New Census Data Challenges Putin’s Notions About Relationship Between Language And National Identity – OpEd


Like many others, Vladimir Putin assumes that those who give up their native language will more or less at the same time give up their ethnic as well. But newly released Russian census data show that relationship between the two changes is more complicated and that many retain their identities even after they give up their native tongues. 

Indeed, the experience of the Soviet past and of other countries even suggests that those who shift from their native language to the language of the imperial center may, as a result of the competition they now find themselves in with the members of the imperial nation may become more nationalistic and thus more attached to their identity despite language change.

That must be recognized by anyone using census data or thinking about this relationship. Those nations where almost everyone speaks the language of the nation may either be growing or declining. They are growing if their total grows; and they are declining if people who stop speaking the language stop identifying as members of the native.

Conversely, those nations in which the share speaking the native language is far lower may in fact be better positioned to survive. They are if ethnic numbers remain high even though the share of those speaking the national language drops but are in a weak one if the ethnic numbers decline along with the number speaking the national language.

Rosstat reports the most recent Russian census shows that for some groups, the overlap between ethnic self-identification and declaration of native language is almost 100 percent. That is the case with ethnic Russians and Chechens. But their situations are radically different as far as this relationship is concerned.

Those identifying as Russians, on the one hand, fell by five million over the last 11 years, with some changing their ethnic self-identification or giving it up altogether, a pattern suggesting that for Russians, language is key to ethnic identity and that its loss likely would lead those who had declared that identity to change it.

Those identifying as Chechens, on the other hand, increased in number even as their allegiance to Chechen as their native language remained almost as high as the Russians, something that highlights not so much the importance of language as support for identity but the way in which in such a situation the two reinforce one another.

More interesting are the cases of nations in between. In some cases, particularly those involving numerically small nations, the loss of language can lead to the loss of ethnic identity as well. But in others, both small and large, the loss of language has not led to a loss of national identity – or at a minimum not at the rates that the Kremlin leader and many others assume.

A case in point are the Ukrainians living within the current borders of the Russian Federation. Seventy percent of them say that Russian is their native language but continue to identify as Ukrainians by nationality, a sign not of weakness of national identity as many might suppose but of its strength (

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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