Dmitry Berezhkov: “Empires exist not only on the maps, but also in our heads”

Presentation for the “Opposing Russian Colonial Oppression: Voices of Different Peoples” panel discussion. Hosted by European Parliament Member Rasa Juknevičienė in cooperation with the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial. Presentation by Dmitry Berezhkov (International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia / ICIPR).

Brussels, 25th of October 2023

I am a representative of the Itelmen people from Kamchatka. It’s a big peninsula in the Russian Far East and one of the richest regions in the world by fish and biological water resources. Indigenous Peoples have big problems with commercial companies involved in the fishing industry in our region. Sometimes, we have even a situation when a commercial company receives a license and place for fishing inside the village or near the village where indigenous people live, and it is prohibited for the local population to catch fish there, where they have fished for centuries. It’s just one example of discrimination.

I also am a member of the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia. It’s a relatively new organization we created in March 2022 as our reaction to the war in Ukraine. I escaped Russia for political reasons under the pressure of the Russian security service in 2011. Later, other Indigenous activists from Russia joined our team and are located now in different countries. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, we realized that we needed to unite our efforts to express our disagreement with this war and to show the world that the Indigenous Peoples of Russia do not support this conflict. I need to mention that it is very dangerous for Indigenous activists, our colleagues, sisters, and brothers who continue to live in Russia to express themselves openly about this war because of the fear of repression.

At the same time, it’s essential to underline who are the Indigenous Peoples in Russia. The Russian Federation, at the beginning of the 90s, recognized so-called small-numbered Indigenous Peoples, and it is rather unique terminology. It’s not used in other parts of the world. These are peoples who continue their traditional style of life, like reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing. At the same time, according to Russian legislation, they must be less than 50,000. From one perspective, it’s a very restrictive and discriminating situation for other Indigenous Nations in Russia, like, for example, Yakuts, who are bigger in number. On the other hand, we must recognize that our small-numbered Indigenous Peoples are among the most vulnerable. Some of our nations are less than several thousand, even hundreds of persons. About two-thirds of the small-numbered Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East are involved in the traditional economy, continue their traditional cultural practices, and preserve their traditional style of life. They depend economically on fishing, reindeer herding, and other customary livelihoods. Indigenous peoples continue to be one of the poorest parts of the general population of Russia. Such events like today’s discussion are significant for us because we experience a lack of resources, including intellectual, human resources, and financial ones, and our voice is not visible on the national as well as international levels because bigger players do not consider it important to hear some voices who are so small in number.

I also want to underline a significant point: what colonization is and how Russian officials and historians consider it. In the discourse that Russian historians and official representatives of the state promote, they do not recognize that Russia is a colonial empire. They say that Russia did not colonize Siberian territories as it was a voluntary unification and creation of nations’ brotherhood. At the same time, we understand that Russia is a pure example of a classical colonial empire. It’s a tradition that goes from Moscow Tsardom to the Russian Empire, then to the Soviet Union, and it continues today as the current Russian Federation. Russian officials insisted that the Russian empire was totally different from European empires like the British or Spanish ones.

But according to our point of view, the only significant difference was its economic nature. For example, when the Spanish came to America, they hunted for gold and killed everybody who possessed it to grab the treasure. In contrast, Russian Cossacks who came to Siberia needed, first and foremost, highly valued furs for external trading, and that’s why they did not kill too many Indigenous populations because they needed Yasak as a tax from conquered communities.

Further, the same economic nature of indigenous peoples’ engagement continued throughout the Soviet Union’s history, but the main trading item and its extraction system had just changed. The oil and natural gas extracted in Siberia and Yamal became the source of the Soviet Union and further the Russian Federation’s economic power. One more shift in the extractive nature of the same resource-based economy we are witnessing right now while the fossil fuel economy is transforming into a green one that is greedy for transitional minerals like lithium, nickel, and other similar metals.

It’s like waves of attacks for different treasures on the same conquered territories.Such an economic approach is especially crucialfor Moscow because the trade of natural resources is one of the primary sources of income for the Russian budget.

There are 40 small-numbered Indigenous Peoples in the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East. Their general population is about 250,000; for example, we have only about 2,500 people in my Nation, Itelmens. But these Indigenous Peoples live in a vast territory from Finland to Chukotka and China. It’s about two-thirds of the Russian territory because many Indigenous Peoples remain nomadic. They use huge areas, for example, for reindeer herding.

Today, Russia tries to use the Indigenous Peoples’ movement as an instrument of their further colonization. As you maybe know, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) operates in Russia as a representative body of small-numbered Indigenous Peoples. I worked for this organization for many years before I had to leave the country. When I worked there, it was a usual human rights organization that protected indigenous rights and promoted the human rights agenda. But now, it has become an instrument of the Kremlin’s propaganda. This year, the UN body, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, prepared a report on the influence of militarization on Indigenous Peoples around the world. They include several points about Russia; when we read these points, we can even imagine that they were written in the Kremlin directly. For example, when the authors spoke about the recruiting campaign and forced mobilization among Indigenous Peoples for the war against Ukraine in Russia, they said that Indigenous Peoples had the right to alternative military service during the recruiting campaign and could refuse to go to the war.

But I have two friends in Yakutia who were recruited for military service and forcefully mobilized explicitly because they were Indigenous hunters. They were speaking not only in Russian but in the Indigenous language. They also were officially jobless as they continued their traditional style of life.

If you consider the percentage of recruiting of indigenous peoples, it is a huge number. But the challenge for us is that Russia, through its influence and negotiations with other countries of the Global South, targets the UN documentation. We protested against approving this report; we said that this was not true, it was a lie, and it ultimately did not reflect the accurate picture, but finally, it was approved by the UN under the pressure of Russia and with the support of the RAIPON’s indigenous agents. Today, it’s an official UN document, and we ask for the support of the international expert community to fight against such apparent lies in the internationally recognized documents.

The other reason why such events are essential for us is also about colonization and colonial aspects. I don’t like this terminology, “the window of opportunity,” but a lot of discussions are going on, not only in ethnic minorities, at national and different nations’ levels, but also, for example, in Russian political opposition, – discussions about what happens in the future. And we all agree the war in Ukraine must be kind of a final step in the Russian state policy towards Indigenous Peoples and other minorities. We don’t want it to be the same in the future; the situation must be changed. There are a lot of different discussions about how it could happen.

Will Russia be disintegrated in the future? Will there be there separate states created? Is it possible or not? There are different points of view on these challenging questions.

One perspective among the so-called[1] democratic opposition is often discussed. They are saying that it will not be possible future for Russia as disintegration or separation of different Nations. But in some of their arguments, we hear the exact words that the Kremlin uses in its colonial discourse. For example, their argumentation states that when Russians came to Siberian or Arctic lands, these territories were empty: «many terri­to­ries east of the Volga River were histor­i­cally scarcely populated». Another doubtful argument I heard is that many of today’s ethnic republics or other Federation’s constituent units have regional administrations that consist of representatives of the local minorities: Yakuts in Yakutia or Tatar in Tatarstan. They consider it proof of these nationalities’ participation in regional governance. Without further analysis of these postulates, we can see that they precisely reflect standard Moscow narratives reproduced in thousands of history research and schoolbooks.

But the biggest disappointment for us is that they stage such discussions without any consultation, without even asking the people who live in this region, who represent these Nations, who are members of these ethnic communities. One of the Russian opposition activists said that the idea of an independent Bashkortostan is interesting only to a few marginals inside the republic, and that’s why it is not a question for a broad discussion. We consider it a very disappointing point of view and a continuation of the imperial paradigm because an empire is not only about lands, economy, or policy. It’s also about your mindset, your brain, and what you’re thinking about. In general, we can say that empires exist not only on the maps, but also in our heads.

The other disturbing point of view is the opinion of some ethnic activists who say that they want to organize their own separate states, destroy the empire, and obtain independence by any means, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

As Indigenous Peoples, we support the general paradigm of the Nations’ self-determination up to the opportunity to create separate national states.

But as ethnic Indigenous minorities, we understand that small-numbered Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East cannot create their own states in the future because, first of all, of their small numbering. We will anyway find ourselves in somebody else’s state, like Russia or, for example, Yakutia, or another country.

And we are very cautious about such discussions as their initiators aim to create independent states and don’t want to pay much attention to the future governance or political system like democracy. We had an experience with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which disparted in the beginning of 1990th into different types of sovereignties like Central Asian republics or Baltic democracies.

Today, these countries have entirely different historical and political backgrounds. And I’m not sure that Siberian Indigenous Peoples, in the case of Russia’s disintegration, will be too interested in finding ourselves in a kind of Central Asian type of autocracies in the future instead of Putin’s authoritarian regime.

That’s why such discussions as we have here today are essential for us. We need to discuss what will be the future of indigenous peoples, small-numbered indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East, in the future political agenda of the region. Unfortunately, we understand that bigger (more numbered) players are not interested or find it challenging to discuss such political perspectives with so small (small-numbered) stakeholders, like the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Arctic. That’s why we ask for the support of the Western political and intellectual powers who understand what international law is and the place of indigenous peoples in it to participate in such discussions as a mediator with enough capacity to invite different political stakeholders to the table.

[1] This glossary item is not an accidental one. In my opinion, the proponents of democratic views who now live outside Russia (most often not of their own free will, but due to political persecution) and who continue to actively discuss the Russian political agenda and ways its changing, who organize broadcasts on YouTube and try to influence the situation inside Russia, should rather be called political emigration than political opposition.

In the history of Russia, we remember a leader of the political opposition who, after being in exile, with the help of his supporters inside the country, still managed to return and build his highly successful political project, which later brought numerous disasters to the whole nation. His name was Vladimir Lenin.

However, his role was unique, while most Russian political emigrants remained as such and had no further significant influence on politics and governance inside Russia. In my opinion, this situation fully applies to the representatives of indigenous peoples, who have also been forced to emigrate due to the pressure of the Russian authorities in recent years.

Source – Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial

Russian version