Russia Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Setting
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
THE RUSSIAN STATE HAS EMERGED from the Soviet era dominated by an ethnic group, the Russians, whose language prevails in most educational and government institutions, and a religion, Russian Orthodoxy, that is professed by the vast majority of those citizens who admit to a religious preference. In some respects, Russia's relative homogeneity in language and religion is the result of the uniformity imposed by Soviet rule. As they had in the centuries of tsarist rule, Russians continued in the twentieth century to occupy a percentage of governing positions disproportionate even to their lopsided ethnic majority. Enforced use of the Russian language was a chief means of preserving Moscow's authority in the far-flung regions of the Russian Republic, as it was in the other fourteen Soviet republics. Although it was not spared the persecution meted out to all faiths practiced in the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodoxy retained its preeminence among religiously observant Russians throughout the seven decades of officially prescribed atheism.
In the 1990s, Russians continue to constitute the largest ethnic group in all but a handful of the Russian Federation's nominally ethnic republics, but leaders in many of the republics and smaller ethnic jurisdictions have pressed the central government to grant measures of autonomy and other concessions in the name of indigenous groups. The breakaway Republic of Chechnya has taken the process to its furthest extreme, but in the mid-1990s other republics--in the North Caucasus, Siberia, and the Volga and Ural regions--were pushing hard to achieve the local autonomy to which Soviet governments had only paid lip service.
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church, long forced to rubber-stamp the cultural decisions of Soviet governments, has moved rapidly in the 1990s toward a more balanced partnership in the governance of Russia's spiritual and secular life. Post-Soviet Western influences have brought new variety to the spectrum of religious practice, but the loyalty to Orthodoxy of average Russians and of the Russian government has become clear as the church has added millions of professed believers in the 1990s and the government has sought church advice on many critical decisions. This renewed alliance has posed a challenge to the freedom of religion nominally guaranteed in the 1993 constitution.
The issue of language diversity has risen in parallel with issues of local sovereignty. The Russian language retains its traditional dominance in official communications and in the education system; however, the increasing unofficial use of the federation's many minority languages shows that they survived Soviet repression with the capacity to flourish anew as the central government's power has diminished.
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 (see table 8, Appendix).
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 (see Minority Peoples and Their Territories, this ch.).
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 (see The Federation Treaty and Regional Power, ch. 7). 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.
Data as of July 1996
NOTE: The information regarding Russia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Russia Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Russia Ethnic, Religious, and Cultural Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.