What you won't find out from Russia's census

Nina Sobrinina has just filled out her 2002 Russian census questionnaire. But she doubts sociologists can glean much useful information from it on how her life has changed since the last national survey, in 1989.

"In the past 13 years, my life has turned upside down, and I feel as though I live on a different planet today," says the middle-aged mother of two. "Yet this questionnaire will show me working at a similar job, still married, having an analogous social position, and living at exactly the same address as when I participated in the last census."

As the trouble-plagued first post-Soviet census drew to a close Wednesday, experts warned that the limited statistical snapshot of Russia is unlikely to track key social upheavals of the past decade. Some trends, such as turbulent changes in the lives of Russian women, may barely show up at all.

"Since 1989 we have lived on top of a volcano,"says Yelena Yeshova, president of the independent Association of Women's Non-Governmental Organizations. "The transition from the Soviet system to market economics was carried out largely at the expense of women. We were forced to adapt, more than men, to wild changes in the economy in order to survive and feed our families."

Delayed for three years for lack of funds, the census sent some 600,000 data gatherers fanning out across the country over eight days. Vladimir Sokolin, chairman of the State Statistics Committee, said he hopes "to get a full portrait of the new Russian, with a new mentality, who lives in a new democratic society."

But many experts say the questions are too much like the old Soviet census to reveal much new.

In many other countries, census questions change over time, reflecting shifts in politics, priorities, and relevance. In the US, for example, the latest census, in 2000, included an expanded section on race to reflect America's increasing diversity.

Moscow's restraint in questioning may partly be an acknowledgment of the traditional Russian mistrust of authorities. Many people who fear information may be passed on to the tax police were expected to hide from the data collectors – particularly since participation is voluntary. A survey quoted in the weekly Itogi newsmagazine found that 25 percent of those willing to fill out the forms planned to lie about some aspects of their lives.

As of late Tuesday, about 70 percent of the 144-million population had taken part in the head count.

But the census questions will capture nothing of Russia's transition from communism to capitalism, little of each individual struggle to survive that stormy voyage. It will not reflect, for example, that Ms. Sobrinina's work has moved from the public sector to the private, that she is now a property owner through privatization of the family apartment and that she has become a regular churchgoer.

Nine years ago she quit her prestigious Soviet-era job as an instructor at an official linguistics institute, after inflation and the collapse of state funding turned her salary into a pittance. She tried her hand as a "shuttle peddler," hauling cheap consumer goods from Turkey to sell in Moscow, before landing a job with a private language academy. "We went through years of poverty, extreme uncertainty, and adjustment," she says.

The last Soviet census, focused to hide negative factors, also clouded reality with selective questions. The results showed that Soviet women were highly professionalized, over 90 percent of them worked full time, and they comprised 55 per cent of all university graduates. However, as with the present census, no direct data was gathered on individual income. This hid the fact that most highly educated Soviet women were ghettoized in the lowest-paying jobs, such as medicine, education, and public service.

Critics say the incomplete nature of the current census, whose results are expected in March, is probably not a deliberate attempt to spin the results, but rather a complex set of bureaucratic compromises.

For many women, especially single mothers, the post-Soviet period has meant harsh impoverishment. "Large numbers of women lost their jobs in the '90s and were forced into unemployment or the gray economy," says Nadezhda Ozhgikhina, cochair of the Russian Association of Women Journalists. "As long as this situation remains hidden, doing something about it is not on the agenda of our authorities."

There is some good news, but it may not affect census results. "Our studies show there are many more well-off women in Russia these days," says Svetlana Aivazova, an expert with the Institute of Comparative Politics in Moscow. "Women are finding ways, often unorthodox ones, to improve their lives. The census is unlikely to reflect any of this."

Nor, like its Soviet predecessors, will it do much to reveal the sexism that still keeps women from most top jobs in business, government, and public service. Experts say widespread sexist practices also include firing women first whenever staffs are reduced, and paying them less – surveys show Russian females earn on average between half and two-thirds of what males receive.

"It's good they finally decided to hold a census," says Ms. Aivazova. "But what use is it if it doesn't deliver sharp and detailed information? How can we expect our society to see either the continuing serious problems or the hopeful processes that are starting to happen?"

• Coming next week: Dying villages.

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