Beyond the gastarbeiter: the other side of post-Soviet migration

The collapse of the Soviet Union left desperate human situations in its wake: prices shot up, wages weren’t paid and people were forced to travel in search of work. The post-Soviet migrant’s life — one typically fraught with problems of health, family and home — is the subject of Madeleine Reeves' new week-long series on oDRussia. 

Madeleine Reeves
18 September 2012

Mention ‘post-Soviet’ and ‘migration’ in the same breath and the tendency is to think of migration west, from Russia to southern and western Europe, to North America, or to Israel. We have stock images to fit these movements: the oligarch who buys a second home in Kensington; the scientist who moves west to a better paid research job abroad; the ‘Natasha‘ who is trafficked into prostitution. 

Yet, for all this focus on migration out of the former Soviet space, Russia’s oil-fuelled building boom over the last decade has transformed it into the world’s second net recipient of migrant labour after the U.S. and three post-Soviet states—Tajikistan, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan — rank among the ten most remittance-dependent in the world. In the rarefied world of remittance economics, Russia-Tajikistan has become the world’s largest ‘remittance corridor’, with transfers between these two countries now outstripping those between the US and Haiti, and South Africa and Lesotho as a proportion of the labour-sending country’s GDP.

'Russia’s oil-fuelled building boom over the last decade has transformed it into the world’s second net recipient of migrant labour after the U.S.'

This scale of transformation has made migration an issue of considerable political commentary in Russia. In the run up to his re-election as President in March, Prime Minister Putin weighed in to the debate on Russia’s migration policy with an long essay on the ‘national question’ in Nezavisimaia gazeta and a speech to the board of the Federal Migration Service, reserving particular criticism for the landlords of so-called ‘rubber apartments’ who registered migrant workers illegally in their homes. 

In June 2012, in his new-old role of President, Putin signed into force a concept paper on Russia’s migration policy to 2025, which lamented the declining Russian language and professional skills of migrant workers from other post-Soviet states. In recent weeks, Konstantin Romadanovskii, the head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, has recommended changes to legislation that would require the testing of certain categories of migrant workers on their knowledge of Russian language, Russian history and Russian legislation.

Despite the scale and transformative impact of this new post-Soviet migration, however, we still have few detailed studies of its meanings for migrants themselves, its resonances for domestic politics in receiving states, and its implications for those on the move and their families left behind. When the story of human movement has been told, it is often in the language of elemental forces or great power beneficence: of Russia ‘absorbing the surplus labour‘ from the Caucasus and Central Asian states, as one analyst put it in 2004. 

In the sending states of Central Asia, policy-makers have tended to be preoccupied with migration’s macro dimensions: how many people are on the move? How much money is being sent back? Should remittances be seen as a source of development or as a threat to the local economy? 

In Russia, meanwhile, public debate tends to centre on migrants’ cultural ‘integration’ and the perceived strains on the labour force, the rental market or the social fabric of the city posed by the arrival of large numbers of non-Russian ‘gastarbaitery’—a term that has morphed in the translation from German to Russian to denote an unskilled migrant worker, often hired informally and off the books.

Three broad themes

The aim of this cluster of articles for Open Democracy is to contribute to a more differentiated portrait of post-Soviet migrant workers, and through this to explore some of the consequences of post-Soviet labour migration for the reworking of relations between states, regions, and family members.

‘…three post-Soviet states—Tajikistan, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan — rank among the ten most remittance-dependent in the world.’

Three broad themes emerge from these contributions:

The first is that while there are common patterns motivating migration from particular post-Soviet states, including a lack of economic opportunities at home and the difficulties of sustaining agricultural livelihoods in the face of steep export tariffs, motivations for departure need to be differentiated. Young men often migrate seasonally as a way of funding life-cycle ceremonies that would previously have been paid for by parents. Women sometimes migrate as a way of escaping patriarchal domestic arrangements at home. And, as Abdujalil Abdurasulov shows in his analysis of migration decisions among Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority, ‘political’ and ‘economic’ motivations are often hard to distinguish, as post-conflict movement in search of political security morphs into broader waves of work-related migration to Russia.

The second broad theme to emerge from these contributions is the difficulty of remaining legally legible, in a context where labour and accommodation are both highly regulated. This is a theme that I explored in an earlier piece for Open Democracy. 

In this cluster, sociologist Medina Aitieva, drawing on long-term research with migrant workers who travel between Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous Naryn province and the Siberian city of Yakutsk, reveals the determination and obfuscation needed to get the host of documents together that would enable a migrant to be able to live and work legally. Meanwhile in Kazakhstan, a new destination for migrant workers from poorer regions of Central Asia, Bhavna Dave shows how the lack of migration legislation (and the fact that many officials privately benefit from the irregularity of migrants’ status) means that many migrant workers persist in a state of legal limbo, ‘illegal’ but tolerated. In short, while political capital is often made from the proliferation of undocumented ‘illegals’ in receiving states, we know little about the economic constraints, administrative arrangements and hiring practices that tend to perpetuate migrants’ irregular status.

 Finally, the articles all point to the need to look to other kinds of impacts of migration beyond the narrowly economic. 

Abdurasulov considers how Uzbek migrants use their experiences in Russia as a lens for thinking about the relationship between their birthplace and adoptive home; motherland and ‘step-motherland’; and the very different state models and welfare policies adopted by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Russia. 

'In the sending states of Central Asia, policy-makers have tended to be preoccupied with migration’s macro dimensions: how many people are on the move? How much money is being sent back?'

Gulzat Botoeva shows how, in a context where migration among the Kyrgyz is differently gendered than from neighbouring states, the behaviour of Kyrgyz migrant women has come to be moralised and policed in sometimes violently performative ways. Her study of the so-called ‘patrioty’, a group of Kyrgyz men who have achieved notoriety in Kyrgyzstan by publicly humiliating Kyrgyz migrant women for perceived ‘immoral’ behaviour with non-Kyrgyz men, reminds of the ways in which migration can feed into nationalist discourses in sending states as much as in host nations; and the way that women often bear the burden of this policing. 

Thumbnail credit: Ilya Varlamov

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