By understanding demographic trends from more than a century ago, it’s possible to obtain a more nuanced view of the complexities of the current crises in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Group of workers harvesting tea in Chakva, Georgia, Russian Empire, 1905. Photo: Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii

History, by its very definition, is often relegated to the past. However, in the context of the former Soviet Union, one piece of history in particular—the 1897 Imperial Russian census—has implications for both the present and the future. The demographic trends from more than a century ago can be remarkably useful guides to our understanding of developments in the post-Soviet space today, from Ukraine to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Novorossiya and Ukraine

With regard to Ukraine, the 1897 census presents contemporary observers with some interesting facts about the nature of the present-day conflict.  Russian nationalist activists have often invoked the concept of “Novorossiya,” a term that they use to refer to the Russian-speaking southeastern region of Ukraine. The Kremlin, too, has occasionally invoked this nomenclature, no doubt due to influence from hardliners from within its own ranks. However, as the conflict in Ukraine intensified, official Moscow cautiously distanced itself from such terminology.

The “Novorossiya” thesis claims that Ukraine’s Southeast forms a culturally and historically distinct area from the rest of Ukraine known as “Novorossiya.”  While it is undisputedly true that there was a distinct historical region known as Novorossiya, information from the 1897 census belies the idea that it was dramatically different in a cultural and ethnic sense from other parts of present-day Ukraine (especially Central Ukraine).

According to the official statistics of the census, the vast majority of the people living in the area of present-day Southeastern Ukraine (the Kherson, Taurida, Yekaterinoslav, and Kharkov governorates) self-identified as “Little Russians” (i.e. “Ukrainians”). Notably, in the case of the Taurida governorate, the mainland areas (today the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine) were largely ethnic Ukrainian while the Crimean peninsula was largely ethnic Russian and Tatar.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that the composition of modern Southeastern Ukraine, as described by the 1897 census, is a reflection of the population overall, including both urban and rural areas. As a whole region, it was largely Ukrainian or “Little Russian,” especially in the countryside.

However, in urban areas, the proportion of other ethnic groups was significantly larger. In Odessa on the Black Sea, the census revealed that the population was 49 percent Russian, 31 percent Jewish, and only 9 percent Ukrainian. Odessa’s position as a major center for Jewish life in the Russian Empire has had a lasting impact on the city’s culture to this day, even though the official number of Jews in Odessa has dramatically decreased since that time.

The 1897 census also reveals the deep and intimate relationship shared between Russians and Ukrainians, highlighting the fact that Ukrainians played the dual role of both “subjects” and “partners” of the empire. Outside of the territories that today comprise the state of Ukraine and adjacent areas in Southern Russia (notably the Don Host, the Kuban, and Stavropol), the census also reported large numbers of Ukrainians in the Russian Far East, notably in the Primorye and Amur regions.

Identity politics in Nagorno-Karabakh

Additionally, the 1897 census has continued relevance in the Caucasus, where its findings are used to back up competing nationalist claims. The dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh is perhaps the best example in this regard. In March 2015, a pro-Azerbaijani commentator wrote in The Hill that the “All-Russian Imperial Census from 1897 clearly identified an Azerbaijani majority in uyezds (administrative units of the Russian Empire) that covered the territory of today’s Karabakh region.”

This is misleading. The commentator correctly refers to a majority Azerbaijani (or “Transcaucasian Tatar” as they were known in the 1897 census) population in Karabakh.  However, he conveniently fails to distinguish between “Lowland Karabakh” and “Mountainous Karabakh.” The latter region (i.e. Nagorno-Karabakh), which Armenians call “Artsakh,” had a majority Armenian population according the 1897 census. Further, an earlier Russian survey of Mountainous Karabakh from 1823 also proves that the area was majority Armenian Christian. The presence of numerous Armenian churches and historical monuments in the area, as well as the existence of the unique Karabakh dialect of the Armenian language, further emphasize the region’s Armenian character.

By contrast, the area of Lowland Karabakh had a majority Azerbaijani (or “Tatar”) Shia Muslim population. However, when the total populations of the two Karabakhs (Mountainous and Lowland) are combined, Azerbaijanis emerge as a majority of the overall region of Karabakh. Hence, the commentator is technically correct in referring to Karabakh’s majority Azerbaijani population, but not that of Nagorno, or Mountainous, Karabakh, the actual area in dispute. Thus the failure of distinction on the part of the writer leads the American readers of The Hill to conclude that “Karabakh” is simply shorthand for “Nagorno-Karabakh.”


The confusion does not end in Nagorno-Karabakh. Further north, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the census has also become a bone of contention between ethnic Georgians and Abkhazian secessionists. Gali, the southernmost district of Abkhazia, is largely inhabited by Mingrelians, an ethnic Georgian subgroup native to the western Georgian region of Samegrelo.  Despite its ethnic composition, the territory is controlled by the authorities of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, based in Sukhumi.

Abkhaz historians assert that the locals of Gali were in fact Abkhaz before they “became” Mingrelians. Georgian historians balk at this claim and contend otherwise. The confusion stems from the fact that in the 1886 Russian survey of the Gali area, the locals were registered under the name “Samurzakanians,” an ethnonym derived from the 18th century Abkhaz prince, Murzakan Shervashidze. In the 1897 Russian census, these “Samurzakanians” were counted as part of the “Abkhaz” population. Abkhaz scholars claim that this decision was made because of the Abkhaz origin of the population, while Georgian scholars contend that it was merely an arbitrary decision taken by the editors of the census.

Were these mysterious “Samurzakanians” ethnic Abkhaz, ethnic Georgians, or a mix of both? They were most likely the latter – a truly “pre-national” people in an ethnically and linguistically fluid, though culturally Kartvelian, borderland. Regardless, the objective historical question of their identity has unfortunately become hostage to bitter rival nationalist polemics, framed in the context of the much larger Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

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Nor are the “Samurzakanians” the only mysterious people to have vanished from the Russian map after the 1917 Revolution. In Central Asia, the Sart people once existed throughout parts of present-day Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  The term was less “ethnic” than it was social, often indicating settled, as opposed to nomadic, populations. At the time of the 1897 Tsarist census, these curious Turkic-speaking Sarts were concentrated primarily in the Fergana, Syr-Darya, and Samarkand regions of the Turkestan general-governorship. After the 1917 Revolution, the Soviet reorganization of Central Asia, and the korenizatsiya (nativization) campaign, the Sarts disappeared and were largely classified as part of the Uzbek nationality.

On the whole, the statistics of the 1897 Imperial Russian census serve a dual purpose for observers of Russia and the former Soviet region today. They are valuable not only as windows into the past but also as instruments for better comprehending the thicket of contested identities and borders of the present. They vividly illustrate the continued relevance and ramifications of history on today’s post-Soviet politics.