Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russians Can Identify as ‘Cosmopolitans,’ ‘Soviets,’ and 1838 Other Nationalities in 2010 Census

Paul Goble

Dayton, April 7 – Officials preparing for the 2010 Russian Federation Census have released a list of 1840 “permitted” responses to questions about national self-identification, a range that highlights the variety of ethnic identities there, the fragility of many of them, and the willingness and ability of the authorities to manipulate the figures.
Most of the 1840 identifications on the approved list that census takers will use involve “dialect variations of the self-designations of this or that people,” Russian commentators say, but the list also provides some alternatively amusing and potentially disturbing names because when the responses are tabulated, they will as in all censuses be grouped into a much smaller list.
And past Soviet and Russian practice shows that opens the way to serious manipulation. Thus, subgroups of one nationality such as the Great Russians may be combined, thus boosting its numbers and share of the population, while subgroups of other nations like the Tatars may be divided, thereby reducing the size of any one of them.
The official list of officially approved ethnic self-identifications is available online at A useful discussion of it, which highlights both the point that most of the list consists of variants on names and the incredible diversity of identifications, can be found at
Among the permitted responses are “resident of the Universe,” “resident of the Earth,” or “cosmopolitan.” Or, because the 1993 Constitution recognizes the right of citizens of the Russian Federation either to declare a nationality or to refuse to do so, the form allows anyone who so desires to declare that he is “a person ‘without nationality.’”
The census will allow, points out in a comment on this document, individuals to declare themselves as “’Caucasians,’ without any further specificity.” Or, individuals can say they have “a complex nationality,” an identity some may choose either because they do not want to declare one or because they come from ethnically mixed families.
The list also permits people to call themselves “national minorities” or use slang terms for Ukrainians and Belarusians. And it specifies that Russians can call themselves not just “Russian” but “Great Russian.” But it also allows individuals many would identify as Russians to call themselves Siberians, Pomors, or Ingermanlanders.
What the census does not allow is for most people to declare their national identity in religious terms. Thus, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist are not among the approved choices. But Old Believers can identify themselves as an ethnic group, as can “kreshcheny,” many of whom see themselves as a distinct ethnicity but whom the Tatars view as Christianized Tatars.
The list allows Russian citizens to identify their nationality as “Soviet” or even “pharaoh.” It allows Belarusians living in Russia to identify as Minsk residents, Mohylev residents, Gomel residents and Vitebsk residents, a division which will have the effect, at least potentially, of keeping the number of Belarusians in Russian low.
And finally, the census makes allowances for some more exotic declarations but not for all. In 2002, some Russians identified themselves in ethnic terms as gnomes or hobbits, something the current census does not allow. But this time around, as was the case eight years ago, the census will allow anyone who wants to say that he or she is a Papuan.
The publication of this list and the way in which the Russian census operation will code responses, increasing the size of some nationalities and reducing others, not surprisingly has already sparked debate. Akhmad Makarov, for example, is worried about “the division of Tatars into a multitude of petty ethnoses” (
Given the experience of 2002, his intervention is certain to be far from the last, and as the census proceeds – it has already begun in a few distant regions – there are certain to be more cries of concern from one ethnic group or another and demands that the way in which the census data in this area is processed become more transparent – or alternatively, much less so.

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