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
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.Conclusion
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.