LearnRussianwith Us!Start Learning!
Talking about identity and ethnicity is probably a can of worms for every country. Russia is no different in that respect, and национальный вопрос (ethnic question) is a very щекотливый вопрос (touchy subject). However, the dynamics of ethnic relations in Russia may differ from how they work in your country, and I’d like to point to a few things that make them unique. These points come from my personal observations and the sources I’ve found. If your experience with this subject is different, you are welcome to add to or correct this post in the comments. Please remember to be respectful to the author and the other commentators.
Despite outside observers thinking “everyone is white” in Russia (an actual quote from a Canadian visitor to Russia), the country is actually pretty diverse and comprises both indigenous groups and ethnic groups from more recent migrations. Some of the common ethnic groups in Russia are украинцы (Ukrainians), татары (Tatars), армяне (Armenians), грузины (Georgians), евреи (Jews by ancestry and not necessarily by religion), башкиры (Bashkirs), чеченцы (Chechens), немцы (Germans), and many more. The Russian Constitution says that
Носителем суверенитета и единственным источником власти в Российской Федерации является ее многонациональный народ (The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation is its multiethnic people).
We may argue whether this motto is actually being followed, but it think it’s pretty tell-tale that the authors felt the need to emphasize “многонациональный” (multiethnic). This word comes from национальность, which brings me to my next point…
Национальность is one of these pesky false friends; it looks like it should mean “nationality,” but it doesn’t. Nationality as in citizenship is гражданство; a citizen is гражданин/гражданка. Национальность refers to someone’s ethnic background. Кто ты/вы по национальности? (What’s your ethnicity?) is a loaded question in Russia. What’s the big deal, you may say? Shouldn’t we be proud of what we are? Ideally, that would be the case, but unfortunately…
You’d think, “Awesome, so we all have our backgrounds, can’t we cherish them AND be Russian at the same time?” The problem is that the Russian word русский (Russian) could mean ethnically Russian, so a person of a different ancestry living in Russia could be perceived or referred to as a “non-Russian,” as seen in these examples from the Russian National Corpus (I don’t support the views in these examples; I’m giving them to illustrate this unfortunate usage):
После четвертой они забеспокоились. Внешность нерусская ― мало ли что. Вдруг террорист? (After [he finished smoking his fourth cigarette], they got worried. He looks non-Russian; who knows. What if he’s a terrorist?)
Я полагаю, что нынешний наплыв в Москву людей «нерусской национальности» связан с неблагополучной экономической обстановкой на местах. (I suppose the current influx of ethnic “non-Russians” into Moscow is caused by economic hardship in other towns).
The word “россиянин/россиянка” has been proposed to refer to a citizen of Russia, but it’s perceived as a euphemism by some speakers.
So, while the Constitution and various government officials express support for the ethnic minorities, Russia has a long history of ethnic discrimination from the times of the czars, to the Soviet period to the present day. Old Soviet passports had a mandatory field for ethnicity — the infamous пятая графа (fifth item). Having the “wrong” ethnicity could seriously impede one’s career prospects or social standing.
Nowadays, people from Central Asia (Средняя Азия) and the Caucasus (Кавказ) are likely to be profiled, often regardless of how long they have lived in Russia or whether they were born there. This is often exacerbated by the fact that profiling is based on looks, so people may get targeted solely because of their complexion.
This is not to turn you off completely to Russians and make you think they are a hateful bunch. I personally had a wonderful experience going to college in Moscow with Muscovites, people from other regions of Russia, and people from abroad — all of them of various ancestries. Then again, I have been insulted based on my looks in the Moscow subway, so it is important to be aware of the painful legacy of racism so you can counter it if you ever run into it.
Dear readers from Russia or who have traveled to Russia, if your take on issue is different, I’ll be happy to hear it. Let’s be courteous in our discussion, though.