Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: How Many Nations Are There in the Russian Federation?

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 19 – Residents of the Russian Federation are so used to hearing that theirs is a extremely multi-national country, one with more than 100 nations and nationalities, that they seldom give much though to exactly how many there are and what any particular number means.
In the current issue of “Demoscope Weekly,” Dmitry Bogoyavlenskiy says that it may be a good thing that they don’t because professional demographers know that the number and its meaning are as much a product of the way information is gathered as a reflection of an existential reality (
And after surveying the history of censuses in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia, he suggests that if anyone asks just how many nationalities there are in Russia now, the most accurate answer is “more than a hundred.” Anything more specific will land those responding in difficulty.
Most non-demographers assume that census data on nationality provides an accurate mirror of the ethnic reality of the country, Bogoyavlenskiy says. But that is not entirely true, because as scholars have shown, censuses not only measure a reality but help create one.
While all Soviet and Russian censuses have allowed people to declare their nationality, each of these enumerations has processed the information in a different way, excluding some answers entirely, group some answers together, and subsuming one set of identities beneath larger ones.
For the 2002 census, the Moscow demographer writes, officials prepared a list of some 925 different ethnic identifications that they assumed one or another Russian citizen might declare and the ways in which these would be grouped in the course of processing the data.
In the event, citizens of the Russian Federation actually declared themselves to be members of 776 communities that they deemed to be ethnic or national but many of which – like Hobbit – were neither. And when census officials grouped these data, they reduced the number to 182 independent peoples, including 40 ethnic groups within them.
Thus the actual number of ethnic groups not only depends on which of these measures one selects but the political choices that the government makes as to which groups belong to others, choices that individuals learn from and gradually converge to in most cases.
The same thing was true in all earlier censuses. In the 1926 count, perhaps the most open of all censuses in that country, people declared themselves to be members of one of 175 peoples, including four ethnic groups and six nationalities that ethnographers at that time considered “insufficiently defined.”
In the 1937 census which Stalin suppressed, there were 109 nationalities reported. In the 1939 count, there were 99 “nations, national groups, peoples and nationalities,” thus coming just under the number the Soviet dictator had said lived in the Soviet Union at that time.
The post-World War II censuses showed relative stability—there were 121 ethnic units in the 1959 count, 122 in the 197o enumeration, and 128 in 1989 – until the post-Soviet census in Russia in 2002 showed a huge jump either to 142 or 182 depending on how one wants to count.
Many groups have passed into and out of existence as far as the census and many officials are concerned, as a result of politics rather than any change in how people define themselves. And consequently, anyone who uses a Russian census to determine the number of nationalities should remember how problematic a measure it really is.
Consequently, the real number of nations and nationalities in the Russian Federation now is very much in the eye of the beholder, and any effort to add precision to the notion that there are a lot of them almost certainly will be saying something that reflects one kind of reality but very much distorts another.

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