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Russia: National Census Putting 'New' State Under A Microscope

Taking advantage of the brief Arctic summer, employees of Russia's State Statistics Committee traveled to Russia's remotest regions this week to begin the task of counting the country's far-flung inhabitants -- the first time a national census has been conducted in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When their work is completed in mid-October, 459,000 census takers will have spoken to an estimated 145 million people, quizzing them on everything from age, sex, and nationality to education level and current employment. Demographers hope the information will help form a comprehensive picture of the new Russia that has emerged from the ruins of communism.

Prague, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The last time census takers fanned out from Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Pacific, Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. In 1989, virtually all Russians worked for the state, unemployment was officially unknown, the terms "oligarch," "new rich," "middle class," and "homeless" did not apply.

All this makes the 2002 national census, which began in the country's remotest districts this week, all the more important for Russian demographers and policymakers. By the time all the data are compiled, answers to such questions as whether Russia is actually gaining population through foreign immigration or losing people due to falling birthrates, whether a genuine middle class has emerged from the ashes of communism or whether Russia is now divided between rich and poor, and whether the traditional family model is thriving or falling apart should be provided.

At this stage, demographers need confirmation of even basic facts. Irina Zbarskaya, head of the census administration at Russia's State Statistics Committee, spoke to RFE/RL about some of the challenges facing her 459,000 census takers. "Even the basic task that faces statisticians performing a census in every country, that of simply counting the population, [will be a challenge]. Because a census, in essence, the time when you count people, is for us very important. All of our population estimates are currently based on data from 1989, and since that time the country has undergone significant migration. Since the last census, some 45 million people have changed their place of residence within our country," Zbarskaya said.

Zbarskaya said another key factor demographers are eager to learn is Russia's current ethnic makeup, after more than a decade of migration, both by ethnic Russians flocking to Russia from neighboring states and others, especially now that ethnicity has been removed as a category from identification documents. "Since the new passports and identification documents have had any mention of ethnicity removed -- the so-called former Article 5 -- for us, as a multiethnic country, it's very important to know the ethnic composition of the country. Our constitution begins with the words: 'We, the multiethnic people of the Russian Federation.' And of course, it's very important, very interesting, and very necessary to obtain information about which ethnic groups populate our country," Zbarskaya said.

For the first time in this census, noncitizens living in Russia will also be counted and surveyed. No one knows how many foreigners currently reside in Russia. Official estimates range from a low of 500,000 to a high of 10 million.

Zbarskaya said answers shedding light on the economic well-being of Russia's population will also be eagerly awaited. "Questions focused on people's employment are very important for us because in the period since the last census, we have seen the appearance of the phenomenon of unemployment, so within the framework of this census we will be analyzing the population's employment situation," Zbarskaya said.

Russia's economic upheaval over the past decade has been accompanied to as great an extent by a social revolution. Zbarskaya told RFE/RL the census is taking this into account, as it tries to map the face of the new Russia. "In contrast with the previous census, we will look in greater detail at people's marital status. Current statistics show many couples are living together without getting married. A third of children born in our country are born outside of wedlock. This shows that the traditional family structure is undergoing some serious changes. The census should provide us with more information on this phenomenon," Zbarskaya said.

More worrying to demographers than the growing number of children born out of wedlock is the overall decline in the number of children born in the country altogether. According to statistics obtained so far, every year since 1992, the number of deaths has surpassed births, as women put off having children and men die increasingly early, largely due to stress and alcoholism.

Murray Feshbach, a prominent U.S. demographer specializing in Russia, told RFE/RL the national census will play an important role in confirming the extent of this trend. "Confirmation of the fertility patterns, that they have declined so dramatically, not just in the absolute number of births, but in the average number of births per woman over her fertile ages, which has declined, according to current figures, from simple reproduction level rates of around 2.1 to around 1.2...would be very important, as well as the distortion in the age structure and to some degree, of course, the sex structure because of the premature mortality of males in the working-age population," Feshbach said.

Clearly, many hopes have been pinned on the new census, but its success will hinge not just on how diligently Zbarskaya's staff carries out its work but on how truthfully respondents answer the questions put to them, if at all. In accordance with international guidelines, respondents will not be asked to show identification, and the truthfulness of their answers will be taken on faith. Zbarskaya is confident this will make most people comfortable about revealing personal details they ordinarily might withhold from government authorities. "The test surveys we have undertaken in preparation for the national census show that people generally answer questions quite openly and truthfully. Since we do not ask people for documents confirming the truthfulness of their answers, which is in accordance with international recommendations on conducting censuses, we create a certain bond of trust between respondents and census takers. And since the census form is not personalized, and we create data banks of information that do not contain data linked to specific individuals, this leads us to believe that the information people give us will provide a truthful picture," Zbarskaya said.

People interviewed at random this week by RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent expressed mixed sentiments on the issue of the census. Forty-seven-year-old pharmacist Irina Vlasova, betraying a healthy dose of local pride, said she planned to answer all the questions. "Of course, why not? You have to tell the truth regarding specific facts like age, date of birth, and where you were born. I'm a Muscovite, and I consider myself to be a true Muscovite," Vlasova said.

But 40-year-old Sergei, who declined to give his last name, said he did not want to have anything to do with the authorities. "I don't want to be counted. I want them not to notice me -- that's all. I didn't make it into the statistics, I'm not there," Sergei said.

Thirty-three-year-old Yurii, originally from the southern Rostov region, has been living in Moscow for the past seven years. He told RFE/RL he is inclined to answer census questions honestly, but like many Russians concerned about crime, he expressed reluctance about opening his door to strangers. "It's all the same to me, but I'll tell you one thing: If some stranger comes to my apartment and rings the doorbell, it's only natural that I'm not going to let him in. As regards me and my family, I'll write down what's needed. We don't have any secrets. On top of it, I'm a Russian, and I think I should know about who is living in my country," Yurii said.

In an effort to accommodate people like Yurii, the census administration will set up offices throughout the country where respondents can drop in instead of having a census taker visit their home.

Inhabitants of Russia's Far North have already begun filling in their census questionnaires. For most people living in more temperate latitudes, the census will take place from 9-16 October. Initial results are expected by the end of the year, with a more detailed analysis to follow sometime in 2003 or 2004.

(RFE/RL's Francesca Mereu, reporting from Moscow, contributed to this report.)