Friday, February 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow May Include Question on Religion in 2010 Census

Paul Goble

Baku, February 1 – The Russian Federation’s Social Chamber has proposed including a question on religious affiliation in the 2010 census, an innovation that is more likely to spark controversy than to resolve disputes as to how many followers each of the major faiths there now has.
And that controversy is likely to be exacerbated by the acknowledgement of Valery Tishkov, the ethnographer who heads that chamber’s commission on tolerance and freedom of conscience, that the 2002 census was inaccurate in significant ways (
On Wednesday, that commission proposed including a question on religion in the next enumeration of the population. Only twice before have censuses in this region asked such a question: in Imperial count at the end of the 19th century and in 1937 in a census Stalin suppressed because it reported data he did not like on this and other issues.
Tishkov told the commission that “according to certain data, a majority of Russians consider themselves to be believers,” and consequently, “the census [now scheduled for 2010] ought to [include a question about this in order to] provide reliable information on the true state of affairs.”
But even if such a question were included – and many will oppose doing so on the grounds that Russia is a “secular” state and should not inquire about such things – that would do little or nothing to resolve the question as to how many citizens of the Russian Federation are in fact believers and of what faith.
As various polls have shown, the meaning of “believer” varies widely. Are people who are members of a traditionally Christian or Islamic nation believers? Or are only those who declare that they believe to be counted as such? Or should the number be reduced still further to those who actively participate in religious life?
The Moscow Patriarchate regularly claims that 80 percent of the Russian population are Orthodox Christians, and many Muslim leaders count all members of traditionally Islamic nations as the faithful. But scholars and religious rights activists argue that the real numbers are much lower in these and other cases.
The leaders of these two communities have an interest in boosting the number of their followers in order to increase their influence on society and extract resources and other concessions from the Russian government. And were the census to include such a question, some in each camp would promote what they see as the “correct” answers.
Indeed, the possibility that such a question about religious affiliation might be asked in 2010 has already sparked debate on a Muslim blog in Russia, with some participants arguing against it and others saying it will confirm the rise of Islam there (
Consequently, the data such a census question might generate, while potentially interesting, would not provide a definitive answer about one of the most intimate aspects of an individual’s life. Indeed, the results would likely promote new debate and demands either that the question be dropped in future counts or additional questions be added.
Such disputes are even more likely because Tishkov, who also works as head of Moscow’s Institute of Ethnology and Ethnography, said this week that “the previous census of 2002 did not count approximately five to seven percent of the population” – some seven to 10 million people.
Most of them, he said were “residents of major cities, immigrants from the countries of the former USSR and those living in places inaccessible to census takers.” At the same time, Tishkov indicated, that census also was distorted by overcounts for some locations.
“In the major cities of a number of republics,” the ethnographer said, “certain people attempted to retain the status of a million resident city” by overstating the number of people living there, an admission of official error that will do little to inspire confidence in any future census results.
At the same time, he insisted that the 2002 enumeration had shown “the absence of any foundation for assertions about the contraction in the number of [ethnic] Russians.” Yes, it did fall, he said, but “the decline was not so terrible – 3.3 percent,” a figure he chose not to modify despite the problems he mentioned at the same time.

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