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Not quite white: an educated gastarbeiter in Moscow

Irada Huseinova
22 April 2009

Living in Moscow. If you had told me 10 years ago that this would happen, I would have smiled politely as at a bad joke. Not because I didn’t like Moscow. Moscow simply had no need of me, nor I of it, although I had friends and acquaintances there who kept inviting me to stay. I was happy at home in Baku,I had been in a good job for over 20 years and I wouldn’t have exchanged it for any other. 

But fate decided otherwise. Our independent publication had become a target: there were legal battles with important officials, excessively high fines, then the editorial office was closed down and our property was confiscated. The officials didn’t like what we wrote about them.  They sued us for libel and defamation and they always won. In fact, journalists in Azerbaijan never win court cases against officials.

The final action was when the leader of the City Council in Baku was seeking to have the publisher, the editor and me (as the editor of the article) imprisoned. Well-wishers warned me that this time it was all very serious, and I would not get off with a conditional sentence. My publisher insisted I leave the country. Jumping ahead, I can say that there had indeed been real danger:  the court ruled in favour of the plaintiff  (the leader of the Council), my publisher was taken into custody in the courtroom, and I was declared a wanted person. He was released two months later, as a result of pressure from international organizations.  He started publishing the weekly paper again, but six months later he was murdered.  Neither the killers nor the people who ordered the killing were ever found.

So I ended up in Moscow. With a small bag, 50 dollars in my purse and the hope of returning home soon.  This faded with each passing month, until I finally realized that there was no way home, and would be none in the near future.  I had to think about settling down here. But how?

A pop singer once told the story of how he moved from Odessa to Moscow in search of fame and glory. He said that he had arrived with almost nothing at all (just like me and people like me), and that initially he was helped by “Eau de Cologne (odecolon)”. it turned out that this what people from Odessa call themselves in Moscow – “Odecolon”, the Odessa colony. He stayed with people from Odessa, some helped him with money, some with advice, others with recommendations.

I had a similar experience. A Moscow friend had her own two-room flat, so she took me in. I had met her in Baku when she was working there on contract, and we had become friends. Other friends, who moved to Moscow for various reasons long before I did, helped me with everything else, but most importantly they gave me moral support. I know from experience how very difficult it is to get used to new conditions, a new environment, a new rhythm, new traditions and psychology. Every time I despaired, my friends were by my side, helping me by listening attentively and genuinely sympathizing with me. Evidently, the maxim that “he who has needed help will be more willing to give it” is true.

Pathetic as it may sound, it’s very difficult to deal with the feeling of shame when your friends buy you things and give you money. The shame that you, an independent adult, used to earning your living, have been uprooted and have to accept help. Having been through this, I could well understand my friend who had also ended up in Moscow. Zarina was born in Dushanbe and studied there.  She married a Russian soldier, and travelled with him wherever he was sent. They came to Moscow and were given accommodation in a hostel outside Moscow.    The pay was poor and Zarina, who was used to working and had always earned a good salary, couldn’t find work for a long time. In her desperation she was even prepared to work as a nanny.

Our “team” supported her as best we could. I remember when she was in a particularly critical situation: her husband had been taken to hospital, her daughter announced that she was pregnant and intended to keep the child, and they had practically no money. We decided to help her financially, but, remembering how painful this is, we bought her a piggy-bank and put as much money in it as we could manage. When we gave her the present and said “break it in an emergency”, she shed a few tears. She later found a job as a manager at a supermarket.  She was responsible for supervising the storage and sell-by dates, but the salary was so low that it was barely enough to buy food, as all the money her husband earned went to paying for the hostel. She worked on Saturdays too, but when she tried to ask for a rise, they refused. They also said “If you don’t like it, go back to Dushanbe, the salaries are probably good there.”  Now things are better for her. Her husband went back to work after his operation and the daughter gave birth to a wonderful girl, though Zarina was forced to send them to her parents in Dushanbe, because it is still cheaper to live there than in Moscow…

We often talked about what we had gone through when we moved to Moscow. Our experiences were fairly similar. True, we didn’t sleep at train stations. We didn’t live several people to a room like sardines in a tin. We didn’t work in the open in the cold and rain. We weren’t fleeced of every penny or conned out of our money. Our situation was much better than that of the average gastarbeiter. But we still feel like gastarbeiters at heart. We have non-Slavonic surnames, we were not born in Russia and our passports are a different colour. You feel this as soon as you start looking for a flat. We had to look through friends, because most landlords refuse people with non-Russian names. When my friend Zarina asked a friend to find me an apartment, I was an involuntary witness to the following dialogue:

 “You know that people don’t like renting apartments to Azerbaijanis”.

“But she’s as much of an Azerbaijani as I am aTajik. You’ve known me for years, and you’ve never thought of me as Tajik.She’s the same”.

“I do have one possibility -  I’ll try to talk the owners round,” she said after a long pause.

The next step was finding a job.

What is psychologically hardest for each of u sis that in spite of our higher education, experience of work, and, in some cases, even recognition back home, we find ourselves in a place where all ofthis counts for absolutely nothing. Once again you are at the bottom of a mountain, and you have to embark again on the same path you have already walked, perhaps even several times. Authority, education and respect have to be earned all over again. Is this easy? It may seem so, because you have already done it in different circumstances. But, believe me, it is not easy at all. Just as you cannot step into the same river twice, you cannot follow the old path, because the road is completely different. Your age and energy are quite different. What you worry about isn’t losing the job your friends helped you find and where you work illegally. It’s the documents you are using that belong to a friend who has a Russian passport and official registration in Moscow. I would gladly have bought a work permit, as I wanted to work legally.  There is an agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan that years of work in Russia can be counted as working years. Alas, I was still an illegal worker, because my employers didn’t want to buy a work permit for foreign workers. They would have done, if it hadn’t been for the inconvenient regulations. In a word, no one wants more red tape.

The underlying fear is that you won’t be able to hold back, that you might be overwhelmed by the injustice of it all and break down, telling your boss exactly what you think of him.   He’s a 27-year-old guy who is reasonably intelligent, but has been given several employees to order around and wants to seem important. An analytical piece about the South Caucasus had been commissioned:  I offered to write it, as it was my field of expertise. I’ll never forget his look - right through me as if I were a wall, not a person.  He said: “No, you won’t do it well enough”. He asked my colleague to write it, a graduate of the journalism faculty at Moscow State University. I ended up helping her with the article, but I never offered to write anything again. I edited other writers’ articles, until friends found me another job. The salary was higher, it was an international team and, incidentally, the boss was one of “ours”, a citizen of another republic who had come to Moscow 20 years before.

I felt much more confident and comfortable at the new job, though there too I had first to prove my worth. It may seem unimportant, but I felt that I had been accepted as one of “the team” when one of my colleagues, a third generation Muscovite (as she liked to emphasize), admitted to me: “When the boss first brought you here, I thought he’d brought another one of his bonehead friends to us, but you’re quite different, you’re a first-class specialist. Are you really an Azerbaijani?” I was very surprised and tried to explain that there were lots of people like me and she shouldn't have preconceptions about us, as we can do more than just sell things at markets, sweep streets and build houses. There were things that upset me though. For example, we foreigners can never get used to the Russian weather, and when we come to our work on a cloudy day, we start complaining: “When will the weather get warm? We really want some sun.” Our Russian colleagues say: “If you don’t like our climate, you should go home, where it’s warm and sunny.”  There wasn’t really anything offensive about this, it just sounded rather challenging.

Over time I stopped paying attention to these things. Perhaps I simply got used to it. I have become wiser or more indulgent with age, but I am now quite different. I am more confident and dynamic, and I’m always in a hurry, like the Muscovites.  Most importantly I have become more patient, or tolerant, to use the fashionable word.

But we are still gastarbeiters, because we need to work better than everyone else. The concept of an 8-hour working day doesn’t exist for us - not because we are forced to work overtime, no, we simply do this so that the boss will prefer us to the rest, even to potential employees. There can be any number of reasons why we do this, whether it’s paying the rent that hangs over us like the sword of Damocles, the desire to live like a human being, in the way we are used to, or the Moscow “temptations” (museums, exhibitions, theatres).  We simply want a life.

While I’ve lived in Moscow I have made many connections. I no longer shudder when I see the police, because I am legally registered now. I have a job that I like, and I don’t want to lose it; I have reliable friends; I can occasionally allow myself to go to the theatre; I can buy books and CDs, and I can update my wardrobe in second-hand shops. But I live in the present: I’m afraid to think about approaching old age, I don’t know what will happen next year and where I will receive my pension (or if I will receive it at all). I drive these thoughts away, hiding behind my favourite maxim of “overcoming difficulties as they arise”.

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