Ethnic Russians, who form the core of President Vladimir Putin’s oft-promoted “Russian world,” are rapidly declining in number, with many of those who had identified as Russian in the past no longer doing so—thus driving down the percentage of the Russian Federation’s population that is ethnically Russian. According to Russian census figures released at the end of December 2022, even though Russia’s population increased slightly between 2010 and 2021, the number of people who identified as ethnic Russians fell from 111,016,896 to 105,579,179, a decline of 5,437,717—or almost 5 percent (Nazaccent.ru, January 5). And, in turn, this decline means that the share of that country’s population identifying as ethnic Russian fell from 77.71 percent in the 2010 census to 71.73 percent in the current one, far below the 80 percent that the Kremlin routinely claims. The decline is especially striking because it has taken place in the wake of Putin’s Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimea, which brought additional ethnic Russians within the borders claimed by the Kremlin, and because of Moscow’s increasing propensity to count as Russians those who declare a different national identity, such as the Siberians (Nazaccent.ru, January 5).
Over the past dozen years, some Russians may have assimilated into other groups, though the number of those doing so is not sufficient enough to explain a decline of this magnitude. Instead, it reflects a weakening attachment to the Russian ethnic identity that has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of citizens who have declared no nationality at all: 11 million now as compared to 5.6 million in 2010—or one in every nine residents. The available data suggests this is having a greater impact on those historically listed as ethnic Russian than on others, thus undercutting any hopes for the emergence of a civic Russian identity including both groups.
As Prague-based analyst Kharun Sidorov points out, some of the decline in claims of Russian identity reflects the difficulties of conducting a census in Russia during a pandemic. When census takers could not reach people or when people refused to open their doors, census officials used other sources to fill out the official forms, a practice that allowed them to input most data but not all. Census rules pointedly do not allow census takers to fill in nationality or native language data unless it is provided by the individual involved. But the census data that has been published, Sidorov argues, show that this limitation accounted for only a small part of the overall decline in ethnic Russians (Idel.Realities, January 7).
Most of the decline in ethnic Russians, Sidorov continues, reflects the declining importance of ethnicity as an identifier in ethnically homogeneous areas, such as the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts of central Russia. When everyone is a member of the same nationality, that indicator often becomes less important than other identifiers. As a result, the numbers of those not declaring a nationality rose dramatically, and consequently, the share of ethnic Russians in the population fell equally so. Given that almost all the people in these oblasts are historically Russian, an ethnic Russian identity, often based on its difference with others, has weakened relative to regional or non-ethnic civil identifications. In the ethnically mixed areas of the Russian Federation, such as the non-Russian republics, ethnic Russians, in contrast, have continued to declare themselves Russian by nationality, doing so to maintain or even increase their share of the population. Nevertheless, as ethnic Russians in predominantly Russian areas vastly outnumber the ethnic Russians in non-Russian areas, the share of ethnic Russians as a whole has declined.
In fact, the Prague-based analyst concludes: “The indigenous and authentic Russian population in its own ethnic areas is currently dying out at rates similar to those among other indigenous peoples. But it is being preserved or even grown in national republics, judging from everything by means of the assimilation of other weaker peoples (emphasis added).” Putin’s Russian world thus resembles Schrodinger’s famous cat. Viewed from one perspective, the ethnic Russians’ situation looks quite favorable, but from another, it looks disastrous, an observation that could be extended to some non-Russian groups as well. How this will play out in the event of a crisis and the Putin regime’s collapse remains to be seen, but it is already clear that those who believe the population of Russia is 80 percent ethnic Russian are deceiving no one but themselves (Idel.Realities, January 7).
The Russian census results released in the waning hours of 2022 also provide evidence that calls into question Putin’s belief, shared by many, that if non-Russians learn the Russian language, they will re-identify as ethnically Russian. In fact, the data shows that a large share of non-Russians who learn Russian retain their original ethno-national identity, as, in the words of Tatar ethnographer Ildar Gabdrafikov: Ethnic identity is slower to change than language, and the acquisition of a new language may in fact bring people into conflict with members of other ethnic groups, thus strengthening their original identity (Tatar-inform.ru, April 4, 2022). Thus, Russian-speaking Tatars may hold onto their identity for a long time or even see it strengthened after they change languages, just as has been the case in places such as India or Ireland in the past. Consequently, learning Russian is not necessarily the royal road to giving up a non-Russian identity and becoming ethnically Russian, as Putin expects and many non-Russians fear. Instead, it may have the exact opposite effect. (For a broader discussion of this issue, see Window on Eurasia; Nazaccent.ru, January 6).
The Russian government’s state statistical agency, Rosstat, had promised to publish nationality and language data from the much-delayed 2020 census in September 2022 (see EDM, June 7). But given what its census takers have found, it is no surprise that the institution has delayed matters as much as possible in the hopes that no one would notice.