Kindness and hospitality
Many Tajiks feel compassion for Russians who fled their country to avoid being sent to fight in Ukraine.
“I understand that these are ordinary people. They don’t want to kill and be killed,” a young journalist from Dushanbe told me. Tajik women with adult sons can see the parallel with their own children. A woman in her fifties said to me, “I feel sorry for those boys. They also have mothers and they had to leave them behind. Who knows when and if they will be able to return home?
This positive attitude towards Russian dissenters may seem surprising, given the general pro-Russian stance of the Tajik people, even in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
These attitudes may also be partly a legacy of the Soviet era. During a panel discussion in early October on employment procedures for Russian citizens, I heard the host passionately compare recent arrivals to, first, the expansion of the Russian Empire, then the establishment of the Soviet Union in Tajikistan.
“One hundred years ago, a similar story happened,” the moderator said. “The light of Russia has come to us.” Later, when a young Russian computer scientist asked him if he could take Tajik language lessons, the host laughed, saying, “It’s better if we use you to teach us Russian instead!”
Such sentiments may have their roots in decades of Russian and then Soviet imperial rule in Tajikistan, which entrenched what could be seen as white supremacist attitudes in parts of Tajik society. As one activist told me, “For our people, Russians are a better kind of human. Nobody distinguishes between the different political positions in Russia; that some Russians are pro-Putin and that those who come here are military deserters. All are Russians for us. They are white. »
This support for Russia is evident in several initiatives taken by activists and volunteers in Dushanbe. Social media groups sprung up on Telegram and Facebook as soon as the first Russians started arriving. By mid-October, the most popular, “Relocation in Tajikistan,” had over 4,000 members and nearly 1,000 posts a day.
In these groups, Tajiks answer – in Russian – questions about housing, SIM cards, how to register in the country or open a bank account with a Visa card (international financial services have suspended operations in Russia ).
Locals have created a guide to Dushanbe especially for their “Russian friends”, from using public transport to ordering food deliveries. Others have offered to show new arrivals around the city or take them for free to Khujand in the north or to the Uzbek border. Local media claim that some residents of Dushanbe paid for purchases made by Russians in markets and shops, or provided free accommodation in their homes.
These initiatives are presented as acts of hospitality – an important element of Tajik culture. Yet there is an element of performativity attached. Many people I spoke to felt compelled to show generosity and kindness to Russians. As a teacher in her fifties told me, “Let the Russians see what kind of people we are. Many of them, when they come here, expect to see a village with donkeys and uneducated people. Let them see how hospitable we are.
There is also the hope that if newcomers feel welcome in Tajikistan, this could change discriminatory attitudes towards Tajik migrant workers in Russia in the long term. “If 20,000 Russians come here and each of them tells ten other people how nice we are, imagine what effect that will have on the lives of Tajiks in Russia,” a 35-year-old accountant told me.