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Russia: Preliminary Census Results Confirm Growth Of Non-Russian Groups

  • Charles Carlson

The preliminary results of last year's Russian census have been released and hold a few surprises. The biggest one may be that the country's population does not appear to be falling as rapidly as was feared. The results also show a marked increase in the number some ethnic groups -- mostly in the North Caucasus -- and the continued decline of others, including ethnic Russians.

Prague, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian nationalities minister Vladimir Zorin says preliminary results from the country's census last year highlight the multiethnic nature of the Russia Federation. The country is home to some 160 ethnic groups, more than any other European state.

Preliminary results were released earlier this month. The 2002 census was the first comprehensive tabulation of the country's population since a Soviet census of 1989.

He says one of the most important findings is that the country's overall population has not declined as drastically as was feared. Russia's total population is around 145 million people -- a drop of around 2 million from 1989, not the 10 million some people had predicted. Immigration appears to be compensating in part for a declining birth rate and rising death rate.

According to the findings, Russians are still by far the largest nationality -- some 116 million -- making up about 80 percent of the country's total population. But that number is dropping at the expense of other groups, mainly from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The figures show the number of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Tajiks rising, while the number of Ukrainians and Germans, among others, is dropping. Zorin said the number of Jews in Russia fell by around 50 percent since the 1989 census -- from 540,000 to 230,000.

Zorin tells RFE/RL that the number of people who belong to mainly Islamic ethnic groups is around 14.5 million, or about 10 percent of the total population: "14.5 million representatives of ethnic groups that have traditionally been Muslim."

He says this doesn't necessarily mean they are practicing Muslims, since respondents were not asked which religion they profess, if any.

"Not at all. There were no questions about religious affiliation posed in the census."

In fact, the number of Muslims may be higher than reported. Ravil Gainutdin, who heads the Council of Muftis of Russia, says he disagrees with Zorin's data. He says there may be as many as 20 million Muslims in Russia, since census-takers did not take into consideration the number of illegal immigrants, many from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.

Preliminary figures indicate the country is home to seven ethnic groups that number more than a million people, including Tatars, Bashkirs, Ukrainians, Chuvash, Chechens, and Armenians.

The official number of Chechens rose by some 50 percent since 1989, making them the fastest-growing ethnic group. Other North Caucasus groups registered relatively high rates of increase: the number of Kabardians grew by around one-third and Ossetians around 28 percent, with both peoples now numbering over half a million.

The number of Avars -- the largest group in the north Caucasus republic of Daghestan -- rose by around 40 percent, making them now the 10th biggest ethnic group in the country.

This contrasts, for example, with the plight of the Mordvins, a Finno-Ugric people, which has seen their numbers falling for decades. The latest figures show fewer than a million Mordvins in Russia. At the time of the 1989 census there were about 1.2 million Mordvins in the USSR.

Among the Turkic peoples, the number of Tatars remained more or less the same at around 5.5 million. The figure includes Christian Tatars, Siberian Tatars, and Nugaibeis.

Valerii Tishkov, the director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says there was little change from 1989: "[There is] almost zero growth or very minimal, say 38,000 among the Tatars."

By contrast, the neighboring Bashkirs registered a 24 percent increase, from 1.34 million to 1.67 million. One possible explanation for the discrepancy in growth rates between Tatars and Bashkirs is that some Bashkirs who identified themselves as Tatars in 1989 may have designated themselves as Bashkirs in last year's census.

Damir Iskhakov, history professor and head of the Kazan-based Ethnological Monitoring Center, says such relatively explosive growth can only be explained by some of Bashkortostan's Tatars identifying themselves as Bashkirs.

"The sudden growth of Bashkirs can't be explained by natural growth, even taking into consideration in-migration. The number of Bashkirs in Bashkortostan can only be increased at the expense of the Tatars living there. And it was done that way."