Russian Language Blog

What You Didn’t Know About Ethnic Heritage in Russia Posted by on Feb 27, 2014 in Culture, History, Soviet Union

young people in front of a school building

Группа by Vladislav Krotenko from is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.

Russia is a multiethnic country

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 not nationality

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 can be a non-Russian in Russia

young woman at a lecture

ECONOMY OF FAMILY LIFE: GAINS, COSTS, RISKS by Gleb Leonov / Strelka Institute from is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.

Ethnicity has been used as grounds for discrimination

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.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Jennifer Sabir:

    I really enjoy your blog to further my own study of Russian. I would love for you, and any readers to feel free to like and share anything you wish about Russian language or culture on my facebook community, Peace Alchemy.
    The purpose is to build global friendships through the bridge of diverse culture. Thanks again!

  2. Erik M.:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. In one of your examples —

    “После четвертой они забеспокоились. Внешность нерусская ― мало ли что. Вдруг террорист? (After the fourth [shot], they got worried. He looks non-Russian; who knows. What if he’s a terrorist?)”

    — there’s an unfortunate ambiguity without more context. I assume it means после четвертой рюмки, but someone reading only the English might think “shot” meant выстрел.

    • Maria:

      @Erik M. That’s an excellent point, Erik! Pun not intended. I went in and looked at the larger context in the corpus, and they are talking about cigarettes as opposed to alcohol. It’s become automatic for me to associate ordinal numbers with drinking (as in Между первой и второй перерывчик небольшой), but my assumption was wrong in this case.

  3. Mark Madison:

    I visited Moscow for a month in the very late 90’s as part of a study abroad program. While I personally didn’t have any problems (I have a very European appearance), we did have a student in our group who was from Colombia. His dark complexion caused him to be very popular with the authorities who (at the time) believed him to be a чеченец. He was stopped on a regular basis and asked for his документы. We kind of laughed about but we made sure he never went anywhere alone just in case.

    • Maria:

      @Mark Madison Mark, thank you for your comment. It’s too bad anyone should be singled out like that, especially a visitor. Hopefully as more people of various ancestries become visible in all spheres in Russia, this practice will wane.

  4. Erik M.:

    I never thought of cigarettes as a possibility – thanks for checking that!

  5. Erika W.:

    I’ve been following on your blog for a while now and just wanted to let you know you have another appreciative fan! Ignorance about other cultures is a hard thing to overcome when so many aspects are different between them, and I really love to find articles like these that can help me get a better understanding and out of the mental rut that we’re accustomed to.

    • Maria:

      @Erika W. Thank you, Erika! I think I missed your comment when you first posted it. Glad to have you here and hope you continue to contribute to the discussion.