This is an article from the March-April 1992 issue: Special Report: Are there Unreached Peoples in the Russian Federation?

Are there Unreached Peoples in the Russian Federation?

Are there Unreached Peoples in the Russian Federation?

Today we are witnessing the most rapid, dramatic, revolutionary and far reaching changes in our world that have been seen in hundreds of years. The incredible events of the last two years in Eastern Europe and the now former Soviet Union are dramatic proof that this is true. These changes are affecting every area of the lives of the people of the former Soviet Union including politics, economics, religion, culture, and yes, even their very survival from day to day.

As the iron grip of Soviet domination eased under Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika people began to freely express what was in their heart of hearts. The prime force behind much of the changes that have taken place has been the desire of ethnic peoples to have a voice in the destiny of their own lives and territory.

In the media and in the schools of America we are trained to think in terms of geography and countries and not in terms of the ethnic groups or peoples that live in these countries. For years now the U.S. Center for World Mission and other agencies have called people to start thinking in terms of ethnic or people groups instead of countries. The reason for this is that the ethnic group to which a person belongs is at the heart of who these people are and how they think about themselves. The ethnicity of a person is also key to how they will respond to the Gospel.

Today, people group identification and nationalism are greatly changing the geographical makeup of the landmass that was the Soviet Union. To the great surprise of many Americans, including the Christians, not all the people who live in the Soviet Union are Russian.

The world has begun to get an education in the names of the major unreached peoples of Soviet Central Asia as the various Republics declared their independence from Moscow to join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Previously unknown names such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan and others are now being splashed across the headlines of newspapers around the world and on the evening news. Could God be using the international events of our day to educate us concerning the unreached peoples of the world? Had anyone outside of the mission world heard of the Kurds before Saddam Hussein decided to wipe them off the map?

This special report is designed to familiarize our readers with the needs of the unreached peoples of the Russian Federation who are now easier to reach than at any time in history.

Being familiar with the ethnic peoples of the Russian Federation is important not only for the purpose of reaching them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ but because it will be along ethnic lines that much of the future of Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States will be determined.

The nationalistic ethnic forces that tore apart the Soviet Union could also rip at the heart of "Mother Russia" itself. For unknown to most people, the Russian Federation itself is made up of 31 different Autonomous Republics and Regions. These regions each correspond to people groups living in these areas. A number of these Autonomous Republics have already moved to declare their independence from Moscow.

No one knows for sure how all these ethnic forces will reshape the maps of Russia in the coming months and years. But one thing is for certain. If we as evangelical Christians want to take advantage of the tremendous new opportunities for ministry in the former Soviet Union then we must know and understand the ethnic peoples of this vast land and tailor our methods and our message to reach them.

On the next page we have printed a map of these Autonomous Republics and Regions and numbered the areas. The numbers correspond to the following list of these regions and the descriptions of the major unreached people groups that live in these areas.

This list is not meant to be an exhaustive and complete listing of the unreached peoples of Russia (which number over 160) but is meant to introduce you to the ethnic diversity of this vast land.

In these cases listed, ethnicity and political boundaries have some correlation. This is, however, more the exception than the rule. In the majority of cases there is no connection between the ethnic group living in an area and the political structure they live under. This is generally true all over the world.


Population--426,000. Adygei 22.1%, Russians 68%. Capital: Maikop
Religion: Islam
Christians: None
Bible Translations: Gospel of Mark (1977)

The Adygei, in the past listed among the Cherkess, are a group that consists of many different Caucasian people groups such as the Shapsug, Natukhai, Abadzeg, Bzhedug, Temirgoi, and Beslenei. Each of these peoples has a certain ethnic self- reliance and independence. This Republic is located in the Krasnodar area which has a significant number of Christian churches. There are, however, no known conversions among the Adygei.

Population--4 million. Bashkirs 21.9% Russians 39.3%. They declared their sovereignty one year ago but have since agreed with Boris Yeltsin to remain in the Federation. Capital: Uda
Religion: Islam/ Sunnite
Evangelicals: None known
Bible Translations: The four Gospels (1975)

The Bashkort (the self designation of the Bashkir) are Muslim. After centuries of cattle raising, almost overnight they were transported into the industrial age. Today over 61% live in cities. The inhabitants of these cities are rootless and, therefore, open to hear the Gospel. After years of communism there is little understanding of the Islamic faith. Many, especially the young, are searching for meaning in life.

3. JEWISH AUTONOMOUS REPUBLIC Population--220,000. 83.2% Russian. Jews number only around 10,200. Set up during the 1930's as a Jewish enclave, but the small Jewish population is dwindling with emigration to Israel. Formerly an Autonomous Region it declared itself an Autonomous Republic last year.
Capital: Birobidshan
Religion: 10% Jewish, 80% Atheist, 5% Orthodox Evangelicals: 0.5%
Bible Translations: Available

The majority are secularized, but in some areas the Russian Orthodox and Evangelicals have had some missionary success. There is even a church known to have primarily Jewish believers.

Population--1 million. Buryats 24%, Russians 70%.
Capital: Ulan Ude
Religion: Buddhism in the east; animism in the west
Evangelicals: None
Bible Translations: Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

The Buryats have been cattle farmers for hundreds of years. They especially honor the horse.

The East and West Buryats should be distinguished. The West Buryats learned farming from the Russians while the East Buryats remained cattle herders. The East and West Buryats differ in their beliefs as seen above. Despite all the missionary outreach by the Russian Orthodox church, the Buryats did not convert.

Population--1.2 million. Chechens 53%, Russians 29%, Ingush 12%. Retired Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev staged a coup in October '91 then rode a wave of nationalism to the Presidency in elections declared illegal by Russia. Yeltsin suffered major defeat when forced in November '91 to lift state of emergency and withdraw troops.
Capital: Grosnii
Religion: Islam/Sunnite
Christians: None
Bible Translations: The Chechen: Gospel of John and Acts. The Ingush: None

The Chechens call themselves, "Nakhcuo." They are the largest people group in the North Caucasus and the original inhabitants of this region.

Chechens are shepherds and farmers; 80% of all Chechens live in the country. They are characterized by a very expressive tradition and strong family ties.

As adherents of Folk Islam, many Chechen families still live in fear of the evil spirits of their ancestors.

The Ingush, like the Chechen are also the original inhabitants of the Northern Caucasus. During WW II many of the Ingush sympathized with the Germans and were deported to Northern Kazakhstan and Siberia.

The Ingush are strongly connected to the land; however, today only 64. 6% of them live in the country, probably as a result of the deportation policies. There are no know conversions of Ingush.

Population: 1.3 million. Chuvash 67.8%, Russians 27.6%. Declared sovereignty in Oct. 1990.
Capital: Tcheboksary
Religion: Christian/Russ. Orthodox
Evangelicals: Several hundred Bible Translations: Gospel of John (1984)

Originally, the Chuvash were almost exclusively an agrarian people. In 1900 only 5% lived in towns. In 1979 about 46% lived in towns and this trend has continued. The urbanization of the Chuvash has also led to their secularization.

The sparsely Christianized Chuvash have never had strong ties to Russian Orthodoxy. Consequently, only a few adhere to the church. In addition to an atheistic world view, a great deal of superstition is also prevalent. Until now, only a few hundred Chuvash have come to know the saving power of Christ.

Population 1.7 million. Avars 27.5%, Dargyns 15.6%, Kumyk 12.9%, Lezgins 11.3%, Russians 9.2%. In October '91 demonstrators demanded a new Parliament chosen by election, but changes have yet to be made.
Religion: Islam
Christians: None
Bible Translations: Not Available

In addition to the several distinct peoples listed above, the republic also includes many smaller groups too numerous to mention. Although distinct they do have many things in common. None of them have had mission work among them and there are no believers. They all have agrarian roots in a mountainous terrain but have become increasingly urbanized and secularized. The Lezgins appear to be the most open of the Dagestani peoples.

Population--180,000. Altais 31%, Russians 60.4%.
Capital: Gorno-Altaisk
Religion: 98% Animistic, 2% Atheistic
Christians: none
Bible Translations: The four Gospels (1975)

The Altais represent a group of smaller people groups but during the Soviet reign they were considered one group. Most Altai people live in the country as cattle breeders and agricultural workers; in the mountains they are hunters.

Their lifestyle has changed little over the past centuries. Their Shamanistic religion is characterized by fear and belief in demons.

Population--732,000. Kabards 48.2%, Balkars 9.4%, Russians 32%.
Capital: Naltshik
Religion: Islam
Christians: None
Bible Translations: Not Available

Culturally and politically the Karbardinians are an isolated minority in their own republic. Despite efforts to integrate them into Russian culture their nationalistic sentiment is growing among them. Mission initiatives in their language and culture could bear significant results.

Under pressure from the Mongols in the 12th century the Balkars moved to the valleys of the Northern Caucasus mountains. Here they retained their independence until during the last century when they were integrated into the Russian and Soviet empires. This integration process did not change the lifestyle of this Islamic people. In fact, they are still isolated from other people groups.

Population--329,000. Kalmyks 45.4%, Russians 37.7%. Declared sovereignty in October 1990. Two rounds of elections in November '91 failed to produce region's first president.
Capital: Elista
Religion: Buddhism
Evangelicals: None
Bible Translations: the four Gospels (1896)

Until 1930 most Kalmyks were nomads. The life of the Kalmyks in the rural areas reveals signs of an earlier nomadic existence. Buddhism is still deeply rooted in the minds of the Kalmyks. In the last few decades only a few have accepted the Christian faith.

Population--402,000. Karachai 31.2%, Cherkess 9.7%. Declared their sovereignty in December '90.
Capital: Karachaevsk-Cherkessk
Religion: Islam
Christians: None
Bible Translations: Karachai-- Gospel of Mark (1978). The Cherkess-- None.

In contrast to the other smaller Caucasian groups, the Karachai are more outgoing, a trait which has contributed to the secularization among this Islamic people. Toward the end of the 19th century, the Orthodox church unsuccessfully attempted to Christianize the Karachai. Today, Christian missionaries would probably have more fruitful results.

Population--795,000. Karelians 10%, Russians 73.6%. It declared sovereignty in 1990 but Finland has made claims to the timber region forcibly annexed by the Soviets in 1940.
Capital: Petrosawodsk
Religion: Christianity/Russian Orthodox
Evangelicals: A few hundred
Bible Translations: the Gospel of John (1921)

Despite massive Russification since the 12th century, they have obstinately maintained their national identity. The Karelians work as farmers and have many animals. In the cities, especially in the Capital, many of them work in the wood industry.

The Karelian have not sufficiently had the true Gospel preached to them. Christianized by the Russian-Orthodox Church, the Christian life has remained foreign to the Karelian. Only a few hundred have become Christians. In the Capital of Petrosawodsk, there are some evangelical churches but most of them missionize the Russians rather than the Karelian population.

Population-- 555,000. Khakass 11.1%, Russians 79.5%.
Capital: Ababan
Religion: Animism
Evangelicals: unknown
Bible Translations: not available

Khakass is the name ascribed to five Turkish tribes: Kacha, Kyzyl, Sagai, Beltir, and Kobal. Today, these earlier nomads have been gathered into communes and have entered the occupation of sheep, goat, cattle and horse raising. Many of the Khakass have completely removed themselves from agricultural occupations and have integrated into the life of industrialization. In this transition, a great change has taken place among the tribes. As always in such changes, a great deal of their original world-view has been lost.

14. KOMI
Population--1.2 million. Komi 23.3%, Russians 57.7%. Suffered severe food shortages in early fall '91. Nationalists propose presidential election, but extensive changes not expected.
Capital: Syktywkar
Religion: Christians/Orthodox
Evangelicals: 0.5%
Bible Translations: New Testament (1980)

The Komi (Zyryan) are primarily fishermen and hunters, although some people prefer to live in cities. Since the 14th and 15th centuries, the Komi have been Orthodox. However, the Christian faith does not appear to have any impact on their daily lives; rather, superstition and anxiety about spirits rule their lives. At the beginning of this century, evangelical missionaries brought some Komi to a living faith in Christ. These people belong to Russian speaking churches.

15. MARI
Population--739,000. Mari 43/3%, 47.5%.
Capital: Joschkar-Ola
Religion: Christian/Russian Orthodox with strong pagan influence
Evangelicals: a few hundred
Bible Translations: New Testament (1985)

The Mari primarily work on collective farms. The Soviets have attempted to increase both the cultural and educational level of the Mari with only slight success.

The Orthodox Church has not had a major influence on the Mari people and Christianity has not been very influential. The atheistic propaganda has led to greater opposition to the Christian faith. Thus, only a few hundred Mari people are Christians today and they belong to Russian speaking churches.

Population--964,000. Mordovinians 32.5%, Russians 60.8%. Declared sovereignty in August 1990.
Capital: Saramsk
Religion: Christian/Russian Orthodox
Evangelicals: A few who are members of Russian speaking churches
Bible Translation: The Four Gospels

Mordovins, in comparison with the other small nations of the USSR are scattered throughout the whole Soviet Union. This has forced Mordovins to adapt to other customs and cultures. However, some Mordovins still strongly emphasize their ethnicity. This means that successful mission must be done in two languages, Moksha and Erzya. One of the biggest obstacles for successful mission is superstition.

Population--54,000. Nenets 11.9%, Russians 65.8%.
Religion: Nominal Christianity with strong animistic influences
Evangelicals: A few
Bible Translations: Not Available

The Nenets are the largest group of the Nordic Peoples and inhabit a large territory. They are reindeer breeders. Despite many State attempts to integrate them, the Nenets maintain their original lifestyle. They live under difficult climatic conditions. There is usually snow and freezing temperatures for 260 days of the year.

Until the 19th century, the Nenets were strongly influenced by animism. In the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox missionaries were successful in converting the majority of them and, by the end of the century, all the Nenets were baptized. However, they continued many of their pagan rituals. The Shamans have not disappeared and today there are strong Shamanistic expressions.

Population--619,000. Ossetians 53%, Russians 29.9%. They plan talks with Georgia in an effort to stop bloodshed in South Ossetia which is part of Georgia and wants to be part of the Russian Federation.
Religion: Islam
Christians: A few hundred
Bible Translations: the Gospel of John (1984)

The "Iron"--as the Ossetian call themselves--are an old, Caucasian civilized nation. Since Russia's annexation of the North in 1774 (the South remained in the Gruzian empire), the Ossetians have been divided into two groups to this day. They differ according to openness to the world; the North is open while the South remains secluded and closed to innovation.

In the 1920's, in North Ossetia, missions had been carried out by Christian evangelicals. Through their efforts a small church, which still exists today, came into being. The Christians of Ossetia have a deep longing to reach their people for Christ.

19. TATARSTAN Population--3.6 million. Tatars 48.5%, Russians 43.3%. After riots in October '91, this largely Muslim republic reaffirmed their sovereignty. In a recent referendum 60% of voters supported sovereignty from Moscow.
Capital: Kasan
Religion: Islam; Christianity/Russian Orthodox
Christians: Several thousand evangelicals
Bible Translations: The four Gospels and Acts

The Tatars represent the descendants of Mongolian immigrants from the 13th century. Today, they live in large concentrations in the Tatar ASSR, Siberia (the Siberian Tatars), the Caucasus and Central Asia (The Crimean Tatars), and other regions of the Soviet Union. Certain groups display significant differences in language and culture.

Several Tatar tribes (e.g. the Nagajbaken and the Krjaschenen) were Christianized between the 16th and 18th centuries; otherwise, Tatars adhere to the Sunnite branch of Islam. But Islam plays only a very secondary role.

20. TUVA
Population--309,000. Tuvinians 64.3%, Russians 32%. Over 8,000 Russians, targets of ethnic violence, fled Tuva in 1990
Capital: Kyzl
Religion: Buddhism
Evangelicals: None
Bible Translations: Not available

The Tuvinian live in a land of extreme climatic variation; sizzling hot summers merge with ice-cold winters. The Tuvinian are hunters and breed both cattle and horses.

The Tuvinian are Lamaistic Buddhists, although Shamanistic beliefs are also prevalent. Prior to their admission to the Soviet Union, there were numerous monasteries; however, most of them had to relinquish their property to the State. Robbed of their culture, tradition, and religion, the Tuvinian have become open to the gospel.

Population--1.6 million. Udmurts 30.9%, Russians 58.9%. Declared sovereignty in 1990. Once the gem of the Soviet defense industry, it now suffers economically.
Capital: Ischewsk
Religion: Russian Orthodox
Evangelicals: Hundreds
Bible Translations: the Four Gospels (1973)

The Russian Orthodox Church missionized the Udmurts but without giving them a real sense of the Christian life. Even until today many Udmurts, especially those in the prairie region, live as pagans. The urban population is atheistic. Only a few Udmurts have found the Savior Jesus Christ. Those who have are members of Russian speaking churches.

22. YAKUT-SAKHA Population--1.2 million. Yakuts 33.4%, Russians 50.3%. Proclaimed sovereignty in 1990, saying that Russia would have to pay for use of its abundant natural resources.
Capital: Yakutsk
Religion: 20% Animist; 20% Atheist; 60% nominal Christian
Evangelicals: Only a few
Bible Translations: The four Gospels (1975)

Yakuts are known for their eagerness to learn. Today they are the most developed tribe among the aborigines of Siberia. Their influence on agriculture, culture, education and industry is growing steadily. They also have the highest percentage of teachers and officials.

In contrast to other Siberian tribes, the past Russian Orthodox mission efforts caused the traditional animistic religion to lose much of its influence. However, only a few Yakuts have experienced a living faith in Christ. There are no evangelical churches.

Population--78,000. Buryats 54.9%, Russians 40.8%. See the section describing the Buryat under number 4.

Population--161,000. Komi-Permyaks 60.2%, Russians 36.1%.
Religion: Christian/Orthodox
Christians: 0.5% Evangelicals
Bible Translations: Gospel of Matthew

The Permiaks have almost no cultural differences with the Russians, although one can detect certain ethnic distinctions.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church missionized the Permiaks. Today, most Permiaks belong to the Orthodox church. Only a small group is evangelical and belongs to free churches; for example, the Baptist churches.

Population--40,000. Koryaks 16.5%, Russsians 62%.
Religion: Animism with ancestor worship
Evangelicals: Unknown
Bible Translations: Not available

The Koryak live in the northern part of the Kamtshatka Peninsula. Those living along the coast are fishers and hunters and those living inland are cattle breeders. The lifestyles of the coastal Koryaks and cattle-breeding Koryaks differs significantly; nevertheless, they maintain a common culture and common religious expressions. Shamans still play a rather insignificant role.

Population--55,000. Dolgans 8.9%, Nenets 4.8%, Russians 67.1%.
Religion: Nominal Orthodox Christians, Shamanists
Christians: None
Bible Translations: The Four Gospels (1975)

The Dolgans are one of the youngest people groups in the Soviet Union. They emerged as a distinct people group during the last century through integration of Evenks, Yakuts, and Russian settlers. The Dolgans speak a Dolganic dialect of the Yakut language. Their religion is a mixture of Shamanistic and Christian beliefs.

Population--129,000. Buryats 36.3%, Russians 56.6%.
Capital: Ulan-Ude
Religion: Buddhism in the east; animism in the west
Evanglicals: None
Bible Translations: The Gospels of Matthew and Mark (1975) See the description of the Buryat under number four.

Population--1.1 million. Khants 0.9%, Mansi 0.5%, Russians 66.3%.
Capital: Khanty-Mansi
Religion: Animism
Christians: None
Bible Translations: The Khants: the Gospel of Matthew (1868), The Mansi: Gospels of Matthew and Mark (1882)

The Khants and Mansi live in small groups scattered around the broad, western Siberian lowland. The life of the Khants and Mansi includes three important aspects: hunting, fishing and animal breeding.

The Khants and Mansi have many gods and believe in many spirits. Shaman mediate between the people and their gods. According to their beliefs, every man has five souls and every woman has four. Animals have even fewer souls.

Despite intensive collectivization and school programs, they still retain their culture and religion. At the beginning of the 20th century, missionaries went to the Khants. The people repented at that time; however, today there are no Christians among either group.

Population--157,000. Chukchi 7.3%, Russians 66.1%.
Religion: Shamanism
Christians: Unknown
Bible Translations: Not available

The Chukchi are divided into two groups: the Racing Chukchi and the Coastal Chukchi. Their lifestyle is similar to Greenland's Eskimos. As with the many other Siberian people groups, the worship of spirits plays an important role in the day to day lives of the Chukchi. Fear of spirits and Shamanistic practices dominate the lives of many. Depression and other emotional problems are widespread. There is no Christian witness among the Chukchi.

Population--22,000; Evenks 14%, Russians 67.5%.
Capital: Ture
Religion: Animistic Shamanism
Christians: Unknown
Bible Translations: Not available

The Evenks, or Tungus, have a rich culture. Before the revolution in 1917, they were known as intelligent, honest and hard-working people. Under the pressure of the Yakuts and the Russians they dispersed throughout Siberia and north Manchuria.

The Evenks' written language was developed during the Soviet period. Today, almost all Evenks can read and write. The traditional culture is evident in their religious beliefs, despite strong persecution. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church tried to Christianize the Evenks. But today there are no Christian Churches among the Evenks.

Population--430,000. Nenets 4.2%, Russians 59.2%. See #26 above for a description of the Nenets.

A New Republic for Russia?

Boris Yeltsin and Helmut Kohl are hoping to recreate an Autonomous German state deep in the heart of Russia. The reason--money. Russia needs German marks and entrepreneurial skill, and Germany wants to discourage any more expensive immigration to its own borders. Although the proposed Volga Republic, consisting of 1,860 square miles of land straddling the Volga River just north of Vologorad, is not yet official, it soon could be. The republic, a recreation of one that was smashed by Stalin in World War II, would be home to as many as 2 million ethnic Germans in Russia, who would have their own German language and culture.

All pictures and descriptions of unreached peoples are taken from the book Operation Soviet Union by Johannes Reimer of LOGOS Biblical Training by Extension, P.O.Box 409, Fresno, CA 93708-0409 and used by permission. The population and political information on the various republics and regions are taken from the Los Angeles Times Nov. 22, 1991 edition and used by permission.


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