Anyone interested in migrant labor and ethnic/race relations in Russia, should check out “Diary of an Uzbek Gastarbeiter” on Opendemocracy.net. It’s a harrowing story of an Uzbek migrant named Shukhrat Berdyev, 48, experience as a migrant laborer in Russia over a ten year period. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Berdyev had a bright future ahead of him. He had a stable family life and was a student at the Tashkent Pedagogical institute and Communist Party member. All that ended in 1991, and Berdyev, who first visited Russia in 1980 as a tourist, returned as a day laborer. I’ll only reproduce a few entries here, but the whole thing is worth a read to get an understanding of what Russia’s gastarbeiters must go through to eek out a living.
25-26 August 1998
At midday the director of the market, an Uzbek, told me to come and see him. He’d noticed that I was a good carpenter, and made me an offer to go to the Leningrad Oblast to build a house with a team of three people. He had to help a friend. The job would pay well, he promised, and the working conditions would be decent. I agreed on the spot. Never again did I want to see that filthy, stinking market,where we were all treated like slaves. We were paid pennies, and we sweated blood from morning till night in unspeakably dirty conditions.
That night, I got on to a train with my fellow countrymen from Shakhrisabz, Safar and Khaklod. In the morning we were met in Petersburg by a guy called Oleg. He drove us to the oblast, to a village called Yesinos. They were building a large country house there, and they needed more labour. The owner, Viktor Petrovich, a cultured man with glasses and a beard, met us with a smile: he fed us, let us rest and found a place for us to live in the brick house where the other workers lived. Wherever he went, Petrovich was accompanied by well-built young men, silent and gloomy, who followed all his orders. The owner of the house was clearly someone.
He laid out the conditions straight away: we would work five days a week, with two days off, we would be fed at the company’s expense, be paid in dollars, and were categorically not allowed to leave the territory of the building site. We agreed happily, because after the market atTyoply Stan, Yesinos seemed like a sanatorium.
23 June 2002. Moscow Oblast.
Kazan Station. There’s half an hour left before the Moscow-Tashkent train leaves. My hands are still shaking, and my left eye is twitching. I realize that I was born again three days ago. If it hadn’t been for the old man from the house next door, we’d all have died. The entire brigade would have burned to death. How many times did I tell the guys not to talk to strangers, especially not drink alcohol with them? They didn’t listen and paid dearly for it.
But everything began so well! For the first two months we worked on the construction site of a residential building and we were paid on time. Ten days before leaving for Tashkent, I got a good order through a foreman I know. Each one of us could have earned $500 a week. We had to dig a kilometre-long trench for laying gas pipes in the Moscow Oblast. We worked like moles, from morning till late at night, to get the job done on time. The pipeline passed through the gardens of rich people’s houses.
There we were, progressing metre by metre, when this strange Russian guy with drinks and snacks began coming to the site. He introduced himself as a local resident and gave the workers beer. After a week, he’d gained our trust and knew everything about us, our names, where we were from, when we would finish the job etc. I didn’t notice what was going on, because during this time I was supervising work on a different site. And my fellow Uzbeks let their guard down, they started boasting and told this guy the most important thing – when and how much they would be paid for this job.
When I saw this Russian for the first time, I liked him too, at first. He was very open and friendly, and offered work. But then I started asking myself, why’s he coming here every day, giving the guys beer? I didn’t come up with an answer.
It all became clear the day before we left this village. We packed up our things in the barn where we lived and ate. At midnight this guy appeared on the threshold with a pistol in his hand. H epointed the gun at us and ordered us to give him all the money. We were all terrified, but nobody moved. Then he put the silencer on the pistol and started shooting at the lamps, screaming: “I’ll shoot the lot of you!” It got dark. We realized that he would kill us, and no one around would hear the shots or our cries. Our house was on the outskirts of the village, right by the forest. We silently laid out the money, and he took several thousand dollars, closed the door from the outside and blocked it with a spade. We thought that he had gone away, but we smelt petrol and heard him running around the barn with a petrol can. Then everything burst into flames, and we realized that the barn was on fire. The guys screamed and kicked at the door, but it didn’t budge. The window in the barn was very small, and no one could crawl out through it.
We thought it was all over for us. That we were goingto be burned up like matches. But unexpectedly, we were lucky. An old man from a distant house happened to notice the fire. He ran to help us and opened the door. We rushed out and a minute later the barn was burning like a torch. The fire brigade, the police and the ambulance appeared, two of the guys were taken to hospital as they’d almost suffocated from the smoke, and the rest of us were taken away for questioning. In the morning the police let us go, promising that they would find this criminal. None of us believed them. We gathered together our last money and bought a ticket for the Moscow-Tashkent train. I swore I’d never go to Russia again.
2 August 2006. Moscow. Northern district. “Aeroport”region.
Today we finished work early. By midday all the caretakers had shut themselves in their hostel. On “Paratroopers’ Day” none of us go outside in the afternoon. It’s a dangerous day, and not just for “Asians” and “Caucasians”, but even for Russians. A drunken paratrooper is more terrifying than a skinhead.He’s got more energy, less brains and no fear of the police. Something always happens.Some of our fellow countrymen will be unlucky today – they’ll get their eye poked out or be whacked in the head. We don’t go outside on 21 April, Hitler’s birthday, either.
There are hardly any skinheads around Aeroport, but although Misha, the head of the caretakers, hates us Uzbeks, he advised us not to leave the dormitory. On days like these we sit in front of the TV and see who’s been attacked by skinheads.
I live in a small room with five other people, with three bunk beds, a wash basin and a table. In the corridor there’s a shower, kitchen and toilet. We’ve even got hot water. The Uzbeks who work on construction sites and live in wagons envy us. “It’s a real hotel you’ve got here,” they joke when they come to visit.
Our work isn’t difficult either. We get up at 5 a.m., clean the pavements and yards and trim the trees. The women clean the doorways and windows. The shift ends at lunchtime. At 2 p.m. we go to roll-call at the municipal services office and do odd jobs around the territory.
Enterprising people get other work on the side. They take away rubbish, get rid of building materials when places are being done up, or go and dig gardens at dachas on the weekends. We earn about $400-500 a month. No one carries large amounts of money, as the cops may take it away from you. We sometimes give something to the drunken students from the automobile technical college next door so they’ll leave us alone.