The Suffering of Essential Workers: How Labor Migrants from Kyrgyzstan Struggle with Racial Discrimination in Moscow

Migrant workers in Russia. Image license: Public Domain
Migrant workers in Russia. Image license: Public Domain

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a significant number of Central Asian citizens have moved to Russia under the label of labor migrants. In the process, some Central Asian states, such as Kyrgyzstan, became economically dependent on remittances, while Russia became dependent on “cheap labor” from Central Asia. Writer Aidin Turganbekov tells the personal story of his brother, whose dream of a better future has turned into everyday fear and racial discrimination.


He said he wanted to earn money for the wedding, but life took a different turn. This is the story of a 26-year-old man from Kyrgyzstan who sets out on a journey of labor migration, the story of Aibek, the second child in a family of four, and my brother.

It was winter. On a cold day in February, Aibek told us that he was going to work in Russia. Referring to his friends and assuring his family of the job opportunities that awaited him, Aibek left three days later. Coming from Kyrgyzstan, one of the post-Soviet Central Asian states, Aibek had a strong desire to marry and have children at an early age. However, this was not possible with his family’s current financial situation. He needed to give kalyn, a payment for the bride, and have a sustainable job, preferably a house. Kalym comes from cultural customs in which the family’s expected number of cattle served as a measure of the daughter’s worth. But now it is just money. Aibek, like many young people in his country, did not have a steady job.

Kyrgyzstan cannot employ a third of its seven million young people because of its agricultural and textile sectors and corruption. People travel to neighboring countries to feed their families – Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, for example. The State Migration Service reports that 1.3 million Kyrgyz have worked abroad in recent years. Migration and economic problems in Kyrgyzstan have led to a lack of education, a generation gap, domestic violence, and poor communication.

Going to Moscow

The anti-Kremlin news agency Current Time Central Asia interviewed migrants about their experiences. Their findings show that the generation gap and family separation are major challenges. When a young, mostly male family moves to Russia to work, Kyrgyz grandparents take care of the children. Migrants accept second-class treatment. Also in Kyrgyzstan. There are few opportunities in their home countries. Despite xenophobia and racism, migrant workers in Kyrgyzstan live in poverty for lack of work. The government is corrupt, the education system is broken, and people want to work in Russia.

My brother has never had a white-collar job. Not knowing his ambitions and personal will, he went to a programming college with his best friend at the time. He worked as a waiter, carrier, in the delivery service, and any other job that required more than ten-hour shifts and physical exertion. In 2019 he suddenly decided to go to Moscow. Moscow is known as one of the wealthiest cities in Russia, where all the elite are concentrated to run their businesses. But hardly anyone talks about the migrants from Central Asia, without whom this economy would not work.

To follow his friends, my brother Aibek packed everything in three days and traveled by car for three nights. He didn’t know what job he would do, nor did he know about the apartment and its conditions. He just hoped that he would earn three times as much and come back to finally make the family and his mother, who was always pressuring him for not having a stable job, happy. A good education, a stable job, a beautiful bride to serve tea – the social paradigm the older generation grew up with. He did not realize how difficult it would be to survive in a foreign country with racial discrimination and no social protection.

A bed, a residence registration, and a job

His journey of challenges started with the search for a room to live in with his friends. An apartment was not even an option. People with five people in one room or a family of wives and husbands would also get another person to make it easier to pay for rent. In some cases, Kyrgyz people would just rent it from Russians and rent it again to other Kyrgyz. Koika mesto, an old Soviet mattress bed, is the cheapest option for migrant workers. Finally, at eight o’clock in the evening, Aibek and his friends found a place to sleep. It was at the end of the Krasnopresnenskaya/Taganskaya violet metro branch, the furthest place and even close to the Moscow oblast. The room with turquoise-colored walls and a moldy and damp smell was very old, where nobody lived for a long time. They cleaned it up and started the formal parts: registration and the search for a job.

You must have a document proving your residence in Moscow. It usually takes seven to ten days to get the document, without which you cannot leave the house. Violation of this rule leads to deportation. At any moment, the policemen would catch a “suspicious” migrant and demand an ID along with the confirmation of migration status. Landlords of rooms or apartments do not provide the documents because they are not “safe” people. The Federal Migration Service usually issues the documents, but almost all migrants get them through “acquaintances” who do it for them and deliver the documents to the person in 10 days. “You give your passport and money. That’s it. So, you can freely walk in the city,” said Aibek. There is even a Dobryninskaia metro station, a place with many such people offering to arrange your documents. Nobody, however, looks up the real price.

If the people who prepare these documents were educated, many migrants would not have a problem. In reality, however, most of them are not fully familiar with the standards for filling them out, while others falsify them by trying to prepare documents in a short time. Therefore, if the policeman does not find him/her in the database, he/she can either punish the migrant or demand a bribe. In the end, the migrant has to find someone else to make a legal document. Aibek also experienced this once. He did it through a friend of his friend. The person took money from twenty people and disappeared.

The most complicated part, however, is finding a job. Most of the places Aibek’s acquaintances recommended rejected his applications. “You don’t have any experience”, “You don’t look Slavic enough”. These were just a few of the reasons Aibek listed. In fact, he claimed, 70 percent of people in Russia were nationalists who did not like immigrants. With experience as a waiter and bartender, he spent two weeks looking for a job and found one in a Georgian restaurant. He later said that he paid a certain amount of money to the person who advised restaurants to hire Kyrgyz without any problems.

Twelve hours a day

Work began the next day at 9 a.m. The restaurant was in the center of the city, right next to the Kremlin, on Tverskaya Street, where all the Victory Day marches are held. The manager, however, wasn’t as friendly as she seemed in the interview. Every day, before the workday began and after the restaurant was prepared, there was a pyatiminutka, a five-minute meeting where the manager would point out service problems. She would curse; the work was hard. The good thing is that Aibek stayed there for two and a half years, changing branches. However, the level of service and the flow of customers were much different than in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. He served smaller tables and it took him more than 6 months to get used to the high flow of guests.

Aibek’s income depended on tips. The restaurant’s clientele was very mixed. In Kyrgyzstan, tipping is not common and wages are based on a percentage of the order. Some people have lunch for 15-20 thousand rubles; they are simple and tip well. Aibek recalls: “One government official got drunk and thanked the waiter with 70 thousand rubles”. Some other people would treat him like a person from the lowest class. They would be surprised if he spoke Russian well. Since most people go there right after school, they usually work in construction. Sometimes in khaltura, a short-term job that requires physical exertion. Aibek tried it once. With five people on each floor, they pulled the cable in the building up to the seventh floor, “choking on their sweat”. After twelve hours of this hard work they would get a miserable amount of money: 1,5-2 thousand rubles. People are desperate because they have to feed their families and they do not know the Russian language. Migrants worked hard until the COVID-19 pandemic. Then everything changed.

Pandemic struggles

The pandemic hit Moscow in March. Restaurants went bankrupt. They couldn’t pay rent or waiters’ salaries. The salaries would vary, but most of it would go to rent, and others would go to broken dishes, and to organizations supporting Central Asian migrants. But with the pandemic, even that was not possible. COVID-19 has also changed the lives of Aibek and his friends. While the taxi driver friend had to leave because of the problems with his education, Aibek and his other friend moved to another place. This time they lived in Koikas. Sharing a room with his friend and a family with small children was indeed problematic. “I would wake up not only because of crying children, but also because of the bite of a bed bug,” Aibek says with irony in his words. After a month, the other friend left and Aibek was alone. The friend secretly bought a ticket and informed Aibek before the flight. He said that the conditions were terrible and the salary was low. When the family in that room started fighting, Aibek moved to another place.

The worst thing happened when Aibek got sick with coronavirus two months before his flight to Bishkek. Feeling ashamed to ask his family for money, he went to the bank just before dusk and withdrew all his money. It was about 420,000 rubles, which in Kyrgyz soms would be half a million. As he was paying in the grocery store, some men with beards saw him. They were either of Chechen or Caucasian ethnicity. After asking for a cigarette, they followed him and started beating him hard. “There was a ding, and then I was out,” Aibek recalls. “I woke up and saw people around me. They called an ambulance. I had surgery on my skull because it was cracked. Right after I regained consciousness, the doctors gave me a document to sign. After I signed it, I realized that it was a document for me to withdraw from further treatment in this hospital and to leave it immediately.” Then the police came to the hospital. They started an investigation. Aibek called them every day to ask if they had found the money and the men. But nothing seemed to work. So he had no choice but to tell our mother. He had to do it. “I wouldn’t be able to collect that amount of money,” Aibek said, heartbroken.

My brother came back to Kyrgyzstan, but he wants to return to Russia. The salary is three times more. You work, you rest. Aibek blames the Kyrgyz government for failing to provide opportunities for young people. He sees a country, one of the weakest members of the Eurasian Economic Union, that is literally drowning. Social and political tensions worsened when Sadyr Zhaparov came to power – an ex-prisoner and young politician with a nationalist ideology that Wladimir Putin did not want in power. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people were forced to ask relatives for money or pretend that everything was fine. Many could not afford flights, which were five times more expensive than usual. Others were left without a place to stay and a piece of bread. This is a clear example of Russia’s relations with Central Asia, ignoring the fact that all businesses and construction depend on ordinary people who came to feed their families far away. Migrants need social support from the governments of their home countries, as well as a stable political arrangement of all official processes in the paths of migrants, supporting the economies of both countries.

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