Staunton, July 20 -- Censuses in Russia, as in many other countries, are never easy or non-political, and the upcoming one there promises to be both. On the one hand, there are unresolved issues about how to ensure that this enumeration won’t miss five million people as the last one did; and on the other, there are serious conflicts about the categories it will use.
The latter issues involved are by far the most controversial politically, and a debate is now raging about whether the census will allow residents of the Russian Federation to identify as being of “mixed ethnicity” or not. The evidence suggests, Tatarstan ethnographer Damir Iskhakov says, that it is far from being resolved despite the claims of some that it has.
The reasons for that are obvious, he suggests in the course of an interview to Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, given the potentially explosive and destabilizing consequences of some proposed changes for Tatars and other non-Russians in the first instance and even for ethnic Russians over the longer term (business-gazeta.ru/article/432128).
Scholars since Soviet times have been talking about mixed “Tatar-Bashkir” or “Bashkir-Tatar” identities but the state has not been willing up to now to move toward recognition of these. As early as 1986, the late Vladimir Pimenov of the Institute of Ethnography, discussed this; but his results were never published.
The reasons for that is that officials could see that if Soviet citizens were allowed to declared mixed nationality, that would highlight the divergence between census enumerations and their passports. Moreover, they recognized that this would be an indirect way to see how many mixed marriages there were or weren’t, always a sensitive subject.
Now, however, Iskhakov says, Moscow is thinking about adding this category, something that could divide rather than unite neighboring groups and create claims of irredenta and the like. Valery Stepanov, Valery Tishkov’s “right hand man on the census, says privately that there will be such a category in the 2020 enumeration. Tishkov, however, says publicly there won’t be.
“Apparently,” the Tatarstan ethnographer continues, “the issue has not been finally resolved,” and there remain people on both sides of the issue within the expert community and the political elites. A major reason for the delay is that “the Moscow side isn’t certain that the census will be conducted normally in Bashkortostan.”
In 2010, the Bashkir authorities counted some 150,000 Tatars as Bashkirs; and they are currently engaged in a drive to get as many people in the republic as possible to declare that they are members of the titular nationality. Moscow simply isn’t in control of this situation, Iskhakov says; and it could easily get out of hand, sparking a conflict between Ufa and Kazan.
But the Tatar-Bashkir connection isn’t the only one that will be affected, he continues. There are large parts of Russia populated by Ukrainians who aren’t identifying as such now but might in the future if they have the option of dual nationality. Certainly, Iskhakov says, someone in Moscow must be thinking about that.
If all those of mixed Ukrainian background suddenly declared themselves to be Ukrainians, Ukrainian and not Tatar would be the second largest nationality in the Russian Federation. That would have serious consequences for the Tatars who gain by being so acknowledge officially.
There is also the issue of the ethnic Russian Cossacks. Officials have always tried to include them as Russians even though “they are not,” the Kazan scholar says. And one could extend this list with the possibility of declaring mixed nationality opening the way not to assimilation as Moscow hopes but to unpredictable shifts over time.
Tatarstan has “real interests” in Bashkortostan, he says. “According to official statistics, there are more than a million Tatars there; but if you add to this [those miscounted in 2010 and on other occasions], the real number would be 1.5 million. This is already a second Tatarstan as it were, a smaller version, although not that small.”
As far as the impact of this on assimilation is concerned, Iskhakov cites the words of Yulian Bromley, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnography before Tishkov. Bromley insisted that “when two ethnoses interact, the numerically dominant one always has the advantage” and will assimilate the smaller.
That is usually but not always the case, the Kazan scholar continues. “The experience of Tatarstan shows that when there was a strong growth in national spirit (in the 1980s and 1990s), identity grew to the proportion of 50-50.” Thus, what happens to the Tatars is affected not just by Russians but by their own self-consciousness.
At the same time, Iskhakov says, there is the issue of Islamic identity, something that is strengthening especially among the young. All these changes make the issue of how many Tatars will be counted in 2020 complicated to predict. Some say their number will fall but most that they will increase but only by a small amount.
Moscow may play games by promoting the Kryashens, the Siberian Tatars or the Nagaybaks, he continues; but those actions will not have as great an impact as whether people will be allowed to declare themselves binational – with officials then allocating them to one or the other as they see fit.
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