Russia’s changing ethnic landscape: Three takeaways from the 2021 census
January 30, 2023
Adam Lenton
Ph.D. Candidate, George Washington University 
Adam Lenton analyzes the 2021 data for what it tells us about Russia’s changing ethnic landscape and how the politics of the census is impacting debates on the ground among ethnic minorities in Russia.
Figure 1: Largest 10 ethnic groups in 2021, population change since 2010 
Russia’s latest census data have finally been made available. Initially scheduled for early 2020, the census was pushed back twice due to Covid 19, with data collection taking place in late 2021 and preliminary results published in May 2022. Demographic data on ethnicity and language were made available only in December 2022. While both methodological and political shortcomings mean that the data should be interpreted cautiously, the census nonetheless offers some insights into Russia’s changing ethnic landscape, including the overall ethnic balance both nationally and regionally, the changing nature of ethnic identification, and the ways in which the census plays into political debates on the ground.

Population growth driven by the North Caucasus, significant declines elsewhere

Since 2010, Russia’s overall population increased by just over 1%, or by 1.8 million people to around 144.7 million total (note that the Russian government figures include Crimea and Sevastopol, which were annexed from Ukraine in 2014). Much of the overall growth was driven by the North Caucasus, as can be seen from Figure 1 below. Out of the 10 largest ethnic groups in 2021 only the numbers of Chechens (Chechnya), Avars and Dargins (Dagestan) increased in absolute terms.55% fewer ethnic Ukrainians and 60% fewer Belarusians versus 2010.

Some of the sharpest declines were seen in other East Slavic ethnic groups. The number of ethnic Ukrainians declined from 1.9 million in 2010 to just over 800,000 in 2021 – a 55% decrease. There are differing explanations for this. One, put forward by Vladimir Zorin, an ethnographer and the chairman of the Russia’s Public Chamber Commission on Harmonization of Ethnic and Interreligious Relations, posits that mixed marriages and the increased salience of ethnic Russian identity meant that many ethnic Ukrainians in Russia have re-identified as Russians. As he put it, people did not go anywhere, but rather shifted their ethnic identities. Another explanation has it that while reidentification and assimilation have taken place, these processes have been politically driven. One explanation is restrictive policies toward ethnic Ukrainian communities in Russia since the Orange Revolution in late 2004-early 2005, which have led to linguistic and cultural assimilation. A third explanation is that, especially since 2014, even some who identify as ethnic Ukrainians may not wish to disclose that to census takers for political concerns.

All of these explanations have merit, though assimilation and russification appear to be the most important, since an almost identical trend can be seen in the number of Belarusians, which decreased by around 60%, from about 500,000 to 200,000.
Figure 2: Population change in Russia’s 21 ethnic republics (other regions grey)
Demographic changes in Russia’s ethnic republics

There were even large decreases among indigenous groups with titular status in the republics, such as the Chuvash, whose population declined by over 25%, and Tatars, whose population declined by 11% (but slightly grew in the Republic of Tatarstan proper). The largest absolute decrease was among ethnic Russians, from 111 million in 2010 to 105.5 million in 2021.

Geographically, Russia’s ethnic republics accounted for almost half of the 26 regions that grew between 2010 and 2021, despite comprising less than a quarter of Russia’s regions overall. Of these, the regions that grew the most were Chechnya and Ingushetia, followed by Adygea, Dagestan (all in the North Caucasus) and then Tuva, in southern Siberia.

In the Volga region, only Bashkortostan and Tatarstan grew versus 2010, while the remaining republics’ populations (Chuvashia, Mari-El, Udmurtia, Mordovia) decreased considerably. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan were also the only two republics in the region whose titular populations grew both in absolute figures and as a proportion of the republics’ overall populations (while the absolute number of Tatars and Bashkirs in Russia as a whole declined). The populations of Russia’s two most northernmost republics, Karelia and Komi, decreased by over 17% – the sharpest declines across all of Russia’s regions.
Figure 3: Percentage point change of titular population since 2010 (of population indicating ethnicity)
Russia’s republics slowly becoming more monoethnic

Beyond overall population changes, another emerging trend is that Russia’s ethnic republics are slowly becoming more monoethnic; that is, there has been a gradual increase in the titular population (i.e., Tatars in Tatarstan, Bashkirs in Bashkortostan).

In Figure 3, we can see that most ethnic republics have seen the proportion of the titular ethnic group(s) increase since 2010. This is also the case for republics in which the titular group comprises a clear majority, such as Tuva, where the proportion of ethnic Tuvans increased from around 82% in 2010 to nearly 91% in 2021.
Figure 4: Percentage point change of ethnic Russian population since 2010 (of population indicating ethnicity)
Much of this growth is inversely related to the change in the ethnic Russian population, which can be seen by comparing Figure 3 with Figure 4. Here we can see that the Russian population in the North Caucasus and Siberia decreased, while the Volga region is clearly split. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan’s populations increased slightly – as we might expect in wealthy, industrialized regions with lower birth rates – and their titular proportions also grew modestly (this was less than 1% in Tatarstan). The other republics in the region, however, all show rather precipitous declines in their titular population, as well as commensurate increases in the Russian population. This makes them demographically more like Komi and Karelia in the north, where similar processes can be detected.

Missing data and other methodological issues

The 2021 census has already come under widespread criticism from demographers, who have pointed to shortcomings ranging from irregular spikes in certain age categories of the population to limitations resulting from conducting the census during the pandemic. As independent demographer Alexei Raksha summarized in a recent interview with Farida Kurbangaleeva for Russia.Post, “2021 marked the worst census not just in the country’s history, but maybe in world history too.” Public opinion data appear to confirm these criticisms: according to one survey carried out by Levada Center, 42% of respondents reported not having taken part in the census, with this figure reaching 73% in Moscow. Experts blamed poor working conditions and training for census takers, as well as the lack of publicity regarding the census, which, among other things, may help to mitigate people’s hesitancy to disclose personal information.

These methodological shortcomings also impacted the data collected for ethnicity, or rather, the lack thereof.
The census lacks ethnicity data for over 16.3 million people, which amounts to nearly 12% of the total population (for comparison, this figure was less than 4% for the 2010 census)."
While this includes people who chose not to answer the question, it also includes those who were not present when the census was taken and for whom ethnicity data was not available. This is the most plausible explanation for the sharp rise in this figure. In cases of non-participation, other existing databases were able to partially fill some gaps, but not for ethnicity, which has not been recorded in national identity documents since 1997.

This means that some of the stark declines reported (see Figure 1 above) should be interpreted cautiously, since these figures include the 16.3 million people with no ethnicity data. Take for example the number of Tatars, which in absolute terms decreased 11% since 2010, around 600,000 fewer people. This change means that Tatars went from representing 3.7% of the Russian population to 3.2%. But if we assume that around 3.2% of the 16.3 million people without data are ethnic Tatars who were not counted, then the decline appears less stark – around 270,000 fewer people, and a total population of around 3.6% of the country as a whole.

This is just a rough figure and assumes that the undercounting of ethnicity is uniform across all of Russia’s regions, whereas in fact there are some quite large discrepancies. For example, in Chechnya, 100% of the population – every single respondent – indicated their ethnicity. The fact that not a single person is left unaccounted for is itself rather suspicious. On the other hand, in Komi, ethnicity data is missing for 22% of the population. It is possible, therefore, to come up with undercount estimates by region for a more detailed picture – in this case, Chechens are unlikely to be undercounted in Chechnya, whereas ethnic Komi are likely to be undercounted since they likely comprise around a fifth of the 22% of the population whose ethnicity was not counted.
Figure 5: Question on respondent’s ethnicity (no. 14)
Issues of interpreting questions on ethnicity

Even absent these methodological issues, censuses are political instruments, and this is especially the case when it comes to ethnic and national identity. The framing of questions, the response options (Can multiple ethnicities be selected? Do respondents choose from a closed list or are they free to express otherwise?) and the way the census takers aggregate and categorize responses each play an important role in shaping the demographic picture that a census provides.

In Figure 5 below, question 14 asks respondents to freely state their ethnicity, after which responses are aggregated into specific ethnic groups. In some cases, this is quite uncontroversial – for instance, combining responses for the same ethnic group but written differently and in different languages, i.e., “Tuvan,” “Tuva,” “Tyva.” But in other cases, this can arouse controversy, such as when related groups (“Siberian Tatars,” “Astrakhan Tatars,” etc.) are classified as separate (in this case, from Volga Tatars), or when different groups are classified as a single ethnicity, such as Mordvins (Russian: Mordva), which combine both Erzyas and Moshkas, two Finno-Ugric groups that are closely related and live mostly in Mordovia, in the Volga region.

Ethnicity as understood by respondents can, therefore, differ starkly from that presented in the census results. Moreover, the boundaries between what counts as “ethnic” identity versus “citizenship” or even other identity categories such as religion are not always clearly defined. For instance, 101,766 respondents answered “citizen of the Russian Federation,” while another 192,914 just responded “Russian Federation,” and 652,387 simply “RF.” Another 5,290 respondents described their ethnicity as “Orthodox,” while 8,321 responded “Muslim.”

Perhaps most interesting is that 206,081 respondents declared themselves to be rossiyane by ethnicity, which was markedly higher than the 13,344 who declared as such in 2010. This would make rossiyane the 28th largest ethnic group in Russia. The term “rossiyane” to refer to citizens of Russia (as opposed to russkie, which conventionally refers to ethnicRussians) was widely deployed in the 1990s under Yeltsin as an attempt to forge a civic Russian identity. Yet while this is an interesting finding, we do not know whether it is because respondents do consider their ethnic identity to be rossiyane or whether respondents interpreted the question to be about citizenship, not ethnicity (if these respondents indeed draw a sharp distinction between the two).

Mixed reactions in Russia’s regions

While the census itself has been analyzed in Russian media aimed at a national audience, the ethnic aspects have received less attention. As the data was released just before New Year, discussions began to emerge in early January.
They have been more pronounced in the Volga region, which is perhaps unsurprising given some of the trends outlined above. Idel.Realii published several articles on aspects of these demographic trends, with activists and experts expressing a mixture of skepticism over the veracity of the data and acknowledgement that assimilation and russification have hit the region hard (similar sentiments were expressed elsewhere, for instance on the relative decline of the number of Ossetians compared to other Caucasian ethnic groups, or skepticism in Dagestan on the published figures).

Some officials have implicitly acknowledged just as much. Chairman of the State Council of the Chuvash Republic Leonid Cherkesov wrote on Telegram that some Chuvash who do not speak Chuvash fluently “willingly or unwillingly became ‘people without an ethnicity’ or were recorded as ‘Russians’ since they are more fluent in Russian.”

Were this the case, it would mean that russification is partially compensating for what might be a sharper decrease in the ethnic Russian population than meets the eye – such an argument was made by analyst Kharun Sidorov in which he likens Putin’s “Russkii Mir” to Schrödinger's cat: both growing and declining.

Census politics in Tatarstan

In Tatarstan, the finding that there were around 600,000 fewer Tatars in Russia than in 2010 – an 11% decrease – was a considerable shock. Although this figure does not take into account the likely undercount of Tatars due to the lack of ethnicity data for 16.3 million people, it nonetheless spoke to longstanding concerns over the fate of Russia’s largest ethnic minority.

These concerns have a long history. As early as 1903, Ayaz İshaki, the writer and leader of the Tatar national movement, wrote 200 Yıldan Soñ İnqıyraz (Disappearance in 200 Years’ Time), a dystopia about the last remaining Tatar who dies in 2103 in Kazan. “İnqıyraz” – extinction, disappearance in Tatar – is often referred to when issues of demography and russification are discussed (there is even an inqıyraz countdown online).

The census has also long been a point of contention between Tatarstan and neighboring Bashkortostan, which has a large Tatar minority. Since Tatars and Bashkirs are culturally quite close there have been several instances of identity change as recorded in censuses, whereby Bashkirs would identify as Tatars, and vice versa. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bashkortostan – like most of Russia’s ethnic republics – has engaged in nation-building policies at the subnational level aimed at increasing the titular Bashkir population. Disputes between Tatars and Bashkirs have often centered on the census, with the former claiming that the growth in the number of Bashkirs is partly at the expense of ethnic Tatars’ recategorization.

For many Tatar activists, the census results were interpreted as paradigmatic of the recent negative trends regarding the region’s autonomy. After considerable foot-dragging, amendments to the Constitution of Tatarstan were passed in December 2022 that, among other things, removed all mention of “sovereignty” from the text and abolished the office of “President of Tatarstan” to comply with federal law. The amendments also removed an article from the previous constitution that rejected war and war propaganda, in a signal of compliance with the Russian war effort. In summer 2022, the World Congress of Tatars, convening for the first time since 2017, also controversially voted to support the war effort, even though, according to criticism from activists, it was intentionally depoliticized when it came to issues of identity and autonomy.

Indeed, the World Congress of Tatars was quick to officially comment upon the census results, downplaying the 11% decrease by drawing attention (correctly, it must be said) to the fact that these figures are likely inflated by the 16.3 million people who were not accounted for. Nevertheless, Tatarstan’s President Minnikhanov did not comment upon the ethnic and linguistic results of the census.


The limitations of the census have broader implications, some of which are also relevant for ethnic issues in Russia. As a comprehensive socio-economic portrait of the entire country, the results will directly impact concrete policies such as the re-drawing of electoral districts, as well as regional and local budgeting, and schooling for ethnic minorities. Of course, these budgetary implications themselves produce incentives to misrepresent the on-the-ground reality, which makes accurate and comprehensive census enumeration even more important.

Furthermore, the census results do not take into account emigration figures, meaning that the numbers here may themselves be overinflated. Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there was little reliable information on the number of those who had left the country, and some of those people may have been counted in the census if they remained registered at a specific household in Russia. (Of course, these findings do not include the mass emigration of Russians in the months after February and during the partial mobilization, nor do they include casualties from the war itself, which appear to disproportionately feature ethnic minorities.)

Despite these rather severe limitations, the census results will be important to analyze in further depth. The evidence presented here highlights how even a flawed census can provide several takeaways about ethnic politics in Russia today.
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