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.
Along Moscow’s wide boulevards, minarets rise next to the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. Across the country, there are 8,000 mosques, up from 300 in 1991, when Soviet strictures on religious observance were lifted. Markets more often than not are run by immigrants from Azerbaijan. Construction sites would come to a halt if not for low-paid workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Russian authorities have started a campaign to convince a nation historically hostile to foreign migration that its economic development, and perhaps its survival, depends on its opening its doors.
The Kremlin in July announced that it would try to attract as many as 1 million Russian-speaking immigrants from former Soviet republics by offering citizenship and other benefits, particularly to those willing to settle in underpopulated regions. The government also has proposed legalizing 1 million or more migrant workers, many of whom undoubtedly will be Muslim.
President Vladimir V. Putin, realizing that the country’s survival is at stake, has exhorted the public to embrace a multicultural society. He has stepped up prosecutions for hate crimes. Recently, he launched a bid for Russia to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the premier political league of Muslim nations.
“Russia must be for Russians, Tatars, Mordovians, Ossetians, Jews, Chechens, for all our peoples and for the entire Russian nation,” Vladislav Y. Surkov, the Kremlin’s top political aide, told students in February.
The response in some quarters has been violent. About 50 Asians, blacks and other minorities died in racially motivated attacks across the nation last year, including a 9-year-old African Russian girl who was stabbed in St. Petersburg in March.
In August, riots broke out in an industrial backwater town of 35,000 people near the Finnish border after a bar fight between ethnic Russians and Chechen migrants left two Russians dead.
Soon after, an estimated 2,000 Russians turned out at a rally to complain that corrupt officials in Kondopoga were “selling our town to aliens,” a reference to the estimated 200 Chechens who have a large presence in markets.
After the rally, a mob set fire to the restaurant where the fight occurred, as well as to the central produce market and several kiosks, stores and cars owned by immigrants.
Exodus in the Caucasus
Russia has applied its military and political might for more than 180 years to secure the largely Muslim border areas of the Caucasus region; wars waged by czarist troops there in the early 19th century are among the cornerstones of Russian literature. It is one of the country’s deepest ironies that despite the effort, there are few ethnic Russians left in the region and its future is again in question.
Chechnya’s demographic picture is changing, in large part because of the casualties and ethnic separation resulting from two wars. Researchers think as many as 55,000 civilians have been killed, 35,000 of them ethnic Russians.
But Chechnya’s 5,800 square miles of shell-pocked towns, looted factories and scarred villages also illustrate forces that will help determine Russia’s future.
Birthrates in the patchwork of republics of the North Caucasus are substantially higher than those in urban Slavic Russia. Whereas the old imperial capital, St. Petersburg, last year had a birthrate of 8.57 per 1,000 population, the rate in Chechnya was 25 per 1,000. In Dagestan, it was 16; in Ingushetia, 14.
The shift in Chechnya’s demographics comes amid a high infant-mortality rate caused by poverty, the collapsing healthcare system and the aftermath of the Chechen war. Overall, the ethnic Russian population has decreased by about 300,000 over the last decade, slipping from 27% of the republic’s population to less than 4%.
Migrants from the North Caucasus and neighboring Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia are also spreading north. They are rapidly expanding into traditionally ethnic Russian cities such as Astrakhan, Volgograd, Rostov, Stavropol, Krasnodar and beyond.
Analysts have warned that ethnic stratification along Russia’s borders could induce a breakup of the country into ethnic enclaves. Although the point is debatable, the worry clearly has been aggravated by the demographic shift. Putin has encouraged ethnic Russians to resettle in the northern Caucasus.
The exodus, he said, “means a loss of a qualified labor force, and what is worse, the art of living together is getting lost too.”
Ingushetia, a predominantly Muslim region adjoining Chechnya, has seen its Russian population drop to 4% from 15% over the last 10 years. Spokesman Issa Merzhoyev quoted the president of the republic, Murat Zyazikov, as saying the departure of the Russians represented a “road to nowhere.”
The republic has allocated $175,000 a year to help Russian families return and is building a Russian Orthodox church in one village. Last year, there were 800 returnees.
Alexander Zhilin, an ethnic Russian who is governor of the Astrakhan region on the Caspian Sea, said ethnic Russians there were not having children. However, his region is one of many experiencing a large influx of Chechens and Central Asians.
“The Muslim component is growing, and all the others have a decreased birthrate,” he said. “And if we don’t give birth to more children, in 50 years there will be nothing left of us.”
Siberia’s Changing Face
To fly across Asiatic Russia today is to look down on a carpet of uninterrupted forest and taiga, near-empty villages and rusting, abandoned factories sprinkled with a few oil and mining boom towns. The Magadan region on the Sea of Okhotsk lost slightly more than half its population from 1989 to 2002; Chukotka, in the far northeast, lost two-thirds.
Authorities have nearly given up trying to keep the most frigid, remote reaches of the country populated. The vast tracts of Siberia and the Arctic have barely one person per square kilometer, one of the lowest population densities on Earth.
Residents who were offered better pay and early retirement by the Soviet government to move there have migrated west and south for better jobs and warmer climates. In many areas, the government is encouraging the moves, realizing that populating remote, icy wastelands of the far north never made economic sense.
But some parts of Siberia still are a priority for Moscow. The country’s most productive oil fields are in western Siberia, and some areas have experienced strong growth in population and the economy. The government says it needs 10,000 immigrants to develop the huge new Vankor oil and gas field in the Krasnoyarsk region of southern Siberia.
And there has been serious talk of relocation programs to boost the underpopulated far east, presumably as a bulwark to China.
Today, Chinese workers are tilling Russian farms, and towns such as Khabarovsk are dotted with Chinese restaurants and markets selling imported goods that are far cheaper and more popular than Russian products.
“There are Russian demographers who say, ‘Oh, it’s all right, let the Chinese populate the far east; we’ll have mixed marriages and everything will be fine,’ ” said Yelena Breyeva, an expert with the Laboratory for Problems of Demographic Development, a branch of an institute associated with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“But recently, I’ve been hearing a different idea: If we are in such a hurry to welcome the Chinese and people of other nationalities, is this still Russia, or is it some other country?”
Any effort to build a multiethnic future would have to overcome deep suspicions from the Soviet past and the recent wars. In Chechnya, where people have suffered from both, each side accuses the other of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide.
Chechens still recall mass deportations by Stalin in 1944. An estimated 200,000 Chechens died on the way to the steppes of Kazakhstan or during the 13-year exile that followed.
Abukhadzhi Batukayev, 101, was separated from his wife and children when he was put on a packed train to take him into exile.
“They would stop the train and just dump bodies out on the side. There wasn’t even room to sleep; people were standing and sitting -- they were so jammed together,” he said.
“Finally, I met someone who told me that my family, together with the other residents of that village, were pushed into the horses’ stables at the collective farm, and the stables were set on fire. And when people began to jump out through the doors and windows, the soldiers began to shoot at them.”
Today, Chechens say the old policies have taken a more subtle form. They cite the government’s failure to rebuild clinics and hospitals, and the continued arrest of young Chechen men as suspected insurgents. Many are never seen again.
“When a unit of federal troops destroys an entire village, shoots young men, hangs people, including children, what can you call this thing? You can’t find another term but genocide for it,” said Vahit Akayev, a sociology professor at Chechen State University.
Zarema Mukusheva, an activist with a human rights organization in Grozny, rejects that argument. But the result, she said, still is that young people, those who should be building the future of Chechnya, are dying in large numbers.
Ethnic Russians say they are the ones disappearing.
“Chechnya has become, on the whole, a mono-ethnic Muslim state. Russians fled Chechnya and spread like sand all over Russia,” said Lidya Grafova, an advocate for ethnic Russians who lost their homes and relatives in Chechnya. “A majority of them today are leading a life from hand to mouth. People lost everything: housing, belongings, and the most important thing they lost was their relatives -- people died, very many of them.
“The processes underway in Chechnya can be described by one and only one word: the genocide of the [Russian] people.”
But with the war mostly over, some are hanging on. There are several Russian doctors and nurses at hospitals, and a few Russian engineers at the republic oil company. Money has come from Moscow to finish rebuilding the church, said Skachidubova, the Russian retired literature teacher in Grozny.
“There are still Russians living in the city, and on big holidays sometimes we have between 200 and 300 people here. All this room is full, and sometimes people are even standing outside,” she said.
“Some of them don’t even want to go. After all, their families, their friends, their parents are buried here. This is their home.”
Yakov Ryzhak of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.
About this series
A declining population threatens Russia’s future:
Sunday: Russians are dying in record numbers from disease, suicide and substance abuse.
Monday: An inadequate health- care system provides good care only for those who can pay.
Today: As Muslim populations grow, Russians confront a multiethnic future.
Read the previous installments at latimes.com/russians.