Artwork: Russian Sunbirds


Turning Points in Their History
The Nganasans are the northernmost people of the former Soviet Union. They are a Samoyedic people, and most closely related to the Nenets, especially linguistically. The Nganasans' originate from Samoyedic tribes living in the area of the Sayan mountains in southern Siberia. Until the 17th c., the Nganasan lived further south than they do today. When the Dolgans arrived in the region, and the Avam Nganasans moved onto the Tundra.

17th c.: The Nganasans first came in contact with the Russians around 1610, and were among the last of the Samoyedic peoples to come under Russian control as government agents and merchants arrived on the Taymir peninsula. The Nganasans soon had to pay the despised fur tax, however, that was collected with cruel methods. The Russians also introduced the Nganasans to tools, firearms and various trade goods, including alcohol, which has plagued these people ever since. They also brought with them diseases that these peoples had never been exposed to before. These factors caused a rapid population decline among the Nganasans. To facilitate the easy collection of the tribute, each Nganasan is supplied with 15 pails of liquor a year, the exploitation of their labour and natural resources began. Russian Orthodox missionaries reached the Nganasans in the late 17th c. The conversions were rather superficial - Shamanism remained strong also among converts.

Because of their remote location, the Nganasan escaped many of the depredations that other Siberian peoples endured, and their social, economic and religious life remained intact until the Bolshevik revolution. In 1930, the entire Taymir tundra was declared to be one large collective. The Nganasan resisted, and Soviet authorities did not make much of an effort to enforce compliance, much because of the tough climate and remoteness of Taymir. By the late 1940s, however, there was a strong Russian presence along the Yenisey river, south of Taymir, where the Nganasan usually migrated for summer grazing. Gradually, they abandoned this migration.

1960s: the previously pastoralist Nganasans have become resident and are living by the common standards of the Soviet Union, their ethnic identity and traditions are disappearing.

From the 1970s, the Nganasan could no longer avoid the changes brought by Soviet industrialisation. The entire economy of the Taymir region became dominated by massive non-ferrous metal plants that were built in Norilsk. The plants have also had devastating effects on the environment, which has again caused severe health problems. Infant mortality and mental retardation sky-rocketed, also as a consequence of wide-spread alcoholism.

Danger Signs
The adaptation to their new life-style has brought great problems to the Nganasans. Many of them have been forced to take menial jobs, many others are unemployed. Alcoholism is widespread. Due to their poor heath or lack of education, few Nganasans are enlisted into the army. The Russian language and community are held in high esteem by the Nganasans, yet this is the community that repulses the Nganasans. Even the Russians who associate with the Nganasans are boycotted. The Nganasans have no right to voice their opinion regarding the administration of their economic and cultural affairs. There could be some hope for them to survive as a nation if an autonomous territory would be formed of the Avam and Khatanga regions. There have been calls for emergency measures to preserve the original indigenous culture, and there have been protests against industrialisation. Nganasan leaders have joined the recently formed Association of Peoples of the North.


The Dolgans are a people of Tungusic origins, who were partly assimilated by the Yakuts, and as a result speak a dialect of the Turkic Yakut language. They are closely related also with Evenk, and in fact, the four sub-groups of Dolgans existing today are seen by some as descendants of four Evenki clan groups.

With collectivization in the 1930s, gradually more an more of the Dolgans had to accept settled life in state villages, although some managed to keep their traditional ways until the 1950s. The industrialization after World War II with coal and nickel mines and the construction of the giant non-ferrous metal plant at Norilsk (nickel, cobalt, platinum) in the 1970s, and 80s, together with the arrival of large numbers of Russians, had a serious impact on the Dolgan traditional economy (reindeer-breeding, fishing, hunting) and way of living. Air pollution from Norilsk and especially devastated reindeer pastures are a serious concern for the Dolgans. The plants have had devastating effects on the environment, which has again caused severe health problems. Infant mortality and mental retardation have also increased as a consequence of wide-spread alcoholism. The Dolgans' culture has been largely subsumed by Yakut culture, but they still retain a sense of Dolgan identity. Dolgans have joined the Association of Small Peoples of the Far North, which was established in 1990.


The Enets are a Samoyedic people (related to Nenets, Selkups and Nganasans). It is believed that these groups split away from the Finno-Ugrian groups around 3000 B.C. and migrated east, where they mixed with Turkish-Altaic peoples around 200 B.C.

The Samoyedic people who remained in Europe, came under Russian control around 1200 A.D., but those who had settled further east did not have much contact with the Russians until the 14th c. By the early 17th c., all of the Samoyedic peoples were under Russian control. The Enets have traditionally been a pastoralist people, migrating on the tundras between the left bank of the Yenisey river and the Pyasina river in the Western Taymir peninsula. The traditional economy of the Enets and other Samoyedic peoples was mainly based on reindeer herding and breeding, fishing, and sea mammal hunting. Their society was carefully organized into well-defined clans, each with their own grazing, hunting and fishing lands, as well as seasonal routes.

During the 16th and 17th c., the central government under the tsars ruled these peoples indirectly from Moscow. They established forts, from which they collected the despised fur tax, but left the actual administration to local rulers. Anyone who converted to Christianity was offered citizenship. The indigenous peoples suffered from their commercial and political contacts with the Russians, causing a rapid decrease in the Enets population.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Soviet government issued the "Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia", including a wide range of rights of self-determination, that largely remained on paper, as policies of "modernisation" were put through. In 1924, a Committee of Assistance of Peoples of the North was established. They first proposed creating large reservations where the indigenous populations could continue their traditional life-styles. But instead, the Soviet government decided to integrate these peoples into the larger social, political and economic body of the country. Around 1930, several "national districts" were established, administrative units named after one or two of these small peoples. Taymir, or the Dolgan-Nenets Autonomus Okrug, is one huge such region, that still exists. In the 1930s, as cooptation replaced intergration as the states policy toward a number of the peoples of the North, Enets were among several nations who were deemed by central authorities too small to deserve their own literary language. They lost official recognition as distinct nationalities and for years disappeared from the official Soviet censuses. Collectivization met with strong resistance among Enets and other Samoyedic leaders, but to no avail. The government also establihed "cultural bases", with schools, hospitals, daycare centres and so on - mainly in an effort to assimilate the Enets and other groups. Schools were built for Enets children, and from 1938, Russian was the language of instruction. Enets religion was also attacked. The biggest changes in Enets life were caused by Soviet industrialization and the increasing immigration of ethnic Russians into Siberia.

During World War II, the Soviets relocated much of their industry east of the Ural mountains to keep it away from the Germans. Because of this and as a result of huge state development plans after the war, large numbers of ethnic Russian workers suddenly poured into Siberia. The Enets and other indigenous groups found their land decreasing rapidly, forcing long-term changes in Enets life. Surviving Enets (a very small group of people, around 200 in 1989) were being rapidly accultured by the surrounding Nenets, Selkups and Dolgans. But even as late as 1990, most Enets still spoke the Enets languge, and all of them were aware of their Enets heritage.

In the new situation that was created by Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there have been calls for a preservation of the original indigenous culture, and there have been protests against industrialization. Enets leaders have joined the recently formed Association of Peoples of the North. The problems of the Russian economy and the heavy reliance on natural resources will probably lead to an acceleration of the industrialization in Siberia, which in turn will make it harder for the Enets and other indigenous peoples to preserve their culture and environment.

Sources: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs [NUPI] - Centre for Russian Studies
Links to external websites about the peoples of Taymyria, their land, history, and culture (pages will open in new window):

Endangered Uralic Peoples: Nganasan | Enets

The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire: Nganasans | Enets | Dolgans

Wikipedia: Nganasan | Enets | Dolgan

Videos: Nganasan

Photos: A. Lintrop, Neil Pederson
Central Siberia Map | TURAN Main Map