Saturday, March 30, 2024

Shortcomings of Last Russian Census Contributing to Policy Mistakes Now, Moscow Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Mar. 26 –The 2020/21 Russian census, most experts and observers say, suffered from serious shortcomings: It took place during the covid pandemic, and large numbers of Russians were never contacted directly. Instead, census takers used other, less reliable sources to come up with their numbers.

            But those mistakes are now playing havoc with Russian policy making because officials both in Moscow and in the regions are acting as if the official returns were in fact accurate when in fact they were not, something that means the shortcomings of this enumeration are not just a statistical oddity but have already led to mistaken policies.

            The is the conclusion the To Be Precise portal reaches on the basis of conversations with experts and its own analysis of census data and their impact (

            Russian demographers and sociologists say that because of the pandemic, 42 percent of the population of the country did not take part in the 2020/21 census, eight times more than was the case in the 2002 and 2010 enumerations. Rosstat took data for and about them from alternatives souces.

            In some cases, this was not a problem because there are other sources for the data the census needs; but in others, there are either no other sources at all or they are unreliable – and on such critical issues as ethnic self-identification, native language, and informal living arrangements, there are no good alternatives to the census.

            Consequently, the experts the To Be Precise survey say, figures for these and many other categories of information were simply at best estimates and at worse completely made up, thus distorting the picture of Russian society its rulers need to make decisions and ensuring that many decisions are increasingly made on the basis of bad information and thus lead to mistakes.

            In the words of Moscow State University geographer Natalya Zubarevich, if the authorities don’t have an accurate census that serves as a check on “statistical errors accumulated over a decade,” governments at all levels don’t have the information they need to make informed policy and are in effect flying blind.

            Among the mistakes that officials are now using as gospel are data sets about the growth in the number of employed in the economy. Some are inclined to think that the figures being used reflect mobilization but in fact they are something Rosstat offered without having the necessary basis to do so.

            According to Moscow experts, Rosstat has done what it can to hide these shortcomings by presenting the data it has in ways that often do not allow investigators to cross check the figures that state statistical office provides. But there is enough evidence that the last census was seriously flawed and that it is casting a shadow on Russian governance.

            One result of this is that some in Russia are now calling for the country to do away with censuses altogether and introduce a registration system that would be constantly updated. Such a system works if the population trusts the government because data in registration systems isn’t anonymous.

            And in the last census, the experts point out, many Russians refused to take part or to answer key questions. They would thus be even less likely to provide answers to a comprehensive registration system, and it would therefore continue to suffer with many of the problems Russian censuses do now.

            Moreover, doing away with censuses would require the constitution be amended since it specifies that the country is to carry out a census every ten years. Of course, Putin probably would have little difficulty in pushing through an amendment; but that action would highlight just how often his policies don’t reflect facts but rather problematic guesswork. 

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