Russia is very socially and culturally heterogeneous. Of the 130 or so ethnic groups and nationalities in the Soviet Union, about of 100 of them can be found in significant numbers in present-day Russia. In a speech in a synagogue, Putin said, "Every person and every ethnic group has been adding the colors of their own discovered, energy and talent to the palette of common culture.”

Russia is seen more as a “fragmented pot” than a “melting pot.” Russians make a clear distinction between ethnicity and nationality. Most white Slavic Russians believe is no such thing as Tatar Russian, Chechen Russian or Afro-Russian. The definition of who and who is not Russian is also a complex question.

The ethnic groups of Russia and the former Soviet Union can roughly be divided into four groups: 1) the European groups, dominated by Slavs, but also including Tatar and Uralic minorities; 2) te Central Asian groups, which are dominated by Turkic-Muslim groups like Kazakhs and Uzbeks; 3) the Siberian groups, which includes Slavic immigrants and variety of indigenous groups; and 4) groups in Caucasus, one the world’s most ethnically diverse areas. [Source: “ Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

All Russians have some kind of ethnic mix. Historian James Billington said, "Russia in that sense is kind of like America—a very different history, very different development, but they're similar in the sense that it's kind of a wide civilization rather just a country. It's a multicultural; its absorbed all kind of different cultural strains and ethnic groups; and yet they have a very strong sense of national identity as we do."

The Handbook of Major Soviet Nationalities , edited by Zev Katz, is a somewhat dated but detailed listing of ethnic groups. National Identity and Ethnicity in Russia and the New States of Eurasia , edited by Roman Szporluk, provides a discussion of the unique viewpoints of all the major ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union, including those remaining in the Russian Federation. In Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union , Shirin Akiner lists and describes all the Islamic ethnic groups in that category; that book is supplemented by Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide by Alexandre Bennigsen, Marie Broxup, and S. Enders Wimbush. Religion as an ongoing element of Russian culture is described in Russian Culture in Modern Times , edited by Robert P. Hughes and Irina Paperno; Michael Bourdeaux discusses religion in post-Soviet Russia in The Politics of Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia . The evolution of Russian literature is discussed in the introductions and explanatory texts of anthologies such as Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales , edited by Serge A. Zenkovsky, and The Literature of Eighteenth-Century Russia , edited by Harold B. Segel, and in Marc Slonim's The Epic of Russian Literature from Its Roots Through Tolstoy and Edward J. Brown's Russian Literature since the Revolution . [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

Different Ethnic Groups in Russia

More than 190 ethnic groups were present in Russia's 2010 census. 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.

Ethnic groups in Russia: 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. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

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.). Approximately 100 other languages are spoken. 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. =

According to the 2002 census, Russians made up 80 percent of the population and Tatars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chuvash, Chechens, and Armenians, each of which accounted for at least 1 million residents. According to 1989 census, Russian made up 81.5 percent of the population, followed by Tatars 3.8 percent, Ukrainians 3.0 percent, Chuvash 1.2 percent, Bashkir 0.9 percent, Belorussian 0.8 percent, Mordovian 0.7 percent, and other 8.1 percent. [Source: Library of Congress]

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 *]

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 post-communist 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. *

More Ethnic Autonomy for the Minority States

Ethnic tensions in Russia have resulted from groups trying to gain more control over their homelands by reducing the power of the Russians. Russian President Putin once claimed there were as many as 2,000 potential ethnic conflicts in Russia and “if we don’t do anything about them, they could provide a flare-up instantaneously.”

As the ties of nationalism have broken down after the break up of the Soviet Union, clan and ethnic bonds have reasserted themselves and calls for independence have resulted in violence, terrorism and warfare in some places. After Soviet break up, Several ethnically based republics—including Tuva and Tatarstan—declared themselves sovereign and were practically self-governing. The Chechens declared independence from Russia. Armed rebellions and ethnic riots broke out. Most of these were in the Caucasus region, Central Asia and Moldova.

Putin’s solution to Russia’s ethnic problem was less autonomy and less democracy and more state control to keep the groups from fighting one another and threatening Russian rule. Under his watch Russia’s ethnic regions have came under more control from the Russian state. Their leaders have been selected by the Kremlin since the mid 2000s.

Theoretically, the secession of one component of the Russian Federation could have encouraged the movement of others in an irrational but uncontrollable domino effect. On the one hand, Russia's inability to reverse secession despite the deployment of a large-scale force in Chechnya was cited by experts as an inducement to other national units to break away. On the other hand, the fact that no minority ethnic group constitutes more than 4 percent of the federation's population militated against breakaway jurisdictions attaining the critical mass and political leverage needed to secede and function successfully as independent nations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In many respects, Russia's ethnic republics, many of which lie deep within the boundaries of the federation, remain heavily dependent on the center, especially in economic matters. For example, under the conditions of the mid-1990s, Tatarstan's oil cannot be processed or transported to the outside world without the utilization of facilities lying outside its borders, in Russia proper. Thus, the threat of secession has now been established as a bargaining chip in the struggle with the central government for political and economic advantage, but it is a threat of limited practical value. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); 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.

Last updated May 2016

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