Sunday, October 17, 2021

Recent Ethnic Conflicts Prompted Moscow to Add More Questions on Languages in Census

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, Oct. 11 – The conflicts between Ingushetia and Chechnya and between Armenia and Azerbaijan led Moscow to expand the number of questions in the census about languages so that the Russian authorities will be in a better position to prevent or manage conflicts in the future, according to Dmitry Oreshkin.

            The political scientist who specializes on the North Caucasus points out that the final text of the census regarding language features three questions rather than one: “Do you know Russian and do you use it in your daily life?” “What other languages do you know and use in your daily life?” and “Which language is your native one?”(

            Focusing on language provides a better way of determining what nationality people are. It was used in the 1897 census as a marker for ethnicity. In recent years, some peoples in the Russian Federation confuse ethnos and nation, and by asking about language, the census will allow for a more accurate assessment of what an individual’s nationality is.

            (Oreshkin doesn’t say, but this language-centric approach has another consequence: it means that the Russian state will tend to ignore ethnic groups who may now speak Russian or another language not their own even if these groups are passionate about their ethnic identity rather than the salvation of their traditional languages.)

            According to Oreshkin, Moscow has inserted these questions about language because it wants to know how many Ingush and Chechens or other nationalities are in major cities given that often such people declare themselves to be Russian by nationality but in fact retain their traditional ethnicity.

            Margarita Lyange, head of the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalism, says these additional questions have another purpose: they allow the authorities to determine what languages target audiences in fact speak and adjust Russian media and propaganda accordingly.

            And Aleksey Gunya of the Institute of Geography, however, says that in his view all this is about an effort on the part of the authorities to stress the role of the Russian language, something Putin appears to care more about than even the ethno-national composition of the population of the country.

            In the North Caucasus, issues of ethnic membership are especially fraught. The various Circassian peoples are being encouraged by ethnic activists to identify as a single Circassian people. But Shamsudin Neguch, one of their number, says local officials are “quietly but insistently” opposing the idea.

            Especially local officials but also Moscow are frightened by the prospect of a Kabardino-Balkaria, in which “suddenly ‘disappear’ the Kabards and appear the Circassians. This is their logic. This is something that they cannot completely control and that means it is a potential threat.

            In Daghestan, the situation is just the reverse. There local officials want micro-nationalities to assimilate to one of the four or five major nationalities, while Moscow and most demographers are opposed. And in Astrakhan Oblast, many people who formerly described themselves as Tatars or Kazakhs appear set to declare themselves Nogays.

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