Staunton, April 30 – In the 1990s, many in Moscow spoke of “a Russian cross” when referring to falling birthrates and rising death rates among the population of the Russian Federation. Now “a second Russian cross” in which the ethnic Russian share of the population is declining relative to that of the non-Russians.
Although the Russian leadership continues to insist that ethnic Russians form 80 percent of the population, in fact, their real share is falling both because their natural decline (excess deaths over births) is greater than that of most non-Russians and because of the influx of more than ten million immigrant workers.
And while Russian decline is not going to lead to a non-Russian plurality anytime soon, many in the Russian capital remember that one of the reasons the USSR collapsed when it did is because by 1989, the non-Russians within the borders of the Soviet Union were almost as numerous as the ethnic Russians.
Consequently, the prospect that Russians could find themselves in that situation even several decades out is profoundly disturbing because it would be very difficult for Moscow to control the situation if it continues to position itself as the core of the ethnic Russian world. Indeed, such attitudes, very different from Soviet times, could trigger a collapse even sooner.
Because that is so, some Russian analysts even now are trying to find a way to boost the number of ethnic Russians in the population of the country given that Moscow’s efforts to boost the birthrate have not worked or have even worked in a counterproductive way and efforts to attract “Russian compatriots” home have not been especially successful.
Two new ideas are now circulating among Russian elites. Some are discussing whether it might be possible to Russify the immigrant workers; and others are considering whether ethnic Russian Ukrainians might be attracted to come to the Russian Federation as Russians either collectively or territorially.
Up to now, this has not been the subject of public discussion by officials at the highest levels; but because of its potential consequences both for the future of Russia and the future of the post-Soviet state, it is important to monitor the discussions that are surfacing. Each of these ideas has appeared in the Moscow media this week.
In Komsomolskaya pravda, commentator Vladimir Perekrest directly addresses “the second Russian cross” arguing that the one hope” for the Russian nation is “the Russification of migrant workers” although insisting that the country has at least 50 years to turn things around (kp.ru/daily/27271/4406515/).
He cites demographer Yury Krupnov as saying that there is no time to lose because “the most dangerous thing is for the process of the withering away” of the Russian nation “to be viewed as normal,” as something Russians have to accept. If they take that position, others will make calculations as well.
In the short term, Krupnov says “the bearers of the core culture will be gradually marginalized,” lose their current dominance and be seen to lose that dominant position. The Russian language will gradually be pushed into a diminished position. And as a result, in the longer term, the country will be in danger of falling apart.
Mikhail Delyagin, a Moscow commentator agrees. “In a country where Russians cease to be the majority, the inviolability of its borders will depend not on the will of its residents but on the will of its neighbors.” Moreover, he says, the rate of Russian decline will accelerate in much the same way that the rate of Kazakh increase in Kazakhstan has.
According to Perekress, one way to prevent this is to assimilate non-Russians within the country and non-Russian migrants. The latter are a particularly good target because many of them already have Russian and have accepted much of the Russian cultural code, although some Russians would dispute this and fear their impact on the Russian nation as such.
Indeed, he says, a recent study by Yevgeny Varshaver of the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service says migrants from Central Asia are better candidates for assimilation to the ethnic Russian nation than are members of the nationalities from the North Caucasus.
But many Russians will view the assimilation of Central Asians as dangerous because if their numbers were large enough to make a difference in the percentage of “Russians” in the population of the Russian Federation, they would be large enough to change what it means to be “Russian” and in ways many Russians now would find objectionable.
Consequently, the number of advocates of this approach is likely to remain small, even when the challenge it is intended to meet is described as starkly as Perekrest does.
Another way to prevent Russians from losing their majority status is for them to attract the Russians of Ukraine either to move to Russia or support a change in borders that would allow them to be counted as part of the state-forming nationality, something promoted by a Donetsk forum on The Unity of Russians that took place last week (ritmeurasia.org/news--2021-04-30--russkie-ukrainy-sbrasyvajte-rabstvo-respubliki-donbassa-pomogut-54464).
Its participants called on ethnic Russians in Ukraine to “throw off the chains of their slavery.” The dangers of this are obvious but the lessons of this argument could prove important. They suggest Vladimir Putin’s drive for Slavic unity may be less about restoring a neo-Soviet empire than about saving the Russian majority in Russia and thereby the country he leads now.
On the one hand, if that is part of his calculation, it means he will continue to engage in aggression against Slavic countries or regions with ethnic Russian majorities; but on the other, it means that the Kremlin leader may be less interested in re-absorbing non-Russian and non-Slavic countries than many sometimes assume.