Letters from Abroad

Diverse Russia

Many Americans are surprised to hear that Russians say that their country is very multi-ethnic. For many Americans, most think of a Russian person as fair-skinned and Slavic, but those are not the only people that live within Russia’s massive borders.

To dispel some confusion from the start, most Americans are not wrong to think that a “Russian person” is fair-skinned and Slavic. In Russia, there is a linguistic distinction between a Russian citizen (россияне, rossiyane) and a person with Russian ethnicity (русский, russki). Not all Russian citizens are ethnically Russian and not all ethnic Russians are Russian citizens. There are sizeable ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltics, Ukraine, the Caucuses and Central Asia. It is also important to keep in mind where Russians came from historically. The origin of the Rus tribe is a point of historical contention, but most ethnically Russian people have some Slavic roots and some Mongolian roots (the Mongolian invasion heavily affected Russia and the surrounding areas).

So, who are these minorities within Russia? The biggest of these minorities are Tatars, who make up around 3% of Russia’s population. Tatars are a Mongol-Turkic fusion, who speak a Turkic language (Tatar), completely unrelated to Slavic languages like Russian. Tatars are mostly Muslim and have a semi-autonomous republic, Tatarstan, where the majority of inhabitants are ethnically Tatar. The next biggest minority is Ukrainians at around 1.5% of the population. The Ukrainian ethnicity is always a contentious subject with Russians who consider Ukraine as a historical part of Russia. The Bashkirs, Chuvashs and Chechens each claim at least 1% of the Russian population. Then, there are over a 150 ethnic groups that claim less than 1% of the total Russian population (but still a sizeable portion of the population as a whole). These ethnic groups are made up of the familiar (Armenians, Roma, Jews), the less-heard-of (Ingush, Rutuls, Veps), and the less-thought-of (Eskimo, Vietnamese, Germans). Many of these ethnic groups are concentrated in specific areas of Russia and certain towns inhabitants are entirely one ethnicity. To make things more interesting with ethnicities, Russian citizens are allowed to declare any ethnicity that they would like. This leads to people declaring odd things like “Jedi, hobbits, and Martians.”

Another thing to keep in mind with minorities is the amount of undocumented or guest workers in Russia. Much like America, many low-paying jobs are worked by undocumented and unregistered workers. Many of them are from Central Asia, south of Russia’s border (making the U.S.-Mexico parallel even stronger). Because most of these workers are not included in census data, the amount of Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, etc. living in Russia could be far higher than the census data suggests. Some estimates put the amount of illegal immigrants in Russia at around 10-12 million.

While Russia still has vastly more ethnic Russians (around 80%) than they do other ethnicities, Russia is not nearly as homogenous as many Americans imagine. Russia is the largest country in the world and a product of its enormity is the many ethnicities, religions and cultures that now reside within its borders.