Census taken, but gaps remain

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: Census takers brave wary, sometimes aggressive citizens while trying to gather data for a statistical portrait of the nation since 1989.

October 20, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - After weeks of hoopla, skepticism and suspense, Russia's first census of the post-Soviet era officially ended last week.

Over an eight-day period, an army of more than 400,000 canvassers armed with pens, census forms and plastic whistles rang doorbells from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Billboards urged Russians to "write yourself into history," newspapers lavished coverage on the effort and President Vladimir V. Putin's census interview was broadcast on television.

But it's too early to say how successful authorities were at counting Russia's estimated 143.5 million citizens because of reports that many wary Russians refused to be interviewed.

In Moscow alone, where almost 90 percent of the estimated 10 million residents have been canvassed, 600,000 people had declined to participate, census officials said.

Canvassers will soon be back on the streets, officials say, to fill in gaps and revisit the apartments of holdouts. The results aren't expected for several months.

But officials hope to gather enough data to draw a statistical portrait of Russia after its wrenching 11-year effort to build a modern capitalist state on the wreckage of the Soviet empire. "It will answer the question, are we degrading, or really developing?" says one Moscow census taker, Olga Okonoshenko, 20.

Life expectancy and the birth rate have plunged, while crime, poverty and alcoholism have soared, studies have shown. Experts expect the population to fall from 147 million in 1989, when the last Soviet census was conducted. The only question is by how much. The census is also expected to measure a huge shift from rural areas to cities, and from the north and east of Russia to the west and south.

Many Russians did not believe the promises from Goskomstat, the state agency running the census, that the information would remain confidential. Some, like Yelena Durogavtseva, suspected authorities would use the data to catch illegal immigrants, draft dodgers and tax evaders.

"When answering questions about my income, even if I had some side job, I wouldn't confess," the 25-year-old lawyer said. "I have no doubt that the confidentiality will not be preserved." She called the census "completely useless."

Yet when two canvassers - Okonoshenko and Sergei Sorokovoi, 22, both students at Moscow's Polytechnic Institute - arrived at her tiny 20th-floor apartment in northern Moscow on Tuesday, Durogavtseva agreed to participate. Why? She shrugged. "Because I don't feel comfortable if I say no," she said.

Census takers, paid $48 for a month's work, have braved snarling Rottweilers, aggressive alcoholics and embittered Communists. There were reports of several thefts and assaults - and one rape of a canvasser.

In Voronezh, about 500 miles south of Moscow, some people refused to answer questions until census takers hauled out the trash or cleaned stairwells. That, and low pay, led 173 to quit. A number of residents of Tula, about 120 miles south of Moscow, wouldn't open doors to canvassers while the municipally supplied heat remained shut off in their buildings.

A plumber in Tver, about 150 miles northwest of here, reportedly grabbed the form out of a census taker's hands and ate it, according to the Internet newspaper www.utro.ru. He explained later that he wanted to protest the Bush administration's threats of military action against Iraq.

Some Russians, meanwhile, were upset about questions they weren't asked. Many Muscovites, census takers say, asked to register their pets. Others were indignant that the forms didn't list their religious beliefs.

Sorokovoi says he often had to explain why residents should cooperate. "We tell them, `Everything is done to improve your life,'" he said, by helping plan where to build schools, housing and transportation.

Many pensioners, who saw their life savings wiped out in the financial turmoil of the past decade, were a particularly hard sell. "Some old people say they will not tell the Russian census anything, because Russia has never done any good for them," Okonoshenko said.

In Soviet days, the census was seen as another instrument of propaganda. After the 1937 census revealed that the Soviet population had plunged - because of the forced collectivization of agriculture, political executions and expansion of prison camps - Stalin ordered the census organizers arrested. Several were executed. Two years later, the country conducted another census that painted a rosier picture.

Despite the doubts and fears, Sorokovoi said, many people were eager to participate. "Most people participated with pleasure," he said. "They want their country to know about them."

When he and Okonoshenko showed up at the door of 85-year-old Galina Kozlova on Tuesday afternoon, she welcomed them with a broad smile. "I was worried," she said. "We have been expecting you. But no one came."

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