In his book The Russian Empire: a Multi-Ethnic History, Andreas Kappeler surveys Russia in terms of its countless distinct ethnicities and cultures. Chapter eight, “the Late Tsarist Multi-ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition,” focuses on data from the 1897 general census of the Russian population. The census contained bias from various existing prejudices at the time, but it is an invaluable source when attempting to define the population of the largest and most varied territory in the world. The census included data on “social status, profession and educational level,” making it possible to study social, economic, and cultural trends in the Russian Empire. One of the largest changes Kappeler points out is the increased diversity caused by expansion. He states that the “young peoples” in newly acquired territories began to outnumber the established Russians and Eastern Slavs. Non-Russians constituted more than half of the total population, but the census did not distinguish between “Little Russians” (Ukrainians and Belorussians) and Russians, so Russians officially made up two-thirds of the population. The increased diversity of the empire was countered by a conservative push towards “cultural russification,” achieved through codifying the heterogeneous population.
One of the most revealing examples of the preference for Russians was the trend in peripheral areas such as Bessarabia, where Russians composed a very small percent of the population (8 percent), but were a majority of the hereditary nobility (55.8 percent). Kappeler describes the disproportionally high numbers of Russians in upper administrative offices and the central government pushing for the cultivation of specific cash crops in periphery regions as a form of “internal colonialism.” This colonial structure with Russians on top, along with census data pointing to the necessity of being able to speak Russian to be successful, displays a clear and unsurprising preference for Russian culture. The preference for Russian culture did not however, extend to a preference for the Russian people. Russian peasants continued to live in utter destitution and often fared worse than the non-Russian peasants on the eastern and western edges of the empire. Kappeler describes the “Russian centre” as paramount in the military and political spheres, yet common Russians had a lower life expectancy, and thus lower standard of living, than Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Tatars, and Bashkirs. Kappeler seemingly concludes that despite a certain degree of hatred or prejudice against people such as Muslims, Poles, and Jews, the Russian elite continued to also neglect their own people, and chose expanding their wealth or territory over improving the lives of their citizens.
Why did Russians lag so far behind other ethnic groups in things such as education, urbanization, and life expectancy?
Kappeler, Andreas. “The Late Tsarist Multi-Ethnic Empire between Modernization and Tradition.” Chap. 8, In The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic Empire. Translated by Alfred Clayton, 283: Longman, 2001.