Thursday, March 14, 2013

Window on Eurasia: In Russia’s Far North, Central Asians are Becoming Siberians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 14 – The population of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District of the Russian Federation has not only grown dramatically since the 1970s as a result of the development of the natural gas industry but has become far more ethnically diverse, with Kazan Tatars, Azerbaijanis and Central Asians now far outnumbering the titular nationality.

            That has created some real tensions between these arrivals and the growing ethnic Russian population of the district, but it has also promoted the growth of a new Siberian identity among many of the arrivals, one in which, the leaders of these communities say, they take enormous pride.

            In an article on the site today, Alesey Starostin describes these processes in some detail.  The of the district has grown from 60,000 in 1970 to 524,000 today, he reports, and while ethnic Russians retain the leading position – some 60 percent of the total – an increasing share is made up of those from the Middle Volga, Central Asia, and Azerbaijan (

            Today, Kazan Tatars form 5.6 percent of the total, Azerbaijanis almost two percent, and Central Asians 1.4 percent, but because of “intensive migration processes,” the share of the latter continues to grow. What is most interesting, however, is that the Central Asians are remaining there, putting down roots and becoming not Russians but “real Siberians,” even as they retain their own culture and religion.

            To discuss this process, Starostin talked with Tolkunbek Khudaybergenov, a 33-year-old Kyrgyz who has been in Yamalo-Nenets since 2001 where he found a Kyrgyz wife and is now a Russian citizen.  He said it took him “about six months” to adapt to the high north, adding that his fellow Kyrgyz, Georgians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians had helped him to fit in.

             Also important to his adaptation to local conditions was the mosque in Salekhard, Khudaybergenov said. It was built in 2000-2002, he worked as an assistant to the imam who wanted him to become an imam in a village 270 kilometers from Salekhard, something he found initially impossible because there was nowhere to live in that village and little work.

            But in 2007, he agreed to serve there, despite all the difficulties, because the Muslim community there, which makes up 40 percent of the village’s 7030 people, needed him. He said that the umma there included “Siberian Tatars who appeared there during Stalin’s repressions Donetsk Tatars, Nogays, Karachays, Balkars, Cirassians, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.”

            Before his arrival, “there wasn’t any special Muslim life.” If someone died, he or she would be buried according to a ritual read from “pre-revolutionary Tatar books” by one of the older women of the village. Since that time, the community has organized a prayer room and regular Muslim festivals, Khudaybergenov said.

            After two years, however, he said the economic crisis forced him to leave and return to Salekhard. Since then, a new imam has been found for the village. From there, he has helped build a mosque in Novy Urengoy in his capacity as deputy mufti of the regional Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD).

            Khudaybergenov said that “officially” there are about 2,000 Kyrgyz in that city, but “unofficially,” there are some 4,000 to 4500, and they have an active communal life with about half working in construction, 20 to 30 percent working in the gas fields and the remainder working in service industries.

            Most speak both Kyrgyz and Russian, and Khudaybegenov said he and his wife are raising their children as bilinguals even though they are all Russian citizens.  The members of his family consider Yamalo-Nenets their home and all that taken together means that he is a Siberian [“Sibiryak”].

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