Staunton, April 22 – The Russian State Statistical Committee, Rosstat, is discussing the possibility of including a question about religious affiliation in future Russian censuses, something that the Russian Orthodox Church has long pushed for but a move that could have far larger consequences than many now assume.
Rosstat head Aleksandr Surinov says that church officials are pressing him to take this step but that he believes any such question is fraught with problems because statements about belief just like statements about membership in this or that nationality not only are subjective but may offend some and cause them to refuse to answer other questions.
International organizations, he continues, advise census officials to be very careful with such queries lest the number who refuse to answer these and other questions become so large that the overall results of enumerations are inaccurate or at least extremely problematic (interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=58587).
But Surinov says, it is not only international experience that makes him leery of adding questions about religious affiliation. The last time a Soviet census did so, in 1937, “the results were recognized as incorrect” – too many people said they were believers to suit communist ideological claims – “and the leadership of the statistical service was shot.”
Surinov says that he is not afraid of being shot: “thank God, we live in other times, but I am afraid of scaring people away from taking part in the census.”
Despite Surinov’s concerns, it is not only the Russian Orthodox Church that is pushing for this innovation. Many Russian commentators argue that questions about religious belief should be included alongside language knowledge in any future census and that queries about nationality in the ethnic sense should be dropped.
That would represent a return to the pre-Soviet practice in which the subjects of the empire were asked to give their religious affiliation and specify the language or languages they spoke but were not asked about their nationality. (Estimates of the ethnic composition of the empire are based on projections of language and religious patterns.)
One of the commentators pushing for that approach is Kirill Averyanov-Minsky, who says in a Regnum essay this week that the pre-1917 approach would allow the country to escape from what he describes as the sterility of “rossiiskiy” or non-ethnic Russian identity that the post-Soviet regime has promoted (regnum.ru/news/polit/1916831.html).
Instead, he insists, everyone in the country would be “russky,” a term usually applied in recent years only to those who see themselves as ethnically Russian but that earlier meant anyone who was under the power of the Russian state. That would allow, Averyanov-Minsky argues, for the creation of a Russian identity that would include Russian culture as part of it.
Were his ideas to be followed, they would have serious consequences for ethnic Russians and non-Russians as well. Many of the former would view this as a diminution rather than an increase in the Russian aspect of identity, and many of the latter would view it as a direct attack on their standing as members of separate nations.
Members of both could be expected to resist, but such a change would have one obvious if ultimately dubious advantage for Moscow: it would allow the Russian authorities to obscure the fact that the percentage of ethnic Russians in the population is declining and will continue to do so as far into the future as demographers can now project.