Pavel Sulyandziga, an Indigenous activist and member of the Udege people of Russia’s far eastern region, 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.

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

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

Sulyandziga is one of among 260,000 people who are recognized as Indigenous and who are from Russia. Indigenous peoples living in Russia have long fought for recognition of their rights as native peoples and to protect their traditional territory, which is often located in areas that are used for natural resource extraction, such as mining.

But recent research shows that Indigenous activists are fleeing Russia because of growing repression. Sometimes, they are being charged with working on behalf of foreign governments, or they are facing false accusations of corruption.

Beyond repression at home, the Russian government is increasingly trying to silence activists like Sulyandziga even after they leave Russia.

This kind of harassment is called transnational repression, and it means that Indigenous activists are vulnerable in exile as well as at home.

A man with a grey beard sits on a red couch and watches young children run around.

Pavel Sulyandziga watches his children play in his living room at home in Maine.
Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Indigenous people of Russia

The Soviet Union officially recognized the many identities and languages of Indigenous peoples living within its borders. But Soviet officials also pressured Indigenous people to abandon their traditional, religious and livelihood practices in order to more easily incorporate them in the Communist regime.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has legally recognized 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 marginalized groups in Russia.

Socioeconomically, their health, educational and economic outcomes are significantly worse than the average Russian citizen. They face extensive dislocation 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 enlist 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.

The Russian government’s pressure on Indigenous people

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 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 concern about the survival of their people.

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 organization to protect Bashkir cultural and language rights that the government labeled as “extremist.”

Gabbasov received political asylum in Lithuania, where he started a new organization – 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, “If I return to Russia, they will release him; if not, they will imprison him.”

In Sulyandziga’s case, a Russian regional court charged him in November 2023 with an increasingly widely used charge of “discrediting the Russian military.” The court cited an online lecture by Sulyandziga, in which he criticized the Russian government’s historical treatment of Indigenous communities.

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

A foreign policy concern

What motivates the Russian government to continue to try to repress Indigenous activists abroad? In part, repression is a response to activists’ international efforts to draw attention to their causes, including through the creation of new organizations like the Free Buryatia and Free Yakutia foundations. These anti-war groups compare Russia’s violence toward Ukrainians with their own histories of oppression and call for decolonization in the region.

Repression also is designed to drive a wedge between Indigenous communities in Russia and activists abroad who maintain connections via online platforms such as Telegram.

Finally, 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, reestablished his nonprofit organization in the U.S. The Russian government had labeled his original organization a foreign agent, even before he fled to the U.S. 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 realization 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.


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