Bikin National Park is one of very few areas in the Russian Far East that remain untouched by those I consider the “wild barbarians of civilization.” It is home to the largest cat on the planet, the Amur tiger, and the Bikin River basin, nicknamed “the Russian Amazon.” Its forests are known as the lungs of the Northern Hemisphere, just as the Amazon’s jungles are in the Southern Hemisphere. The Bikin is also the native land of the Udege people, and about 600 of us still live there. The history of Bikin National Park is inseparable from the history of my people, and over the decades the land has been a valuable lens through which to observe the workings of Russian national politics. After years of struggle, in 2015 Bikin became the first national park project in which the government took responsibility for protecting indigenous rights.
My involvement in the fight to defend the Bikin began at the end of the 1980s. At that time, an agreement was signed between the governments of the USSR and South Korea granting the Seoul-based company Hyundai a three-decade lease of my people’s territory for industrial logging. By then, only four out of eight Udege groups remained in the region. The four lost groups hadn’t been wiped out; they had simply been cut off from their taiga— their native home—and were no longer able to engage in traditional activities like hunting and fishing. Some of the tribesmen tried to find happiness in cities; many others relocated to live among their relatives in different Udege populations. These groups—the Imanka, Kuruminskaya, Namunka, and Sungariyskaya—disappeared, although the Imanka are now attempting a revival. And all this happened in less than 30 years: Loggers first began to challenge them in the 1960s.
When our territory was handed over to Hyundai, my people immediately resisted. After our struggle gained attention and began to harm the company’s image, Hyundai decided to terminate the project. Its vice president even made a “farewell” visit to our Krasny Yar forest, during which he apologized and said that Hyundai had been misled by authorities, and that he did not know the lands were Indigenous when he signed the agreement.
Between 1991 and 2008, the story of the Udege was a story of preservation against development. In those years, my people rebuffed efforts by gold miners, multinational companies, and government agencies to log, mine, and build on our land. We also dealt with other kinds of mistreatment. In 1997, a Malaysian logging company rented Udege lands near the Khor River for 50 years, agreeing to pay the aboriginal people $100,000 in the form of 10 vehicles. Even this deal was corrupt—the community received only two vehicles and the remaining eight were given to local authorities. The following year, the governor of the eastern region of Primorsky Krai tried to create a nature preserve in the upper reaches of the Bikin, ostensibly for environmental reasons. But this was just another effort to remove us from our territory. The bylaws of the preserve contained a clause stipulating that we Udege were only allowed to travel to our hunting grounds in the protected area by traditional means of transportation, which prohibited snowmobiles and cars. We sued, and a representative of the governor explained in court that we could use reindeer to move from place to place—even though reindeer had never been bred in that area and the Udege had never ridden them. We lost the suit, but when it became clear to the authorities that we would never stop protesting, they eventually lost interest in the project.
Another example: In 2008, Sergei Darkin, who had been elected governor in 2001, started taking bids on our territory. Seven companies took part in the auction, most of which were affiliated with the governor’s business empire. The Udege also participated, with our cost of entry covered by the German environmental ministry under the aegis of cooperation between the United Nations and the World Wildlife Fund. I was a member of the U.N. Forum on Indigenous Issues at the time, and I met with members of Vladimir Putin’s administration to try to persuade them to “influence” the competition. Had we lost, we were prepared to bring international attention to the situation through protests and hunger strikes. After my meetings, the federal government convinced the governor to give the territory to the Udege.
I’ve left out many instances of “smaller” attempts to steal our territory under different pretexts—the development of tourism, beekeeping, or scientific research. These were nearly always accompanied by accusations against the Udege that would justify the seizure of our lands. Opponents claimed we were poachers (who, they said, would ruin the remaining natural areas) and alcoholics (how could we be trusted as managers?). Our struggle against such allegations became its own kind of tradition. Over the years, efforts to coerce us became fiercer and more uncompromising. I was elected chairman of the village council in 1987, and after loggers and representatives of outside industries started showing up, I would often receive offers for bribes and payoffs.
We Udege have always managed to defend our rights and interests, no matter how strong our opponents were, for one simple reason: We are united. When I was first asked decades ago by a young teacher to join the struggle, we spent a long time discussing how to best protect our territory. At the time, I told him that because we did not have much power or money, and there were fewer than 2,000 of us in the entire country, we needed to band together. I spread this idea among my relatives: “If one person protests, they will imprison him. Ten people, 100 people—they can be imprisoned. But if the entire nation rises up, they will be forced to reckon with our opinions and position.” Cohesion was central to our struggle.
The authorities knew this, and on three occasions regional and national officials visited my village while I was away to try to persuade the people to remove me as chairman. It was “explained” to my fellow tribesmen that I had been bought by the loggers and miners, and that I was conducting conversations behind the backs of my own people solely for personal gain. Each time, the people answered, “Don’t worry, we’ll deal with this ourselves; his family lives here and when he returns, we’ll talk to him. If he’s betrayed us as you say, we will throw him in the Bikin River.” Things never went further than that.
When I was invited to meet with members of the Putin administration in 2014 to talk about the creation of Bikin National Park, I thought it would be a typically useless discussion. The previous year, Putin had signed an order committing to creating the park as a preservation for the Amur tiger. This was done without consulting the Udege, and it seemed clear that the Udege would once again be treated shabbily, and perhaps be kicked off the land. What’s more, an international campaign to depict Putin as a champion of the Amur tiger was in full swing. There was a summit for heads of state whose territories contained tigers, a special Amur tiger fund was created, and celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Russian pop singer Ilya Lagutenko lent their support. Lagutenko even attempted to name one of his albums after the Udege term for tiger but used the wrong word entirely.
By that time, politics within the Udege community had dramatically deteriorated. Local Udege leaders, namely the head of the village and the head of village business enterprises, had ceased to speak to their people, preferring to use their power to solve personal problems. The head of business enterprises, after receiving massive amounts of money for various projects—millions of dollars from trading, roughly $1 million in grants from international projects related to the Kyoto Protocols, and around $3 million in revenue from pine nut production, a major source of income for the region—took measures that made it impossible to properly document how much he was spending. Those who praised him received funds, while those who tried to investigate him were punished and risked losing their hunting licenses and access to resources.
I tried to unite the entire Udege population around resisting the national park, and to start discussions with local authorities, but it quickly became clear that they were too busy deceiving the public. They agreed to my face that it was crucial to organize the people, but behind my back they began writing letters to Kremlin officials accusing me of having abandoned the Udege. Fearing that a conflict with the authorities could prompt them to cut off services like electricity and road maintenance, the Udege heads of the village and business community joined the governor in a working group about the national park. At that time I didn’t know that at least two outside businessmen had paid Udege leaders to organize protests against the creation of the park, or that these businessmen were paying journalists to slander Udege activists. I also didn’t know that those same men had already received permission from Udege leaders to use the territory for their own purposes.
It was under these circumstances that Putin proposed a meeting to discuss the situation in Bikin. When he asked whether it would be possible to work with the Udege on creating a national park, I told him yes, it could happen if certain conditions were fulfilled. After consulting my people, I began to recognize that a national park could allow us to protect our homeland, and would give us the opportunity not just to survive, but to thrive. We decided to form an Udege group to generate the terms that would protect our rights and people. At the time I doubted the administration would accept our proposals, which required legislative changes—a proposition I knew from previous experience was nearly impossible. As a contingency, we discussed the possibility of organizing resistance to the national park if the administration did not meet our conditions.
With the assistance of the Indigenous Peoples Assistance Center and the Amur tiger division of the World Wildlife Fund, we arranged roundtables with ecologists, scientists, and representatives of Indigenous groups within Russia that had conflicts with existing national parks. After these meetings, our group prepared a package of seven proposals, which we presented to the administration:
Guarantee the opportunity to engage in traditional fishing on national park land
Guarantee unhindered access to national park territory for all the inhabitants of the villages within its boundaries, as well as their relatives
Consider any products obtained by Udege hunters on the territory of the national park to be the property of the hunters, who can use them for any purposes, including commercial ones
Create a system of co-management of the national park with Indigenous people
Guarantee jobs at the national park for Indigenous people
Prohibit reduction of the territories of the Udege people under traditional stewardship under any circumstances—though they may be expanded
Utilize, and take into account without exception, ethnological surveys and expertise in the formation of the national park
IT WAS A RARE INSTANCE OF DECENCY AMONG HIGH-RANKING BUREAUCRATS
To my surprise, the administration accepted all our conditions with hardly any amendments. Authorities created a working group composed of high-ranking ministers, deputy ministers, and the heads of federal agencies, and I represented the Udege along with the head of our community. In all my time working with high-ranking Russian officials, I had never before encountered any who kept the promises they made. In this case, they agreed that if our conditions were not met, the park would not be created. It was a rare instance of decency among high-ranking bureaucrats.
As we were working on this arrangement, another group of Udege was busy conducting a smear campaign and engaging in “protests” against the park. The leaders of this group enjoyed the quiet support of local authorities, including high-level intelligence and police officials. They were involved in all kinds of criminal enterprises with the Udege community business leader, including selling Udege pine nuts and moving on plans to develop tourist resorts on Indigenous lands. Though this eventually became public, none of those involved were ever prosecuted.
Despite the best efforts of those corrupt officials, our work eventually resulted in changes to Russian legislation and the creation of the Bikin National Park in 2015. Six of the Udege conditions were wholly fulfilled, and the seventh point—the ethnological survey—was completed with help from the Amur division of the World Wildlife Fund.
Right now, two of the national park’s three deputy directors are Indigenous. One of these deputy directors is also the chairman of the Council of Indigenous Minorities, an Udege advocacy organization. The park has helped unify the Udege people and has mobilized new initiatives to preserve our culture and traditions. The Parks Department created a division dedicated to the development of traditional Indigenous crafts, and all hunters with plots of land in the Bikin hold salaried preservation jobs in the national park. And most importantly, educated Udege youth have begun to return from other parts of the country to work in the park.
The Udege struggle to preserve land in Bikin can be taken as a lesson for other Indigenous peoples about the potential of collaborating with ecological groups. It is also a lesson for the next generation of Udege, who will bequeath our native land to their children and grandchildren, just as they received it from us, and just as we received it from our fathers and grandfathers, and them from their ancestors. Alexander Fadeev wrote a book about my people called The Last of the Udege, echoing James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Both books underline the tragedy of Indigenous peoples’ encounters with outside civilizations, yet at the same time they also have hope. I’d like to believe that Bikin National Park will also serve as a sign of hope for my people, and that the thread of time will not be cut short for the Udege.