Staunton, May 6 – The exodus of ethnic Russians from Central Asia after the collapse of the USSR has attracted enormous attention because it is leading the countries of that region to become less Russianized than they were and to the decline in Russian influence among the governments and peoples there.
But there has been another exodus from that region which has attracted less attention but that certainly has affected Moscow’s position there: an exodus of Kazan Tatars whom Moscow often employed as its agents because the Tatars have long stood between Russia and the Muslim peoples of that region.
What is especially striking is that in percentage terms, the departure of Kazan Tatars from the countries of Central Asians has been larger than that of ethnic Russians, even though in absolute terms, this decline has been much smaller.
The censuses taken in the region show the following: In Tajikistan in 1989, there were 338,000 ethnic Russians and 27,000 Tatars; in 2010, these communities formed only 72,000 and 6500 respectively. In Uzbekistan in 1989, there were 1.6 million Russians and 467,000 Tatars; by 2010, these numbers had declined to 809,000 and 211,000.
Similarly in Kazakhstan in 1989, there were 6 .2 million ethnic Russians and 327,000 Tatar, but by 2009, there were only 3.8 million Russians and 204,000 Tatars. Figures for Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan showed similar declines (zen.yandex.ru/media/centralasia/ne-tolko-russkie-pochemu-v-1990e-iz-srednei-azii-uehali-tatary-607efc27330a4f14d5c2acad).
Tatars have been in Central Asia for at least eight centuries, and after Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan, the Russian state sent more of them there to promote trade with Muscovy. The Soviet system continued that tradition, sending Tatars to the region because of their cultural and linguistic knowledge.
After 1991, the situation was so changed that there was a widespread view in Central Asia that the Russians should “go back to Ryazan, and the Tatars to Kazan,” as one popular slogan put it. Roughly half of the Tatars did so because they no longer had the role, backed by Moscow, that they had enjoyed in the past.
Their return to the Republic of Tatarstan has had three major consequences: It has reduced Russian expertise about Central Asia in those countries. It has helped push up the population of Tatarstan and the sense that it should have the same independent future that the Central Asians have achieved.
And it has meant that yet another component has been added to the Tatar nation, one that was both more national and less than most of those already there, more national because of the ethnicizing experiences of being pushed out of Central Asia and less national because of Soviet policy and experience of living in areas without a Tatar majority.