Russia: Winds of Change from the North

When thinking about Russia, almost every foreigner names three geographical entities: Moscow, St. Petersburg and… Siberia.  Vast, snow white and bitter cold, Siberia seems to be deserted in the popular imagination.  However, in spite of its low population density, more than 30 ethnic groups inhabit Siberia, falling into the category of “small-numbered indigeneous peoples of the North” (malie narodi severa): Aleuts, Chukchi, Nenets, Dolgans, Evenks, Selkups, Chuvans, Kets, Khants, Mansi and others.

About 30,000 Khants and Mansi live in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug Yugra, one of the most important Russian regions in recent years because of its oil and gas extraction industries.  Traditionally hunters and anglers, they also engage in cattle rearing and reindeer breeding.  Due to the rapid development of Russia’s energy industry, the area’s population has increased by 1 million people over the past 30 years.  Newcomers to the region have had a strong impact on the unique languages, native cultures and lifestyles of indigenous peoples.

Mansi Girl with a Deer, by Nikolai Fomin, a Russian artist who often depicts the lives of smaller ethnic groups in his work.

Mansi Girl with a Deer, by Nikolai Fomin, a Russian artist who often depicts the lives of smaller ethnic groups in his work.

Irina Nikiforova has been studying the peoples of Siberia for many years, and is currently conducting research on the ancient forms of government of the autochthons of the North.  “Among the major problems, I am sorry to name the following: depopulation of many groups, alcoholism, loss of national identity and traditions,” she said, when asked about the most pressing social problems affecting these people today.

The latter can be partially eased by the development of better indigenous education services. At present, there are primary schools and various education institutions that teach the basics of national trades and languages.  However, they are primarily situated in remote national settlements and are short of teaching staff, as a result.  Furthermore, the education of ethnic groups still revolves around the state curriculum, which facilitates the further assimilation of each indigenous generation into Russian culture.

In order to counteract the decline of national traditions, the government of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug Yugra, together with the Russian Academy of Education, decided to establish the Research Institute of Small-Numbered Indigenous Peoples of the North.  The suggestion to establish the Research Institute was raised in early February 2009, during a meeting between Viktor Bolotov, the vice president of the Russian Academy of Education, and Aleksandr Filippenko, the governor of Yugra.  The establishment of the Research Institute dovetails with federal government policy on the issue: at the beginning of 2009, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin approved a concept on “The steady development of scanty native peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”,  which aims to strengthen state protection of the small-numbered indigenous peoples of the North and improve their quality of life in three phases lasting 2009 to 2025.

The Research Institute aims to unite scientists and researchers to preserve the culture of Northern ethnic groups and develop targeted education for them.

According to L.N. Koveshnikova, acting director of the Department of Science and Education in Khantia-Mansia, the main areas of research will be ethnopedagogics, culturology, ethnopsychology, ethnolinguistics, and anthropology. An agreement between the government of Yugra and the Russian Academy of Education has already been concluded, and preparations for the law on its establishment are in full swing.  However, the Research Institute will not provide higher education and will not admit its own students.

One of the main expected goals of the Research Institute is the development of textbooks on the Khants and Mansi languages.  Moreover, it is planned to systematize accumulated data on the culture of the various ethnic groups of the North and provide public access to this information.  The Institute will also help to solve the problem of teacher shortages in ethnic schools.

The Research Institute is not without its critics.  Irina Nikiforova does not believe that the establishment of such an institution will help native people: “There are already a great number of foundations devoted to the problems of the peoples of the North. Meanwhile, ethnic groups are losing their national identities rapidly and dying out. It’s my own opinion, and I hope it will turn to be false.”

On the contrary, Maria Longortova, a student of the Russian State Pedagogical University’s Faculty of Peoples of the North in the Ethnology Department, is more optimistic: “I am sure that the creation of this Research Institute is reasonable, as it will help to organize all the information we already possess. I am Khant myself, and understand my native language a bit, but I can’t say a word. So, I am waiting for the textbook.”




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