Female Migration into Russia from Central Asian Countries

This is an extract from Natalia Zotova’s chapter in Julien Thorez (ed.) Development in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Migration, Democratisation and Inequality in the Post-Soviet Era
(London: I.B. Tauris, 2014). Footnotes are not included.

The life of migrants in an urban setting differs significantly from life in their home country. As Anatolii Vishnevskii notes, the history of migration on a global scale can be characterised as the movement of the “world village” to the “world city”. Even if migrants have moved from the capitals of their countries, for example Bishkek or Tashkent, life in Moscow presents them with different problems and compels them to find solutions. Moreover, migrants in Moscow are living in a different ethnic and cultural setting. Conducting research into migrants in the receiving country presents some difficulties: they are unwilling to make contact, they fear potential complications, and they are scared of officials from law-enforcement agencies etc. It is undoubtedly possible to make arrangements for meetings and interviews through migrants who are acquaintances or through those NGOs defending human rights, which migrants approach for help and advice. However, when migrants talk to local researchers, there still emerges a “twin barrier” effect: there is the language barrier, since not every migrant has a sufficiently high ability to speak Russian, and also their image of the researcher as “other”. As a result of these obstacles, a significant amount of information may be missed or misapprehended by the researcher. Sherna Gluck remarks “The outsider can sometimes delve into certain kinds of experiences that insiders cannot. There might be specific topics that are more easily discussed with ‘outsiders.’ Also, because outsiders are less conversant with the culture or subculture, they may take less for granted and ask for more clarification than insiders. On the whole, though, my experience has been that cultural likeness can greatly promote trust and openness, whereas dissimilarity reinforces cultural and social distance.”

To ease making contact with female migrants, and to resolve the problems of the language barrier and of alienation, interviewers from the countries being studied were selected; their ethnic self-identification matched that of the women migrants being surveyed by the project. The migration stories of the five young women acting as interviewers to a great extent matched the stories of their respondents: they had come to Russia to study or work. Two interviewers had come from Kyrgyzstan, from the cities of Bishkek and Osh. They were ethnic Kyrgyz. Two interviewers were from the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan (they were Shughni). The ethnic affiliation of the last interviewer was difficult to pin down, as always happens when dealing with people from Samarkand. She had grown up in a Russian-speaking family, and to the question “What nationality do you consider yourself to be?” she replied archly “Well, it says in our passports we’re Uzbeks.” Four of the interviewers had degrees (graduating from universities in Bishkek, Khorog and Samarkand, and from the medical institute in Dushanbe). The youngest woman was a student at the Mendeleev Chemical Technology Institute in Moscow. The interviewers’ ages ranged between 20 and 35. The student had lived in Russia longest of all: for six years. All the other women had spent between two and seven months in Moscow at the time the research was conducted.

The interviewers’ task was to complete questionnaires and conduct in-depth interviews with Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik migrant women. The two women from the Pamir mountains spoke fluent Tajik, and were responsible for the Tajik element of the project. The young woman from Bishkek worked with the Kyrgyz, and the two from Samarkand and Osh worked with the Uzbeks. The overwhelming majority of interviews were conducted in the native language of the respondents: Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, and several languages spoken in the Pamirs.

The somewhat unusual format of the research – “Migrants interviewing migrants” – allows the discussion of a distinctive focus that arises in such situations: a “bifocal lens” effect.  Four of the five interviewers had arrived in Moscow very recently: the two from Tajikistan planned to further their education, the Kyrgyz woman from Bishkek had been compelled by difficult circumstances to travel to Russia to seek work, while the young woman from Samarkand had only just got married, and had arrived in Moscow with her husband, who had been living, studying and working in the city for some considerable time previously. No matter how different their circumstances were, they nonetheless each sought to find some source of employment or supplementary income in Moscow. And so each of them had lived her personal story of migration, had sought to realise her plans, and somehow to arrange her life in the unfamiliar and complex conditions of a huge megapolis. At the same time the women were working as interviewers: they were not only living their own story, but also observing and recording stories that were in effect very similar to their personal experience. As Ann Oakley remarks: “When the social position of both [the interviewer and the interviewee] are the same, and their life experience is similar, the social distance reduces to a minimum. When the interviewer and interviewee belong to one and the same social minority, a notion of equality might be particulaly clearly expressed in the mind of the interviewer.” i Note that the suggested methodology may have some potential drawbacks: due to this significant cultural closeness the interviewer may stray from the theme of the discussion or may become absorbed in details personally significant to her and the interviewee, and so on. When analysing the material obtained during the in-depth interviews, attempts were made to assess it in isolation from the respondent’s own views and reflections. At the same time, the fact that the in-depth interview had been structured along previously determined lines helped to lower these possible risks.