Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Evolving Meaning of Nationality and Language from Census to Census Makes Comparisons Problematic, Shaydullin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 18 – Since the first Russian imperial census through Soviet times up to now, the meanings of nationality and language have changed as a result of legal definitions, political goals, interviewing techniques and the processing of answers, something that makes comparisons of the numbers among them extremely problematic, Rafail Shaydullin says.

            The senior official at the Kazan Institute of the Tatar Encyclopedia and Religious Studies says that with each new census, many treat the latest findings as if they are absolutely comparable to those of earlier enumerations. But in the areas of language and nationality, they aren’t. And such comparisons can lead to problems (

            (This article covers the period from 1897 to 1939. Shaydullin promises a subsequent article. Window on Eurasia will cover it when it appears.)

            The definitions and even presence of these terms, the way in which census takers record information, and the way in which those who process the returns before releasing the information reflect in the case of each census the social situation and the political goals of the rulers of the country, Shaydullin says.

            It can hardly be otherwise given that people frequently declare this or that nationality or language in a way that is at odds with accepted categories and that those who process these declarations must reduce these variations to certain categories. In the last Russian census in 2010, people declared membership in 1620 national groups, but the census listed only 193.

            As is well known, the 1897 imperial census did not ask about nationality. Instead, it asked about native language, a reflection of “imperial tendencies connected with the policy of creating a single Russian ethnos with a common language and culture,” the Tatar scholar continues.

            That was obvious at the time and had consequences. Moreover, “in the course of assimilationist and consolidation processes,” he says, “a transformation of ethnic identity occurred, and the criteria according to which a respondent would list himself as a member of this or that ethnic group. And the meaning of native language changed as well.”

            This variation in the criteria, of course, had an impact on the censuses and consequently on comparisons among them. “Therefore, sometimes according to indicators of ethnic membership and native language it was difficult to explain the changes which had taken place in the size of the peoples of the country and its regions.”

            The 1897 census did not gather information about the national identification of Russians because such data were not of particular interest to the authorities. That is shown by the fact that even religion was the 11th question on the census forms and native language was 12th. Moreover, literacy in native language was put down only when the respondent couldn’t speak Russian.

            Shaydullin devotes particular attention to how the 1897 census was conducted in Kazan Gubernia. One peculiarity was that the census counted Malorussy and Belorussy as Russians because “the ruling hierarchy did not consider these peoples independent ethnoses” and simply viewed them as “regional groups of the Russian community.”

            But that census did collect approximately 106 ethnonyms, and the census takers reduced this to some 40 ethnic self-designators, the most numerous of which were Russians, Tatars, Chuvash and Mari. Using this data, the specialist says, one can conclude that the ethnic Russians formed only 38.4 percent of the population while the others numbered 61.3 percent.

            There were bigger problems with the 1897 enumeration. On the one hand, the census takers were almost exclusively Russian; and on the other, there was active resistance by the Tatars who believed that the census was designed to help the imperial authorities continue their efforts to convert and Russianize the Tatar population.

            “The majority of Tatar rural communities of Kazan Gubernia did not allow census takers to enter their population points,” Shaydullin says. And this “mass protest movement” not only engulfed 10 of the 12 districts of the gubernia but Tatar areas in Ufa, Simbirsk, Samara, Vyatka and Perm gubernias as well.

            The first two Soviet-era censuses, in 1920 and 1926, were very different as far as nationality and language were concerned. They occurred at a time when the state was engaged in national-territorial delimitation and actively interested in determining the assessments of the population of its ethnic and linguistic identities.

            But even between these two enumerations, there were fundamental differences. The 1920 census asked the language used by the family of which an individual was a part; the 1926 one asked the language the individual knew. In the first case, the position of the senior male in the family was critical; but in the second, his influence was much less.

            There were additional distortions. Often, non-Russians declared a knowledge of Russian and that was entered as their native language. Sometimes they made this declaration out of career considerations; and sometimes the census takers made that decision for them. But despite this, the number of nationalities recorded and published reached 1926.

            According to Shaydullin, the census data and “in part the ethnic ethnonyms” were  edited by the apparatus of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party “under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, who had an interest in determining how nations were formed of various ethnic communities.

            This marked the beginning of the ways in which the Soviet system “dictated to the peoples the rules of the game” as far as ethnic and linguistic identities, something that culminated in the censuses of the late 1930s when Moscow decided on lists of approved nationalities and languages before any enumeration took place.

            The USSR conducted censuses in 1937 and 1939. Because of the turmoil that had been introduced in the Soviet population by Stalin’s various mass mobilization and repressive campaigns, the first which was more accurate than the second showed a real decline in the population, something Stalin was not prepared to tolerate.

            That led to the arrest and execution of the census organizers and the suppression of the census results. But the information available showed that the Kremlin’s main concern was no longer language and ethnicity but education, and that too affected outcomes as far as these categories were concerned.

            The 1939 census was different and set the stage of future enumerations. In it, “national identification of the population was generated only on the basis of language” and “all other ethnic characteristics were ignored.” Moreover, Stalin decided there were now 97 nations, and all others were ignored or folded into one of the approved groups.

             At the same time, Shaydullin says, while the number of nations listed in the census did rise in the post-war censuses, that reflected less a return to the more open system of 1926 than to the inclusion in the USSR of peoples whose territories were annexed east and west during and at the end of World War II.

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