Staunton, October 30 – An article on Lenta.ru this week about the ethnic backgrounds of Russia’s 200 wealthiest businessmen, one that could have been expected to spark anger among Russians at minorities including Jews, has in fact called attention to something else: As in Soviet times, many who call themselves ethnic Russians in fact are members of other nations.
As during most periods of Soviet time, Russian officials have encouraged such re-identifications in order to suggest that the Russian Federation is more Russian than it is. But a close examination of the situation suggests that there are millions of non-Russians who have made such declarations and that Moscow does not in fact know the facts of the case.
Lenta.ru published the ethnic identifications of Russia’s 200 wealthiest businessmen and then compared that to the number of those groups in the Russian population to suggest that while Russians are the most numerous, they are underrepresented on this list while other groups are over-represented).
That article has provoked a strong reaction but one somewhat different than its authors appear to have intended. In an Ekho Moskvy blog post yesterday, Yury Kanner, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, says that the problem with this listing arises from the over-counting of Russians and undercounting of others.
The Forbes listing on which the article depends is “more or less” in order, Kanner says. It suggests that there are 22 different ethnic groups represented in Russia’s 200 wealthiest, with Russians in first place, Jews in second, Ukrainians in third, followed by Tatars, Armenians, Mountain Jews, Azerbaijanis, Ingushes, Chechens, Osetins, and Uzbeks.
But the situation with regard to the census figures the article uses is something else. When he saw them, Kanner says, he remembered “as a former Soviet economist, the Soviet saying that “there are lies, there are naked lies, and there are statistics.”
According to the Lenta.ru article and the Russian census data it uses, there are only 762 Mountain Jews in the Russian Federation. “Excuse me,” Kanner points out, “but in Moscow alone, there are not fewer than 30,000 of them. In Nalchik, there are about 4,000, and in Pyatigorsk and Mineralnye Vody, on the order of 7,000 to 10,000.
When using Russian census data, he continues, one must be very careful, “especially when we are speaking about people of the former USSR, many of whom concealed their nationality and wrote that they are ethnic Russians.” According to his group’s data, there are two million Mountain Jews in Russia. Moreover, two percent of Moscow’s population is Jewish.
Kanner suggests that it is not entirely ethical to talk about the links between wealth and nationality. That is too sensitive an issue. “The single community of the ‘Soviet people’ — and here Lenta is right — has disintegrated.” Instead, there is “a striving for self-determination of small peoples near death and chauvinism of larger ethnoses” which has provoked “religious consciousness and religious fanaticism.”
What is much more interesting to focus on than what Lenta did, Kanner suggests, is to consider “how peoples have adapted in various ways” to the new situation, how peoples who formed 15 countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union have moved in different directions and now live in very different ways.
“It would not be a bad idea to consider the history of business as is done in civilized countries,” Kanner continues. “America studies its elite, the chief representatives of which are Jews and white Protestants,” and its scholars consider the ways in which the values of these communities affect their participation and success in business. In Europe, they do the same.
Doing what Lenta.ru has done, he suggests, is just “another occasion for speculations on a nationality basis,” speculations based on a pastiche of lies and facts. “Yes, in the Forbes list, Jews form 21 percent.” But “this is not the result as Lenta writes of ‘corporative solidarity’ and not ‘a reaction to the beginning of ‘the era of capitalism.’”
Instead, as Kanner points out, this is the result of “the historical integration of Jews in large cities, of their striving to get an education and achieve in the professions and businesses. And from this there is only one possible conclusion: if you want to be rich, live in a big city, get an education, and work as hard as you can.”
Unfortunately, there appears to be little chance that the Putin regime will change course on this issue, insisting as it does that Russia is “Russian.” But that comes with a price: it alienates the increasing share of the population that isn’t rather than being the basis for integration.
And that, more than any autonomous challenge from the minority nationalities of the Russian Federation is Moscow’s first and most important nationality problem, one that threatens inter-ethnic concord in that country and may call into question its territorial integrity sometime in the future.