Friday, January 27, 2023

Ethnic Nationality Less Important in Russia Today than It Was in Soviet Times, Moscow’s Nationality Affairs Agency Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Jan. 24 – In a press release on the occasion of the release of nationality data from the 2021 Russian census, the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs says that one of the reasons so many people did not declare a nationality is that in Russia today, nationality is not as important as it was in Soviet times.

            “In Soviet times, people indicated their nationality ‘according to what was in their passports,’ that is, it was specifically defined,” the press release says. And “it is no secret that nationality gave definite preferences to some and sometimes ‘put a cross’ on the careers of others.”

            “The situation in present-day Russia has changed radically, it says, “and it is possible that for certain categories of the residents of our county,  nationality, in contrast to citizenship, does not have in these conditions particular importance” (

            The Agency makes that observation after repeating what others have already said about the large number of residents of Russia whose nationality is not listed. Those factors include problems with carrying out a census during a pandemic, the new use of digital methods, and widespread assumptions that language and ethnic identity are identical.

            The press release also argues that the census shows that the Russian Federation is a multinational state and that there is no reason to suggest that there is any “’forced assimilation’” going on, a reaction to the fact that there is no group that has grown in the way that one might have expected if there were.

            That is an implicit reference to the fact that the dominant nationality, the ethnic Russians, declined by more than five million since the 2010 census even though it picked up additional members as a result of the Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimea.

            But the Agency’s recognition of the declining meaning of nationality in the Russian Federation is far and away the most important aspect of this statement, not only because it undercuts the mission of the agency as such but because it highlights the fact that other identities or no identities at all are growing in importance.

            While that development may help the Kremlin in some respects by reducing the claims nationalities make on the state, it will undercut the center in at least two ways. On the one hand, it will raise serious questions about how the Russian state is to be organized; and on the other, it is a confession that alternative identities including regional ones, are growing in importance. 

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