Life between two worlds: labour migrants in Russia

ZOiS Spotlight 46/2019 by Tsypylma Darieva (11 December 2019)

Central Asian migrants at work in Moscow. © Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Foto

Migratory movements between Russia and Central Asia are not a new phenomenon. Yet since the fall of the Soviet Union and following economic upheaval and political instability, new waves of migration from Central Asia have taken place. In the last three decades, Russia has become a major destination country for migrants from the former Soviet Republics. In the 1990s, mainly ethnic Russians from the Central Asian republics relocated to Russia. Then, in the 2000s, increased numbers of migrants arrived from the three impoverished Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan to Russian cities to find work and secure their families’ livelihoods. An estimated 4 to 5 million labour  migrants are currently contributing to the Russian economy—on construction sites, at markets, and in various branches of the service sector.

Two features characterise transnational labour migration in Russia. First, migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are mainly young men, especially unskilled labourers from rural areas and smaller towns. Second, there is an increasing feminisation of migration in Kyrgyzstan, whose emigrants include a relatively high proportion of women. According to the International Organisation for Migration, over 59 per cent of migrants from Kyrgyzstan in 2015 were women. In both cases, transnational labour migrants send a part of the income they earn back to their family members in Central Asia. Individual remittances have become a significant contributor to gross domestic product and household income in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular.

Unclear legal status

Although Russia is now among the new destination countries for labour migration and still has open borders with many Central Asian countries, it has few regulatory frameworks for migration and integration compared with West European states. A high degree of informality in working conditions creates precarious legal situations and criminalises the image of migrants. There is a lack of integration policies and migrants often face ethnic discrimination. In this context, migrants and state institutions alike perceive migration as a temporary condition. Yet in many cases, work and transnational mobility make for a permanent way of living, which plays out between two worlds in a cross-border reality. Migrants not only help shape economic structures in both their home and their adoptive country but also create long-distance social linkages and spaces that influence the daily lives, identities, and individual stories of migrants themselves and the family members they leave behind.

To understand these processes and connections, Russian and Central Asian social scientists explored a new research field for Russia and Central Asia: transnational daily life. Sergey Abashin of the European University in St Petersburg led an international longitudinal study that focused on questions including: How do migrants perceive family responsibilities across national borders and maintain feelings of belonging? How have family structures changed in light of the fact that as the state care and welfare system has declined dramatically since the end of the Soviet Union, the family has become one of the most important resources?

From 2014 to 2018, the research project Transnational and Translocal Aspects of Migration: Migration from Central Asia to Russian Cities, with the collaboration of Olga Brednikova and Guzel Sabirova, investigated the mobile lives of forty migrants and their families. The results revealed that migrants have a high readiness for mobility and flexible individual life plans. Those studied frequently changed their place of work, their home, and their partner. They left home ‘forever’ but then returned to their homeland for a few months, only to emigrate again. The unstable legal situation in Russia makes it hard for migrants to plan for the long term. Their lives consist of short-term decisions with concrete goals, for example saving for a wedding or carrying out repairs on the house. At the same time, migrants deal with different scenarios that they do not see as contradictory, such as building a house in their home country while looking for ways to buy a flat in Russia.

Reshaping the family?

Migration also has major impacts on traditional Central Asian family structures. Social change can be seen in particular through the transformation of ‘traditional’ patriarchal family values. ‘Traditional’ here refers above all to an extended family, a local network of family members that share a single household and follow a standard structure of child and elders care, cost sharing, and hierarchical relations: women look up to men, the young to the old, children to their parents, sisters to brothers. In the context of migration, the question is to what extent geographical distances are changing family relationships and the concept of the family.

Here there are contradictory trends. While traditional hierarchies remain, new social paradigms have also developed. On the one hand, geographical distance between family members and insecure living conditions on both sides caused by migration can mean greater adherence to traditional family structures. On the other, changes to traditional relationships with authority and gender roles are under way, for example, the emergence of parallel families in Russia, rising divorce rates, an increasing number of mixed marriages, and children left behind with one parent.

Despite precarious living conditions and strong social controls through smartphones, migration may offer new opportunities and possibilities for self-fulfilment, especially for women. Migration gives women new sources of financial protection and alternative ways to improve or maintain their social status. This applies mainly to widowed or divorced women from Central Asia who are looking for a new space to further their horizons in Russia. Balancing a life between two worlds is not easy and requires an intense readiness to operate in two different systems. Debates and insights from the research show that the social dimensions of migration stories in Russia have been severely neglected and how important it is to tackle the stigma of Central Asian migrants in Russia that has arisen largely from a lack of legal regulation.


Tsypylma Darieva is a social anthropologist and senior researcher at ZOiS.