Reassessing the Russian Identity, Part 4: Putin's Evolving Russia

6 MINS READNov 29, 2012 | 11:00 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on Russian society and identity. Part 4 will discuss the demographic shifts under way in Russia. Click to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In recent years, cracks in Russian President Vladimir Putin's system have started to show as the diversity of Russia's population puts pressure on the government and on social stability. Reasons for this increasing social pressure include demographic shifts, religious extremism and generational political change. Though these tensions are rooted in social issues that the Kremlin has always faced, they have reached a point at which society and the Kremlin find it necessary to address them.

Demographic Shifts and Immigration

Although Russia has had an ethnically diverse population throughout its history, its diversity is becoming even more pronounced as a changing population increases social tensions across the country. Russia is currently in a demographic decline due to high infant mortality, low childbirth rates, rising emigration, poor health care, low life expectancy and a people prone to high levels of alcohol consumption. Russia's current population of 143 million people is expected to decline by nearly 10 percent by 2030, according to some estimates. However, new government policies on health care and procreation, along with increased immigration, have slowed this decline over the past few years.

The population decline is taking place mostly among the ethnic Russians, while the population of Muslims (both indigenous and immigrant) is on the rise. The majority of indigenous Islamic populations in Russia have grown since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of this growth could stem from the relocation of Muslims who were sent back to their homelands under Josef Stalin, but there has also been a notable increase in key Islamic populations just in the past decade: The Chechen population has risen 5 percent and the Dagestani population has increased by 13 percent. This is a concern for the ethnic Russians, who consider these populations hostile. In contrast, the more Russified Tatar population is in decline, much like the ethnic Russian population.

Russia's Muslim Populations

The Immigration Effect

While official state data indicates that approximately 240,000 immigrants enter Russia each year, Russia's Center of Migration Studies puts this number at more than 400,000 due to illegal immigration. Since the majority of these immigrants come from the Islamic former Soviet republics, this trend adds to the increase in Russia's overall Islamic population.

The government's policies toward migrants have been contradictory in the past. Laws in 1993 loosened the requirements for immigration into Russia, while reforms in 2003 made immigration laws more strict. In 2006, these more stringent policies were softened to allow more workers into Russia after Moscow realized the country was experiencing a population crisis. Immigrants made up 1 percent of the workforce in 2000, but in 2010 they made up 10 percent of the workforce, according to the Center of Migration Studies.

Russian Population Projections

Russian Population Projections

This demographic shift is changing the social landscape in Russia, where the ethnic Russian population has been the centerpiece of social policy for hundreds of years. The Kremlin is attempting to develop a way to incorporate a multi-ethnic and -religious population (with a heavy emphasis on Islam) into its new policies.

According to a recent investigation by the newspaper Russkaya Gazeta, there are estimates that 30 percent of students in Russia will be the children of immigrants or guest workers by 2020. Accurate data is difficult to come by, so such a projection must be cautiously weighed since the data used to make such estimates could come from sources with political aims or be based on a relatively short-lived trend. The newspaper also estimates that 12 percent of current students in the Moscow region are children of migrants, most of which are reportedly from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. While some of these migrants could be in Russia temporarily for education or work before returning home, a large portion of the migrant population intends to stay in Russia with their families.

This is creating a large burden on the Russian primary educational system because schools have to increase the intensity of Russian-language training. In 2012, Moscow introduced 12 language-intensive schools for migrant children — a development being duplicated in each of the country's administrative districts. These schools also have a more Russified curriculum that includes culture, literature and history. The ethnic differences within Russia's population have garnered intensifying media attention over such issues as the October public debate on whether to allow young girls to wear hijabs in schools. Putin, who is against the idea, has said that Russia is a secular state and will act on this premise, just as countries like France have done.

Teachers at schools in Moscow have said that the students who are children of migrants are better students than the Russian children because they always do their homework and never miss class. These children are attempting to achieve a more advanced level of education than their migrant parents have in order to move up in the Russian workforce. This means that over the next generation there will be an important shift as a stream of migrant children are educated in the Russian school system.

During the Soviet period, children who were not ethnic Russians were taught in schools in their own republics. But now there is a growing group of non-ethnic Russian children who are being taught in Russian schools and are doing their lessons in the Russian language as if they were ethnic Russians. Therefore, although their parents might be separated from the bulk of ethnic Russian society by differences in education, class, language and self-identity, the migrant children will be more assimilated into Russian society and are more likely to think of themselves as Russian.

So far, the Kremlin has not formulated specific policies on what to do with the increasing non-ethnic Russian populations. Some ethnic Russians have called for stricter policies that would keep non-ethnic Russians from having access to all aspects of the Russian system.

Greater assimilation of non-Russian ethnicities into the country does not mean that such populations are being accepted (or will be accepted). According to Levada Center surveys, 70 percent of Russians — the highest percentage seen in a decade — want stricter immigration rules. In a poll conducted by Russia's Public Opinion Foundation, 55 percent of Russians reported feeling enmity toward people of other ethnicities and 63 percent of Russians believe they should have more rights than other ethnicities. Notably, of those polled, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Moldovans were not considered non-Russians; xenophobic tendencies focused more on ethnicities that were largely Islamic. Overall, social tensions between ethnically Russian and non-Russian populations (particularly Islamic) are on the rise. 

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