Ethnic groups

Beginning at the pivotal point of Moscow, Russian influence expanded continuously outward. In just more than 500 years (from 1462 to 1991), it spread to cover more than one-third of Europe and nearly half of Asia. The tsars and then the Soviet commissars brought much territory and many ethnic groups under their control. They governed large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds. Russian social scientists believed that the key feature of nationality was the possession of a common language, so they classified people into linguistic groupings.

The 1926 Soviet census counted 169 nationalities. The 1989 census listed 104. The political framework outlined in the Soviet constitution was based largely on ethnic lines. Each of the 15 Soviet republics was named after its largest nationality group. Some large republics had special administrative regions for people from ethnic minorities.

The Slavic Peoples

Slavs are the dominant ethnic group within Russia and within the new CIS. Historically, three main Slavic groups have been recognized. These groups have little in common beyond their similar origin and linguistic connections. Different historical experiences have produced dissimilar cultural and physical characteristics. For example, most Russians are believed to be taller than Ukrainians and Belarusians. Slavs are generally fairskinned. Their hair is usually wavy and ranges in color from blond to red to brown. In fact, physical characteristics may have played a role in naming the three major Slavic ethnic groups: Russians (Great Russians), Ukrainians (Little Russians), and Belarusians (White Russians).


Russians have lived in and around Moscow, Vladimir, and Suzdal for thousands of years. Intermarriage with other ethnic groups was common among them. As a result, Scandinavian and Mongolian racial features and culture have had an impact on Russians.

The Russians were the great pioneers who moved out of their core area around Moscow into all areas of imperial Russia, and later, the Soviet Union. Early in their history, they survived and triumphed over invading tribes, including the Mongols, Tatars, Swedes, Germans, and even the Poles. In recent history, the Russians overcame major invasions by the Turks, French, and Germans.

Many factors have unified the Russians. First, they were united by their adoption of Greek Orthodox Christianity. Later, tsarism and Communism held them together. During the twentieth century, fear of the Germans and distrust of the United States and Western European powers united them. Today, they share their traditional love for the land (“Mother Russia,” as they call it) and a desire to become a partner of the United States in global diplomacy.

In 1989, more than 145 million Russians lived throughout all the nations of the former Soviet Union.Most Russians who live in the former Soviet republics consider Russia their mother country. Ukraine and Kazakhstan host the largest groups of ethnic Russians outside of Russia. Moscow remains their cultural capital. As the country's name implies, Russians dominate the Russian Federation—they made up more than 80 percent of the total 1989 population, a number that holds today.


When the census was taken in 1989, it reported that more than 4 million Ukrainians were living in the Russian Federation. Although at least 3 percent of the total population of the Russian Federation is Ukrainian, the Ukrainian cultural hearth is western Ukraine and Kiev. Kiev, because of its historical significance, is considered the “mother” of all Slavic cities.

Ukrainians were deeply impacted, both culturally and racially, by contact with the Turks, Mongols, and Tatars in their early history. Later, Lithuanians and Poles also made an imprint. Most Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, but in western portions of Ukraine, many are Roman Catholic or Uniate Christians. Kiev, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, has a large Russian minority. The majority of ethnic Russians reside in Ukraine's eastern regions adjacent to Russia.


Scandinavians, Lithuanians, and Poles have greatly influenced the Belarusians, but the isolation afforded by the swamps and thick forests of Belarus have helped them retain their cultural heritage. Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are the two major religious denominations of Belarus. The 1989 census reported that more than one million Belarusians were living in the Russian Federation.

Unfortunately, a major invasion route from the west to Moscow crosses Belarusian land. The people who dwelled along this route have suffered terribly at the hands of foreign soldiers. During World War II, the German Army killed 10 percent of the Belarusian people.

Turkic and Related Peoples

Turkic peoples form the second-largest ethnic group within Russia and the CIS. They comprise at least 10 percent of all those who live within the borders of Russia. These peoples are of central Asian origin.Most are Muslims (followers of Islam). Like other nomadic pastoralists and sedentary oasis farmers in dry central Asia, Turkic peoples spread out in several directions from their homelands. Traveling through northern Iran around the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, some migrated into the eastern Caucasus region and into Turkey. Today, these people are called Azeris or Azerbaijanis.

Some Turkic peoples, such as Bashkirs, Tatars, and Chuvash, migrated to the northwest into the area between the Volga River and the southern Ural Mountains. Others migrated northeastward into Siberia. There, the Khakass, Altays, Trevinians, and Yakuts were able to survive in isolation.

Almost all of these groups speak a Turkic language. Their physical characteristics, though, are as diverse as where they live. Despite this fact, in Russian scientific literature, they have been described as generally having tan skin, broad and round heads, straight black hair, and Mongolian eyes. Heights vary among Turkic groups.

Various Turkic and related peoples today live in the area between the Volga River bend and the Ural Mountains. The Tatars, Bashkirs, and Chuvash live in a transition area between the deciduous forest zone and the forest steppe. For centuries, those who lived in the steppe zone pastured their sheep and horses on the rich steppe grasses. They grew crops in the rich chernozem soils that characterize this zone. Rich deposits of oil and economically significant minerals lie beneath these deciduous forests and grasslands.

The Chechens and Ingush live in a beautiful section of the northern Caucasus Mountains. Grozney, their capital, is an oilrefining center that serves a rich oil-production region in the north Caucasus foothills and plains.

Tatars, Bashkirs, and Chuvash fought with the Soviets in the Red (Soviet) Army during World War II. Chechens and Ingush, on the other hand, were accused of treasonable collaboration with the Germans. Many were deported from their homeland. After Stalin's death, the Chechen-Ingush administrative unit was restored and the people were permitted to return home. Buryat Mongols live in eastern Siberia around Lake Baikal. A native Siberian people, they had been conquered by the Russians in the early 1700s. They are Buddhists. Kalmyk Mongols live on the northwest shore of the Caspian Sea. A nomadic people, they had migrated from western China in the early 1600s.

Other Ethnic Groups

Finno-Ugrian people were living in what is now Russia when the Slavic people migrated eastward from the north slopes of the Carpathian Mountains in southern Poland. As their name illustrates, these people are relatives to Finns and Hungarians. Modern Finno-Ugrians in Russia include the Mordovinians, Udmurts, and Maris of the Volga River bend area. They also include the Komis of northeastern European Russia and the Karelians, who live in northwestern Russia, along the Finnish border. Although few in number (about 180,000 in the 1989 census), Finno-Ugrian, Altaic, and Palaeoasiatic groups are the primary inhabitants of northern Siberia. The Chukchis and Koryakis inhabit northeastern Siberia. Inuits (Eskimosy) and Aleuts live on the coastal fringe of far eastern Siberia. Jews and Germans are also numerically important. Jews migrated into imperial Russia hundreds of years before the Russian Revolution of 1917. They were fleeing persecution in western Europe. Catherine the Great invited Germans into the country to help settle the steppe region of southwestern Russia. Russian Germans were regarded as expert farmers and productive citizens, although they were often perceived as foreigners even after several generations lived on Russian soil. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth many of them left Russia and settled very successfully in the Northern Plains region of the United States and Canada's Prairie Provinces.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there has been an out-migration of minorities. Inhabitants who owed their ethnic allegiance to another independent nation of the former Soviet Union left Russia. Russians living in other places returned to the Russian Federation. Large numbers of Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, and Belarusians migrated.