November 01, 2002

Who Are the Russians?

Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of sheer geographic space. But who are the people who live in this huge country? As it turns out, the question is not an easy one to answer.

The citizens of Russia are termed Rossiiane. However, not all Russian citizens are ethnic Russians – russkiye. It is true that ethnic Russians are in the majority, an estimated 82% of the population today. But there are significant numbers of other ethnic or national groups in Russia too: Tatars, Chechens, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Armenians, Finns, Germans, Jews, Buriats, Bashkirs, and many others. Currently there are over 100 different ethnic or national groups in Russia. Russia is thus a land of great ethnic diversity. Complicating matters further is the fact that, in past generations, large numbers of people from these various minority groups have assimilated, that is, they have taken on ethnic Russian identity. For example, in late tsarist times it was possible for Jews to become ethnic Russians by being baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. Some non-ethnic Russians married ethnic Russians and brought their children up as ethnic Russians. Some non-ethnic Russians simply russified their names. And so on. All this means that many people who call themselves ethnic Russians today have mixed ethnic ancestry. As a southern Russian proverb has it: Papa turok, Mama grek, a ya russky chelovek (Papa is a Turk, Mama is a Greek, but I’m a Russian).

Many famous Russians are of mixed ethnic background. Poet Aleksandr Pushkin descended from a German on his father’s side and an Ethiopian on his mother’s side. General Mikhail Kutuzov was of German ancestry. Historian Nikolai Karamzin was of Tatar background. The Tatar connection is especially frequent. “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar,” says the proverb. Consider some fairly well-known “Russian” names of Tatar/Turkic origin: Arakcheyev, Artsybashev, Berdyayev, Kochubey, Muratov, Musin, Saltykov, Tyutchev, Sheremetev…. The list could be extended.

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