Longtime residents of Dushanbe say Tajikistan’s capital is changing, and they’re not talking about the destruction of city parks to make space for empty new skyscrapers. The use of the Russian language, once a unifier in multi-ethnic Tajik cities, is rapidly fading.
A generation ago, Russian was the primary language of Tajikistan’s cities, but today it is spoken mainly by a dwindling elite. Due to war and economic decay over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of the best-educated Tajiks – generally Russian-speakers – have left the country. At the same time, the education system has declined to the point where it is barely functioning. In most schools, Tajik language instruction has pushed Russian aside.
Tajik is Tajikistan’s “official” language, while Russian is codified as the “language of interethnic communication.” But legislation passed in 2009 mandated that all government documents be published in Tajik only. When that happened, non-Tajik speakers could no longer find jobs in state agencies.
Of course, many Tajiks like to speak their own language. But, local observers say, the disappearance of Russian is bad news for the country’s legion of migrant laborers, most of whom head to Russia in search of work. Without Russian, many Tajik migrants find that their job possibilities are limited, thereby hampering their earning potential. That means Tajik migrant workers are sending less money home than they could if they had better command of Russian. Ultimately, then, Tajikistan’s economy, which is heavily dependent on migrant remittances, takes a hit.
In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law obliging foreign labor migrants to pass a Russian-language proficiency exam. By most estimates, over a million of those migrants are from Tajikistan. They make Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world, according to the World Bank. Last year, Tajik laborers sent home the equivalent of 47 percent of GDP, the Bank said in November. Most of that cash came from Russia.
Evidence is mostly anecdotal, but the linguistic changes are obvious to Tajiks who have been away for years. This past summer, for example, Ruslan Akhmedov wanted to sell an apartment he inherited, so returned to Dushanbe from a small Russian town where he’s lived for most of his adult life. “I placed an ad in a local paper indicating my phone number,” Akhmedov recalled. “Out of about thirty people who called me during the first couple of days, only three or four easily switched into Russian. With the others, I had to communicate in my primitive Tajik. Regrettably, I’ve almost forgotten the language.”
Akhmedov says the once-multiethnic city has changed. “I left in 1995, in the heat of the civil war. I clearly remember my childhood at the end of the Soviet epoch,” Akhmedov recalls. “In Dushanbe [we had] Germans, Koreans, Ossetians, Armenians, Jews. We were friendly. My classmates spoke their languages at home, but in the street and at school we all communicated in Russian; and that always brought us closer together.”
The exodus of ethnic Russians, and many skilled Tajiks amid Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war included many trained specialists. Tajiks from the countryside, who tended to have weaker command of Russian, poured into Dushanbe.
Ethnic Tajiks who prefer to speak Russian, like Akhmedov, say they now feel like “uninvited guests” in Dushanbe, both because state policy encourages the use of Tajik, and because of what they describe as underlying nationalism stemming from insecurity among non-Russian speakers. There are no reliable statistics on the number of Tajiks who prefer Russian, but most live and work in the center of the capital, and in the northern city of Khujand, where the country’s dwindling industrial base is concentrated.
“Today, the situation with the Russian language could be called catastrophic,” says Temur Varki, a freelance journalist in Dushanbe. Varki says the problem is the state’s insistence on switching schools to Tajik, though many young men learn some Russian when they travel to Russia as labor migrants.
The ability to speak Russian is still regarded as prestigious among members of the elite in Dushanbe, where Russian-language schools retain a reputation for academic rigor. “I enrolled my son in a Russian-language school,” says a notary from Dushanbe who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “To be honest, [due to high demand] I bribed a mediator to get him enrolled. For me, both languages – Tajik and Russian – are native.”
The notary’s motivation is his son’s future, which he hopes will be outside of Tajikistan. “I want my children to be capable of studying abroad. It has nothing to do with patriotism,” he says. “This is just an obvious fact: schools instructing in Tajik cannot compare in quality with Russian-language ones.”
The notary and others criticized government linguists for inventing words rather than using Russian terms that were recently universal. “Many legal, technical, medical, financial, and other terms have no words in contemporary Tajik, which leads to confusion and misinterpretations,” he says.
Neologisms are often created from Russian with Persianized endings to conform to the government’s idea of what modern Tajik – closely related to Persian – should sound like.
Munira Salieva, a professional interpreter, says she can hardly understand some of the written Tajik produced by government agencies: “Documents and reports presented in Tajik abound with artificial words and expressions,” she says.
For those belonging to an older generation that can remember the heyday of the Soviet Union, when cultural differences were celebrated (as long as Russian was given precedence), the changes, taken together, represent a slide backwards. “We have lost our multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism, which were built on communication. This communication was maintained with the Russian language, which consolidated society,” prominent theater director and author Barzu Abdurazakov told EurasiaNet.org.
“I grew up in the small city of Shakhrinav [about 30 kilometers west of Dushanbe] among different ethnic groups. Then, I moved to the capital, where I was captured by its charming diversity. A hangover is coming now,” Abdurazakov says. “Even vocal advocates of ‘national identity’ and ‘ethnic purity’ understand and regret the things we have lost during the years of independence – the diversity, the culture and intellect.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.