Friday, February 14, 2014

The Obshchinas and the Indigenous People of the Sakha Republic

The Obshchinas and the Indigenous People of the Sakha Republic

This week i discuss on indigenous people of the Sakha Republic and their tribal commune known as obshchina. Here i analyze the relationship of provincial and federal government with the so called obshchinas (tribal communes). Before moving further into the details of the paper i would like to explain little about indigenous people (aborigines) of Russian North.In Russia 'indigenous people' (korennye) further divided into 'indigenous numerically small peoples of the North' ( korennye malochislennye narodoy severa).According to Russian law the aborigines 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 50,000 persons, and considering themselves distinct ethnic communities." Russia's northern territories is home to more than forty aboriginal peoples, from the Sami in the north west to Eskimos and Aleut in the north east. Together these indigenous people come around 250,000.A large part of them are still rural.In this paper i deal with Sakha Republic and its three traditional aborigines : Eevenki, Even and Yukagir. Today's entry focus on the 'reterritorialization' of obshchina (tribal commune) in the post-Soviet Sakha Republic.Discussion also looks on its impact on the relationship between both federal and provincial governments and aborigines.

What is obshchina? Obshchina is a traditional tribal commune of the Sakha Republic. Obshchina is restructured after the disintegration of Soviet Union.It is an officially recognized institution and anyone with traditional aborigine identity and lifestyle can join into one of the obshchinas and enjoy the privileges offered to it by the Russian federal government and the government of the Sakha Republic.According to Russian federal government obshchina may promotes the traditional life and culture of the indigenous people.Aborigines aspire to control over their ancestral land and partial right over the natural resources of their land.As we know Sakha Republic is blessed with natural resources such as diamond, gold, petroleum products and other precious minerals.Under the Soviet Union, income generated from these sources used to go directly to Moscow's coffer.But the disintegration of the Soviet Union partially reversed this trend.The new Russian government forced to make some compromise with indigenous people.The international pressure and new global order were also pressurized Moscow to become lenient towards its republics.Besides various republics demanded more autonomy from Moscow.The aborigine assertiveness should see from this background.Again just like in nomadic parts of the Central Asia the Soviets were not fully successful in the elimination of clan based institution such as obshchina in Sakha Republic.Under Soviet state farm (reindeer based) system the same kinfolk worked together and it ensured the survival of obshchinas. There is one big difference between Soviet times and now.Soviets did not recognize the obshchinas but new government legalized the reality.

In March 1992 the Russian federal government issued a decree which calls for the development of a law on 'clan, obshchina and family lands' for the aborigines.On the basis of  this decree the Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued an order which demands 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 for or lease." Sakha Republic also followed the path of  federal government and developed a law for obshchinas. According to republic law obshchina is : 

     "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". 

There is one big difference between the Russian federal law and the law of the Sakha Republic.According to federal law only so called aborigines are eligible for obshchina rights.But into this Sakha government added both Sakha people (as other indigenous people) and Russian Old Believers ( as ethnic communities).Or, in other words, Sakha law gave more importance to traditionality than aboriginality. Sakha law also encourages obshchina as an economic institution and promoted traditional activities for economic development. Obshchina lands are exempted from tax and obshchinas enjoy minimum interference from governments.The Sakha law also demands a referendum of aborigines to allow any industrial or any other kind of involvement in their land.Again according to both federal and provincial law the land right transferred to the commune not to any individual.But in oppose to Sakha Republic federal government did not ready to recognize the non-aborigine obshchinas.

On paper things are seem to be perfect.But unfortunately the obshchinas laws are not implemented strictly at the expense of aborigines.The resource rich Sakha territory invites the attention of outside world and government authorities bypass laws often for material benefits.For example government is not ready to recognize the right of urban born aborigines or aborigine who use modern facilities such as snow bikes as real aborigines.Sometimes hunting parties from Europe and other places could not appreciate the land rights of the aborigines.Neither government nor aborigines can block these incidents.We can see that government agencies are not very willing to implement these laws even though it is written very clearly in paper.Still the newly found right over their ancestral land enable aborigines to engage with any sort of investment in the obshchina land.Or it made them more powerful in a territory blessed with immense natural resources.


1) Argounova - Low, "Tatiana (2007), Close Relatives and Outsiders : Village People in the City of Yakutsk,Siberia," Arctic Anthropology, Vol.44, No.1,pp.51-61.

2) Cruikshank, Julie & Tatiana Argounova (2000), "Reinscribing Meaning : Memory and Indigenous Identity in Sakha Republic (Yakutia)," Arctic Anthropology, Vol.37, No.1, pp.96 - 119.

3) Fondahl, Gail, Olga Lazebnik etal. (2001), "Native 'land claims', Russian style," The Canadian Geographer,Vol.45, No.4, pp.545 - 561.


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