Staunton, Jan. 6 – The just released nationality data from the latest Russian census has some bad news for those like Vladimir Putin who say Russia is a nation state with small minorities rather than a multi-national country, a claim that is based on Moscow’s insistence that ethnic Russians form 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation.
But that claim is without foundation, Kharun Sidorov, a Prague-based commentator on ethnic affairs, says. In 2010, Russians did form 77.71 percent of the part of the population which declared a nationality; but in 2021, they formed only 71.73 percent of that category (idelreal.org/a/32211336.html).
This happened not because of a sudden growth among non-Russians but rather the dramatic increase in the number of people sampled by Russian census takers who did not give their nationality, a figure that rose from 5.6 million in 2010 to almost 11 million in the latest census just reported.
Some of this reflected the difficulties of conducting a census during a pandemic, difficulties that led many of the census takers to use sources other than interviews to fill out census forms, a practice that meant they were able to fill in most data but not all – and especially not nationality – something the census records only if someone provides it personally.
But most of it, Sidorov says, reflects the declining importance of ethnicity in ethnically homogeneous areas such as the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts of central Russia. There the numbers of those not declaring a nationality rose dramatically and thus the share of ethnic Russians in the population fell equally so.
At the same time, in ethnically mixed areas such as the non-Russian republics, he continues, ethnic Russians continued to declare their nationality and to maintain or even increase their share of the population. But because the former group of Russians vastly outnumbers the latter, their overall share of the population has declined.
In short, Sidorov points out, “the indigenous and authentic Russian population in its own ethnic regions is dying out at rates like those among other indigenous peoples. But it is being preserved or even grown in national republics, judging from everything by means of the assimilation of other weaker peoples.” (stress supplied)
In Bashkortostan, the growth in the number of ethnic Russians corresponded with the decline in the number of Finno-Ugric and Orthodox-Turkic peoples, a pattern that was repeated in neighboring Tatarstan. And this growth in the number of Russians thus pushed up their percentage of the republic populations and pushed down that of titular nations.
A very different trend was in evidence among titular nationalities who had religious and or racial barriers to defend themselves against assimilation, Sidorov says. Among these peoples are the Kalmyks, the Tuvins, and the Sakha, all of whom saw their numbers rise and their size relative to that of ethnic Russians in those republics increase.
Ethnic Russians had largely disappeared from the populations of the eastern and central North Caucasus even before 2010. In the intercensal period of 2010-2021, the share of ethnic Russians in the population fell everywhere, while that of the titular nationalities increased, Sidorov says.
Putin’s Russia world thus resembles Schroedinger’s cat. Viewed from one perspective things look pretty good; but from another they look disastrous. Russians have been able to increase only at the expense of non-Russians in only three ways:
First, Russians have been able to assimilate Finno-Ugric and Orthodox Turkic peoples. Second, Moscow officials have reclassified as Russians Ukrainians in newly occupied areas of Ukraine. And third, they have benefitted from the propensity of non-Russians to conflate ethnic and civic identities and the willingness of the latter to identify as Russians when they aren’t.
How this will play out in the event of a crisis and the collapse of the Putin regime remains to be seen, but it is already clear that those who think the Russian Federation is 80 percent Russian are deceiving no one but themselves.