Russians Abroad: A Case of Central Asia
No. 4 2010 October/December

The results of the survey “A Social Portrait of Russian Compatriots” conducted by experts of the CIS Institute were published in Russian in the Strategia Rossii magazine, No. 6, 2010.

This article presents the results of a sociological survey conducted to get an accurate picture of the socio-political and socio-economic position of Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The poll was conducted in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The goal of the survey was to collect unbiased information about the age, professional and educational background of ethnic Russian residents and their opinions about life in those countries.

The survey’s concrete tasks were to reveal self-identification, citizenship and adaptation of Russians to the countries in Central Asia in which they live; their knowledge of the national language, profession and living standards; the potential and mechanism for the protection of their rights; their attitude towards Russia and its nationality policy with regard to Russians living abroad; and their own intentions concerning migration.

In all this survey encompassed 3,700 people, including 1,000 in Kazakhstan, 900 in Kyrgyzstan, 900 in Tajikistan and 900 in Uzbekistan.


Kazakhstan is home to more than 120 nationalities. As of January 1, 2008, Kazakhs accounted for 59 percent and Russians for 25 percent of the country’s total population. Of the remaining 16 percent, only seven percent represent nationalities that are also present in the Russian Federation. By the beginning of 2009, Kazakhs accounted for 65 percent, which shows that the Kazakh population has grown, while the population of non-Kazakh groups has decreased. The Russian diaspora numbers approximately 4.5 million.

The decrease in the number of Russians living in Kazakhstan can be explained by higher mortality rates as a factor for the natural decline of population and – more probable – by migration to Russia. The migration rate, though somewhat lower than in the mid-1990s, stands at thousands of people a year.

According to a 2009 sociological survey, ethnic identity continues to prevail among the majority of Russians living in Kazakhstan. However, there are also signs of a shift in favor of citizenship (national) identity, particularly among the younger generation living in a new political environment. Identity through citizenship prevails among the capital’s residents. Identity appears to be a function of the migration strategies of the people in Kazakhstan: ethnic Russians who want to move to Russia perceive themselves as part of the people of Russia and to a lesser degree as part of the people of Kazakhstan. Identity is also affected by standard of living: the lower the income level the higher the affinity is with the Russian people and the desire to identify oneself as a Kazakh national is also lower. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union is a regrettable event for the older generation, residents of rural areas, people with lower incomes or those who failed to adapt themselves to the new economic environment.

The Kazakh language is the only official language in the country and it is increasingly being used in all spheres of life in Kazakh society. Most Russians living in Kazakhstan realize that the younger generation must learn Kazakh, and young people actually show more readiness to know it better. However, for the majority of Russians, learning the Kazakh language is still a problem. In some areas of Kazakhstan, for example in the Pavlodar Region, the level of competence in the Kazakh language is very low. Income level and knowledge of Kazakh appear to be interdependent factors here: language instruction at special courses and education at prestigious colleges and universities require money, while a good career is impossible without a sound knowledge of the official language.

It is a common belief that the living standards of Russians in Russia and Kazakhstan are practically the same. At the same time, no less popular is the opinion that Russians in Kazakhstan live better than Russians in Russia. This impression largely derives from the biased coverage in the Russian media of what is happening in Russia. 

Practically all Russians living in Kazakhstan support stronger relations with Russia. For security those ethnic Russians would like to have the right to obtain Russian citizenship without giving up their Kazakh citizenship. They call for broader cultural links with their motherland, Russia’s support for Russian language instruction programs, special aid to elderly Russians, etc. Currently, the majority of Russians living in Kazakhstan say they do not feel they are getting much support from Russia.

Most Russians claim instances of violations of their rights in daily life, or when they apply for a job or educational training. However, they say there is no general tendency for rights violations when they apply for pension, buy homes, vote, or take part in other social and political activities. Violations of rights that occur when applying for jobs are mostly due to employers’ tough requirements for knowledge of the Kazakh language. People with very modest incomes complain more often about encroachments on their rights in daily life as they perceive conflict situations through the prism of ethnicity. People inclined to move to Russia have experienced more instances of violations of their rights than other groups of people.

A considerable number of Russians in Kazakhstan are convinced that they are capable of defending their rights jointly through concerted efforts. However, the Russian-speaking community is split and lacks consolidation, while its organizations in no way affect Kazakh government policies. They believe that the most effective way to protect their rights is application to central or local government agencies in Kazakhstan.

Presently relations between the two major ethnic groups in Kazakhstan –Kazakhs and Russians – remain friendly and tolerant. Yet certain tensions have been registered in individual towns in the Alma Ata and Pavlodar Regions. The evaluation of the state of relations between the indigenous people and Russians directly depends on how well-to-do the respondent is. More wealthy respondents tend to give positive evaluations of inter-ethnic relations in the country. Overall the respondents have a positive view of the government’s national policy. However, in order to feel more comfortable in Kazakhstan, they would like to see a law giving Russian the status of a second official language and another law permitting dual Russian and Kazakh citizenship. Practically all Russians think that relations between Russia and Kazakhstan are good.

Most Russians are well settled in Kazakhstan. Over the past several years their financial position has either remained stable or even improved. However, elderly people living in rural areas are experiencing financial problems.

The majority of Russians have satisfying full-time jobs and every second Russian is employed in the trade he/she was professionally trained for. People are being retrained to get a profession that is more in demand on the job market. Russians occupy practically all available socio-economic niches: they are mostly employed in the manufacturing industry, retail trade, public catering, mediation, education, science, culture and the arts.

Kazakhstan’s migration potential is rather high (every third respondent indicated they want to leave the country), however the majority are living in “suspended migration,” as they have never been very specific as to when and where to go. The migration initiatives of many Russians in Kazakhstan most probably will turn into unimplemented projects.

The dynamics of socio-economic change in the life of Russians can be clearly seen if we compare the results of this survey with one conducted in 2006.

Almost half of all those polled in 2006 and 2009 were secondary or vocational school graduates; the percentage of those with higher degrees grew from 40 to 43 percent. People’s confidence that their children will not lose Russian as their native language is presently much higher. Their financial situation is slightly better. Although the number of people who consider themselves as wealthy decreased between 2006 and 2009 from eight to seven percent, the percentage of those living below the poverty line also decreased from seven to three percent. The share of those who earn enough money only to make ends meet increased from 80 to 85 percent.

A comparison of the financial position of Russians living in Kazakhstan and those living in Russia has revealed a shift in favor of the former. In 2009 every fifth respondent, i.e. 20 percent of all those polled, was convinced that Russians in Russia lived better than those in Kazakhstan, while in 2006 the figure was 25 percent. The composition of people with different social status has changed. In 2009, the number of white-collar workers and skilled workers went down, while the number of students increased.

Both surveys show a huge share of people working for private businesses (42 percent in 2006 and 31 percent in 2009), while the share of civil servants remains practically unchanged (15 and 16 percent) and public employment has decreased from 21 to 15 percent. More than half of the respondents are employed in the trade they were trained for (56 percent) compared to 47 percent in 2006. The share of those who have mastered a second profession has grown, which shows how people have adapted to new economic conditions. Unskilled employment has decreased two-fold.

Both the 2009 and 2006 polls show that Russians are employed in almost all sectors of the economy. Employment statistics by sector varies insignificantly.


As of beginning 2009 Russians in Kyrgyzstan constituted almost eight percent (around 430,000) of the population, with most of them living in urban areas. The last Soviet poll in Kyrgyzstan showed that in 1989 the number of Russians stood at 920,000 – that is, twice as large.

Russians in Kyrgyzstan form the third biggest ethnic community after the Kyrgyz (70 percent) and the Uzbeks (15 percent); and it is one of the biggest officially recognized Russian communities outside contemporary Russia. Together with the Ukrainians, the Eastern Slavic community in the country numbers 500,000, or 10 percent of the population. (In 2006, the Russian-speaking community numbered 534,000 people; that is, in two year the community lost about 34,000 people.) The number of migrants from Kyrgyzstan who settled in Russia in 2006-2007 reached 40,000 people (according to Federal Migration Service data). This fact confirms that the number of Russians in Kyrgyzstan is continuing to decline as they move to Russia.

The 2009 poll embraced those people who identified themselves as Russians. These are Russian-speaking people who belong to various ethnic groups. Half of them are ethnic Russians and one-fifth are Kyrgyz. The large number of Kyrgyz who identify themselves as Russians is explained by the high authority of the Russian language and culture, which have formed the educational background of the Kyrgyz for many generations. The survey shows that almost 60 percent of Russian-speaking Kyrgyz bring up their children in an environment where Russian is considered as their native language. 

The change in the socio-economic picture of the life of Russians in Kyrgyzstan is easily seen when one compares the 2006 and the 2009 surveys.

Most of the respondents (92 percent) were born in Kyrgyzstan. The number of those born in Kyrgyzstan is markedly higher compared with the 2006 survey. While three years before seven out of every 10 respondents were born in Kyrgyzstan, in 2009 the number was nine out of ten. Around 95 percent of Russians and 85 percent of the representatives of other non-Kyrgyz ethnic groups have lived in Kyrgyzstan for more than two generations. This means that Russians living in Kyrgyzstan are well settled in the country and are unlikely to have close relatives in Russia. Should they decide to move to Russia they could not rely on the support of relatives and would require all-out assistance from the state (including legalization, accommodation and employment).

Ninety-five percent of all the respondents are Kyrgyz citizens. Russian citizens account for 4 percent.

Every second respondent in 2006 and 2009 was a secondary or vocational school graduate; the share of those who have university degrees has grown from 34 to 50 percent.

Notwithstanding the high educational level of the respondents, their financial position is rather low and practically has not changed over the three years: only five percent of the respondents in 2009 considered themselves to be well-to-do, which is slightly more than the four percent in 2006. The share of respondents who did not earn enough money to buy food and have had to go into debt has slightly decreased – from 10 to seven percent. The number of Russians who regarded their position as agreeable (“we earn enough money, but cannot afford expensive things” or “we earn enough money to buy food and necessities”) went up by 10 percent. In 2009, every fifth respondent said his/her position had changed for the better (in 2006 the number of such optimists was higher – one-third of the respondents). The number of those who said that their situation remained either unchanged or had slightly improved is practically the same for the 2006 and 2009 polls.

The financial position of Russians in Russia and in Kyrgyzstan has changed over three years in favor of Russia. In 2009, 43 percent of all those polled were convinced that Russians in Russia lived better than those in Kyrgyzstan (in 2006 the figure was 36 percent).

The respondents differ in social status as well. People with permanent professions constitute the largest group (35 percent in 2009 and 20 percent in 2006). The second largest group is formed of skilled workers (10 percent in 2009 and 16 percent in 2006). The number of entrepreneurs accounted for 10 percent in 2009 and eight percent in 2006. The number of pensioners went down from 18 percent in 2006 to one percent in 2009, and the number of students fell from 19 percent in 2006 to four percent in 2009.

More than half of the respondents work for private businesses, and a third of the respondents have jobs with public organizations (including the civil service). Russians involved in trade, public catering and mediation services (one-fifth in 2009 and one-fourth in 2006) form the biggest category. The percentage of those involved in education, science, culture and the arts decreased from 21 percent in 2006 to 14 percent in 2009. However, the number of people employed in construction went up from six percent in 2006 to 12 percent in 2009. Over 60 percent of the respondents were satisfied with their employment.

According to the 2009 survey almost all ethnic Russians want to leave Kyrgyzstan for Russia: 72 percent think of moving permanently and 23 percent are ready to leave to find employment in Russia. The dynamics of the numerical strength of the Russian community in Kyrgyzstan shows that Russians have been actively implementing their plans to settle in Russia (over the three years between the polls the Russian community shrank by more than six percent). Less than two percent of the respondents plan to migrate to other countries, and only one percent wish to stay in Kyrgyzstan.

The reasons for leaving Kyrgyzstan are as follows:

  • the unfavorable economic situation in the country – 35 percent;
  • the lack of employment opportunities – 32 percent;
  • the lack of opportunities for the younger generation – 11 percent;
  • inter-ethnic tensions in the country – eight percent.

The respondents also name the lack of opportunities for their children and grandchildren among the reasons for leaving Kyrgyzstan. Young people say it is difficult for Russians to find jobs and get a decent education, and that there are no opportunities for building a family because “everyone has gone” and “there are not any grooms.”


Russians in Tajikistan form the third largest ethnic minority (around one percent of the population) after Turkic-speaking Uzbeks (17 percent) and Kyrgyz (over one percent). Russians in Tajikistan numbered 400,000 in 1989; during the post-Soviet years their number has decreased almost six-fold.

Migration from Tajikistan reached its peak in 1992 when almost 67,000 people moved to Russia. After minimal migration to Russia was registered in 2004, the number of people leaving the country began to increase and in 2007 net migration from Tajikistan reached 17,000. Overall Russia accommodated some 390,000 people from Tajikistan between 1990 and 2007.

People considering themselves as Russians were selected for a mass poll conducted in 2009. The respondents included Russian speakers from various ethnic groups. More than half of them are ethnic Russians (54 percent); one-fifth (or 21 percent) are Tajiks; and one-quarter of the respondents are people belonging to other ethnic groups. The poll showed that almost 60 percent of Russian-speaking Tajiks claimed that even their children spoke Russian; among other ethnicities the share of Russian-speaking people is even higher (80 percent).

A majority (around 81 percent) of the respondents were born in Tajikistan. Over 76 percent of them have lived in the country for more than two generations. That is, most Russian-speaking people are well settled in Tajikistan.

Of all those polled, 78 percent are Tajik citizens, while a total of nine percent said that they are Russian citizens.

The Russian-speaking community is well educated, as almost half of them have higher degrees and 44 percent have a secondary or vocational school education.

Only five percent of all the respondents say they are relatively well-to-do. Those who do not have enough money to live and have to go in debt constitute 29 percent. A total of 66 percent believe their material status is average (they have enough money to buy necessities, but more expensive purchases are a problem). However, almost half of the respondents (46 percent) say their financial position has improved. Around 38 percent of the respondents estimate their financial position as stable, while 15 percent say it has worsened. During the discussions people confessed that there are many elderly Russians living alone in poverty.

A comparative analysis of the financial position of Russians living in Russia and in Tajikistan has drawn favorable results for Russia, as 54 percent of the respondents believe that life in Russia is better. Every fifth respondent sees no difference between the situation in Russia and Tajikistan. One out of every ten said life in Tajikistan was better.

Socially the respondents are divided as follows: qualified professionals (24 percent), students (14 percent), skilled workers (10 percent) and white-collar workers (10 percent), while entrepreneurs and the unemployed each constitute three percent.

A total of 29 percent appear to be unemployed. Of the total number of employed (71 percent) the biggest group are people working for private businesses (36 percent), more than one-third (35 percent) are government employees, and one-fifth work for public organizations. Almost one-third of all those employed are involved in education, science and culture. About one-fifth are involved in trade, public catering and mediation services. Three-fourths of the respondents are satisfied with their jobs.


According to Uzbekistan’s State Statistics Committee, there were about one million Russians, or four percent of the population, living in the country as of early 2009. The Russian population in Uzbekistan has dropped in the post-Soviet era from 1.7 million in 1989 to almost half that figure now. Over these years more than 820,000 people left Uzbekistan for Russia. The migration waves have had their ups and downs. The latest swell in migration took place after 2004. In 2007 net migration from Uzbekistan to Russia amounted to over 52,000.

This poll and the related discussions involved those people in Uzbekistan who identify themselves as Russians. They represent various ethnic groups. The majority of the respondents (42 percent) are Uzbeks, most of whom identify themselves as both Uzbek and Russian nationals. Around 40 percent are ethnic Russians and 20 percent belong to other ethnic groups. All those polled speak Russian and, according to the poll, almost two-thirds of the respondents are convinced that the Russian language will be their children’s native language. This conviction is shared by about 90 percent of ethnic Russians, one-third of ethnic Uzbeks and 80 percent of people belonging to other ethnic groups.

An overwhelming majority (91 percent) of the respondents were born in Uzbekistan. More than 94 percent of them have lived in Uzbekistan for more than two generations; that is, the majority of ethnic Russians are well settled in Uzbekistan.

Around 97 percent of the respondents are citizens of Uzbekistan; Russian citizens constitute less than one percent.

Most of the respondents (69 percent) have secondary or vocational school education, and 22 percent have completed university. One out of every ten has not had secondary schooling.

Russians in Uzbekistan believe their financial position is unsatisfactory; less than three percent consider themselves to be fairly well-to-do;  about  13 percent think they are poor (“there is no money even to buy food and we have to go into debt”). One-third of all those polled believe that their position is average (“there is enough money to live, but expensive purchases are a problem”). More than half (53 percent) of the respondents think they have very modest earnings (“enough money to buy food and necessities”).

One out of every three respondents thinks his/her financial status has changed for the better; almost 40 percent believe it has remained unchanged, while one-fourth of those polled say that it has worsened. 

A considerable number (50 percent) of the respondents think that Russians live a better life in Russia than in Uzbekistan. This opinion is shared by slightly more than one-third of Uzbeks. Almost as many people see no difference in the life of Russians in Russia and Uzbekistan, and a mere 15 percent are confident that Russians in Uzbekistan live a better life. This opinion was voiced twice as often by Uzbeks (20 percent) than by Russians and representatives of other ethnicities (11 percent in each group).

Socially the respondents are divided as follows: the biggest group (22 percent) includes qualified professionals, 19 percent are unemployed and almost as many (18 percent) are unskilled workers. Two-thirds of the respondents have jobs, the majority of them work for private businesses (46 percent) and one-quarter for government institutions. Over 35 percent are employed in the manufacturing industry and construction, 16 percent are involved in trade, public catering and mediation services. One out of every ten has a job in sectors linked with education, science or culture. Three-fourths (73 percent) of the respondents said they are satisfied with their jobs.

The poll shows that intent to leave the country is very high among Russians in Uzbekistan. A total of 94 percent of the respondents want to go to Russia. Most of them (60 percent) would like to find a job there and 35 percent are ready to move permanently. Apparently these people are potential participants in the resettlement program for Russians.


The people who took part in the survey were mainly Russian-speaking residents of the Central Asian region who identified themselves as Russians. These were ethnic Russians and representatives of other ethnicities of the Russian Federation. The survey also included title ethnicities who speak Russian as their native language or as a second native language.

An overwhelming majority of the respondents were born in the country of residence and their families have lived in that country for more than two generations. An insignificant part (about 10 percent) moved to those countries when they were part of the Soviet Union. Russian families in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are the most settled.

An absolute majority are citizens of their countries of residence. Respondents in Uzbekistan (97 percent), Kazakhstan (98 percent) and Kyrgyzstan (95 percent) are the most integrated in this respect. The largest number of Russian citizens live in Tajikistan (nine percent), and the smallest number is in Uzbekistan (one percent). Russian citizens account for three percent of the population in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The biggest number of Russians who have come from other countries live in Tajikistan.

Russians living in Central Asian countries generally regard their state of wellbeing as average. The number of well-to-do families is insignificant. Kazakhstan features the biggest number (53 + 7 percent) of people with decent incomes. The poorest group includes one-third of the respondents in Tajikistan and one-tenth of the respondents in Uzbekistan. This indicator is lower for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The educational level of Russians in these countries is quite high: about 40 to 50 percent of the respondents have university degrees. In Uzbekistan such respondents account for only 20 percent. Graduates of secondary and vocational schools constitute half of the respondents in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and 40 percent in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Russians living in Central Asian countries demonstrate various levels of knowledge of the official languages in their respective countries of residence. In Kazakhstan only eight percent of local Russians speak Kazakh fairly well, while over 60 percent do not speak Kazakh at all. One-fourth of the respondents speak Kyrgyz fluently, but half of the respondents from Kyrgyzstan have no knowledge of the national language. In Tajikistan, the situation is quite different, as 40 percent of the respondents speak Tajik fluently and 40 percent can barely make themselves understood in that language. In Uzbekistan, more than half of all the respondents know the national language and only less than one-quarter cannot speak it.

The results of the survey show that if a respondent does not know the language very well, his/her conviction is stronger that their children should maintain Russian as their native language. The majority of respondents believe that their younger generation will maintain a high level of competence in the Russian language and it will remain their native language. However, one-third of the respondents in Uzbekistan are very concerned about the younger generation’s language identity.

Relations between the Russian-speaking population and representatives of title ethnicities are generally friendly. In Uzbekistan, more than 90 percent of the respondents believe that these relations are good, or “good rather than bad.” Kazakhstan is the only country where 23 percent of the respondents say that relations are not friendly. Single individuals state that interethnic relations are poor.

Russian communities are rather skeptical about the possibility of resolute protection of their rights. This attitude is characteristic of all the countries covered in the survey. Only one-fifth of respondents in the Central Asian region believe that a Russian community is capable of protecting its rights through collective action. This fact speaks about the lack of consolidation among Russians living in Central Asian countries. Due to the specifics of conducting the survey in Uzbekistan some questions related to the protection of the rights of Russians living there were excluded from the questionnaire.

The respondents did not name any uniform method of human rights protection. In Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, the respondents believe that the most effective way is to apply to central agencies (21 and 20 percent respectively). Russians in Kyrgyzstan (25 percent) favor applications to Russian government agencies responsible for links with Russians living abroad. It must be said that most of the respondents see no efficient ways of protecting their rights, while 10 to 17 percent prefer to leave the country.

Russians want to have certain codified guarantees in order to live a more comfortable life. Among the most desirable they name a law assigning the Russian language the status of an official language. Its adoption is favored by 65 percent of the respondents in Kazakhstan and over 40 percent in Tajikistan. The Russian community in Kyrgyzstan (76 percent) would welcome a law allowing for dual Kyrgyz and Russian citizenship. This is most likely linked with a huge flow of labor migrants wishing to legalize their rights in the Russian Federation.

In assessing Russia’s policy towards Russians living abroad, the respondents think that Russia is not doing enough. Such an opinion was voiced by every second individual polled in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A quarter of the Russian communities in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan feel no support from Russia.

A considerable number of Russians want to leave their countries of residence. The highest number is in Kyrgyzstan (23 percent are potential job seekers and 72 percent wish to seek permanent residence in Russia) and Uzbekistan (35 and 59 percent respectively). Migration indicators are slightly lower in Tajikistan. Uzbekistan demonstrates the highest number of job seekers (59 percent), while in Kyrgyzstan migrant job seekers constitute only 23 percent. These figures may be the result of a high level of unemployment in these countries. Migration indicators are lower in Kazakhstan, as 38 percent do not want to leave the country.

Remarkably, nine percent of the respondents in Kazakhstan and seven percent in Tajikistan said they wanted to move to other countries in order to seek permanent residence. People named several European nations in the course of the discussion.