Russians - Orientation

Identification. Russians are the largest subdivision of the Eastern Slavs, the other members of which are Ukrainians and Belarussians. The Russian language emerged from the common East Slavic tongue, Ancient Russian or Old Church Slavonic, by the fourteenth century A.D. in the Rostov-Suzdal' area of central Russia.

Location. In 1979 eight administrative provinces (oblasts) of central Russia were over 97 percent Russian; in addition, over 90 percent of the population in a north' south ellipse encompassed by St. Petersburg, Arkhangel'sk, Gorki, Volgograd, Rostov-na-Donu, Belgorod, and Smolensk was Russian. Three areas in the Urals and western Siberia—Kurgan, Novosibirsk, and Kemerovo oblasts—likewise were over 90 percent Russian.

These Russian areas are flat or rolling, with a mix of forests and steppes, mostly glaciated in European Russia and loessial in western Siberia. They have cold, snowy winters and summers ranging from cool to very hot. Soils are podzolic in the north and chernozemic in the south. The Russian lands are transected by important rivers, the Oka, Volga, Don, Donets, and Severnaya Dvina in Europe and the Ob system in western Siberia. Peripheral waters include Lakes Ladoga and Onega, the White Sea, and the Gulf of Finland in the European North and the Sea of Azov in the south.

Natural conditions in the Russian environment have been profoundly altered by agriculture, which has left only residual forests south of Moscow; by extensive water development, especially on the Volga and Don; and especially by urbanization. In 1989 only fourteen of thirty primarily Russian oblasts were under 70 percent urban. Tambov, 56 percent urban, was the most rural Russian area in Europe. Conversely, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ivanovo, and Yaroslavl in Europe and Kemerovo in Siberia were over 80 percent urban. The largest primarily Russian cities were Moscow (9.0 million), St. Petersburg (5.0 million), Nizhny Novgorod (1.4 million), and Novosibirsk (1.4 million).

Despite the degree of urbanization, Russians remain deeply attached to their natural environment. A dacha in the countryside, even if it is a humble cabin, is much sought after and often obtained. Russian poetry, which remains a highly esteemed expressive form (and a mainstay of education), often celebrates the beauty of the land. Contrast Pushkin's "Winter Evening" and Yesenin's "The Golden Grove Has Ceased to Speak." Although these poems were written years ago, the environment to which they refer—birches, oaks, pines, feather grass, nightingales and cranes, and the Russian rivers—has deep and pervasive meaning to this day.

Demography. Expanding with the rise of Muscovy, the Russian people numbered more than 8 million by 1678. Concentrated in central and northern Russia and thinly settled in the Urals and Siberia, they formed about 40 percent of the population of the Russian Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1917 their numbers had grown to about 76 million, with somewhat less than half of these in their ancient core area but only 10 percent outside the boundaries of today's Russia. Prior to World War II the Russian population was characterized by high fertility and mortality—a crude birth rate of 33 per 1,000, a death rate of 23.6 per 1,000, and a life expectancy of about 44 years. World War II and its aftermaths had disastrous effects: the 1959 census reported that, for the ages 35 and over, there were only 54 men for 100 women, the absolute deficiency of men in these ages coming to 12.2 million. By 1979-1980 the Russian population had reached 137.4 million, with 25 percent of the gain between 1939 and 1979 coming from Russification, but the natural increase rate, with dropping fertility, averaged only about 6 per 1,000 over the same period. Recent Russian life expectancies at birth are among the lowest for any urbanized population: the 1988 figures were 69.9 years for both sexes, 64.8 years for men, and 74.4 years for women. Infant mortality for the Russian Republic in that year was 18.9 per 1,000 births (three-quarters of the USSR average). By 1979 one-third of the Russian population of 137 million lived in the old core area, another half elsewhere in the Russian Republic, and only 17 percent in the other parts of the USSR, where, however, they often constituted a large minority or a near majority (Estonia). Today the population is 150 million. The Russian population has grown at a historic rate of 0.9 percent annually.

Cardiovascular stress associated with smoking, alcoholism, the workplace, and family life is the major cause of death today. For women, the combination of heavy domestic work loads and full-time employment contributes to the death rate. This, as well as poor housing, spouse abuse (associated with alcoholism), and unplanned pregnancies partly account for a lifetime average of five abortions per woman—more than twice the number of live births. Fewer than 60 percent of Russian women practice a contraceptive method other than withdrawal or the rhythm method; the total number of women suffering from the consequences of abortions and related medical practices is hard to assess but certainly high.

Migration, particularly to and from Siberia, has had a marked effect on the population, with only 10 to 20 percent of the migrants remaining in their adopted homes after five years. Such movements of population are of course associated with social and political stress.

Linguistic Affiliation. Speakers of Russian form the largest East Slavic speech community, the other members being Ukrainian and Belarussian. After the Common Slavic, Common East Slavic, and Old Russian stages, the Russian language emerged in about the fourteenth century in central Russia (centered on Rostov-Suzdal'). The Russian language has historically been divided among northern, cental, and southern dialects and by marked differences between the popular, administrative, and ecclesiastical styles, which are still evident in vocabulary and syntax. Russian has also been influenced by other languages, notably Finno-Ugric in its early stages, Germanic, Turkic, Greek, Polish, and, above all, French and, most recently, English.

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