Russians ( русские or russkie in Rus-sian) are the dominant ethnic population in the Russian Federation, the world’s largest state. According to the 2002 cen-sus, ethnic Russians represent 79.8 percent (115,889,107) of the country’s population. Outside of Russia, the largest concentra-tions of ethnic Russians are found in the surrounding republics that were part of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991; in terms of absolute numbers, the largest concentrations of Russians are found in Ukraine (over 8 million) and Kazakhstan (nearly 4 million). However, at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, eth-nic Russians and Russian-speakers had become near majorities in many neigh-boring regions or countries.
Additionally, the worldwide Russian diaspora numbers in the millions, with the largest numbers found in the United States and Canada. The Russian Orthodox Church remains the largest religious congregation in Rus-sia, though many are not observant or cel-ebrate other faiths. Russian, an Eastern Slavic tongue, is the official language of the Russian Federation.The ancient Slavs colonized vast tracts of Europe, leaving little trace of the lan-guages spoken there prior to their arrival. Linguists have suggested that the word “Slav” originated from the word slovo or “speech.” Slavs would come to predomi-nate across much of Europe before push-ing farther northwards and eastwards into what is now Russia.
The genesis of the Russian ethnic identity can be traced back to Kievan Rus. This political entity is his-torically contested as it is seen as the an-cestral root of not only the Russian nation, but also the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and often disputed Rusyn identities. The cre-ation of a political entity at the end of the first millennium permitted the promotion and consolidation of a common identity, one that rose above the tribal identities and was more constrained than the over-arching Slavic identity. In this period the Slavic Rus pushed deep into what is now central and northern Russia, displacing or assimilating the indigenous Finno-Ugrian peoples and establishing a “Russian land” (Русьская земля referring to the lands of Rus, not the modern Russia). This politi-cal consolidation was buttressed by the ar-rival of Christianity, which provided not only a written literature but also access to a new religious ideology encouraging ethnic consolidation.
One of the oldest undisputed East-ern Slavic written sources, The Primary Chronicle , recounts the establishment of a dynasty of princes that would rule in Rus and the successor principalities until the end of the 16th century. Here we read that Varangians (Norse Vikings) under the leadership of Rurik were invited to rule over Novgorod in 862 and their descen-dants would come to rule over Kiev and a series of cities stretching from Novgorod to Kiev. Ninth-century annals from West-ern Europe recount the arrival of emis-saries from “Rhos” who are Swedes; and 10th-century treaties drawn up between the “Rus” and Byzantium were signed by war-riors with Scandinavian names who were from the “land of the Rus.” By the end of the 9th century, a large territory was politi-cally united under the rule of a noble line that quickly assimilated as Slavic speakers.
Slavic farmers would follow the warriors and merchants, and Slavic Rus came to predominate linguistically and ethnically over an ever-larger territory.Kievan Rus extended its power and territory by subduing neighboring tribes, exacting tribute and soldiers to help the conquerors lead expeditions farther afield. At the core of Kievan Rus was the terri-tory surrounding Kiev, inner Rus. The main settlement in the northern territo-ries of Rus was Novgorod (“New City”) and Pskov. Archaeological evidence sug-gests that fortified settlements were estab-lished in scattered locations through the northern forests. Slavs and Scandinavians vied for control of the region, seeking to monopolize the collection of tribute and trade from the peoples inhabiting the for-est. Kiev extended its control over these northern Slavic cities and tribes in the 10th century.
Under the rule of Vladimir or Volod-ymyr, who reigned from 980–1015, Rus reached its apogee, but tribal identities re-mained. Seemingly to foster a common identity, Vladimir attempted to establish a cult that would transcend tribal identities and customs. Vladimir later reconsidered these policies. Legend has Vladimir send-ing out emissaries to collect information on the various faiths (Christianity Eastern and Western, Judaism and Islam), and ac-cording to tradition he chose to accept Or-thodoxy as the faith of Kievan Rus through his baptism in 988.
The rise of a centralized, Orthodox state promoted a common culture. In accept-ing Orthodoxy, Kievan Rus gained liter-acy. The alphabet that developed in the southern Slavic territories was transferred to Rus. Initially conducted in Slavonic, the liturgy used in the churches of Russia gradually converged with the local dialect to become Old Russian. Christianity pro-moted a common ethnic identity: the Ser-mon on Law and Grace penned by Ilarion, the first metropolitan from Rus appointed in 1051, describes how the spread of Chris-tianity promoted common symbols among the Rus. The religious zeal of converts also led to the settlement of new territo-ries. Russian monks pushed far northward, establishing monasteries in distant lands, as far as the borders of the Arctic Ocean (White Sea).
The start of the second mil-lennium was marked by a period of global warming, facilitating the spread of farm-ers northward, and the forest would have provided greater protection against the ma-rauding warriors of the steppe to the south of Kiev and central Rus. Religious and eco-logical forces promoted a growing Slavic population in northern territories, a popu-lation with a Rus identity, speaking a lan-guage that they called “Rusian” (руський or руский), and sharing a common faith.The Mongol invasions of Rus and sack-ing of Kiev in 1240 ended the preemi-nence of Kiev. The western territories of Rus would fall under the domination of western states: the Lithuanians, the Poles, and finally the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This division of the Eastern Slavs led to linguistic divergence, splitting the Rus into distinct languages and national identities.
Though dialectical differences existed be-tween the central Rus territories and the north where the language was influenced by the languages of the neighboring Finno-Ugrian tribes, the splitting of western Rus from the east would lead to the emergence of distinct Ukrainian and Belorussian lan-guages as well as religious schisms.The shaping of the Russian ethnos is closely tied to the conquests of the princes of Moscow. A minor settlement before the Mongol invasions, Moscow gained its first Rurik prince when Daniil, son of Alexan-der Nevsky, settled in Moscow. As the seat of the metropolitan and later patriarch and as a growing principality, Moscow would eventually lay claim to all the territories of Rus. In the 15th century, Moscow began conquering neighboring principalities, no-tably Novgorod, and Muscovy soon ruled over much of the former lands of north-ern and eastern Rus.
With the marriage of the prince of Moscow to Sophia, last prin-cess of Constantinople, Moscow princes claimed the title of Caesar (czar or tsar), claiming Moscow would be the third and final Rome. Subsequent conquests in-creased the territory of the Russian Empire over the Urals all the way to the Pacific Ocean and down to the Caucasus Moun-tains and the Black Sea. Peasants would follow, spreading Russians across Siberia and far to the south. The Russian Empire integrated much of the western lands of Rus in the 18th century.Despite vigorous Russification poli-cies, older ethnic and cultural diversity re-mained and new hybrid identities emerged across the Empire. Dozens of communi-ties that are classified as Russian could be defined as separate ethnic groups.
These include Russian Cossacks (казаки or ka-zaki ); the Pomory (Поморы), descendants of settlers from Novgorod who established themselves in the Russian far north prior to Moscow’s conquest of Novgorod; and the Jakutjane (Якутяне), who are de-scended from ethnic Russians and the in-digenous Sakha of the Russian far east. Though such groups tend to be small and dispersed, they do highlight the hetero-geneity that nonetheless exists under the Russian heading.
The rise of Peter the Great and the Ro-manov dynasty consolidated tsarist power and led to the emergence of modern Rus-sian culture. Peter spearheaded the mod-ernization of the empire, a policy pursued by later leaders. Under Peter, a Russian Navy was established and the nobility was forced to adopt Western European dress and manners, notably in shaving off their beards, in the 18th century. Peter oversaw construction of his new capital, St. Pe-tersburg, a city built using modern West-ern European design and aesthetics. In the 19th century, Russian authors developed a modern literary language and tradition, starting with Pushkin and reaching a cre-scendo with such authors as Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Likewise, com-posers and directors wrote and staged Rus-sian-language operas and Russian ballet performances as well as world-renowned symphonies.
These works became the basis of a standardized language and cultural tra-dition that would be taught in schools in the 20th century. Nonetheless, while a modern Russian identity was emerging, a rich cul-tural tradition of popular music, folklore, and folkways continued in the villages and countryside, where more than 90 percent of the population lived. Local communi-ties participated in a shared culture, with regional variations, which included folk tales, dances, and popular religious beliefs that were a syncretism of ancient pagan traditions and popular Orthodox Christian-ity. At the same time localities were linked to Russian identity because significant mo-ments of the history of Rus were preserved in byliny (былины), Russian epic poems.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the newly created Soviet Union promoted Russian language and culture through pol-icy and the movement of ethnic Russians into new territories across the Soviet Union. The resulting Russian diaspora remains to the present: approximately 25 millions Russians inhabit Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Be-larus, and the other neighboring indepen-dent states that were formerly republics in the Soviet Union. During Soviet times, the Russian language gained its greatest reach. Promoted as an international language, the language of national friendship and broth-erhood, Russian was spoken by half of the population as a mother tongue according to the 1989 census and was taught as a sec-ond language across the Soviet Union and in many of the Communist satellite states of the Eastern bloc.
Though attempts to promote the Russian language as a com-pulsory second language in Soviet schools met with limited success, at the height of Soviet power at least an additional 100 million people spoke some Russian as a second language in the Soviet Union, Eu-rope, and elsewhere.The Soviet Union transformed the countryside, resulting in a largely urban Russian population. Both in Russia and in the diaspora, ethnic Russians are concen-trated in cities. In the Russian Federation, close to 77 percent of all ethnic Russians live in urban areas as opposed to 73 per-cent of the population of the Russian Fed-eration. Likewise, in the former states of the Soviet Union ethnic Russians are concentrated in industrial and urban cen-ters. The ethnic landscape of the Russian Federation is being transformed as some ethnicities have higher birthrates and con-sequently younger and growing popula-tions, while others are declining both in terms of their absolute numbers and rel-ative importance.
Concurrently, internal migration within the Russian Federation is favoring large urban centers and cen-tral Russia to the detriment of the Russian Far East and other economically periph-eral regions of Russia.Also notable is growing immigra-tion to Russia, with the majority (96% in 2008) of migrants coming from former Soviet republics. While some of the mi-grants are ethnic Russians, they include many who are neither Russian nor Slavic. This influx of groups, along with grow-ing numbers of ultraconservatives and neo-Nazis in the Russian Federation, has led to ethnic conflict, with visible minori-ties being targeted for attack. While the Russian Federation must deal with the rise of very conservative and aggressive forms of Russian nationalism, ethnic Rus-sians in turn must negotiate with political forces in other states as they press for their rights.
Quite often these center on whether the Russian language should be an offi-cial state language (debated in Ukraine) or whether there should be Russian-language schools (debated in the Baltic states of Es-tonia and Latvia).With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a veritable 20th-century empire, Russians saw themselves as losing global prestige. Successor states such as Esto-nia and Latvia soon dropped the Rus-sian language as a compulsory subject in schools and required ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking minorities to learn their respective national languages. The 1990s in Russia were marked by economic and social dislocation. The economic turmoil of this period—hyperinflation, rising un-employment, the inability of business and the state to pay salaries and pensions and a reliance on barter and individuals produc-ing what they could to survive—resulted in high death rates and low birthrates among ethnic Russians.
Though the symptoms were starting to appear in the latter years of the Soviet Union, social ills such as ris-ing alcoholism and drug abuse contributed to the higher mortality of Russians across post-Soviet states. Other Soviet legacies in-cluded ecological degradation and the lack of viability of entire industrial sectors and cities. That and rising criminality and cor-ruption called into question the long-term prospects of the Russian Federation and the very future of Russians themselves. How-ever, Russia’s abundant natural resources together with rising commodity prices fu-eled a growing economy in the first decade of the second millennium. Russians felt a growing national pride and described the country as having “risen from its knees” on the world stage.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, old identities had to be either jet-tisoned or reworked. Soviet identity was quickly set aside, even by fervent Com-munists, as a new Russian state and eth-nic identity emerged. Central to this identity was the growing preeminence of Russian Orthodoxy. Though the Russian Federation is multiethnic and the Russian Orthodox Church is but one of a num-ber of religious faiths given official rec-ognition, the Russian Orthodox Church has been growing in importance, with old churches being restored and new churches being built. Likewise, large numbers of Russians have been baptized and politi-cians have been visibly demonstrating their Orthodox faith. Nonetheless, there has also been a growth in conversion to Protestantism in Russia as missionaries seek converts in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
This has led to conflict as the church has sought the support of the state in curb-ing the influx of foreign missionaries and new churches within the federation. Simi-lar struggles were under way elsewhere as people worked to reconcile the Soviet past. Typical of this process was the selection of a new national anthem. In the 1990s, under President Boris Yeltsin, a new hymn was selected with no lyrics. Then, under Putin, the Soviet anthem’s melody was chosen as the new national hymn and the lyrics of the old Soviet hymn reworked. A new Russian national identity is there-fore emerging that integrates Soviet history into Russia’s self-proclaimed thousand-year history.
Along with the willingness to incorpo-rate old Soviet symbols into the new Rus-sian Federation, there has been a growing centralization of a vertical power whereby under the banner of sovereign-democracy the state administration has been actively managing democracy and the media. Op-position parties have been marginalized and the major media, notably television, has come under state control as Rus-sia’s national television stations are ei-ther under state ownership or owned by state-controlled corporations. The short-lived war against Georgia in 2008 also highlighted the Russian Federation’s will-ingness to use military force to achieve political ends.
Barford, P. M. The Early Slavs: Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Eu-rope . London: British Museum Press, 2001.
Dolukhanov, Pavel M. The Early Slavs: East-ern Europe from the Initial Settlement to the Kievan Rus . New York: Longman, 1996.
Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia: People and Em-pire, 1552–1917 . Cambridge: Harvard Uni-versity Press, 1997.