inclusive version eroded the law's potential to address specifically Northern concerns. See Etnograficheskoe obozrenie and Zhivaya arktika for commentary on the successive drafts of this law.

(16) However, larger indigenous (but not aboriginal) groups, such as the Sakha, Komi, Tatars, and most notoriously, the Chechens, have pursued indigenous re-territorialization at a much more geographically extensive scale, with varying degrees of success.

(17) This quote, and those following, indicated by italics, are from interviews carried out with village residents in Nelemnoe (June 1997), Berezovka (August 1998) and Tyanya and reindeer camps on the Tokko River (July/August 1999), and from statements made at village meetings during the same visits. Only those persons interviewed in their official capacity are identified by name.

(18) N.E. Filippov was then Deputy Chairperson of the Srednekolymsk County. Vassily Afanasevich Robbek was then People's Deputy, Upper Council of the government of the Yakut-Sakha Soviet Socialist Republic. Robbek, who is Even, had lived in/near Berezovka from an early age for a number of years, after his family was relocated there. Thus the intervention from the `outside' is explicated in part by Robbek's long-standing interest in, and connections with, the community.

(19) Twenty percent of the adult population of the village was interviewed using a formal survey tool. Open-ended interviews were also held with the heads of obshchinas and elders.

(20) Named after the first Yukagir writer, who was repressed and assassinated in the 1930s.

(21) As of 2000, this obshchina still possessed only a minor acreage of haying land; it had received no territory for hunting, its primary activity (pers. comm, R. Willerslav, Sept. 2000).

(22) The WWF held an informational meeting in Tyanya with residents who wished to discuss the planned reserve. Some Tyanya residents held that the timing of the meeting allowed attendance of only a fraction of the community, mainly pensioners (Interviews 1999). This, and a tradition of polite voting for outsiders' suggestions, caused at least some Tyanya residents to question the real support for the reserve. Within the community, we discovered reactions ranging from strong support to anger over the reserve's establishment and the tactics used.


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Submitted 03/01; Revised 07/01; Accepted 09/01
Geography Program, University of Northern British Columbia, 3333
University Are, Prince George, British Columbia,
Canada V2N 4Z9 (email:

Geography Department, Sakha State University, 58 Belinskiy St., 677016
Yakutsk, Sakha Republic, Russian Federation

Political Science Program, University of Northern British Columbia,
3333 University Are, Prince George, British
Columbia, Canada V2N 4Z9 (email:

Institute of the Problems of Northern Indigenous Peoples, 4 Sosnovaya
St., 670008 Yakustk, Sakha Republic Yakutia),
Russian Federation (email:
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Author:Fondahl, Gail; Lazebnik, Olga; Poelzer, Greg; Robbek, Vasily
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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