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Russian Census To Allow Citizens To Call Themselves Elves And Goblins – OpEd


Russians who want to call themselves elves or goblins in the upcoming census will be allowed to do so, Pavel Smelov, Rosstat’s deputy head who is overseeing the enumeration says. That sounds permissive, but he didn’t say whether Moscow would allow residents to declare themselves Circassians, Muslims, or Cossacks.


Residents of Russia who want to say they are elves or goblins as about 1000 did in the last census will be allowed to do so. “If someone feels he is an elf, let him be an elf,” and let that be reflected in the statistics ( and

But in making this announcement, Smelov did not address three other issues that matter rather more: First, he did not say how census takers would treat people who declare themselves to be Circassians rather than one of the subgroups Moscow has divided them into, others who say they are Muslim by nationality, or still a third Cossacks rather than Russians.

Many in these three communities are calling for that kind of reidentification ( and

Second, Smelov did not say how these or other declarations will be processed. Those who process returns operate with specific rules on how they are to group certain kinds of declarations or how they will report those in public documents, whatever the data they gather.

In the past, for example, someone in Kabardino-Balkaria who declared himself or herself a Circassian would be listed as a Kabard, the “correct” subdivision of that nation; or if someone anywhere in Russia declared himself or herself a Cossack, either census takers or processers would list them as Russian.


This may seem trivial. However, it is anything but. If Circassians are counted together, their common identity with this new confirmation will energize that nation and increase demands for a single Circassian Republic in the North Caucasus, something that would require the redrawing of the map there with all the consequences that could have.

Similarly, if Cossacks are counted as Cossacks, that could energize that national group but even more immediately cut into the size of the Russian nation, reducing its numbers by three to four million people – or more than two percent, thus making the dominance of that nation smaller at least statistically.

And third, Smelov did not say how the census would deal with the increasing number of people in the Russian Federation who do not identify in ethnic terms but in religious or cultural or linguistic one. Are the census takers this time around going to record these identities or group them with the Russian nation, either or political.

Until those questions are answered, Smelov’s declaration is interesting but far from the definitive one that many may have hoped for. 

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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