MOSCOW — In a tiny hut in the woods where he survives without fixed address or running water, Abdul Malik keeps a neatly pressed suit hanging on the wall above his thin mattress, an emblem of the respectable life that should have been his, destroyed by the aftershocks of the Soviet planned economy.
Malik, a 22-year-old from Tajikistan, was only 2 when the Soviet Union disintegrated under its own unsupportable weight in 1991, leaving outposts of the far-flung empire stranded economically, many in the future generations doomed to destitution.
The Central Asian countries, a source of raw materials with little manufacturing capacity and heavily subsidized by Moscow, were left particularly vulnerable. Twenty years after independence, a flood of Central Asians looking for work washes over Moscow, turning it into a city of migrants, Abdul Malik among them.
“You can survive,” he said, standing outside his hut in the quiet woods as a summer evening faded into night. “You can earn something here.”
Moscow, a city of 11.5 million according to last year’s census, has as many as 5 million migrants, more than half of them undocumented. The migrants, many of them from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, exist on the fringes of society, harassed by police, victimized by employers and disliked by Russians, once their fellow Soviet citizens. The flawed policies of the old system, where the two countries were turned into cotton fields for the empire and dependent on Moscow, haunt the new nations still, long after the old ideology was discarded.
In Moscow, deep-seated prejudice against Central Asians (and people from Russia’s Caucasian mountains) gives restive young nationalists a target for their anger. Ethnic tension has been rising, giving the city a dangerous edge. About one Central Asian is killed every month in a racially motivated attack in the city, and many are beaten up, with numerous assaults unreported. Others die in accidents.
Last year, according to the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow nonprofit organization, 37 people were killed in Russia in racially motivated attacks and 368 reported injured, most of them Central Asians.
In one horrifying incident, a 20-year-old Tajik was stabbed and then beheaded on his way home from work in December 2008, apparently by ultranationalists. That year 600 Tajiks died in Russia, 84 of them because of hate crimes, the Tajik government said.
The migrants come anyway, driven by desperation. Despite all obstacles, they have created an important economy of their own. There are more Uzbeks here than Tajiks: Uzbekistan has a population of nearly 28 million. But Tajikistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, and close to a million of its 7 million people are working in Russia. Last year they sent home $2.3 billion, about 45 percent of that country’s GDP, according to the National Bank of Tajikistan.
Russia has become an important source of such remittances, amounting to about $18.6 billion in 2009, according to the World Bank.
Malik made his way 2,000 miles to Moscow a year ago and lives just outside the city’s outer ring road with two other men from the Khatlon region of Tajikistan — Kurgan Tyube in Soviet times — the poorest, cotton-growing part of the country, southwest of the capital Dushanbe.
Most migrants are too frightened to give their names, certain the police will find them, shake them down or worse, beat them up and throw them out of the country. But Malik, 29-year-old Odil Sattorov and 43-year-old Makhmud Mamedov are unable to deny their deep sense of hospitality, and they welcome this foreign reporter who improbably finds them in the woods, lamenting they have no shish kebab to cook on their outdoor fire to offer a guest.
Home from work about 8 p.m., they take advantage of the still bright summer sky to embark on a home improvement project, stringing an electric line through the deep woods and attaching lights so they can illuminate their path, which takes them on a winding route through thick foliage and across two streams, negotiated over narrow tree limbs and boards. Tapping into a nearby power line — they’re construction workers — has provided a single light bulb and a small stove in their hut, which barely has room for three mattresses. Next maybe they can get a simple computer — and Skype.
They set off for work every morning by 5 o’clock, and lucky ones that they are, they have gotten on a construction crew that pays them a few hundred dollars more than the $300 to $500 a month most migrants earn.
“He has golden hands,” Malik said of Sattorov’s skill. “He’s the boss,” a passing friend from a nearby shack said. “Yeah,” Sattorov laughed, “boss of the fresh air.”
Sattorov is hoping to earn enough to marry soon. Mamedov, a former policeman who lost his job as his country grew poorer, supports three children and a wife at home. Malik’s pay goes to his parents and younger brother and sister. And he has his suit, ready to wear home proudly, if only on a yearly visit.
They work together to make their modest quarters pleasant — a wooden plaque with a picture from a Tajik fairy tale is nailed above their door. They have what they need — money to send home.
“We enjoy life here,” Sattorov said with his easy smile, as if he was living in a snug forest cottage instead of a thin-board shack hidden among the trees.
Thousands of migrants live like this or worse, mostly invisible in the woods or fields where they turn abandoned garden sheds into shelters. Some manage the winter cold, others rent apartments when the weather turns bitter, sleeping 20 to a room.
Farther around the ring road, Sukhrab Karimov, a 27-year-old who earned $100 a month as a teacher back home, now makes $550 a month as a laborer. He pays $92 a month for a bed and hot water shower to a landlord who has built a shanty town for thousands of migrants hidden along a winding, muddy road. Every month he sends about $370 home for his parents, wife and children. “I have, thank God, three,” he said.
In April, police found more than 100 Central Asians living underground, in an abandoned bomb shelter. In February, a settlement was discovered under the sprawling Kievsky train station, where the inhabitants worked as cleaners. In March, about 30 migrants from Tajikistan and Moldova were found living under a sausage factory.
Those without regular work line up every morning near the complexes that sell building and home improvement supplies along the ring road, hoping for a day’s labor — regiments of them, de facto replacements for the construction brigades of the Soviet era. Then, conscripts from Central Asia were deployed to Moscow to dig ditches and even harvest potatoes. Now they wear the uniforms of private companies, sweeping streets, collecting garbage and unloading the long procession of trucks that feed Moscow’s booming consumer culture.
In Soviet times, movement was restricted, as Grigori Golosov, a political science professor and director of the Helix democracy and human rights center in St. Petersburg, pointed out. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Central Asian cotton couldn’t compete on the world market. The Russian economic system drew those workers here.
“They became as poor as the lack of demand allowed,” he said. “At the same time, the oil economy developed rapidly, keeping the demand for unskilled labor high in Russia, where employers are reluctant to pay good salaries, especially for construction and services.”
Citizens of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan can enter without visas, but encounter three sets of daunting problems, said Anastasia Denisova, an advocate for migrants at the nongovernmental Committee for Civil Assistance.
Residency and work permits are required, but limited by quota and the difficulties of traversing a hard-to-navigate bureaucracy. A whole industry has arisen, Denisova said, selling fake documents — $375 to $450 for a residency permit, about $630 for a work permit. “Even those who try hard to get legal papers are pushed out of the legal system and made to feel like criminals,” she said.
Once they get work, employers may abuse workers and fail to pay them, leaving the migrants little recourse. Without contracts, a boss could simply say he has never seen the complainant before.
And when attacked on the street, they are quickly turned from victim to aggressor, she said. “They are easy prey,” she said, “because no one is interested in protecting them and the hate level is very high.”
One of her clients, an Uzbek in his early 30s named Anvar Yusupov, got onto a subway car with a friend recently, where they found themselves in the middle of a crowd of rowdy, taunting soccer fans. “Before they could get off, Anvar saw a knife,” Denisova said. “He picked up one of their beer bottles, broke it off and told them to stop it.”
Yusupov was charged with attacking the rowdies and faces three years in prison. “No one believes him,” she said, “and we are very anxious.”
Denisova said she is frustrated that Russia fails to recognize the migrants’ value and grant them legal status.
“People are coming in great crowds, and they are needed here,” she said. “Our skyscrapers were built with their hands. They were Soviet people, just like us.”