November 05, 2003

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: Arakcheev, Artsybashev, Berdiaev, Kochubei, Muratov, Musin, Saltykov, Tiutchev, Sheremet'evÖ. The list could be extended.

In Russia today there are some Russian nationalists who are disturbed by the great ethnic diversity of their country. They proclaim slogans such as "Russia for the Russians!" (Rossiya dlya russkikh!) or "Beat the Yids, Save Russia!" (Bei zhidov, spasay Rossiyu!). There is a fear in some circles that the ethnic Russians will become outnumbered by the "aliens" (inorodtsy). Some of these people understand that ethnic Russians are not defined "by blood," and they accept the fact that one can "become" a Russian. They even encourage assimilation. Evgeny Troitsky writes, for example: "Russians do not give birth much, one has to become one. A Russian is one who loves the Fatherland and who really wishes for its prosperity and glory."

Other nationalists, however, such as members of the Russian National Union Party, insist that one is a Russian "by blood." They worry about ethnically-mixed marriages, and they are concerned about "the purity of the gene pool of the Russian Nation." However, there is no such thing as an ethnic Russian "by blood," and Russians do not have any definable "purity of the gene pool." Modern genetics has not found any gene or genes that define Russians. In fact, no ethnic, national, or racial group on this earth can be defined genetically. Genetic differences between individuals tend to be much greater than genetic differences between psycho-socially constructed ethnic, national, and racial groups. Racism is both morally and biologically unfounded.

Who, then, are the Russians (in the ethnic sense of russkiye)? Given the history of assimilationism in Russia, and given the biological impossibility of defining Russians, I would like to suggest an answer that works in at least 99% of the cases: Russians are people who identify themselves as Russians.

Daniel Rancour-Laferriere is Professor of Russian at the University of California, Davis, and author of Russian Nationalism from an Interdisciplinary Perspective: Imagining Russia (2000, available from


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