Russia is home to as many as 190 different ethnic groups, making it one of the most diverse countries in the world. Around 20% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities.
There are many indigenous ethnic groups scattered across the country. Some are diasporas from former parts of the Russian Empire or Soviet Union, some have migrated inside the present borders, but many live in the regions of their ancestors. While some groups have mostly been assimilated, others keenly maintain their independent cultural identity.
Russia is also a highly popular immigration destination, particularly for those living in countries that once made up the Soviet Union. The large bulk of immigrants come from Ukraine, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia, although especially in the 21st century immigrants have also come from other parts of the world.
The modern state of Russia traces its roots to the kingdom of Kievan Rus', said to founded by Rurik the Viking in Staraya Ladoga, but with its capital later moving to Novgorod and later Kiev (today part of Ukraine). The Rurikid Dynasty came to and end with the death of the childless Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible in 1598, and the Romanovs emerged victorious in the power struggle that ensued in 1613. Beginning from the time of Peter the Great, the Russian Empire gradually expanded eastward into Asia, eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean in 1639. Much of the native populations in Siberia and what is today the Russian Far East were decimated in the process, and their land was given to ethnic Russian settlers. Today, most parts of Russia have majorities of ethnic Russians, but numerous indigenous ethnic groups still survive, often economically disadvantaged relative to the ethnic Russian majority.
The Finno-Ugric language family is one of few non-Indo-European ones to have significant numbers of non-immigrant speakers in Europe. As the languages are not related at all to the Indo-European languages, such as English, Russian or Swedish, they are considered by many to be difficult to master.
The Finno-Ugric languages are believed to have their origin in the Urals and most of the ethnic groups speaking them live somewhere in Russia or by its western border (Estonians, Finnish, Sami), with Hungarians the main exception.
Several Finnic peoples live in northwestern Russia, including the Karelians in Karelia, Ingrians and Vepsians. Their languages are mutually intelligible or nearly so with Finnish and Estonian across the border.
Other ethnic groups include the Mari (native to Mari El), the Komi (native to the Komi Republic), the Nenets (native to Nenetsia and Yamalia), the Moksha (native to Mordovia), Erzyans (native to Mordovia), and Udmurts (native to Udmurtia). Since the fall of the USSR, many of these ethnic groups have declined in population.
The Udmurts have the distinction of being the most red-headed people in the world, and since 2004, a festival to celebrate red-haired people has been held annually in Udmurtia's capital, Izhevsk.
A significant portion of the Mari people continue to practise the traditional Mari religion, making them the only remaining pagans in Europe who were never Christianized.
The Khanti and the Mansi people of Khantia-Mansia are considered indigenous groups, and their languages are closely related to Hungarian. Some historians believe that the ancestral homeland of Hungarians is rooted in Khantia-Mansia. If proven true, Hungary and Russia may have a lot more in common than they think!
Russia used to be home to millions of Jews. Most of them emigrated to North America (mostly in the 1890s to 1920s and the 1970s to 1990s) or Israel (especially the aliyah in the 1990s), or perished in the Holocaust. Today, around 150,000 Jews live in Russia.
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East was intended by Stalin as a Soviet answer to Israel as a non-Zionist center of Jewish culture, but it was unsuccessful. Only 2% of its inhabitants are Jews, and Russia's Jewish population remains mostly concentrated in the European part.
Russia is home to members of virtually all Turkic ethnic groups, and it has the largest Turkic population outside of Turkey and Central Asia. Some of the largest Turkic communities include the Chuvash, the Karachay, the Altais, Balkars, Tatars, Bashkirs, Nogais, Tuvans, and Yakuts.
The Chuvash are native to the Volga Region and are predominantly Russian Orthodox, although a small minority of Chuvash people are adherents of Islam and indigenous beliefs.
The Altai, Khakass, Tuvans, and Yakuts are native to Siberia, and they follow a blend of religions – many of them are Russian Orthodox, but there are large communities of Buddhists, shamanists, and followers of other indigenous beliefs.
The Tatars and the Bashkirs are native to the Volga Region and the Urals. They are predominantly Muslim and follow a liberal form of Islam. For instance, it's common for them to drink alcoholic beverages and they don't see any problem in revealing clothing such as bikinis.
The Karachay, Balkars, and Nogais are native to the southern fringes of the country, and are predominantly Muslim. They follow a slightly stricter form of Islam than the Tatars and the Bashkirs.
The Crimean Tatars are native to Crimea. They were deported to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944. Some could return to the peninsula only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of these returnees and their descendants felt the urge to emigrate elsewhere after Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, because of the distrust towards Russia in the collective consciousness left by the Stalin deportation. In many ways, the Crimean Tatars are closer to the Turks than to the Tatars of the Volga Region they share their ethnonym with, due to the common history during the Ottoman Empire.
Centuries of Russian influence have led to several well-established Central Asian communities in Russia. Kazakhs form the largest Central Asian community, followed by Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz, Azeris, and Turkmens. Illegal immigration from Central Asia is quite high, and it has long been a hot-button issue in Russia.
The North Caucasus is the one of the few regions where ethnic Russians are a minority. Some of the most notable Caucasian ethnic groups include Chechens, the Ingush, Adyghes, Kabardians, Balkars, Avars, Dargins, Laks, and Lezgins. The large bulk of Caucasian ethnic groups are native to Dagestan, the most heterogeneous republic in all of Russia. Russia is also home to significant Georgian and Armenian diasporas due to their history as part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union; Stalin himself was a Georgian who only spoke Russian as a second language.
Virtually all of these ethnic groups are religious, traditional and conservative, much more so than other ethnic groups around Russia, and many of them (the Chechens in particular) are often keen on promoting a fiercely independent cultural identity. Many Caucasian ethnic groups follow a stricter version of Islam than the Tatars and the Bashkirs. The Chechens engaged two all-out wars of independence, as well as a long-going insurgency against the Russian government from 1994-2017, eventually ending in a compromise which granted the Chechen government considerable autonomy within the Russian Federation, including the right to implement Sharia law locally, in exchange for them dropping their demands for independence.
The Circassians (Adyghe) are probably the most politically active ethnic group in and outside Russia. The diaspora regularly raises awareness of the Circassian Genocide, and presses for the preservation of their culture and language.
Given their complex position in Russian society and history, Caucasian ethnic groups have an odd, love-hate relationship with ethnic Russians. While some ethnic Russians praise them for their warmth and hospitality, some ethnic Russians treat them with a degree of suspicion and contempt, and Caucasians are often discriminated against; some landlords (particularly in Moscow) won't allow Caucasians to rent an apartment. In addition, immigration policies are somewhat biased against Caucasians; The Russian government is often reluctant to repatriate diaspora Circassians as they feel it could upset the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus.
The Ossetes of North Ossetia are a notable exception religion wise, being one of the few majority-Orthodox-Christian ethnic groups in an otherwise heavily Muslim religion. As they had collaborated with the Russian Empire during its conquest of the region, relations are tense between the Ossetes and the Muslim ethnic groups of the Caucasus. Things came to a head in the 2004 when Chechen separatists besieged a school in Beslan and took more than 1,100 hostage, with the firefight that later ensued resulting in the deaths of 333 people, 186 of them children.
It is not unusual for Caucasians to shower foreign visitors with excessive hospitality, as foreign visitors to the North Caucasus are quite rare.
The Ossetes, the Orthodox Christian relatives of the Persians of Iran form the majority in the central part of the North Caucasus. They're the only Persian-related ethnic group in Russia – most Persian-related ethnic groups live around Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Pakistan. They are one of the few Persian-related ethnic groups to not be predominantly Muslim.
Similar to their Caucasian counterparts, the Ossetes are noted for being both very traditional and conservative.
- Cossacks are an East Slavic ethnic group, traditionally living as nomads of the East European plains. They were organized in cossack hosts, disbanded by the Soviet Union. The city of Krasnodar considered to be a major centre of Cossack culture in Russia.
- The Volga Germans are descendants of the German settlers who arrived in numbers to the Volga Region under the 1763 invitation of Catherine the Great, herself a German princess at birth. During the early Soviet era, there was an autonomous Volga German administration centred in Engels (itself renamed after one of the German co-founders of Marxist theory), but it was disestablished after the Nazi attack on the Soviets, and most of its population was exiled to the far-flung areas of the Urals, Siberia, and Central Asia. After the Soviet collapse, many Volga Germans "returned" to Germany, while some moved to Kaliningrad Oblast, formerly Germany's East Prussia, which had lost all of its original German population after World War II.
- The Kola Norwegians are the descendants of fishermen originally from Vardø who settled in the 19th century along the coast of the Rybachiy Peninsula, northwest from Murmansk. Only a few remain today, and even fewer maintain any level of knowledge of the local Norwegian dialect.
- Around 200,000 Roma people live in Russia.
- 150,000 Koreans live in Russia. Most of them had migrated to the Russian Far East during the 19th century, but were deported to the Central Asian plains under Stalin. However, there are about 30,000 on Sakhalin.
- The Buryats of Buryatia are the biggest indigenous group in Siberia. They are culturally related to Mongols and follow the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. Back in the 17th century, a group of closely-related Oirats immigrated westwards to the shores of the Caspian Sea, and settling in what is now Kalmykia, where they are now known as the Kalmyks, making the area the only part of Europe where Buddhists are the majority. Many Kalmyks were deported to Siberia during World War II under the suspicion of being Nazi collaborators, and were only allowed to return in 1953 following the death of Stalin.
- A remote region in the Siberian taiga, Evenkia is home of the Evenks, traditionally reindeer herders related to the Manchu of Northeast China (Manchuria). The Evenk population also spills across the border into the Chinese provinces of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang.
- The Chukchis form the majority in Chukotka, the easternmost region of Russia. Others who call the region home include the Evens (related to the Evenks), and the Yupik who also inhabit neighbouring Alaska across the Bering Strait.
- The Nivkh, traditionally semi-nomadic fishermen, live on the Pacific island of Sakhalin and nearby parts of the Russian Far East.
- The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido in Japan, as well as parts of Sakhalin and Kamchatka. The Ainu language is now extinct in Russia, and only has a handful of elderly speakers remaining in Japan, though about 100 Russian citizens still identify as ethnically Ainu.
- The Dungans are an offshoot of China's Hui Muslim community, and continue to speak a dialect of Mandarin, albeit written in the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Chinese characters. Most Dungans today live in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, though a community of over a thousand individuals lives in Russia.
The relationship between the ethnic Russian majority and Russia's ethnic minorities varies between minority ethnic groups. While some, such as the Ossetes, have a long history of brotherhood with the ethnic Russians, some others, such as the Chechens and the Ingush have tense relationships with Moscow due to a long history of oppression under the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.