16.02.23 Review

Changing Identity: How have politics altered Russia’s demographics since the 2021 National Census?

According to the 2021 Russian Census, except for in the North Caucasus region, the number of people belonging to minority ethnic groups in Russia has fallen. At the same time, the country’s autonomous regions are becoming progressively monoethnic: areas of the country where ethnic Russians have traditionally been in the majority have seen their numbers increasing, whereas regions with a titular population have seen a decrease in the number of Russians. The largest decline has been among the Belarusian and Ukrainian populations. On one hand, this can partially be explained by the fact that it is easier for East Slavic people to assimilate into Russian society, but on the other hand, Russia has been consciously implementing an aggressive de-Ukrainisation policy, a process which has escalated over the last decade. There has also been a noticeable change in the country’s language policy, a process that might be termed ‘soft’ Russification. Moscow has prohibited federal subjects from making the study of their national languages mandatory. Generally speaking, this process of decreasing ethnic diversity nationwide is a reflection of the Kremlin's attempts to mobilise Russian state nationalism, which recognises multi-ethnicity as an element of ‘imperial’ unity.

In his analysis of the recently published data on the ethnic composition of the Russian population from the most recent Russian census, political scientist Adam Lenton concludes that, over the past ten years, the country’s ethnic composition has undergone significant changes. In absolute terms, the populations of ethnic minority groups have shrunk, the only exception being the North Caucasus region, where there has been an increase in ethnic Chechens, Avars and Dargins. There has also been a record decline in the populations of the titular nationalities of Russia’s autonomous republics: for example, the number of Chuvash people in Russia has decreased by more than 25%, and the Tatar population has shrunk by 11%.

At the same time, the results of the census indicate a completely new trend: the autonomous republics are becoming increasingly monoethnic. In Tuva, for example, the proportion of ethnic Tuvans increased from approximately 82% in 2010 to almost 91% in 2021. At the same time, the ethnic republics of the Volga (with the exception of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) are also moving towards monoethnicity, but for a different reason. There we witness two converse trends, the number of ethnic Russians is on the rise, while the titular nationality has been decreasing in number. The demographic composition of these regions is becoming increasingly similar to that of Komi and Karelia. One way or another, there has been a noticeable reduction in ethnic diversity.

The most dramatic population decline has occurred among the East Slavic ethnic groups. In 2010, the number of ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia stood at 1.9 million, in 2021 this number had decreased by 55% to just over 800 thousand Ukrainians. The number of ethnic Belarusians fell by 60% during this same period. According to Vladimir Zorin, an ethnographer and chairman of the Civic Chamber for the Harmonisation of Interethnic and Interreligious Relations, the issue is not migration, but rather a misappropriation of national identity (during the census, everyone is able to self-identify their nationality). Demographer Aleksey Raksha agrees that the main reason behind the shrinking of East Slavs minority ethnic groups in Russia has been their accelerated assimilation into Russian society. Representatives of these groups are more likely to identify as Russian (and suffer from identity loss in the process), than people from other nationalities. 

However, Russia is most certainly pursuing a conscious policy of de-Ukrainisation. Recent analysis of this issue published by ‘Important Stories’ highlighted that, over the past few decades, the speed of this assimilation had been half that of current rates. In the ‘Important Stories’ article, Viktor Hirzhov, the former deputy chairman of the Association of Ukrainians in Russia, says that state policy is a likely factor for people choosing to change their identity. According to Hirzhov, the Kremlin's political decision to ban Ukrainian culture became noticeable after Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’. In 2010 and 2012, two federal organisations of the Ukrainian diaspora were liquidated: the ‘Association of Ukrainians in Russia’ and the ‘Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians in Russia’, whose task had been to preserve and promote Ukrainian identity and culture among the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia.

After the annexation of Crimea, this policy of de-Ukrainisation began to take on much more aggressive forms. In 2015, the world-famous Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow was raided. The police seized history books on the leaders of the Ukrainian independence movement, as well as materials from the Ukrainian movement ‘It's time!’ (‘Medusa’ covered these events in detail here). The library’s director Natalya Sharina was arrested and sentenced to four years probation, for allegedly distributing extremist literature and misappropriating public funds. In 2018 the library was closed altogether. In 2019, the World Congress of Ukrainians was declared an ‘undesirable organisation’ in Russia.

At present, there are almost no opportunities available in Russia to preserve Ukrainian culture or to learn the Ukrainian language. There are no Ukrainian schools; it is almost impossible to find Ukrainian language courses, even in Moscow. According to the same 2021 census, only 33% of Ukrainians living in Russia speak Ukrainian.

Moreover, the policy of ‘soft’ Russification has also been encouraged by the authorities when it comes to the country’s ethnic republics. These republics used to have the right to mandate the learning of their titular languages. However, Moscow approved a bill stipulating that languages other than Russian can only be taught in schools at the voluntary request of parents. These regulatory changes led to particularly heightened tensions in Tatarstan, but nonetheless the Kremlin's position has remained unchanged. It believes that the compulsory study of languages other than Russian will encourage citizens to identify as non-Russian, while linguistic erosion has the opposite effect. Although the results of the last census have been interpreted by analysts with caution (some experts believe that as many as 50 million people refused to participate while a further 16 million participants did not indicate their ethnicity at all), regarding this matter, it appears that the data on this matter most likely reflects a real social trend. For example, the HSE’s Longitudinal Monitoring Survey, which is designed to monitor the effects of Russian reforms on the health and economic welfare of households and individuals in the Russian Federation, has witnessed a similar downturn in the number of Ukrainians living in Russia. The decline in ethnic diversity is a direct consequence of the Kremlin’s determination to mobilise Russian state nationalism, which recognises multi-ethnicity as an element of ‘imperial’ unity, rather than as the right to autonomy.