Russian Killings of Tajik Migrant Workers — Now at a Level with American Lynchings in the 1930s?

Posted October 18th, 2011 at 2:55 pm (UTC+0)

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.

Happy to be home -- alive! Migrant workers crowd the aisle as a Tajik Air jet from Moscow taxis to a stop at Dushanbe's airport. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

Russian nationalists hold flags and shout slogans during a march in Moscow on October 1. Moscow has become a focal point for racist violence in recent years, given its mix of disenchanted ethnic Russian youth and labor migrants from the Russian Caucasus and impoverished former Soviet republics in Central Asia, like Tajikstan. REUTERS: Sergei Karpukhin

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.

A Tajik migrant worker is seen through a train window in Moscow as he waits for departure of a train bound for Tajikistan, October 7, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

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.

Russian nationalists rally against non-Slavic labor migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, in downtown Moscow, on Oct. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

9 responses to “Russian Killings of Tajik Migrant Workers — Now at a Level with American Lynchings in the 1930s?”

  1. Gennady says:

    It is a great article with many facets.
    Russia is a multiethnic and multicultural society where all constituting nations and nationalities coexist with great tolerance to each other. But there was no Tajik culture.
    At the moment of dissolution of the USSR in 1992 I and my family were in Tajikistan
    and experienced fits of sudden intolerance to Russians who had been born in Tajikistan and had worked for the republic.
    I read anti-russian inflammatory articles in non-russian newspapers with absurd accusations. I witnessed Russians beaten by Tajik nationalists, I heard about cases of raping of Russian women. There were created intolerable conditions for Russians in Tajikistan and there was immediate Russian exodus.
    So, may it is better to start from the notion of “Tajik racism”.
    To my knowledge, prerequisite for anyone to work in the UK and other Western countries is a certain level of proficiency in English and in Anglo-Saxon culture.
    As a rule, Russian authorities don’t erect such ultimatum to migrant workers.
    Of all former Soviet republics Tajikistan was the most withdrawn from the mainstream Soviet culture with poor knowledge of Russian language.
    So, it might be expected that nowadays people not speaking Russian or speaking in public loudly in a foreign language and ignoring usual behavior are viewed as annoying.
    The usual to nowadays Russia level of lawlessness and autocracy of its rulers may enhance intolerance of extremist groups.

  2. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Thanks for your interesting comments.
    You lived through the trauma of the Russian withdrawal.
    Part of the current tragedy is that both governments are letting irreplaceable human capital go to waste. I am talking here of the large number of steadily aging Tajiks who speak excellent Russian. These people could teach the younger generation the language and culture of Russia to minimize very real cultural conflicts. Time and again in Tajikistan, I ran into intelligent people in their teens and twenties who could only speak Tajik. If they go to Russia, the language barrier condemns them to an isolated, alienated existence.
    The Tajik government is happy to get a free ride off the social peace achieved by worker remittances by Russia. But Tajik authorities are too incompetent or too callous to actually prepare migrants for life up North.
    On the other side, the Russian government talks a good line about promoting Russian overseas. In reality, it is presiding over a steady retreat of the language in the former Soviet space. I wonder where all the Kremlin’s big cultural promotion budgets really go??

    • ex-migrant says:

      Hi Jim
      I understand both, you and Gennady. There is nothing white and black and we all still live in a jungle where only the fittest survive.
      I feel sorry when I see these laborers working hard for pennies. Hate seeing fat police men at the entrance of Domodedovo Airport extracting money from these guys. I really doubt that they like living and working here, but choosing from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia where else can you go with Tajik passport? Sure they would have chosen to live in Europe or North America.
      Almost all Russian-speaking communities, experienced the same fate when the USSR collapsed. Yes, our ancestors were occupants who came to these remote areas of Russian Empire and later of the USSR either by their own will or against it (same as yours or ancestors of many Australians, Boers and African Indians, Malay Chinese… you can continue the list) We were forced out from land where we lived for generations. I witnessed guys being beaten and robbed by groups of locals only for being Russians. Junkies walking around with guns and saying ” Go back to Russia if you don’t like it here”. Russian girls being snatched from streets and taken to mountains to be gang raped. Compare how many Russians, Armenians and other non-Chechens lived in Chechnya even before the first war and how many live now. How many Russians live now in Kirgizia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia?
      Maybe there is some brutal logic in all that happens in Russia. Russians want to see people who come to assimilate and are threatened by those who come to form minorities. Same as Americans, English, French and Germans. It doesn’t seem that Government has any strategy to deal with the migrant problem, so the niche is taken by nationalists. Don’t worry, soon the second generation of these migrants will grow up and the scene will change. As it happened in the UK, France and … everywhere else.

  3. Ben says:

    Russian nationalists prepeare the next march, and famous (owing to BBG media) blogger-Navalny is in the organization commity. Though he was expelled from democratic Yabloko and began his career by the populist compaign of denunciation of today`s Israely sitizen, Navalny`s portrait in VOA was familiar for the weeks.BBG has some weakness toward Russian nationalists.

  4. Ben says:

    Putin`s returne to power have been prepeared and accompanied by the nationalist`s marches and desember`s pogroms. There must be sages- reporters playing democratic nationalist card in Russia.

  5. Gennady says:

    I completely agree with you.
    His image-makers once again use the same approach to dispel any doubts in simple-minded citizens and to “prove” that all they need is “a strong man” in the Kremlin and here he is ready to serve those having been frightened.
    Anything will do: be it “terrorists”, “nationalists” or “threats” from abroad.
    Such “messages” are easy to deliver to brainwashed population by “putinovisor” TV channels.
    Such approach partly was shown when bombing in Ryazan was prevented as had hastily been claimed to be prepared by “terrorists» but lately proved by many witnesses to be prepared by a certain “security” service.
    “Nationalists” when there appears need in them are easily recruited as there are many jobless and eager to get trouble-free money.
    For those in the power it justifies prolonging poverty of 90% population for more years to come, underfunding of proper public education and healthcare, suspense of the Constitution, censorship.
    At the same time budgets of the FSB and the Ministry of Defense are and will be over flooded with gas-petro revenues, as well as appetites of friendly oligarchs are and will be satisfied.
    In the end of his quarter-century in power, the next “strong man” will be prepared to replace our beloved, omnicompetent and irreplaceable Mr. Putin.

  6. Janneke says:

    embarrassing, dames and gentelmen. Shame on my (former) land.
    Being russian emigrant in an EU-land is not a sweet lot. Probably no one of the Russian government representatives knows what it means, to be an emigrant, the feeling of the destiny. That may be a beginning of the problems with unequal treating the Tajics workers.

    Moreover it is considered to be something normal in Russian government – keeping eyes closed on some important issues as long as it can. What could make these federal parasites awake and returnt to the problems of the regular people in the land?

    Russians, we pay for the uneffective work of the government, no one seems to be concerned with. Any real political oppositie gets a ban and does not exist at the moment.


  7. Pyotr says:

    James is right. Where all the money go? And 99% of Russians know where. It is stolen from us by Putin and Putin’s friends. It is not a secret. But nobody cares as long as there are third rate sausages still available in a local shop. Had that stolen money been available we could promote Russian culture in former Soviet republics and even further. We could establish a civilized immigration politics in order to invite here people who really love russian culture and come here not only to earn some money to send home. But alas, Putin acts as if there is not enough money to sustain even the soviet level of education among Russians themselves.

  8. Umed says:

    I am ethnic Tajik-Persian myself and grew up being always taught to show respect to all people. I wanted to point out that in our culture we show respect, tolerance and hospitality towards any ethnicity and religion. Growing up in Tajikistan among russians, bukharian jews, georgians, uzbeks, armenians, tartars and other ethnic groups,we’ve never for once showed any kind of racism or discrimination towards each other.
    Russia produced many great people like Mendeleev,Tchaikovsky,Leo Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoevsky and others whom I greatly respect and admire.
    However in a modern Russia, especially cities like Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other major cities there is openly expressed intolerance towards immigrants from former Soviet Republics,especially Tajikistan.
    I quote Gennady “Russia is a multiethnic and multicultural society where all constituting nations and nationalities coexist with great tolerance to each other”. I wanted to emphasize on “coexist with great tolerance to each other”. I do not agree with his statement. Most of the russians that I’ve met in Moscow were rude,discriminating and hostile towards myself and my family members. Unfortunately, because of corrupted Tajik government, Tajik citizen are forced to do hard physical labor abroad, go through inhumane conditions, humiliations and being killed.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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