The Russian Empire, said Vladimir Lenin, was a “prison of nations”.

The revolutionary was speaking before he took power more than a century ago. His line - which was not original - is still being used today.

Earlier this month it was repeated by an SNP MP sympathetic to the cause of self-determination for the partly hidden, often forgotten minority nationalities of Europe’s biggest state.

As the war in Ukraine rages there has been renewed talk of the “decolonialisation’ of Russia

This term means different things to different people. For some, it is a way to challenge the imperialist mentality, the sense of supremacy, of ethnic Russians, and especially their elites, over minority peoples inside their borders and out.

Read the full series, De-colonising Russia by David Leask:

'Identities are treacherous': The question of de-colonising Russia


For others “decolonialisation” suggests that the current Russian Federation might - or even should - break up just as the old Soviet Union did more than three decades ago.

There is a problem with these narratives: they are being led by people outside Russia, exiles and foreigners. And it is very difficult to know what actual minority peoples feel about their place in Russia, which, increasingly, is a police state. It is illegal, for example, to campaign for independence or criticise the military.

It is not just hard to know how non-ethnic Russian citizens feel: it can even be tricky to figure out how many of them there are.

The last census - officially for 2020 but held in 2021 because of Covid - saw dramatic drops in the number of people who answered questions about their national identity.

Some independent demographers think official statistics - published in The Herald today - are undercounting diversity and may even be falsified. 

The number of ethnic Tatars - Russia’s second biggest national group - fell 600,000 between 2010 and 2021. Figures for other Volga peoples - Mari, Chuvash and Udmurts - were down too, by 22.6%, 25% and 30%.

The number of people who said they are Russian also went down. Some sociologists think xenophobia and Russian nationalism is making people nervous about stating a national ID.

The figures we do have suggest perhaps four out of five citizens of the Russian Federation are ethnic Russians with the rest represented by more than 190 other ethnic groups. Russia, at the risk of stating the obvious, is mostly Russian but it is also incredibly diverse.

What Lenin thought matters. That is because his early 20th century reforms ended up creating a constitutional architecture of “ethnic” republics, regions and districts which were titular homelands for some of Russia’s minority nations. These areas where autonomous in name only for much of their existence.

The Herald:

Vladimir Lenin described Russia as a 'prison of nations'

Some of these entities came to enjoy some lee-way after the break-up of the Soviet Union. However,  current Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hates Lenin’s concept of the country, has re-centralised control.

There are 21 “republics” inside the current federation - not including the occupied Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. These in theory represent titular minorities. Russians form majorities in 10 of them, according to the latest census data.

The republics are far from all homogeneous. And national minority citizens do not necessarily live in their titular republic. 

Is there enough local “nationalist” sentiment in republics to support independence or greater autonomy? There is not much reliable data on that. But we should not assume sentiments - or even national identities - are immutable. Nor, stress experts, should we think a local national ID necessarily translates in to support for sovereignty. It did not do so, after all, in our own country.

Russia’s hidden nations


This is an industrial, cultural and educational powerhouse on the Volga - and main home to Russia’s second biggest ethnic group: Tatars.

Tartary was once a vague blanket term in the West for the Turks, Mongols and others who inhabited swathes of eastern Europe and central Asia.

The Volga branch of the remaining Tatars, however is a very specific and distinct nationality. The current oil-rich republic enjoyed substantial autonomy in the early 1990s and led the “parade of sovereignties”. 

It and its capital, Kazan, still count in Russia. The old Muslim Khanate of Kazan was conquered in the 1500s by Ivan the Terrible - or Awesome. Tatar nationalists - along with neighbouring Germans, Chuvash and Bashkir - set up their own state in 1918. But it only lasted a month.


The Herald:

Like neighbouring Tatarstan, this republic on the Volga secured and enjoyed real autonomy in the 1990s. Its powers, however, were pegged back by President Vladimir Putin’s centralising zeal. Bashkirs do not form a majority in their republic but together with Tatars, Mari, Udmurts and Chuvash, they do outnumber Russians.


It is illegal to campaign for independence from Russia so Chuvashia, another Turkic republic on the Volga, will not be having a Scottish-style referendum anytime soon.

However, there will be no Chuvash “yes” campaign if it ever does have a big vote: the word does not exist in its language. Chuvash also lacks gendered pronouns: they were grammatically “woke” before anyone invented the term.


Officially a minority in their own titular republic, Udmurts are famous for being the most ginger people in the world. Their capital Izhevsk - home of the factory which makes Kalashnikov rifles - hosts an annual festival for red-heads.

As elsewhere in Russia’s ethnic republics, there have been real fears about the future of the Udmurt language, which is a non-European variety related to Finnish and Hungarian. In 2019 an Udmurt language activist, Albert Razin, died after setting himself on fire in protest outside the republic’s parliament.

Udmurtia is also home to the Buranovskiye Babushki, or Buranovo Grannies, the folk-pop group which came second in the 2012 Eurovision.


The Herald:

This is one of the Volga republics facing a concerted campaign of Russification by local authorities under President Putin.

Campaigners have claimed the Mari language, related to Finnish and Hungarian, is under attack and ignored in schools.

The Mari  - their name means ‘human’  in their language - are spread beyond their titular republic but are a minority inside.


This is one of just two internal Russian republics which declined to declare itself sovereign after the collapse of the USSR. 

Mordvins are a minority in the republic and are divided in speakers of two related languages, Moksha and Erzya, who cannot easily understand each other.


The Herald:

Largely Muslim Chechnya, in the North Caucasus, was rarely out of the world news in the 1990s and early 2000s thanks to two brutal wars over its defacto but unrecognised independence. Its elites are now loyal to the 

Kremlin, in return for a free hand locally. 

Its clannish, mountain culture - of pride and honour - has often, rightly or wrongly, been compared with the Scottish Highlands of old. Chechen fighters were said to watch Braveheart during the wars. Its authoritarian president, Ramzan Kadyrov, still says the Mel Gibson 1990s blockbuster is one of his favourite films.


This is the smallest territory  in Russia - and was created in the heat of the first Chechen conflict as the USSR fell apart.

The Ingush speak a language similar to Chechen and shared a republic with their bigger neighbours until the early 1990s. But they are distinct from Chechens.

Earlier this year Ingush exiles in Turkey announced an independence movement - winning support from Ukrainian politicians and sparking some of the talk of the “decolonisation” of Russia.


It is impossible to overstate the astonishing diversity of this often stunningly beautiful North-eastern Caucasus republic. Sometimes called the Mountains of Languages, it is home to at least 40 distinct nationalities. 

Like its neighbours Dagestan was conquered by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. But its national hero, Imam Shamil, put up a fight, harrying the Russians for two and a half decades. 

Its second city, Derbent on the Caspian coast, claims to have been founded in the 8th century BC, making it one of the oldest settlements in Europe.

"Like some Chechens, the traditionally Christian Ossetians also like to joke about an affinity to Scotland and the film Braveheart"

North Ossetia/Alania

The Ossetians are an Iranian people who, rightly or wrongly, are often seen as allies of Russia in the Caucasus. Russia said its 2008 invasion of Georgia was to protect Ossetians living south of the border. Ossetians have been hit by the Chechen conflict - terrorists killed more than 300 people in the horrific Beslan school siege in 2004.

But, like some Chechens, the traditionally Christian Ossetians also like to joke about an affinity to Scotland and the film Braveheart. Why? Well, they are the descendants of the ancient Alans, a people that once roamed across Europe. And there is a once popular theory, albeit not much rated by historians, that the Alans and the Scots are the same people.

Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea and Karachay-Cherkessia

These three republics of the North-Western Caucasus are separate entities but they once formed parts of independent Circassia, the nation on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, including modern Sochi, destroyed by 19th century Russian invasion. 

The Circassian genocide - including the mass expulsion of indigenous people and the creation of a huge diaspora across the Middle East - was one of the darkest hours of Russian imperialism.

Not all the peoples of the North-Western Caucasus republics are Circassians, however. Kabardino-Balkaria is home to Europe’s highest mountain, Elbrus.


At the very heart of Asia, Tuva - or Tyva - sits on Russia’s frontier with Mongolia. It is often forgotten now, but this nation was legally independent (though widely ignored) until it was annexed by the Soviet Union during World War Two. Its triangular stamps are collectors’ favourites.

Putin’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, is Tuvan.


In the steppe between the Don and the Volga rivers lies Europe’s only traditionally Buddhist nation.

Even now most people living in Kalmykia are descendants of Oirat Mongols who migrated to the plains between the Volga and the Don rivers in the 16th century. The word “Kalmyk” is said to mean “those who stayed”. 

Kalmykia once had its own powerful and independent Khanate, controlling the northern shores of the Caspian. It was annexed by Russia in 1771.

The current republic is famed for its chess: the game, or rather sport, is a compulsory subject at primary school. 


This expanse of eastern Siberia is nearly as big as India but is home to just 1m people. Still often called Yakutia, Sakha was one of the republics which pushed hardest for autonomy from the rest of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is rich in natural resources - not least diamonds - but also lies on the frontline of climate change: forest fires in recent years have created an “airpocalypse” of choking, thick smoke.

Russia conquered the local Yakuts in the 17th century - with around 70% of the population dying, many after being exposed to European infection diseases. 

The Herald:


The Altai people are now a minority in their titular republic - outnumbered by Russians - and living alongside other nationalities, including Kazakhs and Germans.

But this Turkic-speaking people are famed for their throat singing - which tells folk songs and history - and their sense of custodianship over their stunning Altai mountains, with their remarkable standing stones and kurgans.

This mountainous republic - its highest peak is 4600m -  has fewer people than any other.


On the east bank of Lake Baikal in Siberia, this republic is now predominately ethnic Russian. Native Buryats make up nearly a third of the population.

Soldiers from Buryatia have suffered some of the worst casualty figures in the Ukraine war - underling a narrative that men from poorer or ethnic minority areas were being used as cannon fodder. 


Another “ethnic” republic now dominated by Russians, Komi and its coal fields and richly timbered forests were home to some of the most notorious gulags - labour camps - of the Stalin dictatorship.

Large numbers of Russians moved north to work in its industries during the Soviet era. There were demands for real autonomy in the early 1990s. These were countered by centralising forces under Putin. In 2019 there were grumblings about Moscow again - after plans were announced for a giant rubbish facility in the republic.


The Khakas, once a nomadic herding people, are now a small minority in their own southern Siberian republic. Their grasslands were turned in to fields during the environmentally disastrous “virgin land” development campaigns of the 1950s.


This republic does not just border Finland - parts of it once were Finland. The region has been tussled over several times over the centuries, most recently in the World War Two. Its Finnish population, however, is now tiny.  Ethnic Karelians - who spoke a language similar to Finnish - now make up barely on in 20 residents of the republic.