The first Soviet census of 1926 counted 1,708 Sami living in Northern Russia, 99.4 per cent of whom worked at that time with reindeer breeding, and the vast area of the Kola tundra was used by Sami reindeer (Kisilev & Kisileva 1987). The total population on the Kola Peninsula at that time was 22,858 persons. The Sami people consisted of 7.5 per cent of the total population and was a significant minority of the Barents region, exceeded in numbers only by the Russian majority.
In the Russian empire, the Sami had no native-language schools and administrative autonomy. After the 1917 October revolution, the politics of self-determination the so called korenizatsiya became a dominant trope for Bolsheviks expressing national aspirations for “oppressed” indigenous peoples of the tsarist regime. The Soviet government looked on the indigenous people in a good way regarding them as a socialistic collective social group (Leete 2004: 28–30).
The Soviet regime in the Barents Sea region was established only in 1920 after three years of civil war. The remote Northern area was terra incognita for Soviet leadership, whose personal experience was urban and linked to the industrial milieu. Therefore, with the help of a favourable national policy, the Bolsheviks wanted to attract indigenous peoples to take their side (Toulouze 2005: 140–141). The official nomenclature of indigenous peoples was changed, and Soviet officials began to use politically correct names. Thus, instead of Lapps (Russian lopari) the Sami (saamy) appeared in the Soviet legislation acts and mass media. In 1917, a delegation of the Kola Sami was met in the Kremlin by Joseph Stalin— Minister for Nationalities (Souvarine 1939: 200). In 1920, the national assembly of the Kola Sami appealed to the Soviet government of Murmansk with a requirement of cultural autonomy (Dashchinskiy 1999: 21).
The interwar Soviet Union was unlike many other states in Europe. This difference concerns not only the abolition of private property and the dictatorship of the Communist Party, but also a nationalities policy based on internationalism. The Soviet Union was practically the first great power in the world that systematically promoted the national consciousness of indigenous peoples and established for them institutional forms characteristic of a modern nation. While indigenous peoples faced discrimination, the Soviet Union proclaimed in 1923 a policy of self-determination, cultural and linguistic rights for all minorities (Martin 2001). The main aim of the Soviet nationalities policy in the North was “to liberate indigenous peoples from the vestiges of the past” (Slezkine 1994: 220–221). The Bolshevik party decided to overcome “backwardness of indigenous peoples” and make them “modern,” which meant to develop them in the short term at a higher level of more advanced minorities (Sundström 2007: 130–135). The fascinating experiment of early Soviet minority politics included the establishment of Sami administrative autonomy with a center in Lovozero, the training and promotion of ethnic cadres, the invention and codification of Sami literary language in the Latin script and the introduction of a native system of education.
New educational policy started with a nurture of native pedagogical cadres and preparation of native textbooks. In 1929 the first Sami school was opened and by 1937 there were 18 Sami primary schools on the Kola Peninsula. The future Sami teachers and educators have nurtured at the Sami Department of Murmansk Pedagogical College (33 Students in 1934) and in Leningrad, at the Institute for the Peoples of the North (8 students in 1933) and
Lenin’s nationalities policy changed dramatically when in 1937, the Soviet secret police NKVD fabricated the so-called “Sami Complot.” 68 Sami were accused of being spies for Finland and members of the fictitious underground organization the alleged aim of which was to rebel against the USSR in order to establish an independent Sami republic. Terry Martin drew attention to the connection between the Great Terror and the liquidation of the native system of education of non-Slavic minorities and the expanding educational sphere of the Russian language (Martin 2001: 422-429). In the course of Stalin’s Great Terror the Sami schools on the Kola Peninsula were closed, Sami-language textbooks confiscated, and replaced by Russian-language textbooks. Many of native teachers were arrested by the NKVD and executed or sent to prison. The promotion of Sami culture in Russia was fully stopped simultaneously until the perestroika.
Sámi school history conference at Sámi University College in Kautokeino (Norway), November 15-16, 2016