Russia's people of the north seek justice: Caroline Moorehead describes a hidden corner of human rights abuses under former Soviet rule

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FOR YEARS, the systematic violations of human rights in the Soviet Union played a big role in the concerns of Western humanitarian organisations. Basing their scrutiny on information smuggled out or brought by exiled dissidents, they counted and re-counted the numbers of political prisoners, wrote accounts of atrocious conditions in labour camps and described unfair trials. The Soviet bloc occupied a black corner in the geography of human rights.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union have come not only sudden freedoms, but the discovery of new patterns of abuse during the 70 years of totalitarian rule. One of these concerns the fate of the 'Northern Minorities', the groups of people living in the far north, occupying an immense stretch of land running from the White Sea along the Arctic Ocean to the Bering Strait and taking in the whole of Siberia, a territory larger than the United States.

That so little is known is hardly surprising: the 26 different ethnic groups that make up these northern minorities consist of 183,700 people, or 0.06 per cent of the entire population of the former Soviet Union. Some, like the Aleuts, have dropped from 3,534 people in 1926 to only 702 in 1989, while the Tofalars have vanished.

These minorities, according to the first report on the area written by a Russian ethnologist, Nikolai Vakhtin, and to be published by the Minority Rights Group (MRG), have been living, and still live, in a state of 'ethnic catastrophe'. Whether they can survive depends on new policies and a new attitude.

The lands occupied by the Northern Minorities, part forest, part tundra, are crossed by several great rivers. Summers are cool and short; winters are freezing, with temperatures that can fall as low as -70C, and long. The forests are full of elk, bears, foxes and martens, the tundra of lemmings and snowy owls.

From the 1920s on, the official view was that the minorities were satisfactorily looked after by the administrations of the various republics. This was true only on paper. In practice, power and policies remained in the hands of the centralised Communist state which, year after year, ate away at the lands and the rights of the tribal people.

'Russification', which included forcing the children into Russian- speaking boarding schools, effectively weakened their culture, while programmes of industrialisation, such as the felling of trees and extraction of gas and oil, ruined lands once given over to reindeer herding.

Year by year, more and more traditionally nomadic people were forced to settle.

When at last, towards the end of the 1980s, it became possible to study what had happened to the Northern Minorities, the picture was found to be bleak. Much of their best land had been seized and exploited, and, like other and better-known minorities all over the world, they had lost much of their culture and language. Life expectancy, at between 40 and 45, was discovered to be 16 to 18 years lower than elsewhere in the federation. Suicide rates were extremely high; tuberculosis was prevalent.

However, the MRG report is not altogether pessimistic. It may not be too late to safeguard the future of most, if not all, of these people. In March 1990 a first congress of the Northern Minorities prompted lawyers, economists and sociologists to start drawing up plans. The proposals put forward by MRG are ambitious - compensation for environmental damage, involvement of the minorities in all decisions regarding future economic development, education geared at fostering minority language and culture, and a quick end to compulsory boarding school for the children. The question is whether there is the money or the will to carry them out.

'Native Peoples of the Russian Far North'. Minority Rights Group, 379 Brixton Road SW9 7DE; pounds 4.60