Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Near Abroad

Labour, Law and Hope in Migrant Moscow

Dr. Madeleine Reeves

Abstract

This project provides an anthropologically informed account of 21st century labour migration within the former Soviet space, drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan and Russia. It takes the everyday practices of migrant workers, employers, labour brokers and landlords as a lens from which to explore the navigation and co-constitution of Russia’s emergent migration bureaucracy in a historical moment characterised by oil-fuelled resource capitalism, paternalist authoritarianism and rising ethnonationalism.

This book project seeks to offer an anthropologically-informed account of 21st century labour migration within the former Soviet space, drawing upon local-language fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan and Russia. In recent years, Russia has become the world’s second net recipient of migrant labour after the US, and two Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, now number among the most remittance-dependent in the world. Despite the comparative speed and significance of these new patterns of migration for both sending and receiving states, relatively little is known about the way that the Russian migration bureaucracy works, nor how it is lived and navigated by the millions of Central Asians who now depend on work in Russia to sustain domestic livelihoods.

Near Abroad takes the everyday practices of migrant workers, employers, labour brokers and landlords in Moscow as a lens from which to explore the navigation and co-constitution of Russia’s emergent migration bureaucracy in a historical moment characterised by oil-fuelled resource capitalism, paternalist authoritarianism and rising ethnonationalism. The book engages with debates at the intersection of social anthropology and critical legal studies around the everyday navigation of statecraft and bureaucracy. In so doing, it contributes to a broader attempt by ethnographically-informed scholars of post-Soviet migration to attend to the ethical and affective dimensions of transnational family life on the one hand, and the ways that individual documentary strategies and family aspirations are shaped by encounters within the legal “grey spaces” of the Russian migration bureaucracy on the other.

The term ‘near abroad’ (blizhnyee zarubezh’e) acts as a conceptual anchor for exploring these dynamics. The term is typically used in Russian policy circles as a noun to designate the geographically contiguous states of the former Soviet Union. It implies a state-centric (indeed, a distinctively post-imperial and metropolitan) perspective: Kyrgyzstan is part of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ but Russia is rarely spoken of as part of Kyrgyzstan’s. The book takes the term ‘near abroad’ as both a critical point of reflection upon the role of mass migration in reconfiguring relations between the former Soviet centre and one of the poorest post-Soviet states, and as an ethnographic point of entry for reflecting on migrant experience in a context, Russia, that is at once familiar (svoi) and radically other; in which former fellow-citizens regularly find themselves deportable as ‘illegal’ aliens (nelegaly) for infringements of the migration bureaucracy.

What does it mean, the book asks, to find oneself living ‘near abroad’ in a context at once intimate and alienating? How is that social and administrative space lived and navigated? And how might such dynamics shed light on broader reconfiguration of social life after socialism, in which ‘keeping the road open’ through legally-precarious migration for work becomes the precondition for imagining an economically viable future at home: that is, for the material conditions of hope?

Near Abroad draws on participant observation in two of Moscow’s so-called “dormitory apartments”, as well as in-depth interviews with migrant workers, migration brokers, employers and family members who have remained in Kyrgyzstan. It addresses the tendency, in both scholarly and policy literature on labour migration from Central Asia, to frame migration in highly normative terms: as a potential source of poverty relief, on the one hand, and as posing dilemmas of migrant “integration” on the other.

As well as contributing to a broader comparative literature on aspiration, risk, and temporal reasoning in contexts of irregular migration, the project highlights the way that inconsistencies within the Russian migration regime (for instance, between federal and city legislation; between an “open doors” no-visa regime and a highly restrictive quota system for legal labour) generate spaces of legal and institutional ambiguity that serve at once to irregularise migrant workers and to create opportunities for creative concealment and the brokering of documentary legibility. At the same time, it illuminates how “going to town,” as departures for seasonal work abroad are euphemistically referred, are incorporated into family projects, with remittances now playing a crucial role in sustaining (and expanding) the ritual economy in Kyrgyz villages.

As such, the project seeks to integrate debates about precarious labour and migrant vulnerability—questions, ultimately, of political economy—with very different set of anthropological conversations, concerned with hope, futurity, and the makings of a meaningful life in contexts of social and economic upheaval.