Thursday, December 5, 2013

Window on Eurasia: The Nationality Line Returns to Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 5 – One of the most characteristic features of Soviet life – the requirement that citizens of that country know and provide their ethnic nationality to officials – is now returning to Russian life, the result of a decision by Rosstat to monitor the nationalities of those who marry, divorce or die.

            And while there is no indication yet that this will lead to the inclusion of a nationality line in documents of all kinds or the discrimination against some nationalities, as was the case in Soviet times, this new officialization of ethnicity appears likely to have at least three major consequences for the citizens of the Russian Federation.

            First, it will make all Russian citizens more conscious of their ethnicity not less, thereby promoting a kind of identity that often stands against a civic identification with the country as a whole and thus making the promotion of the latter which some have seen as a necessary foundation for the unity and integrity of the country.

            As censuses and sociological studies have shown, many residents of the Russian Federation  are less attached to any particular ethnic group  now than they were and give preference to other non-ethnic identities. Requiring them to declare their nationalities for official purposes is likely to reverse that trend.

            Second, it will require both the officialization of both a list of nationalities and a fixing of an individual to one of them.  Since Soviet times, individuals have been able to declare on any or all occasions what they see themselves as rather than give what used to be called their “passport nationality.”  That has allowed for the emergence of new identities and shifts in older ones.

            The Soviet government maintained an official list of nationalities, and no one could declare himself or herself to be a member of any other group or shift from one to another at will.  The Russian authorities have not had such a list or tied people to a birth identity. This latest official move, however, opens the way to a return to the earlier arrangement.

            And third, this innovation will reignite the question of who benefits: members of smaller nationalities who will have yet another support, this time official, for their identity, or the dominant ethnic Russians who some believe may, because other identities have eased, the “default” declaration.

            If the new system ends by defending the smaller nationalities, that will reduce the rate of assimilation of such groups by the Russians still further. But if it leads to a perception of “Russian” as the identity that one should choose if one is unsure of one’s self-identification or wants to identify with the largest group, it could boost the share of ethnic Russians.

            At the end of last month, the Russian government directed ZAGS, the state registration office, to provide Rosstat, the state statistical committee, with data on the nationalities of those getting married or going through other major life changes that people are required to inform the government about (

            The government said that this would “allow for an assessment of the influence of social-demographic characteristics on the development of the population as a hole and the planning for the development and realization of effective measures of an active demographic policy and the program of state support for mothers and children in Russians as a whole and at the regional level.”

            Behind such dry bureaucratic language can lie either a desire to ensure that funds flow where they are most needed or the opening round of a kind of ethnic management intended to help some groups at the expense of others. Not surprisingly, given the historical record, many Russian residents are suspicious of what Moscow intends.

            A blogger on the portal, for example, sees some far-reaching consequences.  “Nationality or more exactly ethnic membership as a fact of life and an identifier of the personality is returning to Russian society and the state and being fixed by institutional instructions (

                As a result, he says, the efforts of those like Academician Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, to promote a non-ethnic civic identity have suffered a complete defeat. Instead, ethnic nationality “as in Soviet times will be reified.” At a minimum that means that “everyone will receive a nationality,” including “those who did not have one earlier or did not think about this question.”

            Among “the multitude of other consequences” this will have, the blogger suggests, is this one: “all those who say that the question of nationality for them does not have significant are most likely to connect themselves with the largest nationality, the one viewed as the default setting” in the absence of another ethnic group and declare themselves ethnic Russians.

            That may be what some in Moscow would like to see happen, and it may even be true in a few cases.  But requiring people to declare their nationality on a regular basis may have just the opposite effect, leading people to identify with their roots and to be increasingly angry with a government that seeks to have them define themselves in ways different than they want.

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