Limited and restricted: The Sámi cultural environment and the rights of Indigenous peoples in the north of Russia

In the 1990s, the Federal Government of Russia defined areas of habitat and usage for Indigenous peoples that would not be handed over to industry without their consent. During Putin’s administration, however, the authorities ceased to decolonise, but imposed new constraints on the habitat of the peoples of the north.

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 1/2024 In 2020, the Federal Ministry of the Far East and the Arctic approved the Murmansk region in Northwest Russia as a priority for development. This status entails a number of tax advantages and financial incentives designed to prepare the region for new investments. The abundant natural resources, the western end of the Northeast Passage and its location in the northern neighbourhood of NATO countries, Finland and Norway, underline the importance of the Murmansk region on the Kola Peninsula for Russia’s superpower politics. The Kola Peninsula is also part of the traditional homeland of one of Russia’s small-numbered Indigenous peoples, the Sámi.

The numerous means of alienating Indigenous peoples from their traditional habitats to ensure economic and military development have been part of the colonial practices of the Soviet Union and thence Putin’s Russia. Examples of this include the forced relocations of the Soviet era, bureaucratic bullying, areas limited to military activities, pollution and growing mining activity in Indigenous peoples’ traditional homelands, such as the Kola Peninsula.

Throughout the 2000s, Putin's administration has prioritised economic growth in the development of the Arctic region, which has often had regressive impacts on the territorial rights of Indigenous peoples. In the Kola Peninsula, these measures have made it difficult for the Sámi to exercise their right to self-determination and traditional livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and reindeer husbandry, which in theory would be guaranteed by the rights of Indigenous peoples, which were mainly compiled in the 1990s. The period that began in the 2000s has thus been described in Russia as a “legal stagnation for Indigenous rights”.

Russia’s escalated war of aggression in Ukraine in 2022 has further strengthened repressive legislation affecting Indigenous peoples. The exchange of raw materials extracted from Indigenous homelands against Western technology diminished considerably as a result of the war in Ukraine. Because of the sanctions imposed by the West, the country has sought to secure the extraction of rare earth metals, for instance, for the production of electronics. Therefore, in 2022, the Russian State presented a number of curtailing procedures for environmental assessments in order to speed up mining-related projects. Indeed, mining projects constructed in the traditional Sámi homeland are a sad example of the continued adaptation of Indigenous peoples to a modified living environment. This underscores the often marginal and insignificant position of Indigenous cultures in relation to the country's central government.

At the heart of the Kola peninsula, close to Lovozero, where the Sámi were concentrated during the Soviet forced displacements, several mining projects are also developing at a fast pace. These include the Fedorova Tundra, the Kolmozero lithium mine and the Polmostundra mine. In addition to mining, the development of tourism is planned for the Seydyavr nature reserve around Lake Seidozero, which is historically and religiously important to the Sámi.

As a regional example, the Kola Peninsula tells the increasingly darker story of the collision of the regional priorities of political power with the cultural environment of Indigenous peoples and their traditional livelihoods. In the absence of a top-down dialogue and a clear legal framework, the future of the Kola Sámi seems very uncertain.