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The Future Looks a Lot More Diverse

Minority populations are growing rapidly. Ethnic Russians fret over their identity and their power.

October 10, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

Grozny, Russia —

In a room once used for baptisms, the Russian Orthodox matrons of St. Michael the Archangel Church have erected plywood walls and adorned them with icons. The sanctuary next door suffered bomb damage in Chechnya's war and is slowly being rebuilt. But for whom?

Hardly anyone shows up anymore.

Slavic Russia absorbed dozens of non-Slavic ethnic groups as it expanded along its vast southern and eastern fringes. Among them were Chechens, who, like many others, were given nominal autonomy and retained their language and religious identity. But Moscow left no doubt that it was in charge, and it often marginalized the local population.

Now, more than a decade of war has driven most of the fair-skinned ethnic Russians out of Chechnya's capital. In their place are the predominantly Muslim and dark-featured Chechens, who have reclaimed the city.

"You won't find any young Russians here. None," said Tatiana Kaverina, 48, an ethnic Russian who has stayed in Chechnya because she can't find anyplace else to live. "Soon, there will be no Russians."

Added Raisa Skachidubova, a retired literature teacher: "You get on a bus and you're like a white crow among a dark flock."

Russia's post-Soviet population implosion is mainly the result of an alarming increase in deaths and a decline in the birthrate among ethnic Russians, who still make up about 80% of the country.

But as alcohol, cigarettes, pollution, stress, suicide and resurgent diseases contribute to Russian deaths, minority populations are growing rapidly. Many of these smaller groups, particularly Chechens and other Muslims in the Caucasus region, have the country's highest birthrates.

Long accustomed to unquestioned dominance, ethnic Russians are being forced to confront a multiethnic future and significant problems controlling sensitive border regions. Only 12 years ago, they made up more than 60% of Grozny's population; now they account for barely 4%.

And as their population and power diminish in the Caucasus, ethnic Russians are also deserting the most remote stretches of the far east, to be replaced in urban areas near the frontier by hundreds of thousands of immigrants from China.

U.S. experts worry that a politically weak and physically unhealthy Russia could destabilize Europe, making it harder to fight terrorism and possibly opening the gates to a regional pandemic.

Even now, said Duke University political scientist Jerry Hough, the toll from the country's demographic crash is more serious than Stalin's purges or the Darfur crisis in the African nation of Sudan. But there is little that U.S. and European policymakers can do except watch the crisis unfold.

"What, exactly, would [people] have the United States -- or for that matter, human rights groups -- actually do about Russian life expectancy?" said Thomas Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. "Send troops to Russia to slap cigarettes and vodka bottles out of the hands of young men?"


An Identity Crisis

Russia's population evolution is in some ways similar to that of Western European countries. Italians, Spaniards and other nationalities have birthrates that are among the lowest in the world. The biggest difference is the rate at which ethnic Russians are dying, and the failure of the nation's majority, even in comparison with countries struggling to assimilate prolific immigrant populations, to come to terms with a multiethnic future.

Today's Russia includes seven predominantly Muslim regions. Ivan the Terrible conquered the first of them in the 16th century; the final pieces were small republics in the Caucasus with complicated names such as Ingushetia, Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan -- the very places where Moscow now is battling Islamic insurrections.

Russian identity still is primarily cultural, remaining closely linked to the Russian language and the Orthodox Church. And the overall proportion of ethnic Russians has slipped only slightly, shrinking from 83% of the population to 79.8% over the last decade.

Demographic trends suggest that the decrease is likely to continue. Although most experts are skeptical, a former U.S. government expert on Russian nationalities recently predicted that Russia would have a Muslim majority within 30 years.

In addition to its own Muslim population, Russia is home to an estimated 10 million illegal immigrant workers from the largely Muslim former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The city of Moscow has swelled to 10.4 million people, and one-fifth of them are Muslims. The Russian capital has the largest Muslim population of any city in Europe.

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