Belarusians ‘Disappearing’ More in Russian Census Than in Reality
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 16
The number of Belarusians living within the Russian Federation fell from 521,000 in 2010 to only 208,000 in 2021, according to newly released official Russian census data. This represents a decline of more than 60 percent since the end of the Soviet period when there were approximately 1.2 million Belarusians living within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. However, this development has largely been ignored because many Western observers accept the Kremlin’s judgment that Belarusians are Russians in all but name and that, without state support, they will identify as such. Despite this, clearly, more is going on than meets the eye, as the same 2021 census found that the number of people in Russia declaring themselves to be Russian by nationality fell by more than five million. An outcome like this is hard to explain if one assumes, as the Kremlin does, that Belarusians and Ukrainians are assimilating to the Russian nation and bolstering its numbers (Svaboda, January 16; Nazaccent.ru, January 18).
Some of these decreases reflect nothing more than defects in the way the Russian census was conducted during the pandemic, including most particularly the failure of census takers to speak directly with residents, something generally required to specify the nationality of an individual. Such shortcomings, rather than any weakening of ethnic identity, likely explain why most of the more than 16 million people in the 2021 census are not listed as having declared a nationality at all, three times more than in 2010 (Milliard Tatar, January 19). Other factors for this decline, however, include the aging of these communities; assimilation, either intergenerational or natural; and migration, with many observers pointing out that the massive influx of Ukrainians after the start of Russia’s expanded war took place after the census was completed and thus downplayed the intercensal decline of Ukrainians in Russia.
The situation for Belarusians within Russia’s borders is both similar to and different from that of the Ukrainians. Both communities were formed by the migration of peoples, sometimes for economic reasons but often as the result of state policy. In the Ukrainian case, these migrations were sufficiently large enough to lead to the creation of what Ukrainians call “wedges,” large portions of territory within the current borders of the Russian Federation where people of Ukrainian background have and continue to set the cultural and political norms. (On the Ukrainian wedges, see EDM, January 18 and January 24.)
However, in the Belarusian case, the number of those moved was smaller, and consequently, even in areas where they dominated numerous villages, the Belarusians did not dominate regions as a whole in the ways the ethnic Ukrainians did. As a result, the Belarusian migrants seldom had institutions such as schools and newspapers to support their identity, nor did they have the ability to attract the attention and support of Belarusians in the homeland, as the Ukrainian wedges have. (For more on Belarusians within Russia’s regions, see Window on Eurasia, August 2, 2015; Charter97.org, August 8, 2015; Nazaccent.ru, June 14, 2022.)
Belarusian migration into what is now the Russian Federation generally followed a different pattern, with most movement happening on an individual rather than group level. Belarusians generally settled around Russia’s urban industrial centers. Moreover, arriving Belarusians have often been accepted by some conservative Russians with what Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka called, “Russians with the mark of quality,” even forming a central part of the so-called “Russian Party” in the past decades of Soviet reign, as well as more recently (Iarex.ru, October 25, 2022). The kinder welcome Belarusians received as compared to Ukrainians helps explain why, in recent decades, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have moved to the Russia. Immigration has reached such a high level, reversing the flow of the first years of independence, that now some in Belarus have begun to worry that their country is increasingly threatened by a brain drain. However, the narcissism of small differences between Belarusians and Russians sometimes produced unexpected results, including the intensification of Belarusian identity among some of those who have moved to Russia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 14, 2014).
Reacting to the latest census results concerning Belarusians, Ales Chaychyts of Radio Svaboda wisely observes that “no one knows” exactly how many Belarusians currently reside in the Russian Federation, including the Kremlin, but their numbers are undoubtedly far greater than those being reported. The figures announced by Moscow are what the Russian government wants people to believe, Chaychyts argues. These figures will soon be published in all statistical almanacs and guidebooks, and based on them, “fake analyses will be carried out, fake conclusions drawn and the wrong policies will be followed, the core principle of which will be the further ignoring of Belarusians.” In short, Moscow very much wants the world to conclude that Belarusians are “disappearing.” Yet, what these figures actually show, Chaychyts continues, is that “Russian chauvinism is the main enemy of Belarus and Belarusians” and that “chauvinism has become part of Russian state policy” (Svaboda, January 16).
What is most intriguing and most worrisome is that the problem Chaychyts points to may be more endemic to the West than to Russia. Many in the West will likely accept the latest Russian census results as confirmation of their expectations. However, at least some Russians are clearly uncertain that this approach is constructive, given that, however Belarusians may be listed in the Russian census, they likely will retain their own identity and will not act in support of Moscow, but rather support the Belarusian nation and its differing norms and values (Komsomolskaya pravda, October 2, 2020). Some in Russia are even suggesting that these people are now acting as “an ethnic lobby” for Minsk (Rubaltic.ru, January 3, 2020). Similar to warnings that some have already sounded about Ukraine, a few experts are insisting that this problem would likely intensify if Moscow absorbed Belarus, and thus more Belarusians, into a union state (Rosbalt.ru, January 31, 2020; Iarex.ru, January 18).
Nevertheless, these warnings will not dissuade Putin from continuing to pursue his aggressive integrationist and assimilationist plans. However, they should be enough to encourage analysts outside Russia to stop believing that Belarusians are rapidly ceasing to exist within the Russian Federation and that Putin’s plans to roll them into the Russian nation will succeed. Both the census itself and Russian reactions to it show that this is not the case.