The Tajik Air jet was still taxiing to a stop at Dushanbe’s airport, but the men on board were already in the aisles, smiles on their faces, happy to be home.
Home alive that is.
I did not know if below my feet on the plane was any “Cargo 200” – Soviet slang for bodies sent home in zinc lined coffins.
A few days before I arrived in Dushbanbe, Tajikistan’s Migration Service announced that during the first eight months of 2011, the bodies of 603 Tajik gastarbeiters had been repatriated from Russia. (By comparison, 1,811 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan over the last 10 years.) With about 700,000 Tajiks working in Russia, that factors to an annual mortality rate of around one to 1,000.
The high death toll, which is little changed in recent years, is largely due to lethally lax safety procedures on Russian construction sites. The Migration Service collects data on flights arriving from the 17 Russian cities that have direct service to Tajikistan’s two international airports, in Dushanbe and Khujand.
But one detail jumped out of the latest report. Of the 603 deaths, 67 were attributed to “attacks by nationalist groups.”
Russia’s media largely ignored this item. But the following week, a group of Tajik public figures sent an open letter of protest to Russian authorities, the United Nations, and the Council of Europe.
“We, representatives of the Tajik and international public, are extremely alarmed by the growing intensity of the efforts of radical neo-Nazi organizations in the Russian Federation stimulating the growth of xenophobic sentiments in society. Therefore we are calling on the Russian authorities to take more resolute measures to resist the growth of nationalist extremism in the country,” the letter read.
After a little internet research, I calculated that a Tajik working in Russia today runs the roughly same risk of lynching as an African American did in the American South in 1930.
By reviewing annual lynching rates compiled by a researcher at Berea College, a historically black American college, I found that in 1930, 20 white on black lynchings were recorded in the United States. All of these took place in the 11 southern states of the Old Confederacy, an area that historically accounted for about 30 percent of the United States population.
Russia’s skinheads are more high tech than the American Ku Klux Klan was. They have websites to make their race hate available to anyone with a computer connection. Instead of pushing crudely printed pamphlets under doors at night, Russian racists have posted on the web a cell phone video of skinheads capturing and beheading a Tajik migrant worker in a forest.
In 1930, the Soviet Union was around to lecture Americans about their racial shortcomings.
Today, in this part of the world, there is a conspiracy of silence.
For Tajikistan, remittances from guest workers equal half of the impoverished nation’s GDP. In a country where the average monthly salary is $93, a recent survey by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found that the happiest families in Tajikistan are those supported by a worker in Russia.
Given this dependency, Tajik authorities rarely raise the issue of Russian racism louder than a whisper. And when they do, Russian politicians know how to handle former colonials when they get uppity.
Last year, when polio broke out in Tajikistan, Vladimir Zhironovsky proposed two solutions: shutting down all flights from Tajikistan or absorbing the nation into a “Ninth Central Asian Federal District.”
In August, when Tajikistan balked at allowing Russian border guards to patrol Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of Russia’s State Duma, proposed visa restrictions on gastarbeiters from Tajikistan.
And with parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in Russia over the next five months, don’t expect the Kremlin to start teaching tolerance.
The most practical move has come from migrant worker defense groups. Their core advice to Tajik men going to work in Russia for the first time: when you leave your work site, walk in threes.