The 1897 imperial census did not count nationalities as such but rather identified people in terms of religion and language, while the 1926 Soviet census allowed people great freedom in identifying in ethnic terms. Subsequent Soviet and now Russian censuses have been much more restrictive, largely limiting ethnic differences to linguistic ones.
Over this period, Butakov writes, “certain peoples were assimilated, but others were ‘helped’ to do this by the organs of state power which did not include them in the next census and united them to larger ethnic communities.”
Among the examples he gives are the following:
The Mishars (or Meshcheryaks). Considered as a separate people by pre-1917 ethnographers, the Mishars professed by Islam (125,000 in 1897) and Orthodoxy (35,000 in that year). In the 1926 census, they numbered 242,600; but by 1939, they had disappeared, folded into the Volga Tatars because their language was viewed as the same by the Soviet authorities. But not all Mishars wanted to be considered Tatars, and many of those who knew Russian declared that ethnicity in 1939 and since that time, even without changing their native language. The Kryashens – “baptized” Tatars – have shared a similar fate.
The Teptars. There were 27,400 of them in 1926; but in subsequence censuses, they were not counted separately but instead divided between the Tatars and the Bashkirs.
The Besermans. Pre-1917 ethnographers considered them a group closely related to but distinct from the Udmurts; and in 1926, 10,000 people declared themselves to be Besermans. They then were forcibly included within the Udmurts and disappeared as a nation, only to reemerge in 1992. They likely will be allotted a separate reporting line in the 2020 census.
The Siberian Tatars. For most of the Soviet period, the Siberian Tatars were grouped under the Tatars of the Middle Volga for census purposes because it was thought they spoke the same language, but until 1968, Tatar-language schools in Siberia used Siberian Tatar rather than Kazan Tatar as the language of instruction.
The Shapsugs. The Soviets initially recognized the Shapsugs, one of the Circassian groups, as a separate nation, even forming a Shapsug national district after 1945 near Tuaps. That was then suppressed as were the Shapsugs as a separate nation. In 1992, Moscow acknowledged that the Shapsugs had the right to both an identity and a national district, but neither has received much official support since that time.
All of these peoples are located within the current borders of the Russian Federation. But Butakov also discusses the Talysh. In 1926, 77,300 people declared themselves to be members of this Persian-language group in the southeastern portion of Azerbaijan. In 1939, 88,000 did so; but by 1959, that number had fallen to 159; and since then, they have not been listed separately.
The reason is not complete assimilation but rather a decision by the Baku authorities not to count people as Ingush regardless of what they declare themselves to be, despite the official Azerbaijani position that they have the right to autonomy.
These examples are sufficient to draw three important conclusions: official policy more than natural processes drive the numbers of most small groups as far as the census is concerned, language remains more important than identity even in post-Soviet enumerations, and disappearing from the census does not mean disappearing as an important identity.
Consequently, the struggle over who is counted and who is not will continue, with many viewing a separate line on the census as their last line of defense or as their first victory in recovering their identity as a separate people.