Thursday, August 29, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Tajiks in Moscow Now Resemble Their Tatar Predecessors a Century Ago, Commentator Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – Ethnic Tajiks working in the Russian capital today in low skill jobs like janitors resemble nothing so much as the Volga Tatars who filled similar jobs in Moscow a century ago, a pattern that should encourage rather than outrage Russians, according to a “Nezavisimaya gazeta” blogger.

            In a post yesterday, Aleksey Roshchin says that “Russian Nazis” are incredibly ignorant and naïve about Muslim gastarbeiters in Moscow, completely failing to remember that the Tajiks are not the first wave of such “immigrants” their Russian city has experienced (

                One such Russian extremist, the blogger reports, told him recently that “’if only the Tatars were working as janitors [now], everything would be fine!’” 

            In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were numerous Tatar janitors, porters and trash collectors in Moscow. Indeed, Roshchin points out, these service professions were even called “’Tatar’” by Muscovites of the time. And it was also true that many of them spoke Russian only “with difficulty.”

            Roshchin cites the conclusions of Muslim ethnographer Damir Khayretdinov on this point. The scholar notes that few Russians or Tatars remember this reality. “Today, when the Tatar population of Moscow by the most modest of calculations forms no fewer than 250,000 people, it is difficult to believe that at the beginning of the 20th century, the Tatar community was quite small, a total of 6,000” or about “half of one percent” of the city’s residents.

Why did the Tatars come to Moscow? the ethnographer asks rhetorically. “The reason was banal:” poverty led them to come into the city from impoverished Volga and Penza villages. They then took the only work they could get and but did it well – “clean yards were needed in the 19th century too” – and adapted.

Indeed, Khayretdinov continues, they  fit in so well that many of them lost their national language and characteristics. According to recent surveys, “about a third of Tatar Muscovites today admit that they do not know their native language,” and anecdotal evidence suggests that while they are earning good money, they “do not know how to return to their national roots.”

One of the main factors which slowed this acculturation and assimilation process in what he calls “the Moscow ‘melting pot’” was religion: Tatars in Moscow even now can find and speak with their co-ethnics by going to a mosque, most of which conducted services in Tatar until relatively recently. (Now, to deal with immigrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus, most services are in Russian.)

Roshchin says that all this makes it clear that “the Tajik janitors of the last century are the Tajik janitor of today. The mechanism is absolutely the same,” and the only thing that could stop it would be if ethnic Russians were to take the jobs that the Tajiks now and the Tatars earlier performed. But he says he cannot understand why Russians would be so happy to do that.

Roshchin’s article is one of several recent ones that argue that Central Asian and North Caucasian immigrants will either assimilate or go home and thus “do not represent a threat” to Russians.  (For another, see Sergey Podosenov’s “Gastarbeiters in Moscow are Satisfied with Life and Do Not Represent a Threat,” “Izvestiya,” August 28 at

To the extent that these are intended to discredit those who advance xenophobic agendas and calm the increasingly angry ethnic Russian population of Moscow and other Russian cities, such articles are welcome.  But like attacks on other ills, they suffer from three shortcomings that in the end may make the situation even worse.

First, these articles ignore the issue of size: A century ago, as Roshchin notes, there were 6,000 Tatars in Moscow; today, there are perhaps 2.5 million Central Asian and Caucasian migrant workers. The latter forms a critical mass certain to pose a far greater assimilatory challenge than did their less numerous Tatar predecessors.

Second, they do not consider the impact of technology.  A century ago, when Tatars came to Moscow, they were surrounded except in the mosques by a Russian-language media milieu. Now, although the mosques have become Russian-speaking, the Central Asians and Caucasians in Moscow can use the Internet to maintain their identity.

And third, they fail to recognize that the assimilatory power of the ethnic Russian nation is significantly less today than it was a century ago.  Until recently, various studies have shown, if a member of a Muslim nationality married an ethnic Russian, the children would likely declare themselves to be Russian; now, the reverse is often the case.

Roshchin is right that in many ways, “the Tajiks are the Tatars of today,” but he is almost certainly incorrect in assuming that the Tajiks of today will follow the same path of identity change that their predecessors did.  And for both Moscow and ethnic Russian nationalists, that is the real problem.

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