Russian Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Russia has approximately 144 million people occupying the largest landmass of any country in the world. In this lesson we will discuss the ethnic diversity in Russia, grouped by language and geographic location.

What are the Ethnic Groups of Russia?

If you walk down the main streets of Moscow, Russia's capital and largest city, you will see people of many ethnicities. An ethnic group is people who identify with each other based upon some commonality whether it be their ancestry, experiences as a group, language similarities, or some other element that has brought the people together. Tourists from all over the world visit the capital and the beautiful and culturally rich city of St. Petersburg.

Cultural beauty in St. Petersburg
St Petersburg

But who are the people who live in these large cities and the vast landscapes beyond them? The cultural diversity of the Russian people is significant, with an estimated 185 different ethnic groups living mostly in the urban areas of the massive country.

Geographic Classification

Regional Map of Russia
Regional Map of Russia

For purposes of discussing ethnicities in the various geographic locations, Russia may be divided into

  • European Russia (yellow, magenta, light green, and green-gold) is the part of Russia primarily located in Europe and contains the largest cities and largest portion of the population
  • Caucasus region (blue) is the region near the Asia/Europe border, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea
  • Central Asia (pink) lies between the Caspian Sea and China
  • Siberia (gold) easternmost and northernmost part of Russia

Indo-European Cultures
Russian Woman
Ethnic Russian Woman

The Russian cultures whose languages are Indo-European in origin include 43 different ethnic groups and comprise nearly 85% of the Russian population. Of these, the ethnic Russians make up by far the largest group, residing mostly in the urban regions of European Russia. Slavic in origin, these people speak Russian, the official language of the country. These people are largely Russian Orthodox, with a sprinkling of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Buddhism, and others. Professed atheists represent approximately 8% of the population.

The other Indo-European groups in European Russia include the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans, Roma, Moldovans, Poles, Lithuanians, Bulgarians, Latvians, and many smaller (less than 10,000 members) groups.

Indo-European groups in the Caucasus region of the country (borderland between the Black and Caspian Seas) include The Armenians, Ossetians, Pontic Greeks, Yazidis, Kurds, and an array of smaller groups.

Finally, the Tajiks--a group of over 200,000 people--live in the Central Asia portion of Russia (between the Caspian Sea and China).

Caucasian Language Cultures
Georgians of South Caucasus in Traditional Outfits
Georgians in Traditional Dress

Located largely in the Caucasus region, the Caucasian people live in a mixed region of mountains, forests, steppes (unforested grassland), and marshes. Over 50 separate cultures reside in the area of Caucasian mountains, some of which date back to ancient times. Four families of languages--Caucasian, Indo-European, Turkic, and Semitic are all represented in the region. Specific language groups include:

  • In the northeast, the Chechens, Avars, Dargins, Lezgians, Ingush, Laks, Tabasarans, and many smaller groups;
  • in the northwest, the Adyghe, Cherkess, and other smaller groups;
  • in the south, the Georgians and Georgian Jews.

Turkic Cultures
Kazakh People Playing a Game
Kazakh People in a Game

The Russian people who speak Turkic languages are spread throughout Russia, appearing in nearly every region, including:

  • In European Russia, the Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, Gagauz, and smaller groups;
  • In the Caucasus regions, the Azerbaijanis, Kumyks, Karachays, Balkars, Turks, and Nogais;
  • In Central Asia, the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kurgyz, Turkmens, and others; and
  • In Siberia, the Yakuts, Tuvans, Altay, Khakas, Shors, and others.

The Turkic people in Central Asia tend to be a mix of Caucasoid and Mongoloid origin and retain characteristics of both sets of people, who have rich and varied cultures.

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