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Russian Population & People

Some 112 million of Russia’s 147 million peo­ple live in European Russia. Three-quarters of European Russia’s people live in towns and cities, the most densely populated areas being around Moscow (population nine million) and St Petersburg (four million), and the areas stretching east of Moscow as far as Kazan and Samara, and south to Voronezh and Saratov. The biggest cities after Moscow and St Petersburg, all with populations of one to 1.5 million, are Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Kazan, Perm, Ufa, Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd.

Life expectancy of Russians continues to fall: at current rates the population will de­cline to 123 million by 2030. Much of this is due to the population’s staggering health problems. Alcoholism is rampant – as you may notice when it seems as though every­body over the age of 10 is wandering around with a beer on a warm day or clutching a bot­tle of vodka on a cold day. According to the Russian Ministry of Health, Russians con­sume on average 12L of pure alcohol a year, which is three times the average for the rest of the developed world. Besides the many health problems inherent to a diet high in al­cohol and fat, accidental deaths due to drunk­enness are frequent. On a warm summer weekend people drown in the rivers and lakes at a rate four times greater than anywhere else in the West, primarily because of drunk­enness. The average life expectancy for a Russian man is 58 years, for a woman 71.

About 81% of European Russia’s people are Russians. The rest belong to dozens of smaller ethnic groups, all with their own lan­guages and cultural traditions (in varying degrees of usage), and varied religions. Their complex distribution has been shaped by war, forced movements and migration over many thousands of years. Many ethnic groups have their own republics within Russia, some of which – notably Tatarstan – have developed societies with a character different from the rest of European Russia.

Middle Volga Minorities

The region east of Moscow, around the mid­dle section of the Volga River and its tribu­taries, contains the biggest ethnic minorities, though they’re still outnumbered about three to one in the region by Russians. The system of republics in this region stems from Soviet attempts to limit the influence of the Tatars, historical rivals of the Russians.

The region’s, and European Russia’s, big­gest minority is the Tatars themselves, who are descended from the Mongol-Tatar armies of Jenghis Khan and his successors, and from earlier Hunnic, Turkic and Finno-Ugric set­tlers on the middle Volga. The Tatars are mostly Muslim, and some 1.8 million of them form nearly half the population of the Tatarstan Republic, whose capital is Kazan, on the Volga River. A million or so Tatars live in other parts of European Russia, while a fur­ther million or so live elsewhere in the CIS.

Two other important groups in the middle Volga region are the Chuvash (1.8 million) and the Bashkirs (1.5 million). The Chuvash, descendants of the pre-Mongol-Tatar settlers in the region, are Orthodox Christian and form a majority in Chuvashia (capital: Cheboxary). The Bashkirs are a partly Turkic people, nominally Muslim, about half of whom live in the Bashkortostan Republic (capital: Ufa ). Here, however, they are out­numbered both by Russians and by Tatars.

The other four major groups of the region are Finno-Ugric peoples, descendants of its earliest known inhabitants, and distant rela­tives of the Estonians, Hungarians and Finns: the 1.2 million Orthodox or Muslim Mord­vins, a quarter of whom live in Mordovia (capital: Saransk); the 800,000 Udmurts or Votyaks, predominantly Orthodox, two-thirds of whom live in Udmurtia (capital: Izhevsk); the 700,000 Mari or Cheremys, with an ani­mist/shamanist reliQion, nearly half of whom live in Mary-El (capital: Yoshkar-Ola); and the 350,000 Komi, who are Orthodox, most of whom live in the Komi Republic (capital: Syktyvkar ).

Northern Minorities

About 140,000 members of another Finno-Ugric people, the Karelians, live in European Russia. Some 80,000 of them form 10% of ihe population of the Karelia Republic north of St Petersburg. More Karelians live across the border in Finland.

Southern Minorities

The northern Caucasus, which is in Russia, is a real ethnic jigsaw of at least 19 local nationalities. Several of them have been in­volved in ethnic conflicts in recent years, some of which stem from Stalinist gerryman­dering of their territories. Resentments were also fuelled by Stalin’s deportation of four entire Caucasus peoples – the Chechens, In-­gush, Balkars and Karachay – to Central Asia in 1943-45, allegedly for collaboration with the German invaders. Those who had not died were allowed to return in the 1950s.

The Chechens, a Muslim people almost one million strong, are renowned for their fierce nationalism. This prompted Chechnya to declare independence from Russia in 1991 and, four years later, led to a savage war, in which Russia attempted to regain control of Chechnya.


The Cossacks, particularly in places north of the Caucasus such as Krasnodar, Stavropol and Novocherkassk, have been reasserting their identity. After the Bolshevik Revolution the Cossacks, who had mostly sided with the Whites in the civil war, suffered massacres, deportations and victimisation and were not recognised as a separate ethnic group. They were registered under other nationalities, usu­ally Russian or Ukrainian. Cossacks are trying to revive their military traditions and have strong Russian nationalist tendencies, merging into xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In 1920 there were about four million Cossacks, but it’s difficult to estimate the number of Cossacks today.


Of the approximately one million Jews in Russia in 1989, only some 500,000 remained

in 1998. Most are in urban European Russia, but there’s also a small, conservative com­munity of 17,000 ‘Mountain Jews’ in the Caucasus. A relaxation of exit rules since the mid-1980s has sparked an exodus of Russian Jews to Germany and the USA, and also to Israel, where they have become a sizable force in Israeli politics.

After Kiev’s destruction of the Judaic Khazar empire, Russia had few Jews until the 1772-95 partitions of Poland brought in half a million, who were confined by law to the occupied lands – roughly, present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and eastern Poland, the so-called Pale of Settlement. The notion of a’Jewish problem’ grew in the 19th century, exploding in the 1880s into pogroms and massive emigration to Western Europe and the USA.

On top of Soviet antireligious policies, Stalin devoted himself after WWII to the destruction of Jewish cultural life, shutting schools, theatres and publishing houses. The denial of Jewish applications for emigration in the early 1980s gave rise to the issue of ‘refuseniks’. With its new religious freedoms, glasnost also brought an upsurge in grass­roots anti-Semitism, and emigration grew to a flood.

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