People in Tajikistan are refereed to as Tajiks. “Tajik” usually refers to the Tajik ethnic group although it can also refer to Tajikistan citizens, who are more properly called Tajikistanis. The Tajik are one of the least Russified of all the groups in Central Asia. This is because they have remained fairly isolated in the mountains and there was little in Tajikistan that was really valuable to the Russians or Soviets . Tajikistanis also have a strong regional affiliation: mountains divide the country into northern and southern regions, whose rivalry spurred the civil war of the 1990s.

Ethnic groups: Tajik 84.3 percent,Uzbek 13.8 percent (includes Lakai, Kongrat, Katagan, Barlos, Yuz), other 2 percent (includes Kyrgyz, Russian, Turkmen, Tatar, Arab) (2010 est.). Languages:Tajik (official), Russian widely used in government and business. Different ethnic groups speak Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Pashto. Religions: Sunni Muslim 85 percent, Shia Muslim 5 percent, other 10 percent (2003 est.) [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Tajiks are of Persian stock and speak a Persian dialect. Most of the Uzbeks live in Tajikistan's slice of the Fergana Valley in the north. Many Tajiks have kin across the border in northern Afghanistan. While most of the Tajikistan Tajiks practice a moderate form of Islam, the mountains of their nation have been a hiding place for extremist Muslim guerrillas who have raided into Uzbekistan. [Source: National Geographic, February 2002]

According to Until the 20th century, people in the region tended to identify themselves more by way of life — nomadic versus sedentary — and place of residence than by ethnic group. The distinction between ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks was not always precise, and people in the region often used — and continue to use — each other's languages. The Soviets tended to reify ethnicity, and drew Central Asian republican boundaries so that they balanced ethnic representation in fertile areas such as the Ferghana Valley while also making large-scale ethnic mobilization difficult. The further one travels outside of Dushanbe and Khujand, the sharper the decline in those persons speaking Russian. In the countryside, particularly in Kurgan-Tyube and Leninabad, much of the rural population speaks Uzbek as well as Tajik. [Source:]


The Tajiks have been in the Pamir area for thousands of years and are regarded as the oldest people in Central Asia. They are believed to have descended from Aryans, an ancient Indo-European people that also gave both to early Hindus, Iranians, Greeks and Europeans, and have links with the ancient Samanid, Sogdian and Bactrian empires. Some Tajiks are regarded as descendants of subjects of Alexander the Great. Alexander spent some time in the area of the Tajiks and his soldiers took many took local brides. Tajiks are perhaps the most non-Central Asian-looking people in Central Asia. They have copper-colored skin, round eyes and Caucasian and Mediterranean features such as Roman noses. Some have blue eyes, green eyes. freckles and red hair.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer of Australia National University wrote: “Contemporary usage of ‘Tajik’ generally narrows to sedentary, Persian-speaking Sunni Muslims in Central Asia and Afghanistan (with a few exceptions such as Dari-speakers who claim Pashtun lineage). Beyond this simple categorisation, many scholars stress that ‘Tajik’ refers to Persian-speakers of diverse origins. As for the language of the Tajiks—variously referred to as Persian, Farsi, Dari or Tajik—the historical linguistic changes in Central Asia within the Iranian-language family should be noted. The Eastern Iranian languages in Central Asia were superseded by a mutually unintelligible Western Iranian language (Persian) several hundred years after the Arab conquests in a process that began well before the Arabs entered the region. According to the Tajik historian Bobojon Ghafurov, the appeal and power of religious, cultural, political and economic factors all contributed to the spread of Western Iranian. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov, Christian Bleuer, Australia National University ><]

Tajiks were the 13th largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union. There are many living Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union and almost as many in Afghanistan and in Tajikistan. Tajiks have traditionally lived around the snowcapped Pamirs, a mountain range shared by Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China, with most living in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and smaller numbers in China and former Soviet republics. Related to ethnic groups in Afghanistan and Iran, the Tajiks have endured wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

A census in 1989 counted 4,217,000 Tajiks in the Soviet Union, with 3,168,000 in Tajikistan and 932,000 in Uzbekistan. Many had doubts about these figures. Because of they were accurate 99 percent of all Tajiks would be in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The are several million Dari speakers in Afghanistan who may also be counted as Tajiks. There is also a small number in western China.

Tajiks Versus Uzbeks

Modern Tajiks are very similar to modern Uzbeks. They have similar customs and lifestyles. Up until the 20th century they were regarded as essentially the same people except that Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. In some ways the Tajik ethnic group was invented by the Soviets as a way to divide the local population and make them less of a threat to the state. Two of Uzbekistan’s most famous cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, have a longer association with Persian-Tajik cultures than with Turkic-Uzbek cultures and have traditionally been home to more Tajiks than Uzbeks.

Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally had very similar customs and settled lifestyles except the Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. Tajiks are also distinguished from other Central Asian by their traditional Islamic-Iranian culture. The widespread use of “Tajik” as term of identification did not come into common usage until the Soviets started using it. The term “Tajik” is also used to describe the speakers of non-Persian Iranian languages in the mountain valleys in the Pamir mountain area such as Sarikolis, Wakhis and Shugnis.

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the ethnic groups of Central Asia. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been difficult to distinguish from one another. The same is true with Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. Clan and regional ties have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

Central Asia is a meeting point of Turkic, Persian and Mongol cultures. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally had very similar customs and lifestyles except the Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. Most ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan identify as Tajiks, but citizens of Uzbekistan.

Uzbeks consider themselves the dominate people of Central Asia by virtue of their numbers and their historic links to Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Other ethnic groups in Central Asia dispute this claim.

Into the 20th century people referred to Uzbeks and Tajiks as Turks and Persians. The Uzbek and Tajik designations only really became widespread with the arrival of the Soviets and their desire to mold ethnic identities to suit their purposes.

According the DNA studies, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen have retained their "ethnic purity." Tajiks also have a reputation for being among the least Russified people in the former Soviet Union. A survey in 1979 found that only 22,666 of them claimed Russian as their “first native language.”

Ethnic Groups in Tajikistan

Tajikistan is fairly ethnically diverse: a product of the large numbers of people from different ethnic groups that moved to Tajikistan during the Soviet period. Uzbeks are the largest minority in part because a large chunk of traditionally Uzbek territory in the Fergana Valley was tacked onto Tajikistan. Tajikistan is less ethnically diverse than it was: a product of the large numbers of non-Tajiks that moved out of Tajikistan after it became independent in 1991 to flee civil war, violence and pro-Tajik government policies. Tajikistanis also have a strong regional affiliation: mountains divide the country into northern and southern regions, whose rivalry spurred the civil war of the 1990s.

Ethnic groups: Tajik 84.3 percent, Uzbek 13.8 percent (includes Lakai, Kongrat, Katagan, Barlos, Yuz), other 2 percent (includes Kyrgyz, Russian, Turkmen, Tatar, Arab) (2010 est.). Languages:Tajik (official), Russian widely used in government and business. Different ethnic groups speak Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Pashto. Religions: Sunni Muslim 85 percent, Shia Muslim 5 percent, other 10 percent (2003 est.) [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

According to the 2000 census, 79.9 percent of the population was Tajik, 15.3 percent Uzbek, 1.1 percent Russian, and 1.1 percent Kyrgyz. According to the 1989 census, Tajiks made up 62.3 percent of the population, Uzbeks 23.5 percent, Russians 7.6 percent, Tatars 1.4 percent, and Kyrgyz 1.3 percent. Smaller ethnic groups include Germans, Jews, Koreans, Turkmens, and Ukrainians. Other groups include Uyghurs, Dunguns, Kazakhs, Belarussians, Germans, Koreans, Azerbaijanis, Meskhetian Turks, and other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union, plus some Tajik-Afghan refugees..[Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Between the censuses of 1989 and 2000, the Uzbek population decreased from 23.5 percent to 15.3 percent, and the Russian population decreased from 7.6 percent to 1.1 percent. In the same period, the Tajik population increased from 62.3 percent to nearly 80 percent. Particularly in the Fergana Valley, intermarriage between Tajiks and Uzbeks has essentially merged the two groups. The Russian population is concentrated in Dushanbe and Khujand. Since 2000 the rate of Russian emigration has slowed. Tajiks make up about 5 percent of the population in Uzbekistan.

The main ethnic groups of Central Asia are the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Turkmen, and Uyghurs of western China—which all speak Turkic languages—and Tajiks, who speak a Persian languages. All of main these groups are Muslims and all but the Uyghurs have their own country. Many were once nomads who lived in yurts. Some still do. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been settled people not nomads.

By some estimates small minorities make up 2.6 percent of the population of Tajikistan. In the mountainous Gorno-Badakshan area live Pamir peoples, which are sometimes included as Tajiks. Among these groups are Shugnans, Rushans, Bartangs, Orshors, Yazgulems, Ishkashims and Vakhans. Yagnobs which populate Yagnob and Varzob river valleys live separately. The largely Shi’a inhabitants of the Pamir mountains speak a number of mutually unintelligible eastern Iranian dialects quite distinct from the Tajik spoken in the rest of the country.[Source:]

Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Era

In 1989 about three-quarters of all Tajiks in the Soviet Union lived in Tajikistan. Of the remaining 1 million Tajiks, about 933,000 lived in neighboring Uzbekistan. Much smaller Tajik populations lived in Afghanistan and China. The other major nationalities living in Tajikistan were Uzbeks, 23.5 percent (1,197,841); Russians, 7.6 percent (388,481); Volga Tatars, 1.4 percent (72,228); and Kyrgyz, 1.3 percent (63,832). In order of size, the remaining 3.9 percent included populations of Ukrainians, Germans, Turkmen, Koreans, Jews (including those of European ancestry and "Bukhoran Jews," whose ancestors had lived in Central Asia for centuries), Belorussians, Crimean Tatars, and Armenians. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Although ethnically classified with the Tajiks in the Soviet era, several Eastern Iranian peoples who had not been assimilated over the centuries by their Persian- or Turkic-speaking neighbors preserved distinct identities. These groups were the Yaghnobs and seven Pamiri peoples. At the end of the Soviet era, the Dushanbe government allowed some leeway for education, broadcasting, and publication in the Pamiri languages. However, these limited reforms were more than outweighed by the repression that the victors in the civil war directed against the Pamiris in 1992 on the grounds that they tended to support political reform. *

In the last decade of Soviet power, Tajiks became a larger proportion of the republic's total population. The 62.3 percent they constituted in the 1989 census was an increase from their 58.8 percent proportion in the 1979 census. This trend seemed likely to continue into the late 1990s, barring such countervailing factors as civil war and emigration, because Tajiks accounted for 70 percent of the republic's natural population increase in 1989. *

Non-Tajik Migrants in the Soviet Era

For much of the Soviet era, the central government used inducements such as scholarships and cash bonuses, as well as outright reassignment, to increase the settlement of Russian workers in Tajikistan. In the 1920s and 1930s, the small number of Tajikistanis with industrial and professional skills prompted the central authorities to relocate individuals with special expertise to Tajikistan, and Moscow sent many other people as political prisoners. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

By 1940 roughly half of the republic's industrial work force belonged to nonindigenous nationalities; most of these people were Russian. The engineering profession had a particularly large proportion of Russians and other non-Central Asians. Non-Central Asians settled in Tajikistan during World War II as industries and their workers were shifted east of the Ural Mountains to prevent their capture by the German army. Additional Russians and other Europeans went to Tajikistan in this period as war refugees or political deportees. As a result, between 1926 and 1959 the proportion of Russians among Tajikistan's population grew from less than 1 percent to 13 percent. During the same period, the proportion of Tajiks dropped from 80 percent to about 50 percent. This figure fell especially fast during the agricultural collectivization of the 1930s. *

Because of the prominence of Russians and other non-Tajiks in such urban activities as government and industry, Dushanbe, the capital, became a predominantly non-Tajik city. According to the 1989 census, Tajiks constituted 39.1 percent, Russians 32.4 percent, Uzbeks 10 percent, Tatars 4.1 percent, and Ukrainians 3.5 percent of Dushanbe's population of about 602,000. Although educated, urban Tajiks were likely to speak Russian well, few Russians living in Dushanbe spoke Tajik or felt a need to do so. This situation caused increasing resentment among Tajiks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. *

Impact of Non-Tajik Migrants in the Soviet Era

By the end of the Soviet era, many educated Tajiks were criticizing what they perceived as the continued privileged position of Russians in society. Even after decades of improved education and indoctrination of younger generations of Tajiks, Russians and other nonindigenous peoples still occupied a disproportionate number of top positions in the republic's communist party (see Political Parties). Tajiks also saw Russians perpetuating their dominance by hiring practices biased against Tajiks. By the end of the Soviet era, Tajiks often were a small minority in the administration of the republic's main industrial enterprises, including the chemical plants, the cotton textile industry, and large construction projects (see Labor).

The preindependence government of Tajikistan made some provision for the distinctive needs of minority nationalities living within the republic's borders. It provided education, mass media, and cultural offerings in Russian (see Education; The Media). In 1988 state radio began broadcasting in German, Kyrgyz, and Crimean Tatar. There were several Uzbek-language bookstores in the republic. Late in the Soviet era, Dushanbe had cultural centers for Uzbeks, Ukrainians, and members of other nationalities as well as restaurants that provided ethnic foods for Uzbeks, Tatars, Koreans, and Germans.

Ethnic Tensions in Tajikistan

There is some degree of ethnic tension between Tajiks and the minority ethnic groups living in Tajikistan, particularly ethnic Russians, who live mostly in the urban areas, and the Uzbeks who live mostly in the north. These groups have resented being relegated to second-class citizens since Tajikistan became independent in 1991. After Tajikistan became independent in 1991, many Russian have left.

Ethnic tensions increased in Tajikistan, as they did elsewhere in Central Asia, under the troubled conditions of the late Soviet era. Already in the late 1970s, some ethnic disturbances and anti-Soviet riots had occurred. One consequence of heightened resentment of Soviet power was violence directed at members of other nationalities, who were made scapegoats for their attackers' economic grievances. An example of this conflict was a clash between Tajiks and Kyrgyz over land and water claims in 1989. Antagonism between Uzbeks and Tajiks reached a new level during Tajikistan's civil war of 1992, when Uzbeks living in Tajikistan joined the faction attempting to restore a neo-Soviet regime to power. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Uzbeks were criticized for denying the Tajiks' distinctive ethnic identity and ancient roots in Central Asia. Tajik nationalists accused the authorities in Soviet Uzbekistan of practicing overt discrimination against the Tajik population by forcing Tajiks to register their nationality as Uzbek, undercounting the size of the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan, and failing to provide Tajiks there with adequate access to educational and cultural resources in Tajik. Tajik nationalists also complained that the central government and their Central Asian neighbors had exploited Tajikistan's raw materials and damaged its environment. *

In 1989 attacks on Meskhetians (one of the Muslim groups deported from Central Asia by Stalin) spilled over from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan when about 2,000 Meskhetians were evacuated from eastern Uzbekistan to a remote settlement in northern Tajikistan. A violent conflict between inhabitants of the area and the Meskhetians resulted in the intervention of security forces and removal of the Meskhetians entirely from Central Asia. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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