Out of Central Asia: End of the line for the Russians the Soviet Union left behind

Krasnovodsk - The chief conductor of train No. 605 gave up trying to rouse our dead-drunk Turkmen carriage orderly and sat down instead to rue the fate of the Russians the Soviet empire left behind.

Half-Russian and half-Moldovan, Valentina said she had nowhere to go. She feared there would soon be no place for her in Turkmenistan, whose barren mountains, desert plains and occasional camel or gas field trundled past the grimy windows.

'They are even closing down the Russian schools. Thank God I don't have any children,' she lamented as she smoothed back her hair and went resolutely back to work.

Turkmenistan is, in fact, one of the more tolerant of the six Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. But everywhere there is unease among what are no longer members of a ruling race but vulnerable Russian minorities.

Russians made up only about 10 per cent of the population in the south- western four republics - rising to 25 per cent in eastern Kyrgyzstan and 40 per cent in Kazakhstan - but they dominated the capital cities. They were often the skilled urban workers, from secretaries to entrepreneurs. Many hardly know Mother Russia, feeling more at home in the warm, relatively well-off south.

'I tried to live in Russia, but they were all drunkards. I like the Turkmen. They are more polite. The society is better,' said the Russian manageress of an Ashkabad restaurant.

While uncertainty, ethnic conflict and the young republics' will to forge national identities have spread over the past three years, the Russians with money and contacts have started to move out. Half of them have left worst- hit Tajikistan and at least a third are gone from Azerbaijan. Significant numbers have left Turkmenistan, and if nationalist turmoil were to hit Uzbekistan, many would go from there as well.

'We are afraid of Muslims, of the veil. I understand the Azerbaijanis' need for self-rule, but it is not for me. Baku used to be so cosmopolitan,' said Irina, a hotel receptionist in Azerbaijan, convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is just around the corner.

Irina said that the only place she could afford to move to would be the harsh life of a Russian village and that Russia had abandoned the descendants of the colonists and volunteers who helped build the Soviet Union.

Moscow has only begun to make legal provision for returning Russians in the past six months. Emigrants must still find scarce housing before they can leave. Large sums of money are needed, not always easy to find.

Flat prices have plummeted in Dushanbe to a fifth of their previous level. Because of rules governing the privatisation of property, some people cannot legally sell, forcing them to carry out complicated swaps.

'There is a market for the containers to take furniture back to Russia, but the prices change every day. It's now about 70,000 roubles, about a year's salary for most people,' said Yuri Ogniev, president of Tajikistan's emigration society.

Tajikistan was doing nothing to persuade the Russians to stay, he said, although some republics, unnerved by the looming economic damage, have made efforts to keep them on.

Dozens of the 40,000 Russians on Mr Ogniev's list of people waiting to leave Dushanbe gather every Sunday in a dilapidated children's park to hear how progress is going towards a new place to live in Russia. Black-and- white pictures glued together on his flat's wall show the snow-bound steppe south of Moscow where 1,000 families plan to make their new lives. Architects' plans show a model town in the forest, where, since 15 per cent of the population will be doctors, they plan to build a sanatorium.

But building materials are scarce, government support is limited and all that has been built so far are houses for the workers - the men of the families themselves.

'In the Soviet Union, everything was always planned,' said a retired coalminer, allowing himself a smile among his packed-up cardboard boxes. 'The problem has always been project realisation.'