Accessibility links

Breaking News

Putin Pledges To Protect All Ethnic Russians Anywhere. So, Where Are They?

Russian enough?
Russian enough?
In recent weeks, the Russian government has articulated what might be called the Putin Doctrine, a blanket assertion that Moscow has the right and the obligation to protect Russians anywhere in the world.

Speaking on Russian television last month, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said that "Russia is the country on which the Russian world is based" and that Putin "is probably the main guarantor of the safety of the Russian world."

The ebbing and flowing of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union over recent centuries have left millions of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers outside the borders of today's Russian Federation.

Many of them -- from Moldova's Transdniester to eastern Ukraine and elsewhere -- have responded to the Putin Doctrine with calls for Russian "protection."

A banner outside a government building in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk that is occupied by pro-Russian separatists reads: "Russia! Save us from slavery."

'New Russia' And Ukraine

The Kremlin's new position has come into sharp focus in recent weeks in the Ukrainian region of Crimea -- annexed by Russia last month -- and in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. Russian nationalists such as the Eurasianist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin refer to this region by the historical name "Novorossiya," or "New Russia," which also encompasses several southern regions of Russia including Rostov Oblast and Stavropol and Krasnodar krais.

The area was added to the Russian Empire over the 18th and early 19th centuries by military conquests over the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. Beginning with Catherine the Great, the fertile region was handed out to Russian nobility who enserfed the local population. Although Catherine notably invited foreigners from Europe to settle in the region, Russification of the region was official policy.
Click to open interactive infographic in new window
Click to open interactive infographic in new window

Today there are more than 5 million ethnic Russians in the Ukrainian parts of Novorossiya, making up a significant plurality in most of the regions. Russians compose a majority in Crimea because of energetic Russification there and the 1944 mass deportation of Crimean Tatars, who are only now approaching their pre-deportation population levels on the peninsula.

Deportations In Moldova

On the edge of historical Novorossiya is the Moldovan region of Transdniester, which today is home to at least 150,000 Russian passport holders. The region was brought into the Russian Empire in the 1790s and its capital, Tiraspol, was founded as a border outpost by the legendary General Aleksandr Suvorov.

Its incorporation into the Russian Empire was accompanied by an active Russification process, including the importation of serfs from other parts of Russia. After the October Revolution, Transdniester became part of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1944, the area was recaptured by the Soviet Red Army and thousands of locals, particularly well-off peasants, were accused of "collaboration" and deported to Siberia and Central Asia. A similar deportation, known as Operation South, was carried out on the night of July 6-7, 1949.
Click to open in new window
Click to open in new window

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moldova became independent and some radical nationalists called for minorities -- Russians, Ukrainians, Gagauz -- to be expelled. Transdniester declared independence in 1990 and fought a brief, violent war of succession in 1992. That war ended in a cease-fire that holds to this day. After Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea, officials in Transdniester asked to join the Russian Federation.

Ethnic Cleansing In The Baltics

Farther north, there are a little over 1 million ethnic Russians in the three Baltic States. Although the region was part of the Russian Empire, almost all the Russians living there today trace their origins back to the Soviet era.

Under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the three Baltic states came under the Soviet sphere of influence and the first Soviet mass deportations of locals began in 1941.

The deportations and Stalinist Russification policies were stepped up. In all, about 200,000 Estonians, Latvian, and Lithuanians were deported during the Soviet period. Today, Russians compose about 24 percent of Estonia's population, 27 percent of Latvia's, and almost 5 percent of Lithuania's.

Russification In Central Asia

There are also significant ethnic Russian populations in the five post-Soviet Central Asia republics. Most significantly, there are at least 3.5 million Russians living in Kazakhstan, most of them in the northern and eastern reaches of the country.

The Russian presence in present-day Kazakhstan goes back to the early 16th century. Many of the country's major cities, including present-day Astana and Almaty, began as Russian frontier outposts. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian Empire actively imported Russians into the best agricultural regions of Kazakhstan. By 1917, Russians made up 30 percent of the population.

In the Soviet period, there were further waves of Russification, most notably in 1953-65 during the Virgin Lands campaign. During World War II, factories from European Russia were transferred to the Kazakh steppe, beyond the reach of Hitler's armies. Still more Russians flooded the area after the discovery of hydrocarbons in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1979, Russians composed 40 percent of the population of Kazakhstan. Today they make up a significant minority across the northern part of the country.

Old Believers And Political Emigres

In addition to the Russians who have been left behind by the fluctuations of the Russian state, there are others who have, over the centuries, fled Russia to escape its government.

The trickle of political refugees from the 19th century turned into three major waves of emigration, mostly to Europe and the United States, following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Thanks to Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel beginning in the late 1980s, Israel now has the world's third-largest Russian-speaking minority outside the former Soviet Union.

There are also smaller pockets of Russians outside the Russian Federation.

For example, about 2,500 of the ethnic Russians living now in the U.S. state of Alaska are not relics of the time when the Russian Empire stretched across the Bering Strait. They are so-called Old Believers, who have been seeking freedom from Moscow to practice their religion since Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon reformed the Russian church in 1666.

There are scattered Old Believer communities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several South American countries as well.

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.