Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Ethnically Diverse Russia, 2010 Census Presents Logistical, Political Headaches

A Russian census taker fills in a census form while talking to a local resident in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.
A Russian census taker fills in a census form while talking to a local resident in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.
As Russia kicks off its first nationwide census in eight years, a quick conversation with Shamkhaldibir Isayev is all it takes to demonstrate the logistical challenges ahead.

Isayev, a law professor at Daghestan State University in Makhachkala, is Chamalal -- a small ethnic group native to the North Caucasus republic's southwestern highlands.

Chamalals are considered a subgroup of Avars, one of the largest of Daghestan's major ethnic groups. There are believed to be just 5,000 ethnic Chamalals, but even so, the group's indigenous language is further broken down into two distinct dialects -- Gigatl and Gakvari -- depending on geographic location.

So Isayev, to be absolutely precise about it, is an urbanized Chamalal who speaks the Gigatl dialect -- although not necessarily with the village twang that makes it strongly suggestive of the language of another Avar subgroup, the Godoberi, a neighboring highland community.

Confused yet?

That's a lot of information, after all, especially when it comes to unaccommodating, small-print government documents. So how did Isayev identify himself the last time census-takers came around, in 2002? As an Avar -- adding only parenthetically that he was Chamalal.

"Why did I do that? First of all, the Avar nation, like any other nation, is comprised of several ethno-linguistic groups," says Isayev, a dignified-looking man who enjoys reading poetry in his native tongue and takes an academic's delight in the niceties of language theory. "The [ethnic] Avars call themselves 'maglarulal,' which literally means highlanders. But that's wrong, because there are other nationalities that are also highlanders -- for example, the Laks, the Dargins."

For this year's census, Isayev says he will once again identify himself as an Avar. But his children, 18-year-old son Bachukhan and daughter Patimat, 16 -- both law students -- say they will identify themselves as Chamalals. Bachukhan, a note of pride in his voice, adds he does not even know how to speak Avar.

Siberians & Pharaohs

Isayev and his offspring are just three of 2.6 million people in Daghestan, the most ethnically diverse of the North Caucasus republics, with 14 major ethnic groups and literally dozens of related ethnic minorities -- each with their own languages, many of which have never been recorded in written form.

Shamkhaldibir Isayev: An urbanized Chamalal who speaks the Gigatl dialect
Tallying each of them and their defining ethnic distinctions will prove just one of the myriad political and logistical challenges for census-takers as Russia launches its 12-day count. Authorities are eager to ensure the 2010 All-Russian Census will avoid the pitfalls of the last count eight years ago, when claims of skewed results for many ethnic minorities forced state statisticians to offer revised numbers several years later.

Ethnic Russians remain the dominant nationality in Russia, making up some 80 percent of the population. But the remaining 20 percent are a diverse ethnic patchwork in which colorful Daghestan is only one of many players. The list of nationalities provided by the Russian federal statistics service Rosstat to help the country's 142 million residents in filling out their census forms offers a staggering 1,840 options -- everything from Russian to Chamalal to Enets, the indigenous Arctic people who are believed to be Russia's smallest minority.

In additions to such simple, one-word appellations, there are also a dizzying number of variations on a theme.

There are, for example, Adygs, Adygs who speak who speak Kabardinian, and Adygs "who speak any language other than Kabardinian, Circassian, or Shapsug." (For those determined to avoid being pigeonholed, the list also offers fanciful options such as "man of the world," "subbotnik," "pharaoh," and the ethnically imprecise but increasingly popular "Siberian." Officials have stressed that citizens have the right to choose whatever national designation they prefer on their census form, or to choose none at all.)

Fighting For Numbers

Such nuances are welcome in places like the North Caucasus, where ethnic groups felt their numbers -- on which decisions about federal funding and political representation depend -- were dramatically undercounted in the 2002 census.

But other groups, such as ethnic Tatars, see such hair-splitting as an attempt to undercut their true numbers. The nationality list offers nearly 30 varieties of Tatars, many determined by geographic location -- Astrakhan Tatars, Nukrat Tatars, Siberian Tatars, and the like.

Many Muslim Tatars, who have complained about what they see as attempts by Moscow and the Orthodox Church to assimilate their ranks, say a Tatar should be counted as a Tatar regardless of his or her location. (The census form currently does not include questions about religious denomination.)

Inside Tatarstan, there is also concern that neighboring Bashkortostan may be seeking to count its ethnic Tatar minority as Bashkirs -- much as the republic leaders demonstrably did in the 2002 census, in what some saw as a nationalist effort to boost numbers.

In recent weeks, state television in Bashkortostan has begun airing regular programs profiling what it says are traditional Bashkir villages, "populated by Bashkirs for centuries."

But Tatars like Kazan-based historian Damir Iskhakov argue that the featured villages like Ilesh and Durtoyle -- all located along Bashkortostan's border with Tatarstan -- are in fact home to ethnic Tatars, who should be counted as such.

"From the information published in newspapers and broadcast on TV, we assume Bashkir authorities are going to violate this census exactly the same way as they did the last time," Iskhakov said. "A conference on dialects was held in Bashkortostan in the 1930s. Bashkir scientists at that time admitted that people in the western districts of Bashkortostan spoke Tatar. The archives can prove it."

Off The Grid

In addition to the issue of Russia's own ethnic minorities, there is also the question of the hundreds of thousands of foreigners living on Russian territory whom the federal government is eager to include in the census count -- regardless of whether they are in the country legally or not.

Authorities have sought to assure students, migrant workers, and other resident foreigners that the census is not a witch hunt. Census-workers are prohibited from recording passport information, and embassy officials have been enlisted to encourage their citizens to step forward and be counted.

Such assurances, however, are unlikely to ease qualms among many migrant workers, particularly the more than 5 million people from neighboring CIS countries, who often enter the country illegally and prefer to stay as far off the radar as possible.

A census taker -- accompanied by a police officer -- shows her ID to a woman during the first day of Russia's nationwide census in the southern city of Kemerovo.
Boghshoh Lashkarbek, a Tajik community leader in Moscow, says the census has sent alarm bells through the estimated 700,000 Tajiks believed to be living illegally in Russia. Even Tajiks who have acquired Russian citizenship, he says, are reluctant to participate in the census.

"Most of the Tajiks who have citizenship here don't have an exact place of residence where they're officially registered," he says. "So most Tajiks living here without this kind of registration will avoid being counted in the census. People without residence permits are always afraid."

To help encourage participation, Rosstat has provided information about the census in 14 foreign languages, including Azerbaijani, Tajik, Kyrgyz, English, Chinese, Turkish, and Vietnamese. But the success of such efforts may only be gauged in April 2011, when the results of the census are expected to be finalized.

When that moment comes, Russian officials hope to have an accurate rendering of not only the size and composition of their country's population, but also insight into their resident's earning power, education, and types of dwellings -- census forms offer options ranging from free-standing private homes to dormitories, yurts, and barges.

More simply, says Rosstat head Aleksandr Surinov, the census will answer one of the Russian nation's most fundamental questions: Who are we?

"Do you think that we want to conduct a census simply for the sake of conducting a census?" says Surinov, a hint of D-day exhaustion in his voice. "In the Russian Federation, there is no other source of information about the population that would allow us to receive a adequate count of our people. There are no other sources. They don't exist."

Contributing to this report were RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service correspondent Gamzat Izudinov in Makhachkala; Tatar-Bashkir Service correspondent Karim Yaushev in Ufa; Tajik Service correspondent Normahmad Kholov in Prague; and Russian Service correspondent Lilya Palveleva in Moscow

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.