Monday, January 9, 2023

Russian Census Report on Changes in Number of People Speaking Their Native Languages Artifact of How Enumeration was Conducted, Gabdrafikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Jan. 8 – Tatars were shocked to learn that the latest Russian census shows that they have declined in number by 600,000 since 2010 and that the number of them who say they speak Tatar as their native language, Ildar Gabdrafikov says. The first figure is clearly a falsification; the second may be that but it is also a product of how the census was conducted.

            The Tatar ethnographer who has specialized in ethnopolitics of the Middle Volga last year lost his job in the Ufa scientific center because his research ran afoul with the official Bashkir position (

            In a new interview, Gabdrafikov points out that both the figure the census reports for the number of Tatars and the figure it gives for native language are problematic. The first is so anomalous as to raise questions about outright falsification by officials; the second may involve that but also reflects the way in which the enumeration was conducted (

            Language change occurs more rapidly than identity change, the ethnographer says; and there is simply no tradition of Tatars changing their identity at the rate the census claims they did over the last decade. Moreover, data on births and deaths show that Tatars had a more positive balance than many other peoples, including Russians; and there is no evidence that assimilation is taking place at the rate the reported number would suggest.

            Thus, the reported decline in their number of 600,000 should be treated with extreme skepticism and lead to intensive investigations into what happened, Gabdrafikov continues. The issue of language change is more complicated. According to the ethnographer, this dramatic shift has its roots less in Moscow’s policies than in real life and the way the census was conducted.

            On the one hand, Tatars are increasingly interested in learning Russian as the language of the country they live in and English as the international language of the Internet. Even Tatars living in villages now choose to study Russian and English rather than Russian; and that undoubtedly played a role in the decline in the number claiming Tatar as their native language.

            But on the other hand – and this is a far more important factor, Gabdrafikov says – the 2021 census dealt with language issues very differently than the 2010 enumeration. First of all, the 2021 census took place during the pandemic and many people tried not to interact with census takers.

That meant that the census was constructed on the basis of official data bases that do not list nationality or native language. Even if no other factors were at work, that would depress the number of the Tatars and of Tatars speaking Tatar as their native language. But there was a second factor at work as well.

In 2010, residents of the Russian Federation could list only one native language; but in 2021, they could list up to four. Since it is likely that for many Tatars, Russian is the language they use, they might declare it as one of the four native languages they know and then those compiling the census would count Russian rather than Tatar to come up with language figures.

            Gabdrafikov’s words are important not only for Tatars but for all other non-Russians and for those who study the ethnic and linguistic diversity in the Russian Federation. As so often happens, what has been promised by Russian officials as an explanation in fact turns out on inspection to be something that has to be explained.

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