Race and nationality: an attempt at a basic mind map

Because in recent years race and nationality has come up again and again in conversations, it seems worth making an effort to define some basic notions and divisions that I certainly knew nothing of before I came to live here.

In the Soviet Union passports carried information on ethnicity: this is no longer so: however all of those races and all of the nations that made up the USSR continue to exist and to play a role in the Russian understanding of the world.

First of all we have the Russians themselves, about 80% of the population. A wise man tends to avoid notions of purity, but in general a great number of Russians you talk to have varied ancestry. A group of 4 people I spoke to yesterday could count Russian, Azerbaijani, Polish, German, Ukrainian, Tartar, and Jewish elements in their ancestry. Then, when you come to look at non Russians, it helps to divide things up with some binary divisions. After a while one is tempted to draw Venn diagrams.


I am English, and so foreign in a way that the Uzbek people living and working in the city are not. The complex and ancient “Russian and the West” issues continue to matter, and, we westerners are seen in various ways, but these are more cultural than ethnic understandings. After a decade and a half here I am still to some extent a visitor: no one ever begrudges my poor Russian as they might resent the lack of Russian of other ex soviets.

“Some of these French people can’t speak Russian” is not a phrase I’ve ever heard, replace “French” with anyone of a number of post soviet nationalities and it is otherwise. Or consider the following exchange: I was standing by the lift in my apartment building with a neighbor, a young, dark skinned guy of Caucasian origin, though a third generation Russian Immigrant. As we were standing waiting for the lift we were looking at the fresh graffiti on the wall saying “Russia for Russians” and as he looked at me with a weary smile I said “That’s for me yeah?” He was still chuckling as we left the lift five floors up. I am never accused of stealing their jobs and chasing their women, though I have clearly done both.


The non-Russian Slavs most evident here are Ukrainians and Byelorussians. To most Russians they are seen as essentially the same people as the Slavs inside the boundaries of Russia, and, for me, being in eastern Ukraine a few years back was indistinguishable from being in Russia, as it was for the Russian friends I was with. As for non-Slav, a young Moldovan guy told me recently, he had said in company that he was not Russian and all of the folk around him had said warmly: “of course you are”. Basically the boundaries on the maps feel to most people to be no more than just lines.

Inside Russia/outside Russia

Some groups such as Dagestanis, Chechens, Tartars are people of republics within the border of the Russian Federation, others such as Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and the numerous central Asians are not, though all are ex-soviet peoples.


Georgians, Armenians, the other Slavs and the Baltic states are primarily Christian countries, at least in the sense that they, like Germany, or England have a Christian heritage. Azerbaijan, Chechnya and the central Asian states amongst others, are Muslim.

Caucasian/non Caucasian (meaning here people of the Caucasus region)

Generally the Caucasus region is seen as a space that is defined neither as European nor Asian, in the way that Ukraine is European and Kyrgyzstan is Asian. This is not about geography, but perception: I remember 20 years ago travelling around Eastern Europe, we would arrive in town after town and find tourist brochures telling us we had come to the very place where “East meets West” until finally it struck us that there is no point on planet earth where east does not meet west, nor north, south. There is something of that in the Caucasus of Russian perception.

All of this is obviously skimming the surface, and anthropologists, or even a Wikipedia writer can tell you there were over 100 distinct ethnic groups in the USSR, or that Dagestan alone has over thirty language groups. But, just as I can’t describe every nuance in a blog post, most Muscovites don’t think on such a complex level in day to day life any more than Greeks or Canadians do. That said, as a basic categorization of what people here are understanding when they speak of nationality, or race etc, I am confident it’s pretty much right.

Comrade Wiki will tell you more if you care.