Exit, pursued by a bear

Russia’s Indigenous activists are increasingly facing transnational repression in exile

Exit, pursued by a bear

An Indigenous reindeer herder in the village of Khatanga in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region. Photo by Jacques Langevin / Sygma / Getty Images

Pavel Sulyandziga, an Indigenous activist and member of the Russian Far East’s Udege people, arrived in the United States in 2017 to seek political asylum.

Sulyandziga joined his wife and their five children, who were already living in Maine. They left following numerous threats to Sulyandziga’s personal safety, as well as to his family members and colleagues, because of his political activism.

Laura A. Henry

Associate Professor of Government and Legal Studies, Bowdoin College

Sulyandziga’s request for political asylum in the US is still pending, part of a large backlog of asylum cases currently before immigration judges in the country.

Today, however, Sulyandziga, 61, and his family members continue to be harassed by the Russian government.

Sulyandziga is one of 260,000 people recognised as Indigenous in Russia. Distinct from ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples living in Russia have long fought for the recognition of their rights as native peoples and for their right to protect their traditional territory, which is often located in areas used for the extraction of natural resources.

Increasingly, however, Indigenous activists are leaving Russia due to the growing climate of political repression. In many cases they are charged with working on behalf of foreign governments, or they face accusations of corruption.

The Russian government is increasingly trying to silence activists such as Sulyandziga even after they leave Russia. Known as transnational repression, this kind of harassment means that Indigenous activists are vulnerable in exile as well as at home.

Indigenous People of Russia

The Soviet Union officially recognised the many identities and languages of Indigenous peoples living within its borders. But Soviet officials also pressured Indigenous people to abandon their traditions, religions and livelihoods in order to more easily incorporate them into communist society.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has legally recognised just 47 Indigenous peoples, though more than 150 groups claim Indigenous status.

There was a flowering of Indigenous activism in Russia during the more open politics of the 1990s. Between 1999 and 2001, the government passed several new laws ensuring Indigenous rights, such as cultural autonomy and access to territories traditionally used for hunting and pastureland.

But Indigenous peoples remain among the most socially and economically marginalised groups in Russia.

Socioeconomically, their health, educational and economic outcomes are significantly worse than those of the average Russian citizen. Indigenous peoples also face extensive displacement and pollution from natural resource extraction, including oil and gas drilling.

Many also live in areas particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Indigenous activism and Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has created new problems for Indigenous communities in Russia. Driven by poverty and patriotic appeals, young men from Indigenous communities are enlisting in the military in disproportionately high numbers.

Preliminary research indicates that soldiers from impoverished and remote regions and from ethnic minority groups die in the conflict in disproportionately high numbers.

Government harassment of Indigenous activists from Russia has also intensified since 2022. Like Sulyandziga, a number of Indigenous activists have left Russia over the past few years to protect themselves and their families.

Some Indigenous exiles have exercised their new freedoms by protesting Russia’s war in Ukraine. Sulyandziga has also been vocal in his opposition to the war.

However, an activist’s decision to go into exile to escape persecution does not always mean the end of repression.

Pressure on Indigenous peoples

The Russian government uses the tools of transnational repression against Indigenous activists who have left Russia. These include damaging activists’ reputations in media coverage, initiating spurious legal cases, confiscating their property and harassing their relatives and colleagues who remain in Russia.

By increasing the risks of speaking out, the government discourages Indigenous activists from trying to influence the political situation back home and attempts to silence their concerns about their people’s survival.

Ruslan Gabbasov, an activist from the Bashkir ethnic minority in the Russian region of Bashkortostan, left his homeland in 2021 due to increasing pressure on his activism. He was the leader of an organisation that campaigned for the protection of Bashkir cultural and language rights that the government later labelled as “extremist”.

Gabbasov received political asylum in Lithuania, where he started a new organisation — the Committee of the Bashkir National Movement Abroad. His half brother, Rustam Fararitdinov, has never been involved in political activism.

But in November 2023, Fararitdinov was arrested by Russian security agents. Gabbasov reports that he has heard that if he returns to Russia, “they will release him; if not, they will imprison him”.

In Sulyandziga’s case, a Russian court found him guilty in November of “discrediting the Russian military.” The court cited an online lecture by Sulyandziga, in which he criticised the Russian government’s historical treatment of Indigenous communities.

Pavel Sulyandziga. Photo: Facebook.

Pavel Sulyandziga. Photo: Facebook.

Following the charge, Sulyandziga said that his adult son, who lives in Vladivostok, has been chronically harassed by Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, in relation to the case, who subjected him to repeated questioning and threatening language.

Repression also is designed to drive a wedge between Indigenous communities in Russia and activists abroad, and transnational repression is a high-profile way to scare other Indigenous activists.

That tactic has not been effective, though, in intimidating Sulyandziga and others.

Sulyandziga, who also worked as an environmental activist in Russia, re-established his nonprofit organisation Batani in the US. The Russian government had labelled his original organisation a foreign agent even before he fled to the US. He now works to unite Indigenous communities across borders.

Sulyandziga also recently participated in a campaign to discourage Tesla from buying nickel for its cars from the Russian company Norilsk Nickel, a major polluter of Indigenous lands.

Sulyandziga vows to continue his activism, despite the pressure.

Along with fellow Indigenous activist Dmitry Berezhkov, Sulyandziga continues to call for Indigenous citizens in Russia to have “access to their traditional lands and traditional resources, that Indigenous cultures and languages are preserved, and that Indigenous peoples have an opportunity to pursue the realisation of their political, economic, and social potential”.

Pavel Sulyandziga, president of the Batani International Indigenous Fund for Solidarity and Development and visiting scholar at Dartmouth College, contributed to this article, which was originally published by The Conversation.

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