Ethnic Russian Share of Population Falling Rapidly in Siberia’s Non-Russian Regions

September 4, 2014
The Buryat flag hoisted over Russian Antarctica by scientist microbiologist Zorigto Namsaraev in 2010. Photo: International Polar Foundation

Staunton, September 3 – While ethnic Russians form roughly the same share of the population of Siberia that they did 20 years ago, they form smaller fractions in five non-Russian territories there, the result of local growth and Russian flight, according to a new study of ethnic challenges to Moscow east of the Urals.

In the new issue of Novyye Issledovaniya Tuvy, Yuri Popkov and Yevgeniy Tyugashev discuss this and other trends they say show that there are a variety of “latent” threats in this sector in Siberia, that these threats must be addressed, and that the government has acted up to now “insufficiently” to solve them.

Ethnic Russians have retained their share of the population of the region since 1989 at a constant 84 percent, but they have lost ground in non-Russian areas and become more concentrated in traditionally ethnic Russian ones, a division that the two scholars suggest could have serious consequences.

(Because the official censuses do not report on this, Popkov and Tyugashev do not discuss the share of ethnic Russians who may now identify as Siberians. If that group numbers as large as some of its supporters maintain, then the share of ethnic Russians has declined even more precipitously not only in the republics but in Siberia as a whole.)

In the republics of the Altay, Buryatia, Tyva and Sakha and in the Chukchi Autonomous District, the share of ethnic Russians in the population as a whole has been in constant decline since the 1970s: 63 percent to 56 percent in the first, 72 to 66 in the second, 32 to 16 in the third, 50 to 38 percent in the fourth, and 69 to 53 in the fifth.

Moreover, the two scholars say, the non-Russians increasing live mainly within the borders of their national territories: 93 percent of Sakha live in Sakha, 94 percent of Tuvans in Tuva, and if one includes the former Buryat autonomies now amalgamated with Irkutsk and Transbaikal, 97 percent of Buryats live within Buryatia.

Consequently, although they have not significantly boosted their share in the total population of the region over the last generation, the non-Russians in many cases form an increasingly large fraction of the populations in their own national territories. That trend in turn, the authors say, is promoting “a positive emotional-psychological field” about the future.

Alongside these processes of territorial concentration and ethnic consolidation, the two authors continue, there are also taking place “processes of national self-definition, ethnic fragmentation, and corrections in ethnic identifications.” In some places, hitherto submerged groups are emerging, and in others, smaller groups are being absorbed by larger ones.

“The potential of ethnic fragmentation in Siberia has not been exhausted,” they argue, noting that “a number of indigenous peoples include within themselves distinctive dialect groups,” a possible indication that some officials may be planning to play on these to weaken the larger groups as they have done elsewhere.

Popkov and Tyugashev note that the demographic growth of many indigenous peoples was behind the parade of sovereignties at the end of Soviet times that led to the republic status of many of them and that as a result of that, “these republics have the constitutional-legal status of sovereign states.”

Not surprisingly, that has manifested itself in a tendency toward ethnocracy, in which representatives of the non-Russian titular nationalities often have a far higher percentage in officialdom than they have in the population, a pattern that can be a source of pride and a source of tension.

In other comments, the authors cite D.D. Nimayev concerning a pattern already important in Buryatia but that may become important elsewhere. The Buryats, he argues, now face a choice between two different but not mutually exclusive paths: “further internationalization mostly within the framework of Russia” and “a ‘Central Asian’ path, with a cultural orientation toward the Mongol and Buddhist worlds.”

And they point out that it is not only the non-Russians who are assimilating. Russians are as well, and there has been “a Buryatization, a Kyrgyzization and a Sakha-ization of ethnic Russians” who constantly live in those republics, something that further complicates the ethnic scene and challenges Moscow’s ability to organize things.