Numerically Small Nationalities Fear Russian Census Tilted


The leaders of some of Russia’s numerically small nationalities say that the way in which Moscow officials plan to conduct the all-Russian census this fall will understate the size of their communities, a development that in turn will reduce the funds they receive and thus further undermine their chances for survival.

At a meeting this week in Yoshkar-Ola of the Association of the Finno-Ugric Peoples of Russia, that organization’s leaders said there were two ways in which the organizers of the census were acting that will leader to an undercounting of small nationalities this time around (

On the one hand, they said, Moscow’s willingness to allow individuals to declare membership in sub-ethnic communities will mean that the total numbers for the traditional ones will fall. And on the other, the specific way in which citizens must declare their nationality by writing it down will further reduce the numbers of many groups.

Association president Petr Tultayev said that he was very concerned about the impact of both these developments. As a Mordvin, he said, he was concerned that many of his fellow Mordvins would declare themselves members of one or another sub-group or not declare any nationality at all, both of which will cut the numbers of his nation.

And he said he was especially worried that the requirement that individuals must write down their nationality in a census form – the only question where the census requires them to do so – will depress the numbers still further, given that many of the older members of these non-Russian groups either do not speak Russian well or have problems with writing it down.

“I recall my native village and my mother,” he said. “She is a genuine Mordvin-Mokshan. She knows Mordvinian perfectly, but she speaks Russian poorly. More than that, she practically doesn’t write. And because of her age, she does not see very well. There are a lot of such people. And how can they without assistance indicate their nationality?”

This is a situation found not only among Mordvins and other Finno-Ugric groups but also other non-Russian groups as well, he added. And he asks people to imagine the following case: “A census taker comes — You don’t write? Well, then forgive me, we will put you down as a member of ‘others.’” As a result, Tultayev noted, “we can lose a large number of our people.”

The Finno-Ugric leader said that his organization plans to launch a media campaign to explain to members of these nationalities what is at stake and also to call for an amendment to the existing census law so that individuals will have a better chance to ensure that their real national identity is recorded rather than the one some in Moscow may want.

Meanwhile, the news agency reported this past week, a poll has found that while most Russians support the census, about one in ten does not and about one in 20 plans to refuse to take part, yet another way in which the census returns may be less than fully reliable even before they are processed (

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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