Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Russian Census Prompting Many to Reflect Deeply about Their Nationality and Language and to Turn Away from Russian

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Oct. 7 – Many assume that censuses simply record identities and language knowledge that people have and have no problems about, but in fact, many people have complicated ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, and as a result, censuses become the occasion for many to reflect more deeply on both issues.

            And now in the age of the Internet, this has become a mass phenomenon with hundreds if not thousands of residents of the Russian Federation debating what nationality and language they should declare both as a result of their own backgrounds and out of hopes for the survival of an important part of their heritage into the future.

            In a report on the IdelReal portal, journalist Todar Baktemir provides an important glimpse into this oft-neglected aspect of censuses and the way in which enumerations by the very fact that governments conduct them and ask certain questions unintentionally lead to a deeper sense of identity and even ethnic mobilization (idelreal.org/a/31497862.html).

            He begins by citing the words of Artem Malykh, an Udmurt activist and researcher who runs the Uralistika portal which features calls for all to take part in the census and to proudly declare their attachment to indigenous peoples when the census asks for a declaration of nationality.

            “Our appeal to all people of Finno-Ugric origin: describe yourself as a representative of your people not being ashamed of indicating this precisely. If you have Finno-Ugric ancestors on only one line, choose it to show your nationality. If you have ‘distant’ roots, but feel sympathy to your ancestors, make this choice,” he says.

            “By making such an important choice, you will feel how you have reacquired a connection with your people that may have been lost,” Malykh continues. He makes a similar argument about languages, asking people to declare the Finno-Ugric ones even if they may not be ones they know well (t.me/uralistica_com/6899).

            Olga Misik, who attracted attention as an opposition figure when in 2019 she read aloud the Russian Constitution before a group of siloviki, shares this view. “I respect my Tatar nationality and Tatar language at a minimum because I was always forced to feel ashamed of them by classmates at school and propagandists on federal television channels.”

            Until she was 19, Misik considered herself a Russian. “But then suddenly she recognized that the Tatar in her was more than the Russian.” “I am sorry that the unique culture of ethnic minorities is dying, I feel pain over the disappearance of the languages of small peoples, and I am infinitely ashamed of the propaganda snobbery about Russia for the Russians,” she says.

            For many, such decisions came as a result of a complex of mixed ethnicity in their families. Mariya Ivanova, who has taken part in flashmobs on identity, points out that he lived in various places. Her father was the son of an Azerbaijani and a Ukrainian Jew, and her mother was the daughter of a Saratov Chuvash and Russian.”

            Her father “always considered himself an Azerbaijani and her mother a Chuvash” at home; but in public and for official papers, both identified as Russians. Her mother was made to feel ashamed of her Finno-Ugric identity. But Mariya Ivanova says she is no longer ashamed and no longer willing to go along with such bigotry.

            She says that she plans to declare two nationalities in the census, Azerbaijani and Chuvash, rather than Russian as in the past. (If many people do something like this, the possibility of declaring more than one nationality may have the unintended consequence of reducing the number of ethnic Russians in this regard.)

            Mikhail Shcherbakov, an artist known as Vokabre, views such struggles not only as person but a reflection of “the trauma of an entire world.” Society hasn’t been able to suppress Jewish identity in his family but they have destroyed the language the Jews have traditionally spoken. He wants to fight back.

            In the upcoming census, he says, he “will indicate not only his Jewish nationality but the languages Yiddish and Hebrew” of his people, even though he does not know either well.  But the census doesn’t require one to be fluent, and so such declarations, Shcherbakov suggests, are equivalent to saying “’next year in Jerusalem.’”

            The ethnic background of many people in Russia can be extremely complicated. Polina Bashurova (Titova), for example, has always felt she was a Tatar and a Ukrainian because those were the nationalities her parents declared. But in fact, her mother was adopted and lived in Udmurtia where she was socialized as a member of that nation.

            Consequently, Polina says, she will declare herself an Udmurt because of her mother’s experiences as opposed to her declared nationality earlier.


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