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The Russians

The ethnic group that came to be known as the Russians sprang from the East Slavs, one of the three groups into which the original Slavic people divided sometime before the seventh century A.D. The West Slavs eventually became differentiated as the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks; the South Slavs divided into the Bulgarians, Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes. The East Slavic tribes settled along the Dnepr River in present-day Ukraine in the first centuries A.D. From that region, they then spread northward and eastward. In the ninth century, these tribes constituted the largest part of the population of Kievan Rus', the medieval state ruled by a Varangian dynasty from Scandinavia (see The East Slavs and the Varangians, ch. 1).

The East Slavs became more politically united in the tenth century when they adopted Christianity as the state religion of Kievan Rus'. Nevertheless, tribal and regional differences were exacerbated in subsequent centuries as the state expanded, bringing the East Slavs into contact with other ethnic groups on their borders. Thus, Baltic and Finno-Ugric tribes mixed with the East Slavs to the northwest and the northeast, respectively. By the time the state of Kievan Rus' began disintegrating into independent principalities in the twelfth century, the East Slavs had begun to evolve into three peoples with distinct linguistic and cultural characteristics: the Russians to the north and northeast of Kiev, the Belorussians to the northwest of Kiev, and the Ukrainians in the Kiev region and to its south and southwest. In the thirteenth century, the invasion of the Mongols brought the final collapse of Kievan Rus' as a political entity, accelerating differentiation and consolidation of the three ethnic groups (see The Golden Age of Kiev, ch. 1). Although the three groups remained related culturally, linguistically, and religiously, each of them also was influenced by different political, economic, religious, and social developments that further separated them.

Building a state of increasing vitality as the Mongol occupation weakened in the fourteenth century, the principality of Muscovy became the base from which the Russian cultural and political systems expanded under a series of strong rulers. By the end of the nineteenth century, Russians had settled the remote stretches of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean and colonized Central Asia and the Caucasus, becoming in the process the most numerous and ubiquitous of the Slavic peoples (see Ruling the Empire, ch. 1).

Minority Peoples and Their Territories

With a few changes in status in the post-World War II period, the autonomous republics, autonomous oblasts, and autonomous regions of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic retained the classifications assigned to them in the 1920s or 1930s. In all cases, the postcommunist Russian government officially changed the term "autonomous republic" to "republic" in 1992. According to the 1989 Soviet census, in only fifteen of the thirty-one ethnically designated republics and autonomous regions were the "indigenous" people the largest group. Of the twenty-one republics existing in Russia in the mid-1990s, nine fell into this category, with the smallest percentages of Russians in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia. Each region designated by ethnic group is home to the majority of Russia's population of that group (see table 9, Appendix).

The border-drawing process that occurred in tsarist times and in the first decades of Soviet rule sometimes divided rather than united ethnic populations. The Buryats of southern Siberia, for example, were divided among the Buryat Autonomous Republic and Chita and Irkutsk oblasts, which were created to the east and west of the republic, respectively; that population division remains in the post-Soviet era. By contrast, the Chechens and Ingush were united in a single republic until 1992, and smaller groups such as the Khanty and the Mansi were grouped together in single autonomous regions.

Of the sixteen autonomous republics that existed in Russia at the time of the Soviet Union's breakup, one (the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic) split into two in 1992, with Chechnya subsequently declaring full independence as the Republic of Chechnya and with Ingushetia gaining recognition as a separate republic of the Russian Federation. Three Soviet-era autonomous oblasts (Gorno-Altay, Adygea, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia) were granted republic status under the Federation Treaty of 1992, which established the respective powers of the central and republic governments. Two republics, Chechnya and Tatarstan, did not sign the treaty at that time. Most provisions of the Federation Treaty were overtaken by provisions of the 1993 constitution or by subsequent bilateral agreements between the central government and the republics.

After the changes of the immediate post-Soviet years, twenty-one nationality-based republics existed in the Russian Federation and were recognized in the constitution of 1993 (see table 10, Appendix). They are Adygea, Bashkortostan, Buryatia, Chechnya, Chuvashia, Dagestan, Gorno-Altay, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Kalmykia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Karelia, Khakassia, Komi, Mari El, Mordovia, North Ossetia, Sakha (Yakutia), Tatarstan, Tyva (Tuva), and Udmurtia.

Besides the republics, the constitution recognizes ten autonomous regions, whose status, like that of the republics, is based on the presence of one or two ethnic groups. These jurisdictions typically are sparsely populated, rich in natural resources, and inclined to seek independence from the larger units to which they belong. The existence and configuration of Russia's other jurisdictions are determined by geographical or political factors rather than ethnicity. The ten autonomous regions are the Aga Buryat, Chukchi, Evenk, Khanty-Mansi, Koryak, Nenets, Permyak, Taymyr, Ust'-Orda Buryat, and Yamalo-Nenets autonomous regions. A Jewish Autonomous Oblast (Yevreyskaya avtonomnaya oblast', now known as Birobidzhan) was established in 1934. Russians are the majority of the population in all but the Aga Buryat Autonomous Region (whose population is 55 percent Buryats) and the Permyak Autonomous Region (whose population is 60 percent Komi-Permyak, one of the three subgroups of the Komi people). More typical is the Evenk Autonomous Region in Siberia west of the Republic of Sakha, where the Evenks are outnumbered by Russians 17,000 to 3,000. In fact, the Evenks, originally a nomadic and clan-based group whose society was nearly destroyed by Soviet collectivization in the 1930s, are among the indigenous peoples of Russia whose survival experts fear is endangered.

Data as of July 1996

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