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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Monitoring the Census: Moscow to Marii-El

Last month's census, the preliminary results of which were presented on Friday, was billed by President Vladimir Putin as the most important political event of the year. That claim, alas, has been overshadowed by the terrible "Nord Ost" hostage-taking.

The hope was that the census would signal the stabilization of Russia. The drama of transition could give way to the sober accounting of the nation's human resources. Russians were told that it was their patriotic duty to take part in the census, to seize the opportunity to "write themselves into history." In a country that was sorely lacking a national idea, a unifying goal, some in the Kremlin apparently viewed the census as not just a routine administrative exercise, but as a chance to rally public loyalty behind the new state.

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Also, in more practical terms, a census was urgently needed. Russia has seen tremendous disruption of its social and economic fabric over the past decade: rising mortality rates, plunging living standards and shifts in family structure. According to Nationalities Minister Vladimir Zorin, one-quarter of the population have changed their place of residence since 1989, when the last census was conducted. During that time Russia has absorbed some 7 million immigrants from other countries of the former Soviet Union. In order to target public spending on health and education to meet the requirements of this rapidly changing society, the government urgently needs an accurate picture of social conditions.

Will the census satisfy these pressing political and social demands? Unfortunately, there are grounds for doubting the reliability and utility of the census. Certain media outlets, for some reason, harshly and at times hysterically criticized the census from the outset.

A more sober assessment by a team of specialists assembled by academician Valery Tishkov, head of the Institute of Ethnology, did reveal some grave concerns. Under Tishkov's direction, 25 "correspondents" monitored the census in regions across Russia, especially those with large populations of non-Russians and/or migrants. I was one of a dozen French and American scholars who joined these correspondents and was sent to the republic of Marii-El for monitoring duties. We all met in Moscow on completion of the census to review our findings.

The decision to make the census anonymous, and voluntary, for respondents flies in the face of standard international practice, and fundamentally erodes the reliability of the results. Many people were double-counted because of vagueness about what should count as one's permanent place of residence, while probably an even larger number were not counted at all. In most of the North Caucasus republics, including Chechnya and Dagestan, correspondents reported a strong desire by indigenous peoples to boost their numbers in the census by fair means or foul, to increase their political visibility in Moscow -- with a view to boosting the future flow of federal subsidies. In these regions, the census was treated as a political event akin to an election.

Still, the regional monitors generally found that there was less anxiety surrounding the census in the provinces than in Moscow. People were more willing to open their doors to census takers, and there seemed to be fewer refusals than in the capital (where some 10 percent of respondents seem to have declined to participate). A surprisingly high proportion of forms were competed by census takers over the phone -- another departure from international practice. Part of the problem was that census officials were told to compensate for the missed people by working from Interior Ministry registration records. Some even completed census forms for missing families by gathering information from their neighbors.

There was much political controversy around the sections of the questionnaire devoted to ethnicity. One welcome move was that people were allowed to make a free choice of their ethnic identity, rather than pick from a fixed list. State Statistics Committee chairman Vladimir Sokolin said people could list themselves as "Martians" if they wanted to, a comment that seemed to trivialize the issue. However, people were asked to record their "national belonging," a cumbersome formulation that had not been used before. People were not asked their religious identity. Instead of being asked for their "native language," as in previous censuses, people were asked first if they spoke Russian (a somewhat redundant question) and second what other languages they could speak. Confusingly, enumerators were anyway instructed to ask people the "native language" question, and to check a discreet "reserve" box at the bottom of the form. Given that the question was not printed out on the form, it seems that in practice many enumerators were not told to ask the question, or simply did not bother.

Russia desperately needs to know exactly how many unregistered refugees and migrants there are in the country, but census takers were given little incentive or encouragement to go out of their way to count this population.

Compromises in the construction of the form and its administration reflect political pressures in the run-up to the census. The State Statistics Committee seems to have bent over backward in a bid to avoid controversy, and in the process tied itself in knots. Religious leaders successfully urged that no question be asked about religious affiliation, so an important chance to map the scope of the various denominations was lost. In Tatarstan, as is well-known, there was a vigorous campaign by the republic's authorities to count as many Tatars as possible, and to resist the listing of separate subgroups within the Tatar community (such as Christian or Siberian Tatars).

In the south, Cossack groups mounted a campaign to persuade Cossacks to list themselves as a separate nationality (in part because they expected state funding to follow). In an address to Tishkov's team, Zorin stressed that respondents were free to choose their own nationality, but went on to say that he considered the Cossacks to be a Russian "ethno-cultural" group, and not an "independent nationality" in its own right, seemingly contradicting the idea of free choice.

The specialist demographers from France and the United States in Tishkov's team seemed to think that the census was flawed, but usable. After all, other nations' censuses suffer from similar problems, to a greater or lesser extent. Reliable estimates of the actual demographic composition of Russia will be derived not from the census alone, but through triangulation with other data sources, such as birth records and -- better still -- school enrollments. In the meantime, one can expect the political hot air swirling around the census to resume with the return to politics as usual.

Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and editor of the Jamestown Foundation's "Russia and Eurasia Review," contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.