Migrant Voices in a Global Moscow

by Jeff Sahadeo

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

Akhilyor Sultanov has worked in Moscow for two decades. A plumber, electrician, and performer of odd jobs, he and more than a million other migrants from Central Asia have underpinned Moscow’s booming economy. Remittances from migrant labor, overwhelmingly in Russia, have constituted around 30% of the GDP of Tajikistan and its fellow Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. Hundreds of thousands from the Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan have joined Central Asians to flee poverty on the edges of the former Soviet Union.

In April 2020, while installing wiring on a prestigious new Moscow city building site, Sultanov’s employers told him to take a one-week break as the coronavirus spread across the capital. A week became a month. Thousands of migrant laborers, including all of Sultanov’s roommates in their tightly-packed Moscow flat, lost their jobs. Unable to work or return as their home states closed their borders, Sultanov and others began living on savings, intended remittances, then on credit— by any means possible, as they were unable to receive state aid. Poverty and illness, including contraction of the virus, proliferated. Many showed up at airports without tickets, desperate to find some way out. Embassies scrambled to find hostels for their citizens, and government officials debated how to deal with this labor force, formerly indispensable to Moscow’s development but now seemingly dangerous to its health.  

Migrant labor has fueled Moscow, and other major Russian cities, since the oil boom of the 2000s. These workers erect buildings, clean streets and hospitals, sell goods, and provide labor for countless development projects. Millions of workers from Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and other republics have battled xenophobia, corruption, and often horrid working conditions to make homes, temporary or permanent, in Russia.

What’s less known about these migration currents is that they are a legacy of policies and patterns developed over the last decades of the Soviet Union. Communist leaders consistently favored industrial development and urbanization in the Slavic heartland. A hierarchy of cities emerged, with Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) at the apex. Consumer goods, education, and other measures of quality of life were accepted as far better in these cities than anywhere else in the Soviet Union. Smaller towns and villages in Central Asia, a region held in a colonial-type economic relationship, were counted among the most neglected by the socialist state.

Soviet Legacies of Post-Soviet Migration

My investigation of the Soviet legacy of a multinational and, in effect, postcolonial Moscow began with my first journey to what had just become the capital of the new Russian Federation, in 1992. I had expected to see overwhelmingly Slavic faces: spies and hockey players, ballerinas and babushkas—those who dominated popular culture during my Cold War Canadian youth. What I found was a truly international city. Africans, South and East Asians, and other ethnic and national groups rubbed elbows with the local population. Above all, I was intrigued by the substantial number of peoples whose appearance and dress marked them as Soviet citizens from the Caucasus and Central Asia. They were walking, selling goods, shopping, laughing—making the city their own. I became determined to investigate who these people were, what led them to leave their homes for the Soviet capital, and how we could understand Moscow as a global, postcolonial city, much as we might London and Paris.

Representatives of the 15 constituent republics of the USSR at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. RIA Novosti Archive

By the time I returned to this topic, in the early 2000s, a new wave of migration had crashed upon Moscow and other major Russian cities. Severed from the Soviet Union, which had designated its southern regions for the production of cotton and other agricultural goods, and suffering from environmental disasters and economic shocks, Caucasians and Central Asians felt compelled to chase opportunities in an oil-rich and booming Russia. Xenophobia ran rampant, as many Russians also felt left out of economic growth. Violence peaked when I was doing my research into the Soviet period, with over 100 race-based murders in Russia in 2008 and thousands of violent attacks carried out by Russian nationalist groups. Putin’s government played on nativist sentiment to boost its popularity. My journey to investigate the Soviet roots of this migration became a highly emotional one; as I completed fieldwork, including oral histories, I met Caucasus and Central Asian citizens who told me about relatives who had been attacked or killed as they supported themselves or their families when wages in Russia were several times higher than those in their home countries, which also faced skyrocketing youth unemployment.

I found the connective tissue between Soviet waves of migration and those in the 2000s at Caucasus and Central Asian diaspora organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Leaders had arrived in the 1970s and 1980s, most often as students but sometimes as engineers or other skilled laborers. They recalled the Soviet Union with great nostalgia. Unlike those who had come in the 2000s, poorly educated at home and poorly treated in Russia, these Soviet citizens had received strong Russian-language educations in their home republics, which paved the way to top Leningrad and Moscow universities and successful careers. I heard constant refrains of the “friendship of peoples,” a Soviet-era slogan credited with underlining collegial relations between national groups and allowing citizens of whatever physical appearance to feel safe on the streets, day or night. I also listened to lamentations about how racism now flourished among, in their view, lower-class Russians, who lacked the social support that had been available to all citizens in the USSR. 

Plenary session of the Central Committee of the Komsomol in Moscow on its 50th anniversary in October 1968. RIA Novosti Archive

But something was missing as I sought interview subjects who had been in Leningrad and Moscow in the Soviet period. Diaspora leaders presented me with their “success stories:” those who were surgeons, technicians, scientists and lived well, both in the Soviet Union and now. I couldn’t locate many of the groups I recalled from my 1992 visit: traders, street cleaners, shop assistants. There was a reason for this, as it turned out. Those in such categories, who, along with construction workers, proliferated too in 2000s St. Petersburg and Moscow, were of a younger generation. Their mothers and fathers who might have worked there had gone back home and, middle-aged or older, lacked the health, energy, or desire to face the challenges of post-Soviet migration.

I knew, and not only from my 1992 visit, that large numbers of these people existed. A student then, I recalled that from the early 1980s, the Soviet Union had designed campaigns to lure young men and women from Central Asia north to Russia. Soviet demographers were well-aware of what they saw as a ticking time bomb. The USSR’s southern regions faced at once a stagnant economy based on agricultural production, stultified by growing environmental damage, and a rapidly increasing population powered by birth rates about triple those in the Slavic heartland. Soviet newspapers had begun to place advertisements aimed at young Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and others, offering them employment in factories or elsewhere in Russian regions, or educational programs at vocational colleges. In my own archival research, I found these calls reflected in desperate petitions from leaders of Central Asian republics fearful that growing numbers of underemployed youth threatened social stability. The Soviet Union either needed to invest in their republics, in light industry or the service sector, or find another way to deal with these demographic realities. The Communist leadership, overwhelmingly Russian and loath to spend money on what they considered, still, “backward” southern regions, chose to undertake targeted migration as a temporary solution. This movement also addressed low birth rates in Russia, which faced a greying population already weakened by social problems, including alcoholism. 

Citizens in the Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia, however, were not waiting for the state to tell them what to do. Nor did they want to go where the state told them to—often industrial towns developing aside new gas and oil facilities and cities in the Far East. No, they knew where the USSR’s wealth was concentrated and also where they could find ready-made networks. As I located Central Asian interview subjects who had traded and worked in menial or blue-collar professions in the Soviet Union, I almost stumbled across how this migration, which has now stretched in the 2020s, began. 

Roommates from across the Union sharing a meal in a multinational dormitory room in 1960s Moscow. Photo by Thomas T. Hammond

Soviet policies interacted with Caucasus and Central Asians’ energy and entrepreneurship to propel the first generations of migrants. In a small Kyrgyz town, we found an older woman, known as eje (elder sister), who was at the genesis of a Moscow trading circle. Eje came to Moscow as a university student in the late 1960s. She was part of a Soviet policy that dedicated quotas in top institutions of higher education for citizens of each of the 15 Soviet republics. Such spots were highly valued across the Soviet Union and enforced the mythology of Moscow as the center of their part of the world. Eje and other beneficiaries of this postwar system became pioneers for generations of later migrants.

Walking the streets of 1960s-70s Moscow, eje saw how much money Muscovites were paying for onions, potatoes, and cabbages sold at farm markets the state had established to compensate for its horrible distribution systems. Why not, when she went home for vacations, return with melons, cherries, apricots, and other delicious foods from her homeland? They would sell for ten times the price in Moscow than at home in Kyrgyzstan. Eje started to haul goods with her by plane or by train and sell them to university dormitory mates. Soon, friends and family started bringing fresh fruits and vegetables, sleeping on her dorm room floor, and making significant profits. Trading networks like this blossomed, connecting Leningrad, Moscow. and other major Russian cities to the Soviet south. Cheap train and plane tickets, subsidized by the state to encourage mobility and bind the union, meant that one could fly to Moscow and back the same day with a load of perishable goods—often increased by bribing airport staff—and make a handsome return.     

The Soviet Roots of Contemporary Racism

Elnur Asadov stepped into a ready-made flower-selling network in Moscow. As economic conditions worsened in 1980s Azerbaijan, he abandoned his post as a teacher. Friends from his home village brought him to the Soviet capital, where he sold flowers on the streets during the winter holiday season, from the Great October Revolution to International Women’s Day in March. Flowers were a virtual necessity in Soviet life, obligatory for social occasions and trips to honor the deceased. Moscow city council turned a blind eye as flower sellers, increasingly from the Soviet south, spilled out from official markets to street corners and major bus and metro stations. It was a hard life for Asadov. He recalled selling in January: “You get out there and it’s frozen— 20 degrees below zero. And you have to sit at the bazaar and sell flowers….And so we went forth—we drank a lot of vodka, to keep warm and not get sick. Otherwise, there was no way we could stand on our feet from morning to midnight.” 

Delegates of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League lay wreaths at the Lenin Mausoleum in April 1974 at the League’s 17th Congress. RIA Novosti Archive

As traders from Central Asia and the Caucasus proliferated on Soviet Moscow’s streets, racism reared its ugly head. Locals might appreciate the quality and price of goods from the Soviet south, but these merchants, with their non-Slavic appearance and public visibility, annoyed many Muscovites, who considered trade a “dirty” profession unbecoming of a socialist state. In the run-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, police swept the city streets of Caucasus and Central Asian traders, dropping them at the “101st kilometer”—that is, outside the 100 km zone where, by Soviet law, residents needed a permit, or “propiska,” to allow them to stay in Moscow. Months later, however, most of these traders were back. The propiska system was notoriously leaky, easily defeated by falsified documents and bribes.

Racism returned also, spanning a spectrum of attitudes and behavior. Eje’s traders and Asadov might hear racist epithets. Prominent among these was “chernye” or “black.”  Years of research and queries to colleagues and interview subjects failed to turn up the origin of this word as a derogatory term.  Some scholars have speculated it might have emerged from Soviet soldiers hearing it used towards African-Americans in the Second World War.  In the Soviet Union, the epithet applied not to Africans, but to Central Asians, and, ironically to a Western ear, Caucasians, likely due to their black hair. Insults might devolve into theft of goods, accusations of cheating in measuring goods, or pushing and shoving. At least one incident, in Moscow’s Zhdanov market at the turn of the 1980s, became a virtual pogrom. A dispute over payment ended in a fistfight and the accidental death of a Russian customer. Other customers rampaged, destroying market stalls and attacking traders, beating more than one to within an inch of their lives. 

I never found a record of a Caucasus or Central Asian trader being murdered, however. The Soviet state worked to police ethnic tensions following a string of attacks and deaths of African students in the early 1960s, which resulted in an embarrassing protest on Red Square. Many traders I interviewed praised the safety of working in Leningrad and Moscow. The state provided market spaces with their own police force. For every racist remark, they befriended a customer who appreciated the quality of their goods. Many traders bragged about their financial success, which they claimed facilitated frequent liaisons with Russian women. Caucasus and Central Asian merchants sought relationships that might allow them to leave flats packed with their work colleagues and live with Muscovite paramours.

The turmoil of perestroika—the policy introduced by new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 to loosen state controls and improve economic performance—challenged accommodations between traders, other migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and host Muscovites. State distribution networks, already poor, crumpled as the reforms floundered. Shortages, inflation, and other economic challenges seeped into daily life. Traders and outsiders became easy scapegoats. Racism burst into the open as Gorbachev’s related policy of glasnost, or openness, enabled a nationalist press to flourish in place of tightly controlled Soviet media. “Blacks” were accused of robbing the Russian nation; with their high birth rates, they would soon ostensibly muscle out Russians in the Soviet Union. Those coming to Leningrad and Moscow, it was said, brought with them the scourge of AIDS. Traders and professional Caucasus and Central Asian migrants alike started to restrict their movements as the streets became more dangerous, especially as rationing was introduced in Moscow in 1990. 

These migrants, as much as they appreciated Moscow life and were proud of their success at the center of the Soviet Union, now faced the difficult decision: stay or go? With food shortages and ethnic tensions rising rapidly, thousands upon thousands returned to their families and homes in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere to ride out the turmoil of what became the end of the Soviet Union. The chaos of the Yeltsin years kept them there. By the time the 2000s renewed a privileged, post-Soviet core in Moscow and independent but poor and heavily postcolonial states on the periphery, age, family, and other restrictions prevented a return—but it was a younger generation who went in ever greater numbers. 

Participants on a break at the 19th Komsomol Congress in Moscow in May 1982. RIA Novosti Archive

Even as my interview subjects recalled the anxieties of perestroika, they engaged in significant nostalgia about the Soviet Union. About the Friendship of Peoples. About—ironically, perhaps, to a Western ear—the Soviet Union as a place of freedom. Where they could cross between republics and had a larger world available to them than as citizens of small, poor nations. Where they had a measure of economic security and personal safety. What surprised me most, however, were discussions surrounding the racial violence of the 2000s. I expected these Soviet-era migrants to express sympathy for their co-nationals, subject to such harsh treatment by Russian citizens and the state. Instead, they recalled how when they went to Moscow, they spoke the Russian language, they dressed like Muscovites, they worked to fit in. Ignoring socioeconomic discrepancies, they had no sympathy for these new migrants who did not have access to Russian language in schools, who were too poor to dress well, who were often at the mercy of employers who stole their passports and kept them in horrible living conditions on construction sites or elsewhere. I still struggle to understand the apparent lack of empathy.

COVID-19 has been only the latest blow to strike this post-Soviet, postcolonial generation of migrants. Caucasus and Central Asian residents, mostly unofficial—migration rules, policies, and documents constantly change—enjoyed a brief respite after the Ukraine crisis. The Kremlin turned against far-right groups, some of which supported Ukrainian nationalism, and violence decreased. Putin attended the opening of a massive “Cathedral Mosque” in Moscow in 2015 and began to seek foreign policy accommodations with leaders of major Muslim states. But Russian xenophobia rose again as the economy stalled in the face of stagnant oil prices and sanctions in the late 2010s. Even as these million-plus Central Asian and Caucasus migrants in Moscow have organized networks to facilitate daily life and gain a measure of comfort with co-nationals, they face hostility at every level of society. As long as the Russian economy continues to vastly outperform their own, however, they will keep coming, treading paths developed during the final decades of the Soviet Union. 

Jeff Sahadeo is Professor at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.  This article is based on research for his book, Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow.  He is also author of Russian Colonial Society in Tashkent, 1865-1923 and co-editor of Everyday Life in Central Asia, Past and Present. His current research examines the intersection between nature and society through the study of rivers in Imperial and Soviet Georgia.