Russia country overview

The people of Russia

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Russia information index

Ethnic groups of Russia

Ethnic Russians constitute approximately 80% of the nation’s populace; however, the Russian Federation is characterized by its rich ethnic diversity. Within its territory, there are over 120 distinct ethnic groups, each with varying population sizes, and they speak around 100 different languages. Among these, only a select few communities, including the Tatars, Ukrainians, Chuvash, Bashkir, Chechens, and Armenians, have populations exceeding one million. The country’s multifaceted ethnic composition is mirrored in its political structure, which includes 21 minority republics, 10 autonomous okrugs, and one autonomous oblast.

Despite the prevalence of ethnic Russians within many of these areas, the respective titular nationalities often find themselves in the minority. Since the 1990s, the issue of ethnicity has been a central factor in conflicts, particularly in regions like Chechnya and Dagestan, where calls for greater autonomy and, occasionally, complete sovereignty have emerged. The Russian Federation’s administrative divisions that are not specifically tied to ethnic groups are categorized into krais and oblasts, with the inclusion of two federal cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow.

The linguistic landscape of Russia is diverse, with the majority falling into the Indo-European category, which includes a large number of East Slavic language speakers, alongside smaller groups speaking other languages. The other linguistic families present are the Altaic, encompassing Turkic, Manchu-Tungus, and Mongolian languages; the Uralic, including Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic languages; and the Caucasian, with Abkhazo-Adyghian and Nakho-Dagestanian languages. The limited educational inclusion of many indigenous minority languages suggests a risk of their eventual extinction, as they are not widely taught in the educational system.

The Indo-European group

The majority of the population in Russia, exceeding 80%, is composed of East Slavs, which includes a predominant number of Russians along with a significant representation of Ukrainians and Belarusians. These groups are distributed extensively across the nation. Historically, the Slavic people became distinct in Eastern Europe between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD, with the establishment of the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, in the 9th century. The focal point of Slavic civilization transitioned to Moscow following the Mongol invasions, leading to the expansion of the Russian Empire toward the Baltic, Arctic, and Pacific regions, thereby surpassing the native populations in number. Despite the vast geographic spread of Russia, the Russian language maintains a notable level of uniformity countrywide. The Indo-Iranian linguistic community is represented by groups such as the Ossetians in the Caucasus region. Additionally, there are considerable populations of German-speaking communities, predominantly located in southwestern Siberia, and Jewish groups, identified by their language and ethnicity rather than their religious affiliation, primarily residing in European Russia. However, the populations of these latter two groups have experienced a decline due to emigration.

The Altaic group

Speakers of Turkic languages represent a significant proportion of the Altaic linguistic family. Their primary residence is within the Central Asian republics, yet a notable concentration of Turkic language speakers exists in the area extending from the middle Volga to the southern Ural Mountains, including ethnic groups such as the Bashkirs, Chuvash, and Tatars. Additionally, a secondary grouping is found in the North Caucasus region, encompassing the Balkars, Karachays, Kumyks, and Nogays. Further distinct Turkic-speaking communities are present in southern Siberia, stretching from the Ural Mountains to Lake Baikal, including the Altai, Khakass, Shor, Tofalars, and Tyvans—the latter residing in the region formerly known as Tannu Tuva, which was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1944. The Sakha, or Yakuts, predominantly inhabit the central Lena River basin, while the Dolgan people are primarily found in the Arctic region.

The Manchu-Tungus languages are utilized by the Evenks, Evens, and other smaller populations scattered across eastern Siberia. The Buryats, residing near Lake Baikal, and the Kalmyks, situated mainly to the west of the lower Volga, are speakers of Mongolic languages.

The Uralic group

The Uralic language family is characterized by its intricate origins and broad distribution across the forested and tundra regions of Eurasia. Within the European domain, the Finnic ethnic groups are represented by the Mordvins, the Mari—historically known as the Cheremis—the Udmurts, previously referred to as Votyaks, and the Komi, also known as Zyryans. The Komi-Permyaks are closely associated with the Komi and are settled in the vicinity of the upper Volga River and the Ural Mountains. The Karelians, Finns, and Veps are situated in the northwestern part of the continent. The Mansi, also known as Voguls, and the Khanty, historically called Ostyaks, are sparsely distributed across the lower basin of the Ob River.

The Samoyedic linguistic subgroup comprises a small number of members spread across an extensive area. The Nenets are found in the tundra and forest-tundra regions extending from the Kola Peninsula to the Yenisey River. The Selkups reside around the central Ob region, while the Nganasan primarily inhabit the Taymyr Peninsula.

The Caucasian group

These Caucasian languages are not only diverse in terms of their linguistic features but also in terms of the cultures and traditions of the people who speak them. The North Caucasus region is known for its rich history and ethnic diversity, with each community having its own unique customs and way of life. The linguistic diversity in the region reflects the complex history of the Caucasus, which has been a crossroads of different civilizations and cultures for centuries. The Caucasian languages have been influenced by various languages, including Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Russian, resulting in a rich linguistic tapestry that is unique to this region. Despite the differences between the various Caucasian languages, there are also commonalities that bind them together. Many of these languages share similar grammatical features, such as a system of noun classes, complex verb conjugations, and rich systems of case marking. This linguistic diversity reflects the resilience and adaptability of the communities in the North Caucasus, who have managed to preserve their languages and traditions despite centuries of outside influences. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the Caucasian languages, with efforts being made to revitalize and preserve them for future generations. Language revitalization programs, cultural festivals, and educational initiatives have been launched to promote the use of these languages and raise awareness about the rich cultural heritage of the North Caucasus. Overall, the linguistic diversity of the North Caucasus region is a testament to the resilience and diversity of its people. As these communities continue to navigate the challenges of modernity and globalization, their languages and traditions remain a source of pride and identity, preserving a unique cultural heritage that is truly one of a kind.

Other groups

In the remote regions of eastern Siberia, there exists a collection of Paleo-Siberian populations that, while sharing similar lifestyles, exhibit a diversity of linguistic characteristics. Among these populations, the Chukchi, Koryak, and Itelmen, also referred to as Kamchadal, are categorized under the Luorawetlan linguistic family, which stands apart from the Eskimo-Aleut linguistic group. Furthermore, the languages spoken by the Nivkh people, located along the lower Amur River and on Sakhalin Island, the Yukaghir inhabitants of the Kolyma Lowland, and the Ket people residing in the central Yenisey region, are linguistically unique and do not show affiliation with other language families. However, it is hypothesized that the Yukaghir language may share a connection with the Uralic language family.

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