Russia’s untouchables

February 1, 2012

By Denis Sinyakov

I don’t remember a time when Moscow hasn’t been flooded with them – migrants from Central Asia.

When I moved here in 1997 they were already here. They had started appearing more than 20 years ago, the time when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Some fled civil wars, but more often they were escaping the awful economic situation in their homelands. Not exactly an escape, but they came to make some money, leaving their families at home. The economic situation in Russia even now isn’t enviable, at the beginning of the 1990’s it was woeful, but none the less better than there.

Muscovites have got used to living with them, used to regarding them as low qualified workers, as street sweepers and lorry loaders, cheap muscle on building sites. People are used to calling them “churki” and “sheep” and not finding those words in any way offensive.

Muscovites are generally not very tolerant people towards aliens, and aren’t very fond of newcomers from the varied different regions of the Russian federation, or the Caucasus or from Central Asia. But only the latter group has it become habitual to offend in public.

When I started to shoot this story I saw the following scene: two women arguing about a dog belonging to one of them that was swimming with children in a river one hot July day. In the same place migrants from Tajikistan were swimming, they were about half of the bathers present. The women were shouting and arguing for a long time about the hygiene of the dog. Bystanders became involved and eventually sided with the dog owner, arguing that it was permissible since there were already several “darkies” swimming in the same place, so the water could hardly be considered clean. The darkies, deeply tanned only on their necks and forearms, listened silently and continued swimming and didn’t pay any attention to what was happening. Everybody is used to it, but I felt deeply ashamed.

That’s what I wanted to photograph, but it seemed impossible. The unpleasantness of locals to the immigrants is an intangible, a mentality ingrained as part of the status quo, easy to seem unremarkable and by its nature unnoticed. However there are so many aspects to this relationship that reflect a multitude of issues confronting Russia at the beginning of the 21st century.

Those who work with migrants think there is somewhere between 2 and 3 million central Asians working in and around Moscow. The Russian authorities put the figure at just under a million. The discrepancy in figures may be a problem of paperwork; most citizens of the former CIS don’t need a visa to come to the Russian capital. They do need a work permit, but these can be obtained by one means or another and so become currency on the shady side of Russia’s balance sheet. Working without the correct paperwork can be expensive in bribes. Being uncountable is both profitable and helps to conceal the scale involved. A huge hole in the demographic curve of Russia, a result of the shock tactics of conversion to a free market in the 1990’s, means there is a shortage of young adults coming into the working age bracket. Russia’s hydrocarbon driven economy needs diversification, but the labor resources for development projects is lacking. The migrants come, to fill the gap.

I came across difficulties in places where I hadn’t expected. For example in their own lands they are incredibly curious and happily open to journalists – no problem to chat and take pictures. But here they feel hostility; they close up and don’t let you establish any contact. Their only request was to be left in peace. “We just came here to work” and “everything’s okay with us” – was their standard reply. They thought I was working for the police, the migration service, or a bureaucrat, seemingly forgetting there are people who are genuinely interested in how they live and the problems they face.

Before I started work on this project I had no idea how deep it went. It’s almost impossible to show the scale when you start investigating questions of their living environment, work conditions, motivation for migration, xenophobia, and corruption across the Russian institutions that make life almost slavish.

The majority of migrants I talked with want to, at some point, leave Russia and in general only see Russia as a way to make money. There is a regular flow at the train stations for the three day ride to central Asia, those who have made enough, or had enough, passing the new replacements arriving. Belongings are loaded onto the passenger seats, the herds of checkered bags offering little safety from border guards who prey on the returnees, knowing they will have to pass through, their documents doubtfully in order.

Aside from the general background level hostility from the man in the street, there is a worrying growth in nationalist extremism. 2010’s riot in central Moscow brought unexpected focus to these racial tensions. Race related homicide is not uncommon. The central Asians make easy targets due to their appearance and Muslim faith. Islamic separatists from the Caucasus have given an obvious argument to those wishing to single out Muslims, in this country of renewed Orthodox faith, remembered and encouraged since the atheist Soviet era. Maintaining an out-group is politically expedient in times of crisis or election, but it requires a fine balance to keep it in check given the necessity of this labor source.

Religious differences make more personal tragedies for those from countries with conservative values untenable in Moscow. Maintaining a traditional central Asian family structure is difficult for the constantly moving migrants. For the many women migrants a child born in Moscow can mean the end of employment. To return home risks being an outcast since the children are often born out of wedlock, unforgivable in local custom, so abandonment is frequent. I visited a hospice for single migrant mothers, in a partially finished commercial building on the outskirts of the capital. Even in this rare outpost of charity there is resentment – the well-educated doctors of the clinic asked me “why should we look after them, teach them and their children, when we often refuse other residents of the same suburb.”

Keeping this source of labor flowing over the coming years is imperative for Russia, but for the present authorities it is not convenient to address, or convenient to not address the problem of rights. Despite the problems the trains keep on arriving, filled with “them”.

(View a large format showcase of images here)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

wow, I thought we were the only place in the world that had a ” illegal” problem? This planet is really a sad place, the elites are everywhere! can’t win for losing, God help us!

Posted by d.lola | Report as abusive

Amazing that someone would think the USA is the only country with immigration problems. The USA has a very poorly educated population

Posted by nolimey | Report as abusive

Great article and brilliant pictures – however, many of Russia’s immigrants are from the Caucasus and not the Caucuses. Two very different things.

Posted by nagornaya | Report as abusive

Thanks Nagornaya – I just corrected the text.

Posted by CorinnePerkins | Report as abusive

One aspect that has interested me is the way these migrants are rising up the work ladder, two years ago my local schokoladnitsa had a Russian staff barring one central Asian cleaner; not everybody except the manager is a migrant, chefs waitresses everybody. This is happening in many places and owners cite not only the low cost of employing migrants, but also their reliability, courtesy and lack of drinking issues. It would be nice to think this might continue.

Posted by willwilisovsky | Report as abusive

Great piece – good photographs and nice, considered cometary. Alas all communities have the ‘bell curve’ of humanity from the wise to the ignorant. Russia is no different. Unlike smaller societies it does seem that in larger states, like the US, China and Russia, the ignorant have a greater voice. I am not sure why that is, perhaps it is the failure of the general education systems on the large scale, this might not be replicated in smaller societies. Of course size is not the only factor. The Israeli hatred of the Palestinians is institutional at state level.

Posted by RobertBaker | Report as abusive

“Great article and brilliant pictures – however, many of Russia’s immigrants are from the Caucasus and not the Caucuses. Two very different things.” – interesting article but how much other information in it is incorrect?

Posted by Bagwa | Report as abusive

Great Article: This place is similar to Kuwait, 2 million Asians to do things Kuwaiti’s do not want to and pay them next to nothing for their labors.

Posted by Intriped | Report as abusive

Nice picture story.

Posted by malnute | Report as abusive

For all those who berate birth control, you better think again. The teeming masses need to be fed, clothed and housed but if the human race keeps procreating as it has done in the past the planet will be doomed. Don’t need to worry about a nuclear holocaust, we will self-destruct through the sheer weight of humanity crushing this fragile planet.

Posted by 2cartalkers | Report as abusive

This is our Central Asia migration, is not Caucasian.
Tajikistan is country immigration donor for Russia.

Posted by EugenRussia | Report as abusive