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Russia: First National Census Since Soviet Collapse Begins

  • Gregory Feifer

Russia today began filling out questionnaires for its first nationwide census in more than a decade. Hundreds of thousands of census takers are spanning out over the country's 11 time zones, including Kaliningrad, to track the radical changes that have taken place since the collapse of communism and the uneasy transition toward capitalism and democracy. The change of political and economic regimes has resulted in dramatic shifts in the country's demography.

Moscow, 9 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Starting today, the government is asking all of Russia's estimated 143 million citizens to fill out a single-page questionnaire about themselves for the first national census in more than a decade.

In Moscow, university students have been recruited to go door to door, filling out the forms.

Census taker: "Your surname?"

Woman: "Seifidinova."

Census taker: "Do you live alone or do you have a family -- how many people?"

Woman: "I live with my daughter."

Census taker: "So you live separately. You have your own household separate from the others [living in the communal apartment]?"

Woman: "Yes."

Some far-flung areas in Siberia and other distant parts of Russia have already been counted, but the bulk of the census will take place over the next eight days. Census takers will even be collecting information in the war-torn Caucasus republic of Chechnya on 12-13 October, using army jeeps and helicopters to get to inaccessible areas. The survey will also include tens of thousands of refugees living in tents in neighboring Ingushetia.

The endeavor will attempt to take a snapshot of a country that has undergone radical change in the past decade.

The last census was carried out in 1989, when Russia was still one of 15 republics in the Soviet Union. Since then, the country has undergone extensive social, political, and economic changes.

Moscow discarded a communist dictatorship and central economic planning and adopted principles of democracy and capitalism. But the legacy of 70 years of Soviet rule -- not to mention hundreds of years of a tsarist dynasty -- has posed massive problems for ongoing reform efforts.

A handful of well-connected businessmen managed to take control of large swaths of the country's most lucrative natural-resource monopolies, while organized crime and corruption -- already rampant under the Soviet Union -- have affected all aspects of life and work.

A highly visible few have reaped tremendous wealth, filling the capital with tinted-windowed Mercedes, but the vast bulk of the population has seen living standards drop as the state welfare system collapsed, along with subsidies for many services.

The population has steadily dropped in number. Life expectancy has also plummeted due to deteriorating living conditions, alcoholism, and poor health.

The specter of AIDS and other diseases, such as tuberculosis, is meanwhile spreading quickly. All told, the country is estimated to have lost almost 4 million people since 1989.

At the same time, with the lifting of Soviet restrictions and state housing allocations, cities such as Moscow have attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants as a steep decline in Soviet industry in Siberia and other areas has forced many residents to leave.

Census work has already shown that some towns with thousands of registered residents actually have only hundreds or even fewer people living there.

The survey is the work of the State Statistics Committee, Goskomstat, which is employing around 600,000 census takers and 200,000 supervisors in addition to the various officials and other workers required for the effort. Police are out in force to provide protection.

Census forms include questions about employment, education, housing, and ethnicity.

At a mews conference in Moscow yesterday, Irina Zbarskaya, director of Goskomstat's census program, said many questions are similar to those asked in 1989, because each census must collect information that "reflects a corresponding stage in the country's development." "If we compare questionnaires from 1989 with today's, a significant number of the questions fully correspond, because the census's main task -- aside from counting the population -- is to arrive at its social and demographic characteristics," Zbarskaya said.

But several questions, including one about business profits, are new.

The questionnaires are the first to allow citizens to write in their own category for ethnicity, which Russians call "nationality." Such classifications are often politically controversial.

A question about citizenship is also new. Under communism, everyone was considered a "Soviet" citizen; foreigners were few. The government now wants to measure the number of migrants in Russia, especially laborers from former Soviet states and immigrants from such countries as China who have been settling in Siberia.

Controversially, the census does not ask about religion, with officials citing separation of church and state.

The first results will be released next March.

The census was originally scheduled for 1999 but was postponed because of the August 1998 economic crisis that tapped state coffers. The endeavor will cost around $180 million.

Goskomstat's largest practical concern is that Russians are wary of opening their doors to possible con artists.

Many may also be worried that information will be channeled to tax inspectors and other law enforcers. A large number of Russians do not pay taxes.

Goskomstat officials promise to guarantee confidentiality. And unlike Soviet times, taking part in the current census is voluntary. There is no penalty for refusing to fill out a questionnaire.

While many say they do not see how the census could possibly benefit them, some are welcoming the event, including Galina Vasilievna, a middle-aged woman filling out a form in her apartment building in central Moscow. "There are a lot of different people, a lot of immigrants here in Moscow. For many, there aren't any statistics at all. So in the scheme of things, thank God the initiative for this was taken," Vasilievna said.

At a news conference in Moscow yesterday, the agency's director, Vladimir Sokolin, said worry has been misguided thus far. "I have to say that, in fact, the country has opened its doors. That's the most important positive result of the past four days," Sokolin said.

Sokolin said most of the difficulties so far have related to isolated events. "Some people, as always, confuse the census with elections, thinking that we're behind a candidate for office. So various social demands are made. Some residents demand that their roofs be immediately fixed. Others want sports facilities. But these are normal, expected situations," Sokolin said.

Officials have been urging citizens to take part. Public-relations expert Sergei Zverev, who oversaw the design of the questionnaire, said yesterday that citizens will only be hurting themselves by not taking part, because they will not be taken into account in the government's future plans.

Sokolin said the main problem so far has been that many who signed up as canvassers and trained for the low-paying task have refused at the last minute to carry out what Sokolin called "fairly difficult work."

Dogs guarding their masters' houses also pose a significant problem, he said. But, he added, "I think we'll be able to deal with that."

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