The aim of this article is to identify the unique Russian conceptualisation of indigenousness and its origin in relation to state formation. First, I focus on the variety of the internationally used legal vocabulary in the Russian context. To be familiar with the understanding of 'indigenousness' in Russia also means to be familiar with its history: every modern legal, political or social interpretation of the notion of 'indigenous' in Russia refers to it. I explore the question 'What does it mean to define a people as "indigenous" inhabitants of the land' from historical, economic, social, and cultural perspectives, which preconditioned and have fostered the contradictory nature of the 'indigenousness' discourse in contemporary Russia. In doing so, I focus on the state approach in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, determining an indigenous population as a special legal category. I then analyse how different kinds of indigenousness were produced and why some communities became 'indigenous', while others did not. Tracing the on-going construction of indigenousness and associated discourses in Russia, I introduce the legal definition of indigenous people, analysing two main criteria which differ in Russia from international understanding: the criterion of ethnicity and the criterion of population numbers. In order to understand why of the 26 recognised indigenous peoples in the USSR became 45 in the Russian Federation, I analyse the contested meaning of indigenousness taking into account geographical, demographic, cultural aspects and political circumstances. I argue that in the current situation there are strong reasons in Russian legislation that render the adoption of international legislation impossible, as we see on the example of the ILO convention 169 or the draft UN Declaration on indigenous rights.