Indigenous Europe: Discover Multi-ethnic Background Of Russia


What does it mean to be Russian? In fact, it may mean many different things, since Russian society is truly multi-ethnic. Russia is home to nearly 180 ethnic groups, out of which forty-one are considered indigenous. Here are some interesting facts about them.

In danger of extinction – the Enets and other small indigenous groups

Among nearly two hundred ethnic groups inhabiting Russia, forty-one are legally protected as indigenous. In Russia, to be recognized as an indigenous group, certain requirements must be met. Not only does the group have to maintain a traditional way of life and inhabit certain areas of the country, it also has to comply with certain size criteria. An ethnic group can be considered indigenous only when it numbers fewer than 50 thousand people. This particular criterion is not problematic for the Enets, who are known to be the least numerous indigenous group in Russia, with only 350 members according to the most recent survey.

Ten of the indigenous groups living in the Russian Federation have fewer than one thousand members. Interestingly, although indigenous peoples make up only 0.2 percent of the Russian population, they inhabit about two thirds of the country’s land surface.

The Enets people are also known as Yeniseian people since they traditionally inhabit the east bank of the Yenisei River near the Arctic Circle | Flickr / © Olga Filonenko

Unique physical traits – the Udmurts

Ethnic groups living in Russia have different histories and traditions, and use different languages. They are also known for their unique physical traits. Did you know that less than 2 percent of the world’s population has red hair? However, this is not the case with the Udmurts, a people who inhabit both Russian and Ukrainian territory. It is believed (and proven in research conducted by the Estonian anthropologist Karin Mark) that Udmurts are the most red-headed people in the world. Apparently, more than 4 percent of Udmurts have ginger hair! This means that among the 1.5 million Udmurts, about 60 thousand have this unusual natural hair color.


Udmurts regularly dedicate festivals to red hair | ©

Language barriers – the Sámi people

A while ago, we took a closer look at the culture of the Sámi people who inhabit the northernmost regions of Europe. Did you know that this indigenous group inhabits four countries? The largest group lives in Norway, the smallest in Russia. There are also Sámi communities in Finland and Sweden. Interestingly, even though all Sámi people speak a language called Sámi – there are several dialects in use, therefore it is not uncommon that people from the same ethnic group may not be able to communicate with each other at all!

Borders and a complicated past – the Karelians

Another ethnic group that is present in two different countries is the Karelians. Ethnically, Karelians are a Finno-Ungaric people, more specifically identified as Baltic-Finnic. In the first centuries of the Christian era, Karelians inhabited the lands near Lakes Ladoga and Onega, from where they moved up to the White Sea region. For centuries, different powers seized control over the Karelians. In the 12th century they became dependents of the feudal republic of Novogrod and were converted to the Russian Orthodox faith. Later on, the Swedes became interested in the area where the Karelians lived. The Russian-Swedish, and later on the Russian-Finnish border, divided the Karelians and led to divergent developments in Karelian culture. Due to territorial claims and the border changes that occurred at the end of World War II, today’s Karelians in Finland and Russia are significantly distinct when it comes to spoken language, traditions, and even religion. In Finland, Karelians are quite well assimilated as since the Middle Ages they have formed a portion of the Finnish nationality and have influenced the folklore of the Finns. In Russia, on the other hand, Karelians are included in the census as a separate ethnicity.


Karelians in Russia try to preserve their culinary traditions. Cranberries are among most often used fruits | Russia Beyond the Headlines / © Daria Donina

Peoples of the Arctic – Yukaghirs and the problem of declining population

Speaking about the inhabitants of the northernmost European regions, it is worth mentioning that out of the 41 indigenous groups of Russia eleven live beyond the Arctic Circle. Approximately half of the worldwide Arctic population lives in Russia. Moreover, among the European peoples, Russians were the earliest settlers of the Arctic. Today, the ethnicities inhabiting the lands above the Arctic Circle are very small. The Yukaghir people, for example, are regarded as an indigenous people of Eastern Siberia whose once large population was significantly reduced between the 17th and 19th centuries due to epidemics, internecine warfare, and tsarist policies that led to the partial assimilation of the Yukaghir with the Russians.

Unfortunately, for centuries, all the indigenous populations have been regularly diminished due to social and political issues. Today, many of these ethnicities face new dangers related to the industrial development of the Arctic lands that inevitably has an impact on traditional activities such as reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting.

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