Right and responsibility of choosing ethnic identity

Winfried Dallmann, ANSIPRA Secretariat
December 2004

Until recently, Russian identification documents contained information of a person’s ethnic affiliation (in Russian: “nationality”, as opposed to “citizenship”). This is now abandoned in all newly issued documents. People have lost the only official way of easily proving, which ethnic group or people they belong to. This may be disadvantageous for those who want to prove that they are members of numerically small indigenous peoples which have benefits. It may be advantageous for those who feel they belong to a different group than the one they are registered to, for example, if one wants to be registered as Udegey instead of something else.

A very large number of Russian citizens have a mixed ethnic origin, often through many generations, and there may occur good and not so good reasons during a person’s lifetime, which make him or her feel to belong to the mother’s instead of father’s, or other ancestors’ ethnic affiliation. This may either be a genuine commitment for cultural, psychological, political or other reasons, or a pretext in order to achieve economic or other benefits.

But with rights normally also come along duties. Assigning themselves to a new ethnic identity makes one people smaller and another one larger in number, especially when many individuals do the same. The overall results will have political consequences. During the census of 2002, which never was officially published, most of the numerically small indigenous peoples showed a sudden increase in size since the 1989 census, most of them by 10-30%, but up to 140% – the latter for the very small, severely endangered Orok people. While it is known that many representatives of these peoples live under very poor economic conditions, are subjected to severe health problems and higher mortality than birth rates, such a statistic increase may be used by the authorities as a pretext to decline from urgently needed measures to support the cultural survival of this ethnic group.

Most of the growing numbers are probably caused by the fact that more and more people of mixed origin assign themselves to the numerically small peoples, which now are focussed on by many political agendas. Also, many fully indigenous individuals, earlier assigning to other ethnicity by convenience (for example, Russian), now have changed both their conviction and nationality .

Another problem that may occur in this context is an ethnographic confusion. The easiest way of explaining this is by using examples: The word Oroch is of Tungus linguistic origin and means “reindeer people”. It refers to a traditional occupation with a strong cultural content. The word is used by many Tungusic peoples with different languages and residence areas. A subgroup of the Evenk people in the Trans-Baikal area call themselves Orochon; both the Orok and Negidal peoples were called Orochi by others; a part of the Even people living at the Sea of Okhotsk traditionally call themselves Oroch; and finally, there is an officially recognised people called Orochi that lives in the southeasternmost part of the Khabarovsk Territory. Due to this usage, for instance, people of ethnographically seen distinct Even ancestry identify themselves as Orochi, although they do – ethnographically – not have much in common with the officially recognised people of the same name. Such circumstances may give rise to confusion about size and geographical distribution of the peoples in question.

Consequently, changing ethnic identity may have severe consequences and should be considered carefully by each and everyone. Being a member of a numerically small indigenous people is much more popular today than it was for most of the last century. It is known that even persons with solely Russian ancestors, possibly due to sympathy or to achieve economic benefits, suddenly assign themselves to a numerically small people, not being aware of possibly rendering their host group a disservice.