Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Ethnos Theory was a Proximate Cause of the Demise of USSR, Funk Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 2 – The theory that human beings are divided into ethnoses rather than nations, a theory elaborated by a Siberian émigré scholar in the 1920s and that spread beyond the walls of the academy in the 1970s as a result of the work of Eurasianist Lev Gumilyev and ethnographer Yulian Bromley, played a key role in the demise of the USSR, Dmitry Funk says.  

            In a wide-ranging interview on the 2021 Russian census, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology says that the terms ethnos and sub-ethnos contributed to the collapse of the USSR and that he personally hasn’t used them for “a quarter of a century” (

            Lenin may have planted a delayed action mine under the USSR by the ways he institutionalized nations and nationalities, but the impact of what he did was quite slow compared to the spread of the idea that peoples could be divided into ethnos and sub-ethnoses, an idea that helped break up longstanding divisions in the USSR.

            That happened, Funk says, because talk about ethnoses spread from the Academy of Sciences to the Soviet population as a whole; and now, “every citizens of the Russian Federation knows that there are ethnoses and some know that there are sub-ethnoses as well,” even if they don’t understand the theory itself.

               “Since the early 1990s,” Funk continues, “the ethnographic community suddenly has come to its senses and realized that this theory has a very indirect relationship to reality,” precisely at the time when the idea was spreading not only to the population but to political elites.


               This does not mean that everyone has abandoned it,” the ethnographer says. In fact, at present, “some 80 percent of ethnographers in our country still use this terminology. But today there are those” including himself “who are trying to use a different scientific language” that does not reify ethnic group identity the way ethnos theory does.


            (For background on this theory and its spread especially in the last decade, see,, and

            Among the many other intriguing comments Funk made in the course of this interview, the following are especially noteworthy:

·       “Ethnic identity is situational, especially in those cases when an individual can choose … Today, you will answer one way and tomorrow you will say something completely different if you are talking to a different individual and in a different situation.”

·       Ukrainians have not declined by a million in the Russian Federation. Rather what has declined is the number of people who are prepared to declare their Ukrainian identity to a census taker. “Those are absolutely different things.”

·       The grouping of declared identities for reporting purposes has been going on since the 1920s and has been stable over the last two decades. The list of these groups is prepared not just by the Institute of Ethnology but by the Federal Nationalities Agency, Rosstat, the Presidential Administration and the Russian government.

·       “Any census is politicized y the fact that it is conducted by the government.”

·       Experts expected the number of people who would declare themselves Rossiyane in 2021 to be five million and not the 1.15 million who did so. This shortfall reflects the failure of the government to promote that identity consistently.

·       What ethnic identity people express to census takers reflects the attitudes their governors have. Thus, while those declaring themselves Tatars outside of Tatarstan fell, it would have been a real shock if their numbers had declined in that republic.

·       Moscow has not made the transformation of everyone into a Russian a goal.



               Asked about the next census, Funk says that he “very much would like that the census will show the stability of the Russian community including its ethnic multiplicity. Since I am a person from the Soviet past, talk about the collapse of the USSR and now Russia does not really warm my heart. I would like Russia to survive as a multinational power.”

No comments:

Post a Comment