Putin makes sure he is counted as Russia launches census effort

Thursday, October 10, 2002

MOSCOW -- Russia launched its first post-Soviet census Wednesday, and President Vladimir Putin told a nervous census-taker that he works in the "service" sector and speaks Russian fluently.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose answers also were televised, proudly said "18th century" when asked when his home was built. But Patriarch Alexy II didn't know if his stove was gas or electric.

The television appearances were aimed at encouraging a wary population to open its doors and be counted as the government tries to gather statistics to help it understand the dramatic economic and social transformations that have swept the sprawling country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The weeklong door-to-door survey will quantify the dramatic shifts in Russia, which have included a drastic population decline.

Officials have mounted a massive public relations campaign complete with television ads, billboards, a hot line and a Web site to overcome Russians' traditional distrust of the authorities.

Footage of the president, his wife, Lyudmila, and their black Labrador confronting a visibly nervous census taker dominated national TV news starting early Wednesday. Putin, casually dressed in a pale gray pullover, smiled wryly as he responded to a question about his job, saying he was providing "services to the population." As to the source of his income, he said: "Salary, what else?"

The rest of Putin's answers did not provide any surprises either. He answered positively when asked whether he was fluent in Russian and told the questioner he also spoke German. He did not name English, although he has been studying the language to converse one-on-one with President Bush and other world leaders.

Public relations campaign

The intense public relations campaign reflects official fears Russians will dodge the census, wary of letting strangers into their homes or revealing information about themselves. Many Russians have unofficial second jobs and do not pay taxes on the wages. Others break regulations that require official registration at their place of residence.

Census organizers say the goal is to provide an accurate picture of the nation for planning public services such as education and pensions. They stress the survey will be anonymous and the data will not be used by tax authorities or police.

The census asks only the source of income -- such as wages, pension or rental income -- not the amount.

Some were convinced, some were not.

"The government needs the census to keep closer watch over us and collect more taxes," said Andrei, who spoke as he pushed a baby carriage in central Moscow and declined to give his last name.

"The state must know the number of people to get a better idea of what goods need to be produced and what needs to be built," 72-year-old Yuri Stupikov said after answering the census questions.

Russia's last census was in 1989, two years before the Soviet collapse. The count launched Wednesday should have been conducted exactly 10 years later, but was delayed because of a lack of money. The effort involves 600,000 census takers and will cost $180 million.

According to the State Statistics Committee latest estimate, Russia's population has declined by about 4 million to 143.4 million since the 1989 census.

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