Archive iR. Dmitry Berezhkov. One hundred years of the Sami self-determination in Russia

Dmitry Berezhkov — master student of the Arctic University of Norway/University of Tromsø. 

I have been living together with Sami people at the Far West edge of the gigantic Eurasia continent for so many years but still wonder their remarlable ability to produce wonderfull stories. I think some people have already read the post of Valentina Sovkina at her Facebook page about her visit to the Murmansk regional museum at February 6 2017 during the celebration of the Sami National Day.

Valentina Sovkina is a Sami politician, director of the Kola Sami Radio and the head of the «Kuelnegk neark Sam Sobbar» which is the Russian analog of the Sami Parliaments in Scandinavian countries. She lives in the capital of the Russian Sami — the Lovozero village.

I believe that her story shows well the problem of relations between the State and indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation. Unfortunately the form of the Facebook post as well as a modest style of her writing can’t allow to show a symbolism of her story so I decided to write this short commentary so the reader outside of the Sami society can understand the core of the matter.

6 February 2017 Valentina visited the Sami handicraft exhibition at the Murmansk State regional museum where among others were presented the masterpieces of Anastasiya Mozolevskaya — a Sami Duodji maker, who played a great role in the revitalization of the Sami handicraft art in Murmansk region. Under her guidance Sami Duodji artists in Russia restored traditional Sami ways of work with fur, reindeer skins, shamois, felt, gathered the original clothes designs etc.

The name of the exhibition was «The beauty of the North in the hands of the artist» and it was announced among Murmansk Sami well prior to the Sami National Day 6 February 2017. But when Valentina came to the exhibition she was met by the museum staff who said that the opening of the exhibition will be organized several days later. Nevertheless there was a group of visitors who were students of the local pedagogical college and a museum guide was giving them a tour around the exhibition. As Valentina wrote at her post, she suggested to the students to present the Sami culture: “I can present the Sami culture to you as I am an alive exhibit item here“.

The matter was that Valentina Sovkina was dressed in a Sami national clothes this day and came to Murmansk with a concrete political aim to raise the Sami National flag near the building of the Murmansk regional government.

The ceremony of raising of the Sami flag near the Murmansk regional government was a tradition for the Murmansk Sami during the most important dates and first of all during the Sami National Day at February 6 and during the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples at August 9.

The tradition of the National Sami Day celebration started 6 February 1917 when the First Gathering of Sami met at Trondheim (Norway). There Sami discussed the issues of cooperation between Sami of Northern countries (Sweden, Norway and the Grand Duchy of Finland).

In 1956 the Sami Council was organized which represented those times Sami of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Members of the Sami Council participated the general Sami Congress which was called the Sami Conference. In 1986 it approved the Sami national flag and the hymn as well as rules of their using. Since 1992 Russian Sami also became members of the Sami Council and in 1992 during the XV Sami Congress the 6 of February was recognized as a Sami National Day which was first time celebrated in 1993 in Jokkmokk (Sweden).

Sami of Russia have some additional meaning of the date 6 February as in 1866 as a result of the reformist activity of Russian imperator Alexander II the Sami Volost was organized in Kola peninsula which became a part of Arkhangelsk province. In 1868 the Sami elected body «Koladag Sobbar» had started to work as a representative gathering of the Sami people in Russia. It was elected by representatives of the Sami Volost and gathered once per year at 6 February.

So this is understandable that celebration of Sami National Day 6 February is an important event for the Sami of Russia as well as Sami of Nordic countries. This is a celebration of Sami solidarity. People gather together and organize cultural, sport events, round tables and conferences, meetings of Sami politicians and other similar events. Sami in Norway celebrate this date during a week during which they organize all these events.

Celebration of the Sami National Day is similar to the celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in Russia but differs sharply as Sami National Day includes significant political factor. For Sami people the 6 February date is a possibility to make a claim for political rights as a separate community and discuss their self-determination. Indigenous peoples of Russia have lost this political component unfortunately and concentrated more on cultural aspects of the celebration nowadays.

And this is understandable that the raising of the Sami National flag ceremony was a very important and symbolic event for the Russian Sami previously. Till 2012 the ceremony near the Murmansk regional government building looked like this:

But since 2012 the regional authorities had started to prohibit the procedure of raising the Sami flag near the Government of the region. They justified this new approach “because this activity leads to the raising of separatist sentiments among Sami people“.

Sami several times tried to raise the flag near the Government building but authorities prohibited these actions because of different reasons. There were much complaints from different sides and public discussions but finally the Government of the Murmansk region using the pretext of the building’s reconstruction just cut down the flagpoles near the Administration so nobody can raise any flag there now and the Russian Federation flag is located only on the building’s roof.

This public and rather hot discussion was highlighted well in regional and even national mass-media. The reaction of both sides was different. Sami continue to insist that raising of the Sami flag is an important political symbol and continue to walk with small flags during the indigenous celebrations along the city.

The authorities suggest to raise the flag in any other place but not near the main Government building in the city’s center. For example they suggest to raise the Sami flag near the Center of indigenous peoples of Murmansk region which is located in the urban fringe. As you can see this make difficult to make good photos of the procedure for the local photographers.

We don’t need to go deep into the topic of raising the flag as a political symbol of the Sami self-determination in the Murmansk region but this excursus was necessary to explain why Valentina Sovkina came to the regional museum in her national Sami dress and with Sami flag at 6 February 2017.

So Valentina took the lead of the excursion about Sami and started the discussion with students, who were of course interested to ask questions and discuss with real representative of the exhibited indigenous people. But after a while there in the museum appeared the bodyguards and officials of the Murmansk regional Government as well as the governor of the region herself. Marina Kovtun came to visit the official ceremony of the exhibition’s opening. Big guys pushed Valentina to the corner in order to prevent her to meet with the governor. And when Valentina tried to stay near mannequins, as they also were dressed into the Sami national clothes, with the aim to show the governor that there are alive Sami also live in the Murmansk oblast, the bodyguards of the governor pushed her out of the exhibition room.

Valentina as a real political veteran of the Russian indigenous movement did not capitulate and waited near the exit door of the museum and when the governor went out of the exhibition she finally saw Valentina, shook her hand and congratulated her with the Sami National Day.

This is rather usual practice for Russia as there too many peoples and too few governors so their safety, time and health is a very important concern for the Russian power system but there were some remarkable symbols in this story.

February 6 2017 was a special date for the Sami people. In 2017 they celebrated 100 years since the first Sami gathering in Trondheim so they celebrated actually the date of the birth of the Sami people as a consolidate Nation which lives in several different countries of the European North. If you want to understand how important this date was for Sami you can parallelize it with the celebration of the one thousand years celebration of the Kazan city for Tatar people. Historical distances of these two events are different but the importance for the Tatar and Sami peoples as Nations could be considered as equal.

It ought to be noted that many active members of the Russian Sami community participated the international conference in Trondheim this day in Norway where they gathered together with Sami from other Nordic countries. At the same time the main celebration of the 6 February that year in Russia was in Lovozero and there met many Sami from different settlements of the Murmansk region including Sami from Murmansk. That’s why there were not so many Sami in the city who were able to participate the opening ceremony of the exhibition. But if they were able to do it they couldn’t as the management of the museum officially spread the information that the opening ceremony will be several days after 6 February (which was finally a false as 6 February 2017 was marked as an official opening date of the exhibition in all regional media). And the only Sami who came to the ceremony was pushed out of the room so Marina Kovtun opened the exhibition in a company of students.

This is difficult to suppose that Marina Kovtun visited the Sami national handicraft exhibition this day occasionally or came there as a private person which loves art and can not miss any exhibition in the museum with such topic. So with certainty about 100 percent we can suppose that governor visited the exhibition opening ceremony as a politician and the representative of the State with the aim to pay respect to the Same people and congratulate them by this action with their historical milestone date.

This is rather standard and ritual procedure for any Russian politician or high level bureaucrat. Governors or presidents visit national celebrations, exhibitions, sport events and make their complimentary speeches. Such rituals of nominal respect to the national minorities in Russia allow to Russian officials declare that the national policy exists in Russia even if promises in their speeches are formal and not implemented further into a real life. This tradition was created in the early Soviet Union and financial support of the cultural festivals and complimentary speeches for the national minorities’ celebrations are a core line of the Russian national policy. Marina Kovtun herself is a successful adherent of such tradition and she annually congratulates Russian Sami with their National Day:

At 6 February we celebrate the Sami National Day.

This celebration is a symbol of respect to the people, which carefully keep their traditions, language and traditional lifestyle. Unique culture and Sami way of life became an essential part of the Murmansk regional life, economy and culture. It is impossible to imagine the Kola peninsula without reindeer herding as well as without Sami fairy tales, legends, songs, traditions, handicrafts and their deep connections with nature. 

It is important that Sami representatives share with us their distinctive and bright philosophy and their hospitality which is well known around the world. This is a guarantee of preservation and development of their indigenous traditions. State support of these traditions is and will be one of the most important priority of the work of authorities in Murmansk region and Russian Federation as a whole.

From the bottoms of our hearts we wish to our fair compatriots to continue the traditions of the Sami people with next generations.

We wish you a health, happy and prosper life!

Governor of Murmansk oblast, Marina Kovtun

But only this governor from the whole bunch of them who rule in Northern regions of Russia created a method of congratulation of indigenous people by such original way — to visit Sami national craft exhibition without inviting Sami people themselves. As I understand if she will develop this express-method in future so next time she will be able to bring a Sami photo to the office at February 6, open a champaign and congratulate by such way the Sami people without coming out from the Government building. That could be a good time-efficient procedure.

We need to note that in Lovozero this day 6 February 2017 were also congratulations from bureaucrats. But they were modest. From the regional Government the speech was announced by the deputy minister of the Murmansk region internal issues Michael Shilov who announced testimonial from the vice-governor Anatoly Vekshin. An exhibition was also organized there. It was also modest and looked like this:

Of course the most discriminating reader can object that this day 6 February 2017 there were no any Sami who was able to visit the opening ceremony as all of them participated events in Lovozero or Trondheim. But this question can be answered as Valentina anyway came to the museum and the other consideration is that the governor has its stuff and a decision authority to schedule her own timetable and save the time of others to correlate such issues. For example she could open the exhibition several days earlier.

In this context this is rather difficult to understand the words of other Sami leader — the president of the «Association of Kola Sami» (AKS) Elena Yakovleva at her presentation at the VIII Congress of the small indigenous peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East in Salekhard in March 2017 where she said that in Murmansk region:

Sami have tight relations with authorities. Our communities receive great financial support and help to develop their activities and traditional economies like reindeer herding, handicrafts and fishing. Our people are buying snow mobiles, all necessary equipment. They constructing houses and buying reindeers to improve their lives… we consider that the Government of Murmansk oblast and the Russian Federation as a whole, support Sami people very well. Of course we have some challenges like other indigenous peoples and first of all the Sami language preservation. 

And this is the end of the speech. I am not sure as I have no ability to visit Russia so maybe I am not familiar with the real situation of Sami people in Murmansk oblast. Maybe it really differ from other Northern regions of the Russian Federation and Sami people live there by better life than other indigenous peoples in Russia as they have no any other problems except the language preservation.

But this story is interesting first of all not because of the person of the governor of Murmansk region. Her attitude unfortunately is typical for the Russian authorities. The only distinction maybe is that governor men not hit upon the idea of express-method congratulations yet without inviting congratulated people themselves. I believe that this story highlights the relations of the Russian State and indigenous peoples in general. The symbolism of this story was highlighted by other Sami activist Andrey Danilov who commented the Valentina Sovkina Facebook post: «This is an indicative attitude to Sami. They need us only as exhibit items in a museum but not as real people».

Russian authorities finance cultural festivals, exhibitions and dance shows of indigenous peoples with pleasure. This is rather difficult to discuss with them the issues of traditional hunting or traditional fishing. Bureaucrats furiously protected the «strategic state interests» when indigenous peoples try to discuss a new coal mine or oil extraction on their traditional lands even if the «state interest» in reality is a concrete «interest» of concrete businessman or concrete bureaucrat.

But the real attitude of the state representatives to indigenous peoples is like the attitude toward to museum items. These items are subjects of public admiration during indigenous festivals. But other time museum exhibits must stay in a depository and time to time they could be extracted for presentations to guests from abroad.

And maybe this is a reason of failure of all «strategic» national programs and concepts of «sustainable development» of indigenous peoples in Russia as they don’t reflect the real aims of the Russian state towards the indigenous peoples. Maybe if the Russian Government will change the name  and the substance of such programs to the «museology of indigenous peoples» or to the «indigenous peoples’ archiving» the state indigenous policy become much more successful. In this situation indigenous peoples will not dream about any «sustainable development» and the bureaucrats will receive the clear and logical program of the state policy. And the good thing in that case will be a higher level of indigenous peoples festivals and this is a good opportunity to strengthen an indigenous peoples welfare.

Dmitry Berezhkov

Russian version