Each of the many nationalities of Russia has a separate history and complex origins. The historical origins of the Russian state, however, are chiefly those of the East Slavs, the ethnic group that evolved into the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian peoples. The major pre-Soviet states of the East Slavs were, in chronological order, medieval Kievan Rus', Muscovy, and the Russian Empire. Three other states — Poland, Lithuania, and the Mongol Empire — also played crucial roles in the historical development of Russia. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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 *]

In the 14th and 15th centuries Russians spread out to south and east, occupying the Don region, the northern Black Sea coast, the valley of the Terek River and parts of the Caucasus and Siberia, in the process absorbing many Finnish-speaking and Turkic-speaking ethnic groups. As they spread southward their culture was absorbed by the Ukrainians and other groups.

The Mongol occupation, which lasted until 1480, had a profound impact on what became Russia. It provided the conditions for a new state and brought Mongols, Mongol-like people and ethnic groups from the elsewhere Mongol empire, which at its height stretched from Burma to Hungary, and encompassed nearly all of Asia and Russia, much of the Middle East, and parts of Europe.

Moscow historians have traditionally claimed that the Russians were joined by other ethnic groups to overthrow the Mongols in 1552 and these groups voluntarily sought inclusion in the Russian Empire which was able to expand greatly by adding their territory after the Mongol conquest. But this was not the case. The ethnic groups for the most part did not want to join Russia.

Between 1582 and the 19th century, Russia swallowed up dozens of non-Slavic people, many of whom retained their original language and cultural identity. The Russians confiscated land and banned many cultural and religious traditions. People with strong ethnic identity were forced to practice their customs in secret. Many Siberian, Far Eastern and Arctic tribes were devastated by small pox and other diseases introduced by Russian explorers. Many groups intermarried with Russians and other ethnic groups.

Minorities in the Soviet Era

During the Soviet period, people were taught that ethnic pride was a bad thing and told that their traditional beliefs and customs were backward. The Soviet government made a great effort to bring schools and health facilities to the minorities. Many groups with no written languages were given one, written in Cyrillic, and were taught Russian and in many cases given instruction in other subjects in their own language. People that were illiterate became literate.

Under the Soviet government, people were distinguished on the basis of ethnicity rather than religion and the identities of Russia's ethnic groups were threatened by Russification and collectivization. Their territories were exploited by for agriculture, industry and resources. "National" culture was "encouraged within very tight limits" with the goal being to display the bonding of many cultures under Socialism. Minorities were required to carry internal passport that had their ethnic group and/or religion identified on it.

Ethnic Regions and Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

There are 21 semi-autonomous ethnic regions states within Russia. They were established to provide a semi-autonomous state (in name at least) for the ethnic groups they have been named after. In many cases the ethnic group the republic is named after is minority in their own state because many outsiders—particularly Russians—have moved in.

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states. Some of the most creative gerrymandering was done where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet (See Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Under Central Asia).

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Volga Tartars, Germans and Cossacks, among others, have lobbied through history for the creation of ethnic states within the Russian empire. One American State Department official told the New York Times, “If you are Russian and you look at the map, what you see is that most of the country isn’t yours. The psychological consequences are enormous. It’s as if American had honored all the Indian treaties and everything from the Mississippi to the Pacific was an Indian reservation.”

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “The Soviet authorities attempted to shape ethnic identities throughout the USSR, and in Central Asia there were particular difficulties as most people here did not see their primary identities at the ethnic or national level. As part of the Soviet process, languages were standardised, traditions codified, pre-existing sub-ethnic identities (for example, tribe or city) were suppressed (for instance, by being removed as an option in the official census), privileges were granted or denied based on ethnic identity, and many people found that they were outside the borders of their titular republic (for example, ethnic Uzbeks inside Tajikistan). Despite the continuing rhetoric that the divisions between nationalities (that is, ethnic groups) would eventually disappear and give way to a unified people, ethnic identities continued to be strongly promoted in the Soviet republics... There were, however, also divisions within the ethnic groups.For Tajiks, there was the reality that ethnic Tajiks from different regions had obvious differences in dialect and in many other aspects of their culture.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

Mass Deportations of Ethnic Groups

A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin rounded up all the ethnic Germans in 1941 and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 900,00 0 people were deported. They rounded up a transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

As for the Greeks, initially they prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory. Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

Mass Deportations of Chechens

In 1936 Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1943, when Nazi forces reached the gates of the Chechen capital, Groznyy, Chechen separatists staged a rebellion against Russian rule. In response, the next year Stalin deported more than 1 million Chechens, Ingush, and other North Caucasian peoples to Siberia and Central Asia on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. The remaining Muslim people of the Chechnya region were resettled among neighboring Christian communities. Stalin's genocidal policy virtually erased Chechnya from the map,

Some Chechens and Ingush had collaborated with the Nazi who occupied the northern Caucasus briefly from later 1942 to early 1943 but less of them did than Ukrainians and Byelorussians were not similarly persecuted. No Chechens or Ingush were spared, even those who fought for the red Army on the German front. A third of the population of Chechnya is believed to have died from suffocation, hunger, disease and cold. It was clear the goal was to eliminate Chechnya and the Chechens. Chechnya was divided among its neighbors. Mapmakers and historians were instructed to remove all references to Chechnya and Chechens from maps, textbooks and reference books.

The carefully prepared operation began on February 22, 1944, towards the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were packed into cattle cars in trains in the dead of winter and taken on a three week journey for "resettlement" in desolate steppes in Kazakhstan. Many Chechens regard the operation as an act of genocide.

The operation was organized by the Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police. In a memo he wrote: "The eviction of the Chechens and Ingush is proceeding normally: 342,647 people were loaded onto trains February 25 and by February 29] the number had risen to 478,479 of whom 91,250 were Ingush and 387,229 were Chechens...The operation proceeded in an organized fashion, with no serious instances or resistance, or other incidents. There were only isolated cases of attempted flights."

As many as a third of the Chechens died in transit. According to one memo only 12,000 railway carriages were used instead of the planned 15,000 because of "compressed cargo" and large numbers of children were shipped because they took up less space.

Deportation of the Germans in the 1930s and 40s

In the 1930s a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.”

In 1941 after Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin regarded the Germans living in Russia and the Ukraine as a threat and had them all deported to Siberia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin ordered the deportation of nearly 900,000 Germans. They were rounded up and transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

There were also hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war that were stranded in the Soviet Union after World War II. German remained in the Soviet Union after the war but most returned to Germany in the decades that followed.

Korean Mass Deportation

Many of the Koreans in Central Asia are descendants of 182,000 Koreans that were forcibly deported by Stalin from Vladivostok to Central Asia in 1937 because Stalin feared they would spy against the Russians for the Japanese, who had just invaded Manchuria. Ironically many of the Koreans that were deported had escaped from Japanese labor camps and hated the Japanese. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia “edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

The Koreans taken to Central Asia are known as "Coreisk." In keeping with Stalin’s orders many of the Koreans were rounded up on a single night, September 9, 1937 and loaded in freight cars for a 5,000 mile, two-week journey to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The whole relocation process was completed by December. According to the report of Nikolai Yezhov, 36,442 Korean families totalling 171,781 persons were deported by October 1937.

An estimated 15,000 Koreans died during the migration. Many of those who died during the journey were children and elderly people who perished from hunger, severe cold and diseases. Other nationalities that suffered a similar fate included the Greeks, Tatars, Chechens and Volga Germans.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan

The Tatars were settled in communities under tight supervision. They were prohibited from traveling or publishing in their language. One woman told the Washington Post, “In Uzbekistan, Tatars are being turned into Uzbeks and Russians. We're losing our languages, our culture and identity.”

The Tatars first lived in concrete huts set up on the steppes. Over time they built proper houses. After Stalin died, other groups were allowed to return to their homelands, but not the Tatars. Some historians believe this was because that Tatars might stir up anti-Soviet activity among other Muslim groups. Other historians have said the Soviet’s simply wanted the Tatars land and firmer grasp on the strategically important Crimean peninsula.

Back in the Crimea, Russians had moved into Tatars houses and farmed Tatar land and destroyed Tatar mosques and cemeteries. The Crimea was developed into an important military zone and a playground for the Soviet elite. In 1946, the Crimean Tatars ceased to officially exist as a distinct ethnic group, instead they were grouped in the broad Tatar category.

Return of the Crimean Tatars

In the 1960s, the Crimean Tatars began what was described as the most persistent campaign of dissent under Soviet rule. They overwhelmed the Kremlin with petitions that called for apology for what happened to them and for the right to return to their homes in the Crimea. In 1967, the Kremlin issued a decree exonerating the Tatars of allegedly treason. The decree didn't end the petition drive and demonstrations.

With the arrival of glasnost under Gorbachev, Tatars started returning to their homeland with their families in the late 1980s, with the pace picking up in the 1990s after break up of the Soviet Union. About half of the 500,000 Crimean Tatars that lived in Central Asia returned to the Crimea. Many of them lived around Simferopol and Bakhchysaray (the last capital of Crimean Tatarstan). More would have liked to move but couldn't afford it.

Inevitably the Tatars found their old houses occupied by Russians who were unwilling to give them up, and thus the Tatars were forced to build new ones. Authorities denied them land. They squatted and built houses. These were bulldozed. Mass protests ultimately pressured authorities to allow them to stay.

Minorities in the Post-Soviet Era

Since break up of the Soviet Union, there has been a reawakening of ethnic pride and revival of traditional beliefs and customs. But the going has been tough because overcoming the Soviet mind set and bring backing forgotten customs has been hard. At the same time ethnic intolerance has increased steadily in the Russian population; in the early 2000s, more than 50 percent of respondents in polls consistently advocated strong restrictions or expulsion of ethnic minorities. New internal passport no longer nationality or ethnic group.

In the mid-1990s, the relationship of Russia's central government to its regional jurisdictions remains tentative; the Yeltsin administration's failure to contain separatist movements was a favorite target of the president's nationalist critics. The Yeltsin government's policy toward separatism grew from the theory that compromises made with individual ethnic groups would satisfy the need to express national identity. Such an approach rested on the proposition that the diverse inhabitants of the Russian Federation ultimately would identify closely enough with the federation to ensure its continuing territorial integrity, and that centrifugal impulses would not lead Russia to the fate suffered by the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Some Indigenous nationalities have suffered greatly since the break up of the Soviet Union. The Evenks and the Nenets have suffered catastrophic declines in life expectancy and high rates of sickness and death that have prompted speculation that some of those groups may become extinct. Geographically, the lowest average life expectancy in Russia is in the Siberian Republic of Tyva, and the highest figures are in the Caucasus Republic of Dagestan and in the Volga region.[Source: Library of Congress]

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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