Thinking about Russia’s migrant worker population usually conjures up images of street cleaners, construction workers and marshrutka (shared taxi) drivers. Central Asian migrant workers are such a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape in Moscow and St. Petersburg that they have become the face of Russia’s migrant population as a whole. From xenophobic representations on Russian TV shows to reports on the exploitation of migrant labor – migrant workers are usually framed as a distinctly urban phenomenon. Indeed, immigration figures confirm the fact that a lion’s share of Russia’s migrant population is concentrated around a few urban centers. While Russia’s migrant workers may be more visible in large cities, the important role of migrant labor in rural Russia should not be underestimated.
In a recent documentary produced by Russia’s last remaining independent news channel, a group of journalists travel from St. Petersburg to Moscow by car, retracing the journey recounted in Radishchev’s critical travelogue on life in provincial Russia in the late 18th century (a book which got Radishchev exiled to Siberia in 1790). This six-part TV series looks for parallels and continuities between the Russia of Catherine the Great and the country as it is today. Along their journey across the desolate and eerily empty Russian countryside, the TV crew stumbles upon groups of migrant workers at different points along the way. Just outside of St. Petersburg, a collective farm in Lyuban is shown to rely completely on seasonal agricultural workers from Ukraine and Moldova for the planting and harvesting seasons. “Everyone’s gone, no young people left to do the work” the Russian head of the farm complains as the camera slowly pans across a deserted village. Just a few kilometers down the road 140 Chinese migrants work 14-hour days on a farm supervised by a Russian of Korean descent who boasts that “one Chinese worker is worth five Uzbeks” in terms of work ethic. Poor pensioners huddled outside a grocery store in a small village near Veliky Novgorod talk about the local poultry farm as being the only remaining industry in the area, employing a mix of Moldovan and Armenian migrants. There aren’t any locals left willing to work for a monthly salary of just 7000 rubles (around $220 based on the pre-crash exchange rate). Migrant workers remain a silent and mostly invisible presence through the entire documentary – from the Moldovan lumberjacks working in the woods to Tajik builders helping an idealistic Russian émigré farmer from France bring an abandoned collective milk farm back to life.
These migrants are both geographically and legally almost completely off the radar. Out in the Russian countryside, the salaries may be abysmally low, but so are the chances of having to deal with corrupt police officers and immigration officials. Statistically, the number of migrant workers in the Russian provinces may be insignificant (although accurate numbers are virtually non-existent), but their contribution to the economic livelihood of Russia’s stagnant countryside appears to be the only thing keeping local agriculture and manufacturing afloat. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the country’s planned economy, Russia witnessed a massive depopulation of its countryside as collective farms and factories closed in rapid succession. According to a recent demographic study, over 70% of young people born in Russia’s so-called glubinka or periphery had left their homes after graduating from high school in order to relocate to bigger cities between 2003 and 2010. The country’s Northwestern and Central regions appear to have been hit particularly hard by rural flight caused by a lack of opportunities. Much has been written about the state of neglect into which the agricultural and manufacturing sectors have fallen in the shadow of an oil and gas boom. What fails to get mentioned is that what’s left of Russia’s agriculture and manufacturing remains heavily dependent on migrant labor. From Uzbeks growing cotton and tobacco in the Astrakhan region to Belarusians and Ukrainians manning the harvesting machinery in Western Russia and Meskhetian Turks planting tomatoes and onions in the Stavropol region – migrants act as a lifeline for Russia’s woefully underfunded agricultural sector.
Faced with sanctions, a self-imposed food import ban and a currency crisis, Russia appears to be increasingly unable to provide for its large migrant population. Many (including myself) have predicted a massive exodus of migrant workers from Russia as a result of declining wages and the introduction of new bureaucratic hurdles to obtaining work permits. So far, however, official migration data made public by Russia’s Federal Migration Service does not seem to suggest that migrants are leaving the country in a rush. Though people in Moscow and St. Petersburg have started to complain about the sudden lack of snow and garbage removal in their cities, there is little evidence to suggest that the migrants who used to do these jobs have left the country for good. There is even speculation in the Russian media that some migrants may have taken refuge in the countryside – where costs of living are lower – in hope of “waiting out” the economic crisis. Given the new pressure on Russia to increase domestic food production, there appears to be a growing need for manual labor in agriculture, which can be only met by migrant workers. Though it is difficult to quantify this in numbers, at least some migrant workers have ended up settling permanently in the relative security of the Russian countryside, far away from the anti-immigrant vigilantes and incessant extortion by police commonplace in the big cities. “It’s hard to find a good man around here” a middle-aged Russian woman living in an emptying Novgorod region village tells the TVRain reporter, going on to explain how some local Russian girls end up starting families with guest workers from Central Asia. At this point, it is unclear what will happen with Russia’s migrant population, but it seems increasingly likely that some migrants will try to adapt to the current difficult economic situation by looking for employment beyond Russia’s major cities. After all, the economic situation in their home countries remains dire and many would rather stick it out in Russia than face the shame of returning home penniless.