Pavel Sulyandziga is an indigenous rights activist of Udege descent. He is Chairperson of the Board of the International Development Fund of Indigenous Peoples in Russia and a Visiting Scholar at Dartmouth College since 2017.
Interview by Erica Dingman
Erica Dingman: Significant changes were occurring in Russia – then the USSR – during the 1980s. President Gorbachev had aimed for significant reforms with the introduction of perestroika and glasnost, which was followed by his Murmansk speech in 1987. How did this influence your life’s work?
Pavel Sulyandziga: All of those changes did make a difference. I was a young university graduate, so I watched closely the changes within the Communist Party. Gorbachev’s initiatives were impressive. He really inspired me. I don’t know what would have happened with me if those changes had not occurred.
ED: How did those changes affect you personally?
PS: One of my earliest experiences occurred around 1986 when I was leader of the Komsomol organization, the Soviet youth organization, in our village. The Communist Party was trying to force us to accept their nominees for our union of youth. So our village organization joined forces with the First Secretary of the Komsomol of the hunting and fishing organization in our
village. The First Secretary and I were both young guys. But he was Russian, not Udege. Together we rejected the Party nominations and nominated our own young people for the Udege Council for youth issues. This was unheard of at that point and a very new experience for everyone in the USSR.
As you might expect, the Communist Party was displeased and asked us to withdraw our candidates. When we refused, the head of the voting commission of the Communist Party and the First Secretary of the Komsomol regional committee said, “Well, in that case serious repercussions will follow.” The Communists controlled all activities and thoughts.
I was a member of the Communist Party, so my actions were in opposition to my own party. Despite Gorbachev’s reforms, many members of the Communist Party were used to their old ways and didn’t want things to change. I did not see my actions as a violation of party lines. In my mind, we were following Gorbachev’s lead by implementing our new initiatives.\
ED: What were the consequences?
PS: Within the next few days, KGB representatives approached the First Secretary of the local hunting and fishing organization. Because he was an outsider who came to work in our village, they gave him 24 hours to leave and told him never to return.
They couldn’t kick me out. I was on my own native lands. I was a teacher in my village, and, because we didn’t recall our nominations, the KGB used different tactics against me. To punish me they collected statements from 89 of my fellow villagers who accused me of being an alcoholic, hitting the kids, and getting into verbal fights with parents. This was astonishing, since the year prior I had won an award for the best young teacher of the entire region.
ED: What did you do?
PS: I was so upset and disappointed with my own people that I decided to leave my hometown. Since I was a target of the KGB, many of the villagers were afraid to associate with me. But late one evening my colleague, a teacher who was a bit older, told me that she had heard that I planned to leave. When I told her that “I’m no longer welcome here with my Udege friends,” she said that our Udege people sent her to ask me not to leave. They were afraid to act against the Communist Party, but said that if I left nothing would change. So collectively they asked me to stay, but convey my ideas quietly. “We support you. Please don’t leave.”
So I stayed and became the chair of the Udege Association in our town. The vote was anonymous, so I had the support of the entire village. It was an honest election and the Party couldn’t change the results.
ED: I’d like us to talk about your work on the nexus of development, the environment and Indigenous rights. Did these issues factor into your work in your home territory?
PS: At this point I wasn’t dealing with environmental issues, but rather I was fighting for the rights of my people and better socioeconomic conditions. Our housing conditions were so atrocious that 80% had to be demolished and rebuilt. This required frequent trips to the center where I could meet with the chair of the Regional Government. That would be like the governor
in today’s terms. Many times, I tried to speak with him, but he continually rejected my requests to meet. I even threatened to pitch a tent in front of the Executive Committee’s building to wait for the chair to grant me an audience. Without his approval, nothing would change.
When he finally met with me, he allocated enough money to fix or rebuild all those homes.
ED: What compelled you to fight for the environment?
PS: The rights of my people and protecting the environment of my native lands have been significant to everything I’ve done.
Around 1989 we were informed that our territory had been sold to the South Korean company Hyundai as a result of new diplomatic ties. South Korea was beginning the process of democratization under the newly elected President Roh Tae-woo. He had implemented plans for citizens’ rights, made a commitment to improving socioeconomic conditions and opened diplomatic relations to help rebuild the South Korean economy. That was when the Soviet Union and South Korea established diplomatic relations and signed agreements which allowed for Hyundai’s purchase of 30% of the traditional lands of the Udege people. This was our traditional hunting and fishing territory.
When we heard about Hyundai, our Elders and community leaders asked me to put a stop to the project. If the project were to take place, our rivers and animals would be gone, and the taiga forest would suffer. We could not allow that to happen. After a great deal of effort, we put a stop to the Hyundai project. There were only 700 of us Udege fighting that state machine. It was
a difficult time, but a few factors helped us to prevail.
ED: What were those factors?
PS: We are an educated people. This was key to understanding the world around us and helped us talk to the Hyundai representatives who offered all kinds of promises. They promised money. They promised to build stuff. They promised a great deal. But we understood that our kids were not starving, nor did we need more money. As far as we are concerned, we were doing pretty well. We also understood that they were trying to buy us. If we allowed ourselves to be bought, we’d be selling our kids’ rights to have normal life in the future. Our land would belong to someone else.
This outcome was based on a foundation that our Elders established – not official policies but Udege policies for our people. Our Elders told us that our choice of profession didn’t matter, but we were expected to be productive. Our parents and grandparents pushed us to get a formal education. They insisted that we get a degree from the university, an institute or technical
Education laid the foundation for our work in many areas, including socioeconomic issues. We couldn’t address global issues without fixing the basics like the economy, education and health care in our own native territory. All the teachers, doctors, engineers and everyone who worked in the Udege community land were educated in bigger cities. They were the ones who were driving that change.
I’ve seen communities that did not have the same success that we had. They were too busy with day-to-day issues to deal with these far-reaching problems that we dealt with. They were concerned with the need to feed and educate their kids.
ED: Did other factors contribute to your successful case against Hyundai?
PS: The second key reason was that our community came together as a tight-knit group. When the Elders and other community members asked me to lead, I told them that we can onlysucceed in unity. If it were just me, 10 people, or even 100, government could arrest us or even kill us. But if it was a communal effort, then they wouldn’t be able to threaten us.
The third key to our success were the allies we had at home and in other places outside of Russia. This included Russian allies who were the settlers who came to the Pozharsky District – the area where I lived – to exploit the lands through large-scale mining projects. These miners, who supported us, helped us with money and funded the helicopters that we needed to fly to
remote areas for our protests. Their rational for helping us was to say, “Well, we already messed up this land. Coal production is very dirty and we can’t allow more destruction.” So they supported our effort to protect our land.
Our other allies, and probably the most supportive and effective, were the environmentalists. This started with Russian scientists who were working on environmental issues. They supported us, but they also understood the need for external help and had already developed connections with foreign environmentalists. Joining forces with these scientists and their foreign allies helped us amplify the voice of the movement. That attention helped amplify our fight against Hyundai by drawing international attention.
Those environmentalists helped us connect with Pacific Environment, a California-based advocacy organization that did quite a bit of work on behalf of Indigenous Peoples in the United States. They were well-versed in protecting traditional rights and understood the international laws and agreements. With their assistance, we filed a lawsuit that cited international laws and agreements in support of our case against the Soviet government. That helped tremendously.
ED: Now that you live in the United States, do you see your work as being an outside voice for your people?
PS: Yes, of course. I represent the voice of my people in international fora in the fight to protect their rights in Russia.
Now, when I visit my native lands, conditions have reverted back to my early days as an activist. Those in charge love to see me, to tell me that everything is wonderful and our people prosperous. But other people are afraid to be seen with me by those in charge, so they come to me under the cover of night and tell me, “Pavel, things are not going well. Our people are suffering.”
ED: Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to add?
PS: Yes. I want to list one more victory that I’m really proud of.
Before I left Russia, I was able to meet with President Putin. I, and the people I worked for, wanted to change existing law to protect our national territory. We were successful and the president signed the decree to protect our lands as a national park. Now we are co-managers of that national park. Everything that the government wants to do in our territory is done in consultation with the Udege. It was unbelievable. Our people made possible a law that protected our territory and made it a national park. Our people are very happy that we won, but other Indigenous nations in Russia’s High North are still not able to protect their national lands.
I’m not a proponent of President Putin, but in this particular case, his obsession with big cats played in our favor. He wanted to be seen as the hero that saved Russia’s big cats, including the Amur tiger population that lives in our region. For Putin, this is a big boost because he is now one of six leaders who are saving the big cats around the world.
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[This interview was conducted with the assistance of Elena Bell, who interpreted this conversation between Pavel Sulyandziga and myself.]
[Photo courtesy of www.kremlin.ru]