Strangers in the village

Despite Russia’s economic woes, labour migrants from Central Asia continue to arrive. And now they seek a better life not only in big cities, but in deserted Russian villages. RU

Екатерина Нерозникова
13 July 2017

Ten year old Safia, the child of labour migrants from Tajikistan, in the village of Kamenka, Tula Region. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

According to official data, in 2016 there were 3.2m citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan working in Russia. However, unofficial figures cited by the media put the number at 10m.

Some arrived in Russia quite recently, but many have been here for decades. The presence of migrants is visible now not only in Russia’s big cities, but in its dying villages, too. In villages depopulated by urban migration and a host of other factors, Tajik and Uzbek citizens are replacing local residents who have died or moved away.

Most Russians see migrants from Central Asia as potentially dangerous aliens. Can harmful stereotypes about these “gastarbeiters” be countered? What’s stopping them from integrating in Russian society? After a visit to two villages, oDR decided to put these questions to Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance committee, and Anna Rocheva of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration’s Migration and Ethnicity Research Center.

Everyone’s favourite scapegoat

Medvedkovo is a typical Moscow dormitory suburb, comprising high-rise flats, shopping centres and endless traffic jams. It’s home to Russia’s first, enormous Auchan shopping centre, which opened here in 2002. The village of Chelobityevo lies just across the road.

Chelobityevo’s reputation as a settlement of Central Asian migrants has been somewhat tarnished now. Since 2009, the village has frequently made headlines as a target for police raids in which hundreds of illegal immigrants have been rounded up. In 2011, the level of hostility towards the newcomers was particularly high. The tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a feature claiming that Chelobityevo was literally “occupied” by 20,000 migrants. Journalists, both local and foreign, have written about the village ever since: some call for the incomers to be deported, writing of black markets, hotbeds of disease and crime. Others defend them, discussing slave labour and human rights, questioning a system that drives desperate people into illegal activities.

Sympathetic accounts, however, are rare. A few years ago, bulldozers arrived in Chelobityevo and razed the migrants’ mosque to the ground, along with most of their houses. Those living in old railway carriages and other homemade shelters were evicted.

A few years ago, bulldozers arrived in Chelobityevo and razed the migrants’ mosque to the ground, along with most of their houses

There are now many fewer migrants living here, about 5,000 in all. But Central Asian Chelobityevo lives on. A large hostel hides behind a corrugated fence. Anyone can rent a bed there, but it mostly houses Tajiks and Uzbeks.

“Some medics working in the emergency services have already learned Tajik,” Bakhrom Khamroyev from the Memorial Human Rights Center tells me. “After all, they have to come here often — someone’s always falling ill or giving birth.” Bakhrom has been here dozens of times. He’s witnessed the rise and fall of the village.

He takes me for a walk along Kolkhoznaya Street. On my right are ramshackle, hastily constructed houses. On my left, several diggers are flattening out a piece of wasteland previously occupied by migrants’ shacks. One house is a bakery; in another, the people breed dogs for sale. The Tajiks and Uzbeks mostly work in nearby shopping centres, tiny canteens and small food kiosks. They’re firmly settled and integrated into what has become a normal dormitory town outside Moscow.

Where Moscow begins – or ends. Chelobityevo village, Moscow Region. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

“Migrants’ children go to the local school,” says Khamroyev. “The pupils are 50-50 locals and incomers. They speak excellent Russian, without an accent, better than their parents.” Some locals have left and sold their houses to migrants, who have now become fully fledged Chelobityevites.

While labour migrants have been settling in this village for quite some, the backlash against them only began in 2013. “During the 2013 Moscow mayoral election campaign,” Anna Rocheva tells me, “all the politicians tried to play the anti-migrant card to their own advantage. Every candidate, including [Alexei] Navalny, talked about ‘sorting out the illegals’. Opinion pollsters found a clear increase in xenophobia at the time.”

“When there other explosive events in the news, in Ukraine or Syria, for example, the migrant issue was put on ice, and respondents expressed a more reasonable attitude to the newcomers,” remarks Rocheva. “In other words, people’s reactions depend a lot on what the media are peddling at a given time.”

“Politicians’ scare stories about migrants are often baseless,” adds Gannushkina. “You only have to open the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ website to see that the huge number of crimes supposedly committed by migrants is a complete myth. Only three to four percent of crimes in Moscow are committed by foreign citizens, and that includes crimes specific to migrants, such as immigration offences — crimes Russian citizens simply can’t commit. Those figures are pretty stable.”

Muscovites nonetheless assume that migrants are chiefly responsible for crime. And a combination of all these factors is turning migrants into an untouchable caste in the hierarchy of Russia’s large cities.

New Russians

Away from the capital, it’s a different picture. The village of Kamenka is half an hour’s drive from Tula, an industrial city 200km south of Moscow. Kamenka contains about 30 houses, a bus stop and a grocery shop. It’s split in two by a small brook where children play in the summer. Only two of the kids are ethnic Russians: the rest are Tajiks.

Husnoro, a smiling middle-aged woman, came here with her two sons in 1999. Her sister, who already lived in Kamenka, helped Husnoro apply for a temporary residence permit. In 2004 she and her husband automatically received Russian citizenship and a year later they bought a dilapidated house from locals who had moved to Moscow.

“Life was hard in Tajikistan then,” Husnoro tells me. “We wanted to earn some money and give our children an education. Then things got better back home, and in 2004 we even tried to return. But our elder son protested — he was in the fourth grade and it turned out that in Russia he was a year ahead in the curriculum. So we went back to Tajikistan for a year and then returned to Kamenka.”


Labour migrants from Central Asia have also built lives for themselves in Russia’s dying villages. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

Husnoro’s husband worked mostly as a labourer in the village, but then he got a job at the local plant producing reinforced plastic. By 2014 they had saved enough to build a bigger house, and they recently installed a traditional courtyard where people sit on mattresses to drink tea and socialise. Husnoro also has a garden where she grows carrots, beetroot, potatoes and radishes.

Many women in Kamenka have a similar history: today, it’s practically a Tajik village. There are also Tajiks in the neighbouring villages of Archangelskoye and Bobrovka, and even a cattle farm owned by Tajiks. They have no problems with their Russian neighbours, whose numbers have dwindled over the years.

Husnoro has five children, and her 10-year old daughter Safiya is in the fourth grade at school. There are just nine children in the class: four Russian and five Tajik. Safiya has never been to Moscow, but is very keen to see the capital, especially Red Square. She has been to Tajikistan several times, but didn’t like it there.

“I want to be a surgeon when I grow up,” she says. “My big brother told me that you need high grades to get into medical school, so all my grades are ‘excellent’.” Safiya, unlike her mother, speaks Russian like a native. She shows me around Kamenka, wearing a brightly coloured headscarf and pink waterproof boots edged with cheap artificial fur; under her jacket she has a traditional colourful Tajik dress with trousers underneath, as Sunni and Central Asian tradition demands.

There are eight Tajik families living in Kamenka, all of them with children. Some have five members, some ten. One man has two wives (one Russian, one Tajik) and ten children. He’s very religious. Safiya says his eldest daughter always wears a niqab [face veil] when she goes out of the house. Apart from one disturbing incident, the little girl doesn’t remember any conflict between Tajiks and Russians in Kamenka.


Russian villager’s house in Kamenka, Tula Region. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

“There was one man who didn’t like us playing near his house. He shouted at us not to go on his land or up to his stream, and one day he even fired a shotgun at us. We always complained about him to his wife, and now he has quietened down and behaves politely. He doesn’t carry a gun any more. The rest of the Russians are fine, they’re used to us and even understand a few words of Tajik,” says Safiya.

In another half hour we walk past the gun owner’s house and Safiya shows me the tree he shot at one day (while he watches us through the fence).

Selective solidarities

For Svetlana Gannushkina, antagonism towards migrants is no surprise. “After the collapse of the USSR, there was sympathy for Russians returning from other post-Soviet republics, and again for eastern Ukrainians in 2014. But there’s never been much warmth towards Tajiks and Uzbeks, not even during the Soviet period.”

Anna Rocheva tells me that there is a similar attitude in Russia to migrants from the South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and migrants from Russia’s North Caucasus republics such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

“How can you still be an ‘outsider’ after 20 years?”

“In the 1990s, a lot Russian speakers from Central Asia and the South Caucasus fled to Russia from the conflicts taking place in those regions. They were resettled in semi-rural areas, in an official attempt to revive the ‘Russian village,’ despite the fact that they were mostly urban residents, usually with university degrees. To the locals, they were outsiders, and they were treated as such. The same happened to the ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Uzbeks who arrived from Central Asia later. How can you still be an ‘outsider’ after 20 years? We can and must deal with these attitudes – this needs to be the focus of any integration policy.”

School as an agent of integration

The local school is a kilometre away from Kamenka, in the village of Arkhangelskoye. It is attended by the children from the three neighbouring villages and has 50 Tajik and 47 Russian pupils.

Everyone has to wear school uniform — Safiya’s is a long burgundy coloured dress with a waistcoat on top. The girls in the junior classes are not allowed to wear headscarves, but in the senior school they may wear a hijab, and the boys a skullcap.

Safiya’s best friend is another Tajik girl who also lives in Kamenka and is in the same class at school. “I have Russian friends too, although I don’t like one of them,” she tells me. “I bring a packed lunch with me, because the school food isn’t halal, and she keeps looking at my plate and saying that I eat ‘brown food’. I couldn’t care less: Mum’s food tastes nicer.”

Safiya divides her teachers into those who are nice and those who are evil. There’s only one teacher that Safiya doesn’t like, who steers clear of Tajik children in the hallways and doesn’t let them play. But the Russian children don’t avoid their Tajik classmates: they all play tag together after school.

Research carried out by specialists in St Petersburg shows that Russian schoolchildren have no negative feelings about children of other ethnicities. Interaction with other children is no bar to migrant integration; the main obstacle is the education system itself.


A childhood on the move. Child of labour migrants from Tajikistan in Kamenka village, Tula Region. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

“The main factor is the teaching of Russian,” says Rocheva. “A few years ago every district in Moscow had its own Russian language school that children coming from elsewhere could attend, whatever their age. They would learn Russian for a year there before transferring to an ordinary local school. Unfortunately these schools didn’t last long. Their funding disappeared. Now all that is left are individual courses run by volunteers, such as the ‘Children like Any Others’ centre, but they’re not enough.

“It’s a big problem: a child who can’t speak Russian well can’t learn properly. And often schools don’t want to accept migrants’ children.”

Gannushkina points out other flaws in the education system: the problem, she says, isn’t the “pupil-pupil” or “pupil-teacher” relationship, but the “parent-authorities” one.

“Discrimination in the area of education is not a question of teachers treating migrants’ children differently, but of schools refusing to accept children if their parents don’t have resident status. In 2015 we even took the Ministry of Education to court, demanding that the directive restricting school entry be overturned. The Russian constitution gives every child living in the country the right to education, without any restriction.

“This is extremely important for Russia’s future. If the circumstances are right, children who learn together grow up more accepting of difference. And this applies equally to both the children of migrants and our own children,” says Gannushkina.

“They accepted me as I am”

Malika works at a school teaching English to pupils in both junior and senior classes. She is the only ethnic Tajik among the teaching staff. She shares the house where she lives with her husband and three children with a family of ethnic Russians.

Malika has been at the school since 2008. She wears a hijab in class — the other teachers have no problem with that, but some parents aren’t happy. There’s nothing they can do, however. There’s a chronic shortage of teachers, and having Malika, who has a degree in English, is a big bonus for the school.

Earlier on there was another Tajik teacher, who taught Russian at the school. She was an older woman who had grown up in the Soviet years, when the teaching of Russian was a respected and highly sought after profession. She taught Russian in Tajikistan, where de-Russification has only been noticeable over the past 15 years.

One migrant woman came to join her husband in Kamenka, in search of work. He wanted to move his whole family and even bought a house, but the wife couldn’t deal with life in rural Russia and after two years returned to Tajikistan. The husband eventually moved to Moscow and rented the house to Tajiks. That was unusual. In general, the incomers all settle into village life.


Our Dastarkhan. Tea in the home of Tajik labour migrants in Kamenka, Tula Region. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

“I never wanted to live in Moscow,” says Malika. “I breathe more easily in a village. We came here as part of a programme to help young families working in the countryside. We were given a housing certificate that we were able to supplement with additional payments and exchange for this house.”

Malika’s house is modest but comfortable. She unrolls mattresses on the floor for us to sit on, spreads a tablecloth on the floor and treats us to tea with bread, jam, sweets and a paste called sumalak, made from germinated beans. A pot of mastava, a traditional Central Asian soup, simmers away in the kitchen.

“I would go back home if people weren’t so narrow-minded. In Tajikistan, I couldn’t work at a school wearing a hijab, whereas here they accepted me as I am”

“I left Tajikistan in 1993,” she tells me. “The country has changed a lot since then, but women wearing a hijab are still frowned on.” In rural Russia, people are less bothered by Malika’s clothes: “In Tajikistan girls who cover their hair are taunted. People call them nuns, and laugh at them on the street. I’ve been called names here, but a lot less than in Tajikistan.”

“I would go back home if people weren’t so narrow-minded. In Tajikistan, I couldn’t work at a school wearing a hijab, whereas here they accepted me as I am. Russia has given me a lot, and I am proud that I live here. I feel free. I don’t know why anyone should treat me badly.”

The men of the village, including Malika’s husband, mostly work in Moscow and just come home at weekends. There is work locally, however, in a battery farm and a reinforced plastic plant which is happy to hire Tajiks.

Although their new employers worry, the Tajiks have no problem with documents: there is a well established procedure for receiving temporary residence rights and later, citizenship. Nevertheless, Malika believes it’s more difficult now to get a Russian passport than it was 10 years ago: “It’s just a question of numbers. When I go to Yasnogorsk [the nearest town] I bump into our people everywhere.”

Malika also feels that there is now a new wave of migration taking place — the generation that came to Russia in the early nineties is well settled, and has started inviting relatives. Despite the rise in the dollar exchange rate, labour migrants keep on coming.

Beyond the ghetto

Migrants rarely live in their own separate communities, says Gannushkina: Chelobityevo, and now Kamenka, are rare exceptions. In general, she feels, migrants don’t want to live apart from other population groups.

However, as Moscow and other big cities have a smaller quota allowance for temporary residence permits than remote rural areas, it makes sense for migrants to settle in villages. “But even if they get their permits there, they still come to Moscow for work,” notes Gannushkina. “It’s a simple question of supply and demand. There are few jobs in the countryside.”


The long road home. Safia walks down the streets of Kamenka village, Tula Region. Photo (c): Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

The only exception to this rule, adds Rocheva, is areas where there is active agricultural development: “There are several villages in the Orenburg Region where Uzbeks live and work. At the end of the 80s, one Uzbek migrant opened a business growing tomatoes and cucumbers. He worked very hard, while the local population did very little — there was a lot of drinking going on. The budding entrepreneur brought his brothers and nephews over from Uzbekistan to help him and now heads a large family business. Other Uzbeks have also settled and work in the village, and even more come for seasonal work. But what we have in the Tula area is rare.”

As Moscow and other big cities have a smaller quota allowance for temporary residence permits, it makes sense for some migrants to settle in villages

While it may be easier for migrants to avoid harassment in isolated villages, Rocheva doesn’t see cultural differences such as dress and traditions as important factors in their integration in Russian society: “The main issues are around ID documents, negative police attitudes, bad working conditions and a lack of interest in integration of the part of the government. Basically, no one is trying to resolve the issue.”

“So what have the authorities been doing? In January 2016 they introduced an examination in Russian language, history and legislation — supposedly to help migrants integrate. But a survey we ran last year showed that it was too little, too late — it was just another expensive piece of paper migrants needed to able to work legally in Russia.”

Victimisation at work and in the courts

Sadly, the average Russian sees Central Asian migrants as an undifferentiated mass of threatening “gastarbeiters”. Politicians happily exploit these prejudices, as do the police, who prey on migrants’ fears and insecurities.

And those are many. Gannushkina tells me that the migrants are ignorant of their rights and see the cops as all-powerful: “Migrants, old and young, try and keep away from the cops. They’re wary of them. But then, so are Russians in general.”

“That’s why we opposed the merger of the Federal Migration Service (FMS) with the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” says Gannushkina. “The structures for managing migration were abolished and now local migration agencies answer not to the FMS, but to the local police. All the old links have been broken: qualified specialists are leaving and being replaced by people who, to put it bluntly, know nothing about migration. We will have to raise, for the tenth time at least, the question of creating a system and official body to handle migration. If, of course, we even want to be a civilised country.”

A strategy to aid migrants’ integration is sorely needed, otherwise they’ll remain caught in this vicious circle where the cop is a petty, vengeful Tsar and the migrant guilty by definition.


An employee of Russia’s Federal Migration Service announces the reason for their detention to a group of illegal labour migrants at the Kazan railway station in Moscow. Photo (c): Alexandr Utkin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Rocheva advocates integration workshops, to facilitate interaction between individual local people and migrants: “We developed and ran events like this, assessed their effectiveness and eventually created systematic recommendations for successful integration workshops. At their centre should be the idea of interculturalism, which assumes individual interaction while taking people’s cultural baggage into account.

“This is a much more effective approach than an all-purpose ‘multi-kulti’ one where people interact not as individuals but as representatives of ethnic collectives — Tajiks would come out on the stage and dance and then the Uzbeks would make pilaf — and there you had it, friendship between peoples!”

“This is a much more effective approach than an all-purpose ‘multi-kulti’ one where people interact not as individuals but as representatives of ethnic collectives”

Now it is the Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs that tackles the issue of migrant integration. Until now, there has simply been no one capable of working with the guidelines that specialists such as Rocheva have proposed. If the agency takes this on seriously, it will have its work cut out. The main thing is not to make the mistake of trying to turn any incomer into a typical, average Russian.

“There’s an idea that if the migrants stop, let’s say, nibbling sunflower seeds, people will start seeing them as the same as ‘us’,” says Rocheva. “But in fact, in every society there have always been ‘us’ and ‘them’, with different people falling into one or other group depending on historical context. So the perception of some differences of behaviour as evidence of outsider status is an effect rather than a cause.”

For my part, all I can advise the decision-makers is to pay a visit to the school where future surgeon Safiya is studying — and see how effective a refusal to divide people into “us” and “them” can be. Integration in the classroom can go a long way to building tolerance and inclusivity towards our fellow residents from Central Asia. It’s a must if, as Svetlana Gannushkina puts it, we ever want to be a “civilised” country.

Translated by Liz Barnes

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