Russian Sámi - how much do you know about them?

Mikkel Berg-Nordlie

Russian Sami may not have a parliament yet, but they are organized and engaged, say a group of Norwegians researchers. These researchers have embarked on a new project exploring Russian Sami politics and organizations in order to enhance public knowledge about the indigenous group.


Norwegian cultural researchers are working to help Westerners better understand Russian Sámi.

The aim of the project, which is called Russia in Pan-Sámi Politics, is to provide the public with new knowledge about Sámi politics in Russia as well as a better understanding of the relationship between Russian Sámi and their Nordic kin.

For decades, Russian Sámi living in the Soviet Union were separated from Sámi living in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Since 1991, a re-establishment of contact has occurred between these countries’ indigenous people by way of organizations like the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, the Sámi Council and various Sámi NGOs in Russia. However, even though these re-connections have occurred, the researchers leading Russia in Pan-Sámi Politics say an information gap still exists when it comes to Westerners understanding Russian Sámi.

- Reading Western media you get the impression that the Russian Sámi are less active and organized than they really are – in reality, there’s a host of different Sámi organizations and institutions in Russia, said Mikkel Berg-Nordlie, researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Urban and Regional Research.

Mikkel, along with fellow NIBR researcher and project leader Jørn Holm-Hansen, had the impression that while most Scandinavians knew about the Sámi Parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden, very few knew anything at all about Sámi organizations in Russia. There was an information gap that needed to be filled, said Mikkel.

Since the start of the project in 2008, researchers have completed two field excursions, conducting interviews in Apatity, Kirkenes, Loparskaya, Lovozero, Monchegorsk, Murmansk, and Olenegorsk. The existence of a Pan-Sámi community has been apparent.

- Cooperation between the Sámi of all the four countries is a very interesting phenomenon in itself, said Mikkel. This is a form of nation-building that doesn’t include forming a national state.

While border-transcending discussions and projects, like Russia in Pan-Sámi Politics, are becoming more common, historically, pan-Sami partnerships have not been shaped by Russian Sámi. In fact, Sámi Parliaments still only exist in the Nordic countries.

According to Mikkel, this project should be important to anyone interested in cross-border relations in the Barents and Arctic region.

- Our project is of interest to the Sámi community in particular, but also to people whose interests include civil society in Russia, ethno-political organizing, indigenous rights and politics, general cooperation between Russian and Western actors and Arctic political development, he said.

Along with better educating the public on Russian Sámi politics and policy, the end goals of the project include publishing a book on the modern Russian Sámi movement, holding an open seminar on Russian Sámi politics and co-hosting the European Consortium for Political Research workshop on indigenous politics in St. Gallen, Switzerland in 2011.

Written by Margaret Cappa