Saturday, September 26, 2015

Another Casualty of Russia’s Economic Problems – Moscow May Drop Nationality Line in Census

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 26 – Russia’s economic problems mean that Moscow may drop questions about nationality in the upcoming mini-census, a step that would make it more difficult for officials and scholars to trace ethnic developments there and likely spark anger among both Russians and non-Russians.

            Next month, Moscow will conduct “a micro-census” of 2.5 million people midway between the full 2010 enumeration and the one slated for 2020. But reports that “because of financial difficulties … the danger has arisen that there will not be a question of nationality membership in the forms” (

            Vladimir Zorin, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, said that if that is the case, it would be most regrettable because “the census of the population is in fact the only source of data about the ethnic composition of the country” and because it would represent a missed opportunity “to show contemporary Russia in its multi-cultural and multi-ethnic dimensions.”

            Conducting any census is expensive. This mini-census will involve the hiring of 6190 census takers, and Moscow under Vladimir Putin has already shown that it is quite prepared to cut back in spending on such enumerations. In the case of the 2002 census, for example, it used interior ministry documents rather than collect census data on about a third of the population.

            That had the effect, almost certainly desired, to overstate the share of ethnic Russians in the population who have been declining in relative size and understate the share of non-Russians and especially Muslim nationalities who have been increasing both absolutely and relatively in recent decades.

            Most Russians and even more non-Russians are certain to oppose this step, although they may not be able to prevent it in the upcoming mini-count.  While some Russians might welcome the loss of such new data because it would allow them to claim that their share in the population is higher than in fact it is, most would see it as a threat to their position.

            Were there no ethnic data available, for example, Russians likely would be treated less well in the non-Russian republics; and Russians would be less able to make expansive claims about how Russian the Russian Federation is. Indeed, non-Russians in the absence of such data would likely argue that they form an even larger share of the population than they do.

            But while some non-Russians might see this as being to their advantage, most non-Russians would be even more opposed to the elimination of the nationality question. On the one hand, such declarations are for many groups the primary basis of their identities. If the question is not asked, as it wasn’t in tsarist times, ethnic identities will be at grater risk.

            And on the other, most non-Russians will see the dropping of the nationality question in the census as presaging other moves against them, including the elimination of some or even all of the non-Russian republics in the country and a general inclination to devote even less attention to the needs of ethnic and linguistic minorities.

            Consequently, what may appear to be a small bureaucratic money-saving step is likely to have large political consequences, yet another way that the economic problems Moscow has gotten itself into are going to play out in the coming months and years.     


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