Saturday, March 30, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Tajikistan – Where the Russians are a ‘Disappearing Nation’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 30 – The ethnic Russian community in Tajikistan has declined in size from more than 400,000 in Gorbachev’s time to about 40,000 now, the smallest number of ethnic Russians in any CIS country except Armenia, a trend that has had a major impact on the internal life of that Central Asian country and on its relations with Moscow.

            But according to Arkady Dubnov, a Moscow commentator, the situation with regard to Russian language knowledge there is somewhat better, largely because of the continuing impact of Soviet-era patterns and the more than 700,000 Tajiks who have gone to work in the Russian Federation (

            The Russian community of Tajikistan began shortly after the Russian conquest of the region in the 1860s. It expanded in the 1920s when Moscow sent Russians to build dams and train Tajiks. And it exploded in size during World War II when many Russians and Russian enterprises were evacuated from the European portion of the USSR.

            After the war, many did not return to the devastated areas of the Soviet Union, and their number was increased by Russians and Russian speakers involved in economic construction projects.  “By the end of the 1980s,” there were approximately a half million” members of Russian-speaking nationalities, “more than 80 percent” of whom were ethnic Russians.

But the upward trend of Soviet times began to be reversed as a result of Tajik violence against Russian speakers over the course of three days in mid-February 1990. To this day, “no one can say exactly how many people died in those terrible days,” Dubnov says, but the number was certainly in the hundreds.

Some sources say that these events were a provocation “organized by the Tajik KGB” in order to generate fear and thus support for the Soviet leadership against any nationalist challenges. But however it was, this violence led to the rapid departure of many ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Tatars, Jews and members of other nationalities.

Indeed, Dubnov writes, the February 1990 events in Dushanbe which came only a month after Black January in Baku and the introduction of Soviet forces there “led to even more bloodshed than among the Azerbaijani population.”

Over the next decade and at an accelerating rate after 1991, the percentage of Slavic ethnoses in the Tajikistan population fell from 3.7 percent to 0.4 percent, a development that was “almost a national catastrophe for the young republic” because among those departing were many of the Tajikistan’s doctors, teachers and other professionals.

Russian language use in Tajikistan has declined as well, but neither as fast or as far, he continues. On the one hand, the government there still makes provision of the use of Russian in official life. And on the other, many Tajiks have worked in the Russian Federation or studied in Russian-language institutions in their own country and abroad.

Other factors which have contributed to the retention of Russian language among Tajiks is the presence of the Russian base, whose units are dislocated in Dushanbe, Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube and a 1997 agreement between Moscow and Dushanbe on dual citizenship, making Tajikistan only the third post-Soviet state to do that (Armenia and Turkmenistan are the others.)

But the exodus of Russians does matter, Dubnov says. Two weeks ago, Tajikistan President Emomali Rakhmon invited representatives of the Tajik intelligentsia to a meeting. “There was not a single (?) Russian language one among them or more precisely not a single representative of the Russian ethnos.”

Russia is now taught as a foreign language in Tajikistan, but there are several Russian language schools in Dushanbe and one lycee and there are Russian sections in Tajik higher educational institutions and representations of Russian universities in which Tajiks currently enroll.

There is a limited amount of Russian-language media, with Russian versions of the five major weeklies and Russian sections in other newspapers. There are also three Russian-language radio stations, and some Russian language programming on Tajik television.

Many Tajiks turn to television stations in Russia, but this is a very mixed blessing, Dubnov says. While it allows them to keep up their Russian, it also brings them face to face with the xenophobia against Tajiks that is often found among Russians in the major cities of the Russian Federation.

Today, there are no major Russian businessmen in Tajikistan, and there is only one organization which assists the Russian community, the Council of Russian Compatriots of Tajikistan which was set up in 2004.  It helps the needy and the few surviving veterans of World War II.

What is somewhat surprising, Dubnov says, is that Tajiks remain generally well disposed to ethnic Russians despite what they see on Russian television and experience in Russian streets. There is “perhaps” an explanation: some Tajiks may view this as “payment for the tragedy which was experienced by ethnic Russians in Tajikistan almost a quarter of a century ago.”

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