Movements and Migrants in Central Asia*
STAB (School of Art and Theory Bishkek)
Movements in Central Asia have become large-scale and permanent, involving all social groups, rich and poor, women and men, young and old. They move around their own countries and among countries. Some go for several weeks or months and come back, while others live far from their place of birth for years, only occasionally visiting their homelands. Still others leave forever, breaking all ties. Some travel in search of a new homeland, so to speak. Others go to make money, study or receive medical treatment. Still others go for fun and excitement.
All this movement has come as a surprise to experts and politicians. I still remember the debates in the Soviet Union in the 1980s as to why the people of Central Asia were reluctant to travel outside their region. Even then officials and academics in Moscow, observing the beginnings of the demographic decline in Russia itself, were planning to relocate people from borderlands with an excess labor force to the central regions of the then still-unified country. These plans failed, because few people wanted to leave their homes. Only organized and, in fact, involuntary labor recruitment and military labor brigades partly solved the increased need for labor power. The weak affinity that Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz felt for voluntary mobility was proclaimed, on their part, an inherent and incorrigible attachment to family, community, and the hot climate. However, all these explanations were put to shame only a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when millions of people from the titular Central Asian nations felt an irresistible urge to hit the road, leaving and, sometimes, literally abandoning their homes.
Let us try and make sense of these circumstances, to understand why movement in the region has suddenly become a vital life strategy among a considerable number of people. The answer only seems to be lying on the surface. Yes, of course, the collapse of the Soviet system has led to the dismantling of all previous social and economic policies, which kept the population in place through social programs and investment in sometimes loss-making manufacturing enterprises. An abrupt, almost catastrophic decline in living standards, often accompanied by political turmoil and increased feelings of uncertain life prospects, could not fail to provoke an outflow of those wanting to find new prosperity and new stability outside their former worlds. Unemployment and negligibly small wages and pensions have pushed people into new labor markets in countries where even small incomes, by local standards, are much higher than the incomes Central Asians can expect to earn at home.
The future also looks ambivalent, depending on the forecaster’s optimism and pessimism. Some argue that economic, social, and political degradation in Central Asia will continue, becoming chronic, and the movements, therefore, will not stop but might even become even more intense, prolonged, and irreversible. Others, however, argue that sooner or later the situation will improve, investments and jobs will emerge at home, incomes and quality of life will increase and, consequently, outward migration will gradually dwindle.
This approach to movement as a consequence of degradation simplifies, in my view, the picture of events, distorting our perspective by ignoring and failing to analyze many important causes, factors, processes, and attitudes. If we look more broadly at the context in which human mobility in Central Asia has been growing, the first thing we see is an increase in the scope, range, and frequency of movement throughout the entire post-Soviet space and the world as a whole. Second, we see the unconditional link between mobility and the current stage of capitalism, which is sometimes called globalization, sometimes postindustrialism, and sometimes postmodernism. Viewed from this perspective, the picture of Central Asia appears in a somewhat different light than as a mere reflection of the disastrous state of affairs in the region’s newly independent countries. Spatial flows are not only a compulsory means of survival but also an impetus for distributing and assembling people, capital, information, and skills in new social configurations. The latter have a logic and meanings that do not depend directly on the characteristics of a particular country but are subject to wider trends and patterns.
What additional meanings can be attributed to the movements of people in Central Asia aside from as a reaction to post-Soviet degradation?
I think the situation can be described in terms of the momentum of the connections and mutual dependencies between Central Asia and Russia (and other lands) that developed and strengthened over at least a century and a half of coexistence within a single state. Usually, this kind of relationship is characterized as imperial or, if observers want to emphasize a distinctly unequal exchange, colonial. It is believed that empires inevitably fall, to be replaced by liberated nations. In this simple teleological scheme, which now dominates post-Soviet ideologies, much is not entirely clear, but one of the most controversial questions that many postcolonial critics ask is whether empire has actually disappeared or has adopted new shapes in which nations—i.e., constructs actually generated by empire—perform the old functions of borderlands, still pumping resources into the former metropoles in return for patronage and oversight. If we accept this argument, and there are many grounds for doing so, the massive movement of people from Central Asia to Moscow, Petersburg, and other Russian regions appears to be a post-imperial situation in which the circulation of labor power, money, practices, ideas, and information continues, acquiring new tempos and vectors. This movement establishes a new division of labor between the former “heartlands” and “borderlands,” and their hierarchy and mutual need for each other, even if the rhetoric has been dominated by harsh rejection of the newcomers.
Another implication of the movement of people in Central Asia is also quite obvious, although it is little remarked and little analyzed. The large-scale mobility—a significant (if not the lion’s) share of which consists of rural residents going to work abroad—is tantamount to a rather classic proletarization of a still largely agrarian Central Asian society. Soviet modernization attempted in its own way to organize this process by gradually transforming the locals into an agricultural working class while preserving the private agricultural sector and the corresponding rural practices, attitudes, and outlook in the region as a kind of compensation for semi-forced labor. The collapse of the Soviet Union also entailed the collapse of this transformative model. Consequently, the standard version of capitalist development, involving the ruin of the peasants, their impoverishment and exodus to the cities, where they are transformed into ruthlessly exploited proletarians, was inevitable. In other words, what is perceived as degradation is, in fact, a shift in the socio-economic order, not a return to old ways of life, as it sometimes has seemed, but accession to a completely new stage or form of community.
Proletarization has not been subject to discussion because, in particular, its course and effects have been concealed in a strictly ethnic view of the movement. In the countries of origin, the departed are considered traitors, victims or breadwinners. In the host countries, they are considered threatening outsiders or, again, victims. The emphasis, often cultural and racial, on their departure or arrival is more important than the social essence of movement. However, as soon as we remove our ethnic glasses we сan easily identify the class character of mobility. Its specificity consists only in the fact that the system in which class interaction takes place is not limited to particular countries and even regions but is non-national in scale. This system includes, first of all, the post-Soviet space as the nearest and most comprehensible space, a space that has, as I have already said, a history of a common existence and unequal relations of domination and subjugation between heartlands and borderlands. But mobility has already gone beyond the scope of the post-Soviet, spreading into new spaces of global capitalism and incorporating itself into a truly global order.
The other significance of the movement in Central Asia I would like to discuss is the mastery and appropriation of global space, infrastructures, and communication and transportation technologies. Let me explain this with a very simple example. Once upon a time, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Russian imperial officials built a railroad that linked Central Asia with Russia’s central regions. The railway was built in no small measure to transport troops in the event of local uprisings and conflicts with other world powers, as well as for resettling Russian peasants, who were to colonize the new imperial lands. The railroad was also built to export the region’s cotton to the Ivanovo textile mills and import grain back to Turkestan, where the arable land was to be busy growing cotton. However, whatever objectives Petersburg officials pursued by allocating funds for the railroad’s construction, the end result was new transport infrastructure that made it possible to move large quantities of people and goods quickly, a means that had been available to different groups of people in different historical periods, and could be used for purposes that the said officials could not even imagine. Consequently, a hundred years later, the railway has become one of the main means of transporting millions of people of Central Asia to Russia and all over the world. This shift of functions and tasks might be dubbed mastery of new technologies and appropriation of completely new mechanisms for interacting with space, mechanisms which themselves define the impetuses and trajectories of movement. If we add highways and air travel to the railroads, we find ourselves with a huge network of possibilities that people transform into an element of their everyday practices and plans. The ease with which one can reach the other end of the world in a short time and gain access to new goods itself compels people to travel.
Here I would add the mastery of technologies for obtaining information about the world and communicating at great distances. They help create and maintain images and networks of acquaintances, which are also included in processes of movement and ensure its stability, direction, and reversibility. In a broader sense, I would also include here not only phones, internet, cars, and planes but also knowledge of languages, mastery of global systems of food and clothing, of finding and gaining employment, and so on. The penetration and expansion of such technologies and infrastructures in Central Asia and training oneself in the habits of using them shapes the demand for mobility as a distinct need and, sometimes, as a pleasure.
Finally, I want to use the notion of the migration of peoples for interpreting current movements. Despite the risks of drawing analogies between quite different historical periods, I think it vital to point out the temporal depth, continuity, and cyclical nature of movements, on the one hand, and, on the other, the gradual tectonic shifts in the spread of cultures, languages, and even genetic characteristics, shifts that may not always be visible from the perspective of several decades. I think we must keep sight of this prospect, too, because it is here that new mixtures and hybridizations happen, new cultural types and preferences are constructed, and new communities and identities are shaped. Marriages between locals and newcomers, children of newcomers who are born and grow up in the new land and speak the local language, shifts (back and forth) in musical and culinary tastes that are suggested by the newcomers and turn into new fashions, etc., are the individual and ephemeral symptoms of such transformations. They coalesce to form global trends that become visible after some time and only at a remove from the chaos of the present. The non-obvious nature of this tectonic shift and the uncertainty of its impact do not mean, however, that we do not sense, sometimes as vague and irrational fears and anxieties, the inevitability of this process by which completely new cultural forms emerge and acquire their own force and logic.
I deliberately did not use the terms migration and migrants in the first part of my text, although in their original sense they are synonyms of movement and people in movement. However, the primarily recent negative usage of the word migrant in Russia, the destination of most Central Asians, has caused me to regard it as a discrete category, which indicates the particular circumstances in which people in movement find themselves. We can easily notice that the word is used selectively in the public debate and generally does not cover all types of movement, for which additional features and criteria are introduced. Why and how do certain people in movement end up in the exceptional circumstances of migrants?
The paradox of the present age is that the more massive and rapid the movement of people has become, the more societies and countries have established legal, political, social, and cultural obstacles and rules, including in the realm of ideology and ideas, for regulating and directing mobility. Having become an important feature of (post)modernity, movement has not changed the social order, which has remained hierarchical and antagonistic. But movement imparts to these hierarchies and antagonisms another, migratory dimension, which has become an important element in the allocation of status, wealth, and opportunity. More precisely, there are many such dimensions, and I will try to spell them out, based on the classification of the causes of increased mobility that I have proposed above. In particular, I mentioned post-imperialism, capitalization and proletarization, the appropriation of global space, and the migration of peoples.
The most obvious is the post-imperial or post-colonial conjuncture. The former distinctions between heartlands and borderlands, which in the past had a tangible and geographically measurable value, have been preserved, having forfeited, however, their sense of spatiality. The parts of the formerly united empire, fused over many decades and centuries, continue to need each other, even after the collapse of the unified state, in terms of resources, finances, labor power, military assistance, technologies, and ideas to maintain their existence and legitimacy. As before, mutual dependence has its own imbalances, which after the Soviet Union’s demise have not only not decreased but also in many ways have even increased. In the past, common imperial Russian and Soviet citizenship certainly served as tools of colonization and Russification, but aside from subordination, they contributed other modernizing and emancipatory consequences and effects. As the residents of the modernized and emancipated regions have flocked to the heartlands, depriving them of a common citizenship and, generally, of a stable legal status has been the new strategy for dominating the borderlands and its inhabitants. Earlier educational and Kulturträger aspirations have finally yielded to cold calculation: utopianism has become an unnecessary expense.
The status and label of the illegal (nelegal) has replaced the former terms aboriginal (tuzemets) and ethnic (natsmen) as the new tool of colonization. Illegality, which in its various shapes accompanies the majority of immigrants from Central Asia throughout their journey to Russia and other countries, is simultaneously a means of overexploitation and replacing distance (which in the past separated the residents of the heartlands from the populace of the borderlands, generating informal relations of “senior” and “junior”) with a new means of distancing. While reproaching the arriving hordes for illegality, Russia does everything possible to maintain this gray zone, which is a prerequisite of postcolonial welfare and subjugation and brings only material and symbolic benefits. Of course, the possibility of becoming a citizen and occupying a top position in the new circumstances remains for the illegal immigrant, just as once upon a time the aboriginal and ethnic could become a tsarist general or a member of the Central Committee, but this career requires stupendous effort, the overcoming of numerous obstacles, and repeated demonstrations of loyalty.
The proletarization of rural dwellers is accomplished not just as a movement from countryside to city but also as a movement from one country to another. This generates not only the possibility of doubly exploiting migrants as workers and, at the same time, as disenfranchised foreigners, but also impedes the formation of a pronounced class identity and class resistance among the new proletarians. Moreover, self-recognition as a working class occurs neither in the country of origin nor the host country.
In Russia, where migrants work and generate surplus value, they are considered guest workers and slaves who are not an electoral force, allegedly hinder the development of the local economy, skew the labor market by working for low wages, and increase crime rates. That is, they generate lots of so-called problems and threats. Even local leftist parties are not willing to recognize them as their own constituency, whose rights and class mobilization should be their concern. In Central Asia itself, where the migrants return with the money they have earned, they do not perceive themselves and are not perceived by others as a proletariat. Rather, they function as a kind of middle class who have successfully completed a business deal somewhere abroad. At home, the guest workers carefully maintain and reproduce all the attributes of prestige characteristic of the rural rich, community members, and supporters of a “traditional” lifestyle, albeit in contrived form. This method of joining the capitalist world prevents immigrants from Central Asia from recognizing their interests as proletarians and fighting for them, which only aggravates their oppressed position in their new circumstances.
Here I want to clarify an important point. Movement itself is not only proletarian in its import. The people involved in it also include businessmen, who attempt to preserve and capitalize their savings abroad; urban educated youth, hoping to enter the cohort of white collar workers; and cultural producers and academics, who are looking for freedom of inspiration and recognition in other countries, and so on. But these groups of Central Asians are often overlooked amidst the public phobias, are not identified as guest workers, and even occupy quite high-status positions in the new society. However, many of them are also under constant threat of ending up living their lives according to a proletarian logic. Subjugation, which cannot be reduced merely to proletarization but has a wider context, assigns people to different categories, leaving them very little choice in determining their own legal, professional, and social trajectories, eventually pushing them into the niche of disenfranchised workers, from which it is difficult to extract themselves.
Another factor associated with access to the infrastructures and technologies of mobility also generates its own limitations and hierarchies. The latter include abilities, skills, and psychological capacities, as well as, I intend to emphasize, the availability of the necessary financial means and connections for implementing this access. An important condition is the availability and number of intermediaries between the individual and the means of mobility.
The hierarchy begins to take shape the moment the decision is made who is personally capable of setting out on the long, distant journey. This decision predetermines who will be the breadwinner, and who, the dependent; who, by taking on heightened risks, will receive more of the symbolic and moral bonuses, and how roles and statuses will be allocated in the future within the family and the community. Depending on the availability of funds and skills, the emigrant chooses between strategies of searching for happiness individually or, more often, of joining a network. Within the network, each person is assigned a certain place, and strict limitations are imposed on all manifestations of independence. The network mediates between the individual and technologies. It gives him or her money for their first steps. It protects and insures them. It explains where they should go and what they should do. The societal network, which guides the individual down the beaten path, provides guarantees and confirms the usual order of relations, and reproduces its own forms of domination and subjugation among elders and youngsters, men and women, pioneers and followers, wise guys and foot soldiers. The technologies and infrastructures of globalization are for many people, paradoxically, a means of reproducing and even reinforcing so-called traditional collective practices and beliefs.
I want to note also that networks, by defining what each of its members should do and how they should do it, exacerbate the stigmatization of these people as illegal immigrants and guest workers. When he or she joins a network, the individual immediately ends up in a social niche already freighted with a given set of obligations and rights, symbols and identities. The Central Asian whom an older relative or acquaintance puts on a plane, then transports to a place of work and so on, is doomed to be a migrant, as no other roads remain open to him or her.
And, finally, the migration of peoples. I have spoken about the fact that this process leads to the invention and cultivation of new hybrid cultural forms and types. And yet the fabrication and materialization of these forms and types happens via alignment with a hierarchy, through assignment to specific superior or inferior positions in social classifications, through application of a whole set of rules and techniques for recognition and exclusion. In particular, in these processes, references to culture, religion, and race, alone or in various combinations, are turned into a necessary attribute for identifying migrants as a discrete category of people in movement.
Migrants are persons necessarily endowed with the signs of aliens. Their physical appearance, faith and religious practices, and cultural habits must be alien. Central Asians with Caucasoid and Mongoloid features are termed “blacks” (chornye). The Central Asian cultures, which experienced a large-scale modernization with the Russian Empire and Soviet Union for nearly a century and a half, are described as almost archaic and “traditionalist.” Central Asian Islam, which has just been recreated after an atheistic era and bears the stamp of eclecticism and internal inconsistency, already figures as a potential, homogenous “threat” both to Christians and atheists. The discursive racialization, and cultural and religious stigmatization to which a significant number of people traveling between countries are exposed is a condition for entering the new situation of constant movement. New generalizing identities and derogatory nicknames legitimize, albeit negatively, the redistribution of space currently underway. At the same time, endowment of legal, professional or class status is made dependent on cultural and biological characteristics. Despite the apparent relativization of culture in movement, the essentialization of these characteristics has only been amplified and has moved from the level of individual countries and regions to the global level.
I want to conclude my short essay on movement and migrants in Central Asia not with a series of conclusions but with something like an inquiry. The new era has opened up many new opportunities for people, but at the same time it has generated new types of dependence and subjugation. How will these opportunities be used? Have we recognized all the risks? I think that when answering these questions we must choose a particular point of view that opens onto a wider temporal and spatial context, that does not focus on details, whatever feelings of pride or resentment they might cause, and that would not be attached to a particular ethnic loyalty and affiliation. Depending on how this works out or whether it works out at all, we can hope for the emergence of a new dialogue about the new era, a dialogue that for the time being we sorely lack.
* My research was conducted with support from a grant by the Russian Humanities Academic Fund (“Problems of Intercultural Interaction between Migrants from Central Asia and Russian Society,” No. 11-01-00045а).
Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in Saint Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015.
This essay was originally printed, in Russian, in STAB Almanac No. 1: Regain the Future, edited by Georgy Mamedov and Oksana Shatalova. Published by the School of Theory and Activism Bishkek (STAB) in 2014, the almanac can be accessed in full (in Russian) here. This is the first in a series of new posts dealing with Central Asia, Central Asians, and immigration. Translated by the Russian Reader