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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Sense in the Census?

Russia's first census was conducted by the Mongols who subjugated most of medieval Rus in the 13th century. The census was conceived as a means of assessing how much each principality should pay in tribute to the Golden Horde. It's not surprising that since that time censuses have been perceived as something akin to a natural disaster.

We shouldn't forget about Catherine the Great, either. The empress just couldn't get a handle on how many loyal subjects resided in her realm. And to the amazement of this educated German princess, the bureaucrats in St. Petersburg could not give her a definite answer. In exasperation Catherine ordered that a census be conducted.

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The results of Russian censuses have never been terribly reliable, but two censuses conducted in the 1930s particularly stand out. Stalin was dissatisfied with the results of the first census, which showed that the Soviet Union had lost some 8 million people. Stalin knew only too well how they had been lost, of course: They were either in the concentration camps, or had perished during collectivization or the Great Purge. The census-takers gauged the scale of Stalin's repressions, but even statistics bent to the Soviet leader's will. The results of the census were annulled and its organizers punished. A new census was announced, and -- lo and behold -- the shortfall was corrected, and the Soviet population was inflated to a more agreeable level.

But even in this esteemed company, the 2002 census will go down in history as one of the most scandal-plagued and falsified. For months in advance, politicians, bureaucrats and television news anchors informed the public that the census was a matter of utmost importance to the state. The more they repeated this mantra, the less the average citizen wanted to have anything to do with the census. The slogan "Write Yourself Into Russian History!" came to sound like a bad joke -- as if to say that your average Russian couldn't secure a place in history any other way. That huge numbers of Russians ignored or avoided the census comes as no surprise. While the national head-count was underway, the papers informed us of whole apartment buildings, even whole villages, that refused to stand up and be counted. Refusing to "write yourself into history" served the same purpose as voting for "none of the above" -- an ineffective, but mass expression of protest. "Mr. Nobody" took his place alongside candidate "None of the Above."

The census workers' job even turned dangerous. Dozens were beaten, others were harassed by dogs, and at least one female census worker was raped. However, we also learned of census workers breaking into apartments with a police escort, even of a man who was beaten by a census worker for refusing to fill in the profferred questionnaire.

The census revealed the presence of many exotic and long-forgotten peoples in our midst (Incas, Scythians, Papuans), hundreds of Martians, and hordes of hobbits, elves and goblins. These creatures who migrated to Russia from Middle Earth, the fictitious world of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," actually outnumbered several small ethnic groups in the Far North. Hobbits and elves, as it turned out, are geographically concentrated in southwest Russia. Based on the census numbers, they have the same right as any small ethnic group to demand special status, which would provide for everything from the creation of their own schools to representation in government.

The census wasn't even complete when the government started talking about extending it. The public was doing everything humanly possible to avoid being written into history, while governors were just as determined to increase the number of people resident in their regions. The more souls they can muster, the more money they can wheedle out of the federal government -- and the more money they can painlessly embezzle from the regional budget.

The preliminary census results could be perceived as a figment of the bureaucratic imagination or as the fruits of some popular fantasy. But these early numbers are far more real than what will be presented in several months' time as the "final" results. Those results will be corrected for the sake of plausibility. That in itself is falsification. And the Russia that will emerge from official statistics will be no more real than a country where hobbits and goblins have the right to cultural autonomy. Russia's leaders might not always be able to feed us or provide for our security, but they've always had a knack for counting.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.