Balancing globalisation and uniqueness: How can we maintain the identity of the Russian North?
Business practices in Arctic autonomy19 september 2023
The globalisation of the global community is an inevitable historical progression, primarily driven by shifts in technological and economic structures. The omnipresence of the Internet and telecom services, extensive global trade connections and international labour division for product manufacturing are transforming cultures, leading to their mutual assimilation on one hand, and raising questions about cultural identity on the other. For the indigenous minorities of the Arctic and the unique culture of Polar regions, globalisation has emerged as an additional factor diluting their cultural landscape. Indeed, it's challenging to be part of the world of digital services, industrial economy and global communications while still being a reindeer herder in the tundra or a resident of a fishing village by the Barents Sea. However, being challenging doesn't equate to being impossible, especially when civilisation itself lends a helping hand.
Currently, there are several concurrent initiatives aimed at preserving the identity of the indigenous minorities. This encompasses the efforts of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, along with various federal and regional projects, all aimed at preserving languages, promoting indigenous cultures and integrating them into the broader Russian context. These organisations typically function with the backing of the government and the active involvement of local communities. They host festivals and national holidays, publish literature and support grassroots initiatives. In this context, local culture is not seen as opposing the broader Russian or global culture but rather as an integral part of it. There is also support for traditional economic activities in the form of grants, subsidies and preferential business operation regimes. The Russian Arctic is striving to create a unified space for all its components, aiming for their harmonious integration without loss of individual identity. However, these initiatives are usually targeted at addressing specific, narrow issues—there isn't a unified understanding yet on how to create comprehensive conditions for preserving the cultural identity of the northern people without isolating them from the rest of the world.
This topic has been under discussion for many years, with various methods being proposed. One potential solution for maintaining the unique identity of the Russian Arctic as a socio-cultural phenomenon could be the development of the tourism industry within the AZRF. This was discussed by Artur Agafonov, editor -in-chief of the Children of the Arctic portal, during the discussion entitled 'Ethno-tourism: Traveling through Immersion' at EEF 2023. He stated that the growth of the tourism industry in the Polar region has a multifaceted impact, allowing for the preservation of local uniqueness on one hand, and the smooth integration of local culture into the global landscape of modern civilisation on the other. Interest in the cultures, lifestyles and traditions of indigenous peoples has grown in recent years within the domestic market, leading to the creation of new jobs and an environment where traditional ways of life, culture and customs are not just a means of survival but also a draw for travellers, valuable in and of themselves. Furthermore, interacting with the 'mainland' in this manner allows local residents to feel a part of civilisation without disrupting their usual way of life.
'Tourism provides an opportunity to socialise people in the North. When they live in isolation and lack social interaction, they tend to leave. This is a significant advantage for both the youth and adults, as they understand that they can reside in their homeland, engage in their favourite activities and simultaneously coexist harmoniously with the rest of the world,' Artur Agafonov highlighted.»
Simultaneously, the tourism sector in the North is frequently not an artificially imposed 'top-down' initiative, but rather emerges from local living conditions. For example, within the same discussion, Alexander Yamdaltsev, the CEO of Aleut LLC, shared that his tourism business was born from the local residents' need to rejuvenate their fishing and transportation fleet. Several decades ago, a majority of boats and small civilian ships in the region were severely worn out, leading to casualties—the sea does not pardon technical malfunctions. His company undertook the mission of constructing boats specifically designed for the local seas, followed by long-distance journeys in an expeditionary format, and after a few years, they started inviting guests. Adjacent to the Aleut LLC tourist base is the Uelkal settlement, an Eskimo settlement where the first Alsiba airfield was situated.
'Our hunters receive salaries and are provided with boats,' noted Alexander Yamdaltsev, emphasising that indigenous peoples receive state support to maintain their traditional lifestyle. In return, whale hunters distribute the procured meat to local residents free of charge—this is the ultimate implementation of state investments.»
A crucial benefit of developing the tourism sector is establishing economic conditions that necessitate the preservation of local culture. Supporting traditional ways of life does not imply that reindeer herders or whale hunters will continue to communicate in their native languages or craft traditional attire. On the contrary, as ethno-tourism evolves, it fosters the creation of 'cultural enclaves' where hundreds, and potentially thousands, of people diligently preserve ancient heritage.Read more International Day of Indigenous Peoples: What’s it like to live well in the Arctic Circle? Support for indigenous minorities