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Russia's 2021 Census Results Raise Red Flags Among Experts And Ethnic-Minority Activists

A census officer collects data from residents of the remote village of Ostrovnoye in Russia's Sverdlovsk region in April 2021.
A census officer collects data from residents of the remote village of Ostrovnoye in Russia's Sverdlovsk region in April 2021.

The Russian government released the official results of its 2021 census at the end of last year, and they showed significant declines in numbers for many of the country's non-Russian ethnic minorities.

The number of ethnic Tatars -- the country's largest ethnic minority -- purportedly fell by nearly 600,000 people. The Mari ethnic group declined by 22.6 percent; the Chuvash population fell by 25 percent; and the number of Udmurts declined by 30 percent.

At the same time, the number of census respondents who refused to give any ethnic identification rose to nearly 16.5 million people, according to the official numbers. Figures like these have many demographers and other experts -- as well as activists from the country's ethnic-minority communities -- questioning the process, the results, and the Kremlin's intentions.

"The number of people who refused to provide an ethnic identification grew substantially," Russian sociologist Igor Yakovenko said. "This is a result of growing xenophobia. People understand what sort of consequences there might be in the future -- better not to say anything, just in case."

99 Percent Participation?

The census was originally scheduled for the fall of 2020, 10 years after the previous headcount. But it was delayed for one year because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and was held from mid-October until mid-November 2021. Preliminary results were released in September 2022, while the complete, final data was made public in December. The census included the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014.

The country's overall population was reported at 144.7 million, or 147.2 million if Ukraine's Crimea is included, up from the 142.8 million found in the 2010 census.

The deputy head of the government's Rosstat statistics agency, Pavel Smelov, claimed in November 2021, a few days before the data gathering was completed, that "more than 99 percent" of the population had participated in the survey.

However, nongovernmental analysts argued that the actual participation was much lower and that the methods used invalidated the results. The independent Levada Center polling agency found that 42 percent of Russians said they did not take part in the census at all, and that figure reaching a staggering 73 percent in Moscow.

"This means that about 56 million-57 million people didn't participate in the census," said demographer Aleksei Raksha, who was fired from Rosstat in July 2020 for questioning the government's reporting of coronavirus fatalities.

According to the official results, even the number of self-reported ethnic Russians declined from 111 million in 2010 to 105.6 million in 2021.

'Forced To Falsify'

In interviews with RFE/RL, census workers confirmed that much of the data provided was fictional.

"We are being forced to falsify data, and as I understand it, this is happening on a large scale across St. Petersburg because the participation rate is very low," one census worker who asked that her name be withheld for fear of repercussions told RFE/RL's North.Realities in November 2021. "This bothers me a lot because we are being forced to do illegal things at the orders of the regional administration. As a sociologist, I know that the value of such data is zero."

Another census worker, in the southern region of Astrakhan, told a similar story. "The lists I was given had real answers for about 50 percent of the entries, while the rest had been filled in using residency-registration lists rather than actual interviews," he said on condition of anonymity. "There was no information on ethnicity, and we had to figure this out ourselves. I left it blank, so the ethnicity question was unanswered for more than half of my list. I saw another worker using a different tactic -- she guessed at the ethnicities by looking at the surnames."

Such anecdotal evidence and the census results themselves have prompted many experts to caution against using the 2021 census at all.

"I wouldn't rely much on the results of this census," sociologist and visiting professor at Canada's Carleton University Guzel Yusupova said. "Not only do members of the Tatar intelligentsia and activists in other ethnic republics have questions about it, but so also do members of the academic community."

Yakovenko stressed that polling is impossible "in totalitarian and fascist regimes."

"People take any interviewer -- a person violating their personal space and asking personal questions -- as a representative of the government or the security forces," he said. "Sociologists say up to 90 percent of people refuse to answer questions. As for the census, many don't want to answer, while others provide answers that distort reality."

Tatar historian and ethnographer Damir Iskhakov said that "leading demographers have conceded that this statistical material is worthless."

"Even in Kazan," he said, referring to the capital and largest city in Tatarstan, "they didn't go around to people's residences. I saw this for myself. No one I know was visited."

'Diversity Is Associated With Danger'

The governing system of Russian President Vladimir Putin "is based on a fear of ethnic separatism, which is the basis of the repressive government and its 'legitimization,'" sociologist Yusupova asserted. She says that Putin's rise to power in 1999 was boosted by a wave of xenophobia linked to the Second Chechen War.

"This has been a major factor in how we view diversity," she said. "In our country, diversity is associated with danger -- migrants are drug traffickers, Muslims are associated with terrorism, ethnic activists seek the destruction of Russia, and so on."

For years, state propaganda has stressed patriotism and unity. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2020 bolstered the identity of Russians as the country's "state-forming" nation and the primacy of the Russian language.

"I think the policy of the Russian Federation at present is aimed at stimulating the assimilation of most peoples toward Russians," Raksha said, adding that Chechens and other ethnic groups from the North Caucasus appear to be exceptions. "But this census is of such low quality that it is impossible to assess this process accurately."

The historical numbers of ethnic Tatars in Russia seem to back this analysis. The population peaked at 5.55 million in the 2002 census, at the end of the period of Russia's short-lived democratization and Tatarstan's greatest autonomy. It fell to 5.3 million with the 2010 census, before declining by another 600,000 with the latest census and coming in at 4.7 million.

Tatar scholar Iskhakov argued that "if Russia is a democracy in 10 years," when the next census is conducted, "there will once again be more than 5 million Tatars."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities. Dina Vishnevetskaya of RFE/RL's North.Realities contributed to this report

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