The separation of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union in 1991 reduced Russia's population by half. And, for the first time since the 16th century Russia became a relatively ethnically homogenous country. In the Soviet Union, Russians made up 50 percent of the population, now they made up 77 percent of it.
Russians are the largest subdivision of Eastern Slavs, a group that also includes Ukrainians and Belarussians. Russians are also sometimes called Russkiy and Velikorusskiy. Formerly they were called the Rus’, or Ross. Among the characteristic common among the eastern Slaves are extended nuclear families, steam-bath culture, long and elaborate weddings, village commune ( mir) tradition and the celebration of certain holidays, notably Easter and Christmas according to Orthodox Christian calendar.
Russians make up 97 percent of the population of the eight oblasts (administrative provinces) in Russia. The make up 90 percent of the population in the areas north of St. Petersburg to Moscow and in the Urals and western Siberia. In the 1980s, about a third of the Russian population lived in the traditional Russian areas, half lived elsewhere in Russia and 17 percent lived in other parts of the Soviet Union.
Many Russian are tall, blond and blue-eyed. They have at least partly descended from Vikings (Norsemen) and Teutonic tribes. Blonde hair is common in Russia and Scandinavia and among some Aborigines in Australia. It was once thought that people with blue eyes could see better in dim light but studies have show people with dark eyes can see just as well.
Russians have been described as being intrinsically a northern people and their heartland remains in northern Russia. Some say Russia has a unique Eurasian or even Asian character. Even Moscow, many Russians refer to themselves as Asians rather than Europeans, and when they say it there is a connotation that somehow Asia is inferior. Among those who scoff at this argument are President Vladimir Putin, who told the New York Times, “ By their mentality and culture, the people of Russia are Europeans.”
History of The Russians
The ethnic group that came to be known as the Russians sprang from the East Slavs, one of the three groups into which the original Slavic people divided sometime before the seventh century A.D. The West Slavs eventually became differentiated as the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks; the South Slavs divided into the Bulgarians, Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes. The East Slavic tribes settled along the Dnepr River in present-day Ukraine in the first centuries A.D. From that region, they then spread northward and eastward. In the ninth century, these tribes constituted the largest part of the population of Kievan Rus', the medieval state ruled by a Varangian dynasty from Scandinavia. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The East Slavs became more politically united in the tenth century when they adopted Christianity as the state religion of Kievan Rus'. Nevertheless, tribal and regional differences were exacerbated in subsequent centuries as the state expanded, bringing the East Slavs into contact with other ethnic groups on their borders. Thus, Baltic and Finno-Ugric tribes mixed with the East Slavs to the northwest and the northeast, respectively. By the time the state of Kievan Rus' began disintegrating into independent principalities in the twelfth century, the East Slavs had begun to evolve into three peoples with distinct linguistic and cultural characteristics: the Russians to the north and northeast of Kiev, the Belorussians to the northwest of Kiev, and the Ukrainians in the Kiev region and to its south and southwest. In the thirteenth century, the invasion of the Mongols brought the final collapse of Kievan Rus' as a political entity, accelerating differentiation and consolidation of the three ethnic groups. Although the three groups remained related culturally, linguistically, and religiously, each of them also was influenced by different political, economic, religious, and social developments that further separated them. *
Building a state of increasing vitality as the Mongol occupation weakened in the fourteenth century, the principality of Muscovy became the base from which the Russian cultural and political systems expanded under a series of strong rulers. By the end of the nineteenth century, Russians had settled the remote stretches of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean and colonized Central Asia and the Caucasus, becoming in the process the most numerous and ubiquitous of the Slavic peoples. *
Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Background of Russia
The Russian state has emerged from the Soviet era dominated by an ethnic group, the Russians, whose language prevails in most educational and government institutions, and a religion, Russian Orthodoxy, that is professed by the vast majority of those citizens who admit to a religious preference. In some respects, Russia's relative homogeneity in language and religion is the result of the uniformity imposed by Soviet rule. As they had in the centuries of tsarist rule, Russians continued in the twentieth century to occupy a percentage of governing positions disproportionate even to their lopsided ethnic majority. Enforced use of the Russian language was a chief means of preserving Moscow's authority in the far-flung regions of the Russian Republic, as it was in the other fourteen Soviet republics. Although it was not spared the persecution meted out to all faiths practiced in the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodoxy retained its preeminence among religiously observant Russians throughout the seven decades of officially prescribed atheism. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In the 1990s, Russians continue to constitute the largest ethnic group in all but a handful of the Russian Federation's nominally ethnic republics, but leaders in many of the republics and smaller ethnic jurisdictions have pressed the central government to grant measures of autonomy and other concessions in the name of indigenous groups. The breakaway Republic of Chechnya has taken the process to its furthest extreme, but in the mid-1990s other republics--in the North Caucasus, Siberia, and the Volga and Ural regions--were pushing hard to achieve the local autonomy to which Soviet governments had only paid lip service. *
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church, long forced to rubber-stamp the cultural decisions of Soviet governments, has moved rapidly in the 1990s toward a more balanced partnership in the governance of Russia's spiritual and secular life. Post-Soviet Western influences have brought new variety to the spectrum of religious practice, but the loyalty to Orthodoxy of average Russians and of the Russian government has become clear as the church has added millions of professed believers in the 1990s and the government has sought church advice on many critical decisions. This renewed alliance has posed a challenge to the freedom of religion nominally guaranteed in the 1993 constitution. *
The issue of language diversity has risen in parallel with issues of local sovereignty. The Russian language retains its traditional dominance in official communications and in the education system; however, the increasing unofficial use of the federation's many minority languages shows that they survived Soviet repression with the capacity to flourish anew as the central government's power has diminished. *
Slavs in Russia
Many ethnically diverse peoples migrated into what is now eastern Russia, the East Slavs remained and gradually became dominant. Early Slavs were agriculturists and beekeepers as well as hunters, fishers, herders, and trappers. By A.D. 600, the Slavs were the dominant ethnic group on the East European Plain. Kievan Rus', the first East Slavic state, emerged in the ninth century A.D. and developed a complex and frequently unstable political system that flourished until the thirteenth century, when it declined abruptly. Among the lasting achievements of Kievan Rus' are the introduction of a Slavic variant of the Eastern Orthodox religion and a synthesis of Byzantine and Slavic cultures. The disintegration of Kievan Rus' played a crucial role in the evolution of the East Slavs into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The Slavs moved east in Russia and found Finno-Ugrics and Baltic tribes living scattered in the forest and forced these people to the far north. Later the Slavs established themselves in northern steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine. They were still moving eastward towards Siberia in the 9th century.
The Slavs withstood invasions by the Goths from Germany and Sweden and the Huns from Central Asia in the 3rd and 4th centuries. By the 7th centuries they had established villages all along the major rivers of what is now eastern Russia. In the early Middle Ages, the Slavs lived between the Viking kingdoms in Scandinavia, the Holy Roman Empire in Germany, the Byzantines in Turkey and the Mongol and Turkish tribes in Central Asia.
Origin of the Slavs
It said the word “”slav” is derived from the Latin and Greek words for slave. Slavs are divided into three main groups: 1) Western Slavs (chiefly Poles, Czechs and Slovaks); 2) Southern Slavs (mainly people from Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia): 3) Eastern Slavs (primarily Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians).
Little is known of the origin of the Slavs. Slavs inhabited areas of east cental Europe in prehistoric times and reached most of their present limits by 850. Pagan Slavic tribes migrated from what is now Russia into the southern Balkans more than a thousand years ago and overran Christian communities founded by Roman colonists.
Philologists and archaeologists theorize that the Slavs settled very early in the Carpathian Mountains or in the area of present-day Belarus. By A.D. 600, they had split linguistically into southern, western, and eastern branches. The East Slavs settled along the Dnepr River in what is now Ukraine; then they spread northward to the northern Volga River valley, east of modern-day Moscow, and westward to the basins of the northern Dnestr and the western Bug rivers, in present-day Moldova and southern Ukraine. In the eighth and ninth centuries, many East Slavic tribes paid tribute to the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people who adopted Judaism about A.D. 740 and lived in the southern Volga and Caucasus regions. *
The Slavs later adopted Christianity. They were dispersed and hurt by invasions of horsemen like the Huns, Mongols and Turks. First Slavic states were the Turk-Slav Bulgarian Empire (680-1018) and Monrovia (863, christianized by missions of St. Cyril in 86) and the Turkish-Jewish Khazar trading empire (7th-10th century). Poland began with King Boleslav I (992-1025). Kieven state accepted Christianity under Prince Vladamir in 989. Some Slav groups like Wends, Bohemians and Dalmatians lost their sovereignty.
Slavs and Slavery
Germanic tribes enslaved their Slavic neighbors. Some say this custom gave birth to the terms "slave" and "slavery," both derived from Slav. Slavery never really caught in Europe because Christians were not allowed to enslave other Christians and peasants and serfs proved to be more efficient than slaves in European agriculture.
According to “Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus”, edited by Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries: “ The derivation of the word slave encapsulates a bit of European history and explains why the two words slaves and Slavs are so similar; they are, in fact, historically identical. The word slave first appears in English around 1290, spelled sclave. The spelling is based on Old French esclave from Medieval Latin sclavus, “Slav, slave,” first recorded around 800. Sclavus comes from Byzantine Greek sklabos (pronounced sklävs) “Slav,” which appears around 580. Sklavos approximates the Slavs' own name for themselves, the Slovnci, surviving in English Slovene and Slovenian.
“The spelling of English slave, closer to its original Slavic form, first appears in English in 1538. Slavs became slaves around the beginning of the ninth century when the Holy Roman Empire tried to stabilize a German-Slav frontier. By the 12th century stabilization had given way to wars of expansion and extermination that did not end until the Poles crushed the Teutonic Knights at Grunwald in 1410. As far as the Slavs' own self-designation goes, its meaning is, understandably, better than “slave” it comes from the Indo-European root *kleu-, whose basic meaning is “to hear” and occurs in many derivatives meaning “renown, fame.” The Slavs are thus “the famous people.” Slavic names ending in -slav incorporate the same word, such as Czech Bohu-slav, “God's fame,” Russian Msti-slav, “vengeful fame,” and Polish Stani-slaw, “famous for withstanding (enemies).”
Ethnic Diversity in Russia
Russian Federation remains an amalgam of widely varying ethnic groups and cultures. In fact, the differentiation among groups has increased since the demise of the Soviet Union. The much less repressive grasp of Russia's central government has encouraged both cultural and political autonomy, although ethnic Russians constitute about 80 percent of the population and about 75 percent of religious believers are Russian Orthodox. Many minority groups maintain their ethnic traditions, continue wide use of their languages, and demand economic and political autonomy partially based on ethnic differences. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Ethnic groups: Russian 77.7 percent, Tatar 3.7 percent, Ukrainian 1.4 percent, Bashkir 1.1 percent, Chuvash 1 percent, Chechen 1 percent, other 10.2 percent, unspecified 3.9 percent. Russians made up around 82 percent of the population in the the mid 1990s. More than 190 ethnic groups were presents in Russia's 2010 census. Languages: Russian (official) 96.3 percent, Dolgang 5.3 percent, German 1.5 percent, Chechen 1 percent, Tatar 3 percent, other 10.3 percent. The total adds up to more than 100 percent because some respondents gave more than one answer on the census (2010 est.). Religions: (estimates are of practicing worshipers): Russian Orthodox 15-20 percent, Muslim 10-15 percent, other Christian 2 percent (2006 est.) Russia has large populations of non-practicing believers and non-believers, a legacy of over seven decades of Soviet rule. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]
Russians make up slightly more than three fourths percent of the population of the Russian Federation, and they dominate virtually all regions of the country except for the North Caucasus and parts of the middle Volga region. The major ethnic minorities are Tatars (3.8 percent), Ukrainians (3.0 percent), Chuvash (1.2 percent), Bashkirs (0.9 percent), Belarusians (0.8 percent), and Mordovians (0.7 percent). *
The total population of the twenty-one ethnic republics, all designated for one or more of the minority groups in the federation, was about 24 million. However, only in eight of the republics was the population of the titular group (or groups, in the case of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia) larger than the population of Russians, and Russians constitute more than half the population in nine republics. One other ethnic jurisdiction, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region in the West Siberian Plain, has a population of more than 1 million; however, two-thirds of the autonomous region's population are Russian settlers, and the Khanty and Mansi, the tribes for which the region is named, together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. *
In the 1990s, Islam, which has the second largest body of religious believers in Russia, has prospered among many of the ethnic groups. The Russian Orthodox Church also has experienced a renaissance after emerging from Soviet repression; the church's membership, secular influence, and infrastructure expanded rapidly in the 1990s. *
Ethnic Composition of Russia
Russia is a multinational state that has inherited many of the nationality problems that plagued the Soviet Union. The last official Soviet census, conducted in 1989, listed more than 100 nationalities. Several of those groups now predominantly inhabit the independent nations that formerly were Soviet republics. However, the Russian Federation--the most direct successor to the Soviet Union--still is home to more than 100 national minorities, whose members coexist uneasily with the numerically and politically predominant Russians. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Besides the Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians), who account for about 85 percent of Russia's population, three main ethnic groups and a handful of isolated smaller groups reside within the federation. The Altaic group includes mainly speakers of Turkic languages widely distributed in the middle Volga, the southern Ural Mountains, the North Caucasus, and above the Arctic Circle. The main Altaic peoples in Russia are the Balkars, Bashkirs, Buryats, Chuvash, Dolgans, Evenks, Kalmyks, Karachay, Kumyks, Nogay, and Yakuts. The Uralic group, consisting of Finnic peoples living in the upper Volga, the far northwest, and the Urals, includes the Karelians, Komi, Mari, Mordovians, and Udmurts. The Caucasus group is concentrated along the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains; its main subgroups are the Adyghs, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush, and Kabardins, as well as about thirty Caucasus peoples collectively classified as Dagestani. *
In the Soviet Union, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) contained thirty-one autonomous, ethnically based administrative units. When the Russian Federation proclaimed its sovereignty in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in late 1991, many of those entities also declared their sovereignty. Of the thirty-one, sixteen were autonomous republics, five were autonomous oblasts (provinces), and ten were autonomous regions (okruga ; sing., okrug ), which were part of larger subnational jurisdictions. During the Soviet era, the autonomy referred to in these jurisdictions' official titles was more fictitious than real--the executive committees that administered the jurisdictions had no decision-making authority. All major administrative tasks were performed by the central government or, in the case of some social services, by industrial enterprises in the area. In postcommunist Russia, however, many of the autonomous areas have staked claims to more meaningful sovereignty as the numerically superior Russians continue to dominate the center of power in Moscow. Even in the many regions where Russians are in the majority, such claims have been made in the name of the indigenous ethnic group or groups. *
According to the 1989 Soviet census, Russians constituted 81.5 percent of the population of what is now the Russian Federation. The next-largest groups were Tatars (3.8 percent), Ukrainians (3.0 percent), Chuvash (1.2 percent), Bashkirs (0.9 percent), Belorussians (0.8 percent), and Mordovians (0.7 percent). Other groups totaling more than 0.5 percent of the population each were Armenians, Avars, Chechens, Germans, Jews, Kazaks, Mari, and Udmurts. In 1992 an estimated 7.8 million people native to the other fourteen former Soviet republics were living in Russia.
Minority Peoples and Their Territories
With a few changes in status in the post-World War II period, the autonomous republics, autonomous oblasts, and autonomous regions of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic retained the classifications assigned to them in the 1920s or 1930s. In all cases, the postcommunist Russian government officially changed the term "autonomous republic" to "republic" in 1992. According to the 1989 Soviet census, in only fifteen of the thirty-one ethnically designated republics and autonomous regions were the "indigenous" people the largest group. Of the twenty-one republics existing in Russia in the mid-1990s, nine fell into this category, with the smallest percentages of Russians in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia. Each region designated by ethnic group is home to the majority of Russia's population of that group. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
The border-drawing process that occurred in tsarist times and in the first decades of Soviet rule sometimes divided rather than united ethnic populations. The Buryats of southern Siberia, for example, were divided among the Buryat Autonomous Republic and Chita and Irkutsk oblasts, which were created to the east and west of the republic, respectively; that population division remains in the post-Soviet era. By contrast, the Chechens and Ingush were united in a single republic until 1992, and smaller groups such as the Khanty and the Mansi were grouped together in single autonomous regions. *
Of the sixteen autonomous republics that existed in Russia at the time of the Soviet Union's breakup, one (the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic) split into two in 1992, with Chechnya subsequently declaring full independence as the Republic of Chechnya and with Ingushetia gaining recognition as a separate republic of the Russian Federation. Three Soviet-era autonomous oblasts (Gorno-Altay, Adygea, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia) were granted republic status under the Federation Treaty of 1992, which established the respective powers of the central and republic governments. Two republics, Chechnya and Tatarstan, did not sign the treaty at that time. Most provisions of the Federation Treaty were overtaken by provisions of the 1993 constitution or by subsequent bilateral agreements between the central government and the republics. *
After the changes of the immediate post-Soviet years, twenty-one nationality-based republics existed in the Russian Federation and were recognized in the constitution of 1993. They are Adygea, Bashkortostan, Buryatia, Chechnya, Chuvashia, Dagestan, Gorno-Altay, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Karelia, Khakassia, Komi, Mari El, Mordovia, North Ossetia, Sakha (Yakutia), Tatarstan, Tyva (Tuva), and Udmurtia. *
Besides the republics, the constitution recognizes ten autonomous regions, whose status, like that of the republics, is based on the presence of one or two ethnic groups. These jurisdictions typically are sparsely populated, rich in natural resources, and inclined to seek independence from the larger units to which they belong. The existence and configuration of Russia's other jurisdictions are determined by geographical or political factors rather than ethnicity. The ten autonomous regions are the Aga Buryat, Chukchi, Evenk, Khanty-Mansi, Koryak, Nenets, Permyak, Taymyr, Ust'-Orda Buryat, and Yamalo-Nenets autonomous regions. A Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast', now known as Birobidzhan) was established in 1934. Russians are the majority of the population in all but the Aga Buryat Autonomous Region (whose population is 55 percent Buryats) and the Permyak Autonomous Region (whose population is 60 percent Komi-Permyak, one of the three subgroups of the Komi people). More typical is the Evenk Autonomous Region in Siberia west of the Republic of Sakha, where the Evenks are outnumbered by Russians 17,000 to 3,000. In fact, the Evenks, originally a nomadic and clan-based group whose society was nearly destroyed by Soviet collectivization in the 1930s, are among the indigenous peoples of Russia whose survival experts fear is endangered. *
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016