The Northern Sea Route and Native Peoples. Lessons from the 20th Century for the 21st

(By Gail Osherenko, Debra Schindler, Alexandr Pika, Dmitry Bogoyavlensky ; INSROP Working Paper No. 93 – 1997, IV.4.1)


Creation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) extended control of the Soviet government throughout a vast territory and, in the process, undermined pre-existing indigenous institutions - laws, norms, customs, rules and patterns of life that governed the economic and social activities of native peoples. The NSR made possible the whole pattern of economic development and industrialization of the Russian North. Native peoples who had inhabited the territories for centuries were valued for their potential contribution to this transformation rather than for their unique and distinct cultures. Soviet authorities noted their ability to survive and produce food and furs and sought to increase this productivity by industrializing hunting, fishing, and reindeer herding in order to feed an influx of workers from outside the region.

The NSR benefited the indigenous peoples of the Far North by ending the transport isolation for regions far from the Bering and Barents Seas. It opened navigation possibilities on the Lena and other rivers. Administrative authorities for the NSR opened trade posts and improved the material well-being of northern and Arctic populations by providing equipment and food. The NSR remains a crucial link in the international commerce of the northern regions.

The industries operating there continue to underwrite a complex chain of subsidies to indigenous peoples and communities. Regional administrative units have had to replace former state subsidies for infrastructure and social welfare, but these government entities are highly dependent upon the extractive oil, gas, and mineral industries in the regions where they exist. Thus, the social welfare system, expenses of electricity generation and provision of fuel for heating in settlements, emergency administrative grants, capital for construction of apartment houses, bakeries, and bathhouses are all linked to continuation of trade.

Today, policy for northern regions and northern nationalities is unsettled. Russia has yet to grapple seriously with the issues of native land rights and indigenous self-determination. At the same time, power and some measure of legal authority over indigenous homelands has shifted to the regions. As indigenous minorities compose only a small fraction of the population in any region, they may have little say in the control and management of lands and waters which they have traditionally used and occupied.

Some of the impacts of the NSR are directly caused by use and maintenance of the sea route itself. For example, year-round ice-breaker operation at the mouth of the Yenisey River has interfered with the migration of wild reindeer and thus threatened the staple food source for native groups throughout the Lower Yenisey Valley. More widespread impacts are associated with industries that developed in connection with the NSR. These include widespread air and water pollution from nickel smelting, barriers to domestic reindeer herd migration, destruction of pasture lands, and the disturbance of hunting and fishing grounds due to oil, gas and mineral development. It would be absurd to blame the NSR for all of the ecological, social, and cultural ills that plague northern communities today. At the same time, it is naive to dismiss or discount the massive social and demographic changes triggered by such a vast transport project.

The impacts were multiplied by the nature of Soviet power and authority, the use of forced labor, and later by conscious government policy favoring creation of large cities in the Far North. The concentration of population around industrial centers exceeded the ecological carrying capacity causing fires, water pollution, soil destruction and damage to flora and fauna. Politically the dramatic demographic change undermined indigenous power leaving Native populations as tiny minorities in almost all political divisions of the Russian North.

Lessons from the 20th Century for the 21st

Expanded international use of the NSR has the potential to bring similar impacts, positive and negative, to Native settlements and villages as those experienced earlier. Opening the NSR to increased international traffic, however, presents an opportunity to apply international standards to the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Russian North. The report's recommendations are grouped into five categories: (1) addressing crisis conditions in the Far North, (2) improving branches of the local economy, (3) developing NSR tourism to benefit indigenous minorities, (4) avoiding negative social and cultural impacts, and (5) shaping institutions for the future.

The potential risks of increased international use of the NSR include ecological damage, increased impoverishment, loss of livelihood and access to land and resources necessary to economic well-being and cultural continuity, and further political disenfranchisement. Potential benefits include increased access to goods and services, prospects for strengthening local economic activities including reindeer herding, fishing, hunting, trapping and Native crafts, expansion and diversification of local economies, enhanced political and cultural rights, clarification of title to indigenous lands and resources, implementation of existing laws protecting indigenous cultures and activities, and reduction in conflicts with outsiders. Whether the benefits will outweigh the detriments will depend, in large measure, on the institutions, policies and practices put in place to protect Native rights to land and resources, promote self determination of indigenous peoples, and increase local community control.


    Gail Osherenko, Debra Schindler, Alexandr Pika, Dmitry Bogoyavlensky, 1997, The Northern Sea Route and Native Peoples. Lessons from the 20th Century for the 21st, INSROP.©