Pluralities of Governance in the Russian Arctic

Under what pretext can oil, natural gas, coal, gold, and diamonds be extracted from under the permafrost on indigenous reindeer pastures or hunting and fishing grounds? Like most nation-states, Russia passed federal legislation that authorizes extractivism, a pattern of domination that has been brought to bear on the indigenous people who live off of these lands. Despite the existence of an ostensibly unified legal system, indigenous people and extractive industry engage with the land’s resources very differently. Comparing plural regulatory regimes can help us to understand the process of domination that Stephen Reyna and Andrea Behrends (2011) identify as a key determinant of conflict around resource extraction. The social life of the law within each region is entangled with local legal traditions, worldviews, and practices of deference to local authorities. Through anthropological analysis, we demonstrate how indigenous regulatory systems, hierarchies, and governmentalities shape the social life of extractive industries in the Russian Arctic, even though federal law in principle applies identically to Russia’s remotest corners.

State workers and reindeer herders.
State workers and reindeer herders. Photo courtesy of the Mirny Museum.

Finite subsurface resources such as hydrocarbons and minerals are generally governed by a managerial worldview of human superiority over nature, in which the only value of the environment is as a trove of resources waiting to be exploited. Yet, on the very same land, people make use of scattered, mobile on-surface resources such as reindeer, fish and game, and pasture according to seasonal cycles. Since their incorporation into territorial nation-states, many indigenous peoples have been sedentarized and have adopted a managerial worldview themselves. Their relations with extractive industry unfold within a legal field defined by the sedentary nation-state as it defends exclusive access to its territory, rather than cooperating and entering into relationships of reciprocity with neighbors.

In Yakutia, East Siberia, the Turkic-speaking Sakha hold political power over an area the size of India. As agro-pastoralists, they interact with the diamond, gold, coal, oil, and gas industries in a way that underscores both their sense of stewardship over the land and their governing status as a republic within the Russian Federation.1 For example, the Sakha adopted a constitution that declared all subsurface resources the property of the region and its inhabitants, established Russia’s first law on anthropological impact assessments for indigenous nomadic communities, and drafted a law on corporate social responsibility. These actions predate similar laws and initiatives by the Russian Federation and reflect a Sakha system of social hierarchy and local self-government prior to incorporation into Russia. This system included territorial organization into districts (ulus) led by a respected head (kuluba, bahylyk), in which a number of clans (aymakh) might live. During the nineteenth century, the Sakha established their own parliament (stepnaya duma), which was recognized by the Tsarist empire.

The Samojedic-speaking Nenets of Yamal, by contrast, herd the world’s largest domestic reindeer herds across the world’s largest terrestrial natural gas deposits. Nenets interaction with industry takes the form of a coexisting differentiation in land use (Forbes et al. 2009). The Nenets are a small minority in the administrative districts named after them: Yamal-Nenets and Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Activists in these districts are focused on improving practices of coexistence with industry. Before incorporation into Russia, Nenets clans (erkar) had a flat leadership structure, with each clan assigned to one of two exogamous moieties (tenz). There was little need for leadership beyond the immediate tasks of thriving with reindeer herds, except on an ad hoc basis when specific problems arose (Golovnev 1997). In such cases, the individuals with the necessary skills to ressolve a particular issue would emerge as temporary leaders, before returning to lives as herders on the tundra.

Both Yamal and Sakha are considered successful in their governance of extractive industries, even as the differences of their approaches belie the centralized law-and-order regime of contemporary Russia. For example, after the damaging social impacts of the Eastern Siberia Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, Sakha clans successfully pushed a law on anthropological impact assessment through the regional parliament to help prevent or compensate for future damages. In Yamal, without such a law, Nenets activists nonetheless secured an anthropological impact assessment that has deterred oil and gas drilling in the Ob and Taz Bays (Kara Sea). Thus, while formal laws are important contact points with industry for the Sakha, case-sensitive practices are the operative form of governance among the Nenets. This is a result of a history of Sakha interest and ambition in their own statehood. Sakha leadership structures are hierarchical. Family, clan, and district heads enjoy social authority that they use for political lobbying, as do their neighbors in Central Asia, the region from which the Sakha originally migrated to the Arctic. Sakha clan membership trumps ad hoc practical interest groups. The acephalous Nenets, in contrast, have less political power. On a processual rather than legalistic basis, they have negotiated the governance of their herding, fishing, and hunting grounds. For this reason, the principal unit of indigenous land use among the Sakha became the nomadic clan community, and in Yamal, the territorial neighborhood.


1. The Yakutian constitution dates from 1992, which ushered in the era of declaring intra-Russian regional sovereignties. It actually predates the Russian constitution, which was adopted a year later in 1993. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the Sakha Republic was required to make changes to its constitution to align it with that of the Russian Federation.


Reyna, Stephen, and Andrea Behrends. 2011. “The Crazy Curse and Crude Domination: Towards an Anthropology of Oil.” In Crude Domination: An Anthropology of Oil, edited by Andrea Behrends, Stephen P. Reyna, and Günther Schlee, 3–29. Oxford: Berghahn.

Forbes, Bruce C., Florian Stammler, Timo Kumpula, Nina Meschtyb, Anu Pajunen, and Elina Kaarlejärvi. 2009. “High Resilience in the Yamal-Nenets Social–Ecological System, West Siberian Arctic, Russia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 52, 22041–48.

Golovnev, Andrei V. 1997. “Indigenous Leadership in Northwestern Siberia: Traditional Patterns and their Contemporary Manifestations.” Translated and edited by Sergei Kan. Arctic Anthropology 34, no. 1: 149–66.