Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Juli 2006

13.2. Issues of Internal and External Migration in Post-Soviet Central Asia
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Dinora Azimova (Tashkent, Uzbekistan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Central Asian Migration to Russia: A Soviet Phenomenon, A Soviet Legacy

Jeff Sahadeo (Carleton University)


The strongest impression of my first visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow in 1992 was the cities’ multinational character. Peoples from across former Soviet Asia, East Asia and Africa rubbed elbows with Russians and Balts. In my more recent visits, however, Moscow and St. Petersburg appeared as Slavic cities. My focus of study, Central Asians, were difficult to locate. In the downtown areas, they consisted primarily of the downtrodden. Yet recent studies have pointed to a growing Central Asian diaspora in Russian urban centres, one far larger than in Soviet times. I will argue that this apparent paradox of reduced visibility and higher numbers is only one facet of a complicated Soviet inheritance. This paper will examine Soviet-era factors that limited and precipitated Central Asian migration to Russia, past and present. Although this current migratory wave can be traced directly to the Soviet legacy, we must account for the fact that efforts to encourage such migration in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) failed, and that important differences as well as linkages exist between Central Asian migrants to Russia in the Soviet era and today.

This paper presents one facet of research from a larger project that will examine diaspora from Soviet Asia in the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) from the Second World War to the collapse of the USSR. Here, I seek to understand some of the "push" and "pull" factors that had an impact on Central Asians’ decisions to remain in their republics or to move to Russia, and how these factors worked after the collapse. First, I will discuss ways the Soviet system - by this, I mean politics, society, culture, and economics - influenced migratory flows. Then I will use evidence gathered from oral interviews of Central Asian migrants, comparing the Soviet period and today. In large part, these interviews confirm impressions that the USSR presented a far more comfortable, if far less dynamic, environment for Central Asians, at home as well as in Russia.(1)

Central Asian migrants to the RSFSR before the Second World War consisted primarily of students to institutes of higher education in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was named between 1924 and 1991) and Moscow. Most were expected to return once learning "advanced" Soviet techniques of administration.(2) Small numbers may also have come in the 1930s as labourers, as Russians were sent to the periphery to lead Soviet industrialization efforts.(3) Migration to the RSFSR was facilitated by the Soviet leadership’s desire to display as a "multicultural" society that offered, as compared to the West, greater rights and opportunities for formerly colonized populations.(4) St. Petersburg and Moscow, as "showcase cities," displayed open arms towards repressed peoples of the world, who were to learn from the Russian "big brother."(5) Uzbek and Tajik students in Leningrad and Moscow received housing and stipends similar to Russian students; those from underdeveloped nations in Africa and Asia often gained a privileged status in terms of housing, clothing, and other goods.(6)

Central Asian migration to central Russia intensified in the post-World War II era. The official 1970 Soviet census noted that Central Asians were becoming more likely than those in other regions to migrate outside their own republics, with the RSFSR as their primary destination.(7) Some western and Soviet demographers predicted that labour supply imbalances - growing given a far higher birthrate in Central Asia than in the Slavic regions of the USSR - combined with educational achievements in the southern republics would lead Central Asian outmigration, in the words of Richard Lewis, to become a "major influence upon Soviet society" in future decades.(8) Other Sovietologists questioned this conclusion. Murray Feshbach argued that large social and educational gaps still existed, and that "cultural factors - " including religion, attachment to family, and, for example, belief that Central Asia was the "cradle of civilization" would prevent mass movement in subsequent decades.(9)

Data on migration in the 1970s and 1980s supported Feshbach’s conclusions. Despite official campaigns to encourage migration, which I will discuss below, ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbeks living in Russia increased from 140 000 to 248 000; growth to be sure, but hardly enough to be the "major influence on Soviet society" that Lewis predicted. Western scholars such as William Fierman and Nancy Lubin began to probe reasons why Feshbach appeared to be "right." The post-Soviet wave of migration, however - which, by unofficial counts, has seen two million Central Asians leave their home countries - forces us to re-evaluate not only the Soviet legacy, but also the motives of Central Asians themselves, in seeking to migrate or stay put in their republics, then and now.(10)

One crucial legacy in understanding the current migration wave is the Soviet economic system. Planning decisions reduced Central Asia to a producer of raw materials, in a situation akin to the model of "internal colonialism" developed by Michael Hechter.(11) The Soviets built on a legacy of the pre-tsarist and tsarist periods, as the industrial revolution opened opportunities for Central Asian as well as Russian traders to attain great wealth through cotton exports.(12) By the turn of the twentieth century, Central Asian cotton, silk, tobacco and other raw goods fed a rapidly industrializing European Russia.(13) Bolshevik commissars sent to secure the region in 1919 decried this imperialist exploitation. Ia. E. Rudzutak implored Lenin and other leaders in Moscow to industrialize Turkestan and raise the level of the oppressed Central Asian peasantry.(14) But Lenin and other Bolsheviks in Moscow ignored this call. They directed Rudzutak’s commission to intensify cotton exports. Their primary goal was to restart idle textile factories in Moscow.(15) Already by 1920, the Soviet system had dedicated itself to in large part replicating the core-periphery model of nineteenth-century European empires.

A degree of Soviet modernization reached Central Asia following the Second World War. Soviet planners sought to diversify the base of hundreds of factories relocated to the region during the great conflict. Hydroelectric, coal, and chemical factories sprouted in 1950s and 1960s Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.(16) Resources flowed for the social development of the region, including literacy and education programs. Basic social services, from electricity to medical care, arrived not only in cities, but many villages. In the Cold War era, Soviet leaders highlighted their ability to uplift former colonies to modernity.

This combination of colonial development and modernization yielded crucial but complicated legacies for migration in Central Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Russians and other Slavs streamed into the region to build this new economy. In general, however, far from acting as "elder brothers," these Europeans guarded their privileges as a new industrial vanguard. Migrant Slavic factory managers and skilled workers, along with local party and state leaders, made no initial attempts to integrate a growing Central Asian population into the expanding industrial sector of the economy.(17) Instead, the local population was expected to farm ever-expanding lands devoted to cotton, which grew fifty percent from 1940-65 and ninety percent the following decade.(18) In the end, Soviet planners continued to use Central Asia as a pool for raw material extraction, now for industrial as well as agricultural goods. Coal and iron extracted from Central Asia joined cotton as goods almost exclusively processed outside the region, with the figure for cotton reaching ninety-six percent in the late Soviet era.(19)

The consequences of this bifurcated society and colonial economy began to concern some Soviet observers, including planners in the Central Statistical Administration of the USSR, by the 1970s. Opportunities for employment in rural Central Asia failed to keep pace with natural population growth, averaging about 3.9 children per family in the postwar era.(20) At the same time, as the Khrushchev-inspired industrialization of the periphery receded, Russians began to return to the RSFSR, leaving vacant skilled labour positions that Central Asians had not been trained to fill. In 1978, L. Kostin, first deputy of the State Commission of Labour and Social Problems, joined other party and state members in campaigns to promote Central Asians to educational institutions, particularly technical-vocational schools, known as PTU’s, which would offer skills in industrial training.(21) The Communist Youth League (Komsomol) conducted symposia on how to successfully absorb an increased Central Asian population through diversification of their roles in the economy. Campaigns intensified as cotton production, dependent by then on nutrient-killing pesticides and marginal soil, declined by twelve percent in the 1980s. Twenty-five percent of the cotton-rich Fergana valley’s youth were unable to find employment.(22)

One important component of this effort was the encouragement of migration to the RSFSR, particularly to work in regions and sectors of the economy deemed short of labour. The Komsomol increased enrolment of Central Asians in "shock brigades" sent to build developing regions of the Russian heartland, particularly the Far East. Central Asians also studied in PTU’s in Russia, learning skills from machine operation to retail trade. William Fierman has argued that these campaigns enjoyed limited success. The great majority of these workers returned to their republics as soon as, if not before, the end of their work or study programs. Fierman cites one example of "almost half" of Tashkent students "running away" from a PTU in Ivanovo.(23)

Fierman and Nancy Lubin, who conducted extensive fieldwork in 1980s Uzbekistan, offered several explanations for relatively low Central Asian mobility; I’ll address these briefly, nuanced with my own views. Linguistic and educational factors, as Feshbach cited, are central. Even following Soviet "affirmative-action" efforts to train the local population in skills in demand in urban Central Asia and the RSFSR, Central Asians continued to cluster in educational institutions related to agricultural development. Post-secondary training in construction and industry remained dominated by Russians, with classes offered by Russian teachers in the Russian language.(24) Official statistics note a declining knowledge of Russian among Central Asians in the decade before the collapse. Russian demographers considered this an important factor hindering migration flows.(25)

Other structural and idiosyncratic mechanisms of the Soviet system worked against Central Asian migration, despite official campaigns and shrinking employment opportunities among rural youth. The system of Soviet economic planning worked to encourage collective farm managers to hoard labour, so that underemployed Central Asians still received state benefits, thereby reducing their motivation to move. Insubstantial wage differences between agricultural and industrial labour further diminished the incentive to leave villages. Another important factor involved the second economy, or "grey market" in Central Asia. Many "entrepreneurial" Central Asian villagers, which I would argue would be the most likely to move, had established local schemes to supplement their income through the grey economy, and would be loath to start over again in a new environment.

The collapse of the USSR, however, seriously eroded once-official policies and practices, as well as altered the nature of the grey economy. These changes unleashed the migratory wave predicted by demographers since the 1970s. How long the Soviet Union, had it survived, could have funded the welfare-style provisions to Central Asia’s growing population is open to debate. It is clear, however, that the relative Soviet neglect of the region - in 1985, Central Asia constituted 10.9% of the USSR’s population, and received only 6.4% of overall capital investment, and 4.5% of industrial capital investment - would have eventually forced the Communist state to deal more forcefully with many of the social and economic problems now confronting successor governments. The conferences, symposia, and small-scale plans to encourage diversity in education and migration to the RSFSR hardly compensated for a century-long imbalance that condemned Central Asia to the economic periphery of Russia.

Let me turn now for the last part of the presentation to Central Asians who did migrate to the Soviet Union, and their own important legacy for the current migratory wave. Much of my current project will focus on locating these subjects. Youth dominated after 1970, with heads of households under 30 making up the majority of new migrants.(26) Significant numbers of these arrivals had remained after official work or study "abroad" programs in the RSFSR, particularly when promises of better socioeconomic conditions, including higher wages or better housing, were realized. Central Asian migrants who appeared to enjoy the greatest degree of stability and success came from a different social stratum than many of the rural youth in the 1980s shock brigade and PTU study programs. These were young urban Central Asians who, often privileged at home, their families connected to officialdom, enjoyed comfort with the Russian language and Soviet culture. Competition among these youth and their families for a few thousand spots each year in prestigious institutes of higher education (VUZy) and technical schools Moscow and Leningrad was intense. Prestige, rather than purely economic motives, appeared as a main factor in this competition. Others, including some of the Tajiks that my research assistant interviewed in St. Petersburg in 2004, were selected by professors, party or state officials, or employers to study or work in major urban centres of the RSFSR.(27) They already operated easily in the Russian language, and had professional skills that transferred easily to northern cities of the USSR.

Interviewees in my 2004 survey of Central Asians in Leningrad began their stays at the ubiquitous Soviet dormitories (obshchezhityia). Alongside younger professionals, students often remained in these lodgings after their course of study given the difficulty of finding apartments in the city. Respondents recalled with fondness the "melting pot" of the obshchezhityia, where youth from across the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and, in some cases, the developing world, mixed easily. Yet when we pressed interviewees, they admitted that their close friends were co-nationals. In this instance as well as many others, we found it difficult during these interviews to get past the nostalgia for the Brezhnev days, when, according to our correspondents, life was stable, goods were available and affordable, and no ethnic prejudice existed.

Racism in contemporary Russia now is undoubtedly more virulent and violent than at any time during the Soviet era; its roots, however, trace back to the Brezhnev years. Beginning in the 1970s, Russian nationalist groups, which evolved into fascist movements that included offspring of party leaders, took aim at Central Asians, whose higher birth rates provoked fears of a dilution of Russian superiority in the USSR.(28) On Russian television in 1988, one nationalist decried the presence of Central Asians in Russian cities, and condemned the possibility of the "mongrelization" of the races.(29) In the Red Army, taunts of "black asses" preceded brutal attacks on Central Asian recruits.(30) Even as "Blacks," [chernye] a term extended to those from the Caucasus and Central Asia, seemed not to have been ill-treated in the public spaces of major Soviet cities, their status as "second-class" citizens was periodically confirmed.(31) Moscow police swept poor, recently-migrated "Blacks" from markets and streets in advance of the 1980 Olympics.(32) A significant portion of my research will be devoted to discovering how much of a role racism played in Central Asians’ migration decisions in the late Soviet era.

One vital aspect of the legacy of Soviet-era migrants is the degree to which they have served as a "vanguard" for the most recent wave. Our interviewees who arrived in the 1970s-1980s found that they were eventually able to find "normal" apartments in Leningrad. Informants who arrived after the collapse had all chosen St. Petersburg as their destination because family or other connections were already living in the city. Soviet-era migrants often play hosts to new arrivals, putting them up in their apartments, at times for several months, and helping them find their own accommodations. These Soviet migrants provide therefore a vital channel for new arrivals. In this sense, their growing numbers from 1970-1989, though not as high as some like Lewis had predicted, are important for understanding the scope of this recent migratory wave. In our interviews, Soviet-era migrants appeared to be the most stable group, considering their Russian city "home," and traveling back to their republics of origin less frequently. Also, as professionals (though our sample was admittedly not representative, our interviewees worked as professors, lawyers, and engineers), they had skills that were more highly valued in today’s Russia than in Central Asia. Their stability encourages new arrivals linked to them through familial, collegial, or regional ties.

Other Soviet legacies have important effects on contemporary migration. New migrants we interviewed considered their knowledge of the Russian language as critical in their decision to move away from Central Asia. Easy and affordable transport links, left over from the Soviet rail and highway system, constitute another factor. Also, I would argue, there is a degree of shared culture left over from the Soviet era, including past personal contact with ethnic Russians, shared popular culture, from music to television programs, a comfort level with Russian/ Soviet urban space, and even an understanding of how informal economies and networks, though they have evolved since 1991, work in the former Soviet Union. Knowledge of the latter factor, particularly the sociology of bribery, allows Central Asians to better overcome their officially illegal status in contemporary Russian cities, despite the frequent beatings and indignities they suffer at the hands of local police and militia.(33) So, whereas Feshbach, supported by Lubin and Fierman, saw a unique Central Asian culture as acting to stem migration in the Soviet era, I argue now that a shared Soviet culture is acting to spur migration, though this flow at bottom has a socioeconomic base.

One last irony of the Soviet era apparent in this migratory wave is that the increased emigration of Russians from Central Asia since 1991 has, instead of opening new opportunities for the local population, exacerbated Central Asian outmigration. The loss of doctors, teachers, and other workers with skills in short supply provided a significant blow to regional economies and social services. This was yet another feature of a quasi-colonial Soviet system that, like the tsarist one before it, envisioned largely separate worlds for Europeans and Asians, with only a small urbanized and Sovietized Central Asian population trained to bridge this gap. I do not intend to get involved here in the debate as to whether the Soviet Union was an "empire," but clearly, I would argue, an imperial mindset operated in the minds of many Soviet planners, Russian and Central Asian alike.

In the end, therefore, the Soviet Union had a more complicated effect on migration between Central Asia and Russia than the debates between Lewis and Feshbach indicated. The post-Soviet wave belatedly vindicates Lewis’ arguments of a core-periphery relationship between the RSFSR and the Central Asian republics. Feshbach and others realized correctly, however, the lack of short-term incentives for mobility in the Soviet system. Where the latter group erred, I contend, was in their view of Central Asians’ "resilience of culture" as a major factor in migration. As I have argued, a common Soviet culture also must be considered, and its effects, ironically, are clearer now than before the 1991 collapse of the USSR. The relationship between Soviet and post-Soviet migrants remains a fascinating one, and one I will be exploring in depth over the next years.

© Jeff Sahadeo (Carleton University)


(1) Portions of this paper are adapted from Jeff Sahadeo, "Central Asians in Russia: Navigating Multiethnicity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Worlds" Central Eurasian Studies Review 4, no. 2 (2005): 18-21.

(2) Alexander G. Park, Bolshevism in Turkestan, 1917-1927 (New York, 1957), 134-6.

(3) David Hoffman has noted non-Russian workers in 1930s Moscow; the presence of even a small number of Tatars resulted in significant ethnic tension, leading to violence. Hoffman, Peasant Metropolis: Social Identities in Moscow, 1929-1941 (Ithaca NY, 1997), 124.

(4) Yuri Slezkine, "The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How a Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularlism" Slavic Review 53, no. 2 (1994): 226-7.

(5) Meredith L. Roman, "Making Caucasians Black: Moscow Since the Fall of Communism and the Racialization of non-Russians" Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 18, no. 2 (2002): 2.

(6) Roman, 6.

(7)Vsesoiuznaia perepis’ naseleniia 1970 goda: Sbornik statei (Moscow, 1976), 248-9.

(8) Richard A. Lewis, Richard. H. Rowland, and Ralph S. Clem, Nationality and Population Change in Russia and the USSR: An Evaluation of Census Data, 1897-1970 (New York, 1976), 354-81.

(9) Murray Feshbach, "Prospects for Outmigration from Central Asia and Kazakhstan in the Next Decade" Soviet Economy in a Time of Change (Washington, 1979), 656-709.

(10) Bruce Pannier, "Labor Migration Conference Opens in Dushanbe" Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty 29 April 2004.

(11) Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism : the Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 ( Berkeley, 1975).

(12) Scott Levi, "Challenging Central Asian Historiography: the Khanate of Khoqand" Third Annual Conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society, University of Wisconsin-Madison, October 2002.

(13) Muriel Joffe, "Autocracy, Capitalism, and Empire: The Politics of Irrigation" Russian Review 54 no. 3 (1995): 365-88.

(14) Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Rossiskoi Federatsii, fond 1318, opis 1, delo 441, list 18.

(15) Rossiskii Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Sotsial’no-Politicheskoi Istorii, fond 122, opis 1, delo 8, list 36.

(16) William Fierman, "The Soviet ‘Transformation’ of Central Asia" Soviet Central Asia : the Failed Transformation ed. Fierman (Boulder, 1991), 19.

(17) Nancy Lubin, Labour and Nationality in Soviet Central Asia: An Uneasy Compromise (Princeton, 1984), 92.

(18) Fierman, "The Soviet ‘Transformation,’" 20-1.

(19) ibid, 21.

(20) Lubin, 25-51.

(21) Feshbach, 662.

(22) Fierman, "Central Asian Youth and Migration" Soviet Central Asia : the Failed Transformation , 257.

(23) Fierman, "Central Asian Youth and Migration" 268.

(24) Lubin, 128

(25) A.V. Topolin, "Migratsionnye protsessy i ikh vliianie na etnonatsional’nye sostav naselenie soiuznykh respublik" Migratsiia Naseleniia ed. Zh. A. Zaionchkovskaia (Moscow, 1992), 49.

(26) T. Mirzaev and L. Raskin, "Organizovannoe raspredelenie trudovykh resursov" Kommunist Uzbekistana, 1987, no. 1: 15.

(27) More detailed results of this research appears in Sahadeo, "Central Asians in Russia: Navigating Multiethnicity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Worlds," 18-21.

(28) John Bushnell, Moscow Graffiti: Language and Subculture (Boston, 1990), 157.

(29) Bushnell, 152.

(30) Aleksander Alexiev and S. Enders Wimbush, Ethnic Minorities in the Red Army (Boulder, 1988).

(31) On this, see also Topolin, 35; Feshbach, 669

(32) Diane Koenker noted this during her research stay in Moscow at the time. Personal communication, October 1994.

(33) On these difficulties, see "Deportatsiia" Rossiskaia Gazeta, 23 November 2002 .

13.2. Issues of Internal and External Migration in Post-Soviet Central Asia

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Jeff Sahadeo (Carleton University): Issues of External and Internal Labour Migration in Post-Soviet Central Asia. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/13_2/sahadeo16.htm

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 27.7.2006     INST