The Russian and Ukrainian minorities have decreased dramatically in numbers since Tajikistan’s independence, mainly as a result of migration following the start of the civil war. While many Russian speakers from European parts of the Soviet Union moved to Tajikistan in Soviet times, a much higher proportion than was the case elsewhere in Central Asia left the country during perestroika and particularly the civil war in the 1990s: those living in urban areas were principally replaced by Tajiks from rural areas. The country’s official 2010 census estimated that only 34,838 Russians, and 1,090 Ukrainians remained, mainly in Dushanbe, Khujand and other cities and towns.
Very few Russian and Ukrainian settlers migrated to Tajikistan during the Tsarist period: in 1926, there were only an estimated 5,600 in what was considered then an imperial backwater. Soviet industrialisation was to change the country’s demographics dramatically in the decades to follow. Lower infant mortality rates resulted in high natural growth rates among the Tajiks and indigenous minorities, but immigration also contributed significantly, with the number of Russians and Ukrainians going from about 5,600 in 1926 to 153,000 in 1939. This latter population almost doubled between 1939 and 1959, by which time they represented 14.7 percent of the population, mainly concentrated in urban centres.
Russian emigration started during perestroika, the period of reform instituted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980’s. The first wave followed the proclamation of the Tajik language law in 1989 which made Tajik the sole state language. During the civil war Russian-speakers’ sympathies were with the Nabiyev side, yet even with the victory of the latter, Russian-speakers feared further destabilisation. The effects of the Russian exodus were felt in a number of key economic sectors.
In September 1995 Tajikistan signed an agreement with Russia on dual citizenship, partially as a means of stemming the out-migration flow. Census figures in 2010 show this has not been successful. Anecdotal evidence suggests many of the remaining Russians and Ukrainians remain because they do not have the financial means to leave the country.
Tajikistan has tried to encourage Russians and Ukrainians to remain in the country, as many of their members occupy technical and other skilled positions. For these reasons, schools teaching in the Russian have been maintained and the Russian language’s use is still widespread in government and business. Many Russians in Tajikistan still appear to want to leave because of the country’s poor economic conditions, however, and official population figures appear to demonstrate a continued demographic decline: census estimates of the Russian population halved between 2000 and 2010, from over 68,000 to less than 35,000 respectively, while the Ukrainian population fell from nearly 4,000 to just over 1,000. Many younger Russian-speakers have opted to leave Tajikistan and a large portion of the remainder are now elderly, meaning the population is likely to continue to diminish.
Updated April 2018
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