Russia takes stock of itself in 1st census since 1989


OZYORNY, Russia - They have counted the four residents in the village of Pyalitsy on the Kola Peninsula above the Arctic Circle and confirmed the population of a hamlet called Ustye Vorzugi: one. In the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area in Siberia, they needed helicopters to track down families gathering cranberries in the bogs.

In some of the most remote hamlets and villages on earth, across a vast continent stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, Russia has begun the monumental task of conducting a census.

The census - the first since 1989, when Russia was still a part of the Soviet Union - will, like any census, provide a demographic snapshot.

Only in this case, it is a census of a nation that has been swept by radical social, political and economic change.

The full census will take place over eight days, beginning Oct. 9, during which 400,000 counters, supported by about 200,000 supervisors, officials and other workers, will fan out across the country.

But the counting has begun in some remote places that might not be accessible because of the onset of the Russian winter.

The questions aim to calculate the most pressing issues facing Russia today, from the state of unemployment and housing to immigration and, particularly, ethnic diversity, or "nationality," as the Russians put it.

For the first time, the census will allow citizens to identify themselves by ethnicity "as you consider yourself," raising politically sensitive issues.

"Before, nationality was defined from the top," said Matilda M. Guselnikova, deputy chief of the statistics committee in Irkutsk. "It will be interesting to see how people feel in their hearts."

When the results are compiled next year, the census is expected to confirm what demographers have been predicting: the steady decline in the Russian population from ill health, migration and what demographers call "the echo of war" from World War II; the increasing concentration of jobs and wealth in the biggest cities; and what may be the largest mass movement of people here since Stalin's forced relocations after World War II.

Irina A. Zbarskaya, director of the census department of the State Committee on Statistics in Moscow, estimated that nearly a third of Russia's 143 million people - about 45 million - had changed residences since the last census, and 10 million more had emigrated from the former Soviet republics after the union's breakup in 1991.

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