The New Muscovites
No. 1 2014 January/March
Yekaterina Demintseva

Yekaterina Demintseva is  a leading researcher at the Institute of Social Processes Management, Higher School of Economics.

Migrants from Central Asia

This paper is a part of a project within the Basic Research Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics.

Spurred by upcoming legislative elections in 2014, debates over migration currently dominate the Russian mass media. A negative image of the migrant has developed as someone who appears of the blue, lives in mysterious “inflatable” apartments, poses “a threat to society,” and takes jobs away from local workers. In fact, Moscow city authorities are drafting a code for Moscow residents directed mainly against migrant workers. Young people living in the Moscow suburbs are resorting to radical measures in an attempt to solve migration “problems,” thereby fueling conflicts and violence.

Although people started moving to Russia from former Soviet republics more than two decades ago, this issue has barely been studied. Most migration research is based on statistics provided by government agencies, which can only outline the size of migration flows, gather data on the number of migrant workers employed in different sectors of the economy, and estimate how many migrants have settled in Russia. Yet there is no clear understanding of what a migrant’s everyday life in the city is like, how the migrant finds work and accommodation in Moscow, where the migrant goes for medical care, or how the migrant spends holidays.

No doubt this issue remains largely unexplored because such a study is hard to conduct due to the lack of trust between migrants and the local population. It took us several years to earn the trust of migrants; subsequently, some of them helped us get in touch with people living in places of our interest and gather information. “Why do you need that?” was the standard question we heard from them. Partly that was a result of tensions that developed in Moscow in the summer of 2013, when migrants had become a kind of bargaining chip in the fight for power in the city. In 2014, many more migrants refused to answer our questions than last year when we conducted a pilot survey: all of the migrants said that they were afraid to speak to us because they did not know where this would lead.

Developing a methodology for our study was another problem we encountered. We could not use Western methods for studying the life of migrants in Moscow mainly because of the structural differences between Western and post-Soviet cities. When studying migration in an urban environment in Europe, Western researchers (such as Lapeyronnie Didier, Wacquant Loïc) examine “migrant districts” within cities: either former blue-collar neighborhoods where migrants settled several decades ago because they were unable to afford expensive housing or “concrete social housing areas” built on the outskirts of big cities in the 1960s for foreign guest workers. These approaches are geared to “migrant districts.” The goal of such a study is to determine the boundaries of such districts and identify specific aspects of life in them: description of institutions, infrastructure, relationships between residents, and the positioning of migrants with regard to the rest of the population in a district.

Geographer Olga Vendina believes that, unlike European cities, Moscow has “no real ethnic neighborhoods, even though the social poles of ‘poverty’ and ‘wealth’ are gradually acquiring … territorial and ethnic anchors.” She contends that there are several reasons for this phenomenon: high-rise buildings, low mobility, and modest incomes that do not allow the majority of Muscovites to choose better accommodation because of high real estate prices in the city and its suburbs. Vendina also notes the social mixing of people rooted in the Soviet legacy and that, in her opinion, “prevents rapid changes in the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods.” Moreover, since these neighborhoods have typical apartment development projects they can be divided into “wealthy–not wealthy” or “prosperous–not prosperous,” since living conditions in all parts of the city (typical apartments, availability of services) are pretty much the same (unlike, for example, in Paris with its Haussmann buildings in middle-class districts or the Goutte d’Or, with its old buildings and former working class neighborhood now defined by researchers as the territory of migrants). Due to specifics of Soviet-style structure and infrastructure in post-Soviet cities, there are certain places (houses, residential complexes, areas), which residents define as different from the rest of the urban environment, rather than districts (neighborhoods).

An important difference in surveys studying migrants and migration in Russia is the lack of associations, adaptation centers for migrants, and informal unions (public or religious) at the local (neighborhood) level. Although they stand out, migrants in Moscow keep a low profile and try to blend in. We see them in the streets, but we do not know – and most importantly do not understand – how to find out what their life is like, with whom they communicate, and where they can be found in an informal environment. The most frequent images in mass media show them as a praying crowd outside a mosque during the month of Ramadan, but we never see them having a family dinner, getting together with friends, or cooking ethnic food.

When we started our research our initial goal was to determine how to define the territory a migrant considers “his turf;” the degree of integration in the urban environment and the existence of social institutions that are important for the migrant. One of our first assumptions was that although migrants may not have their own neighborhoods, they try to settle next to each other, forming communities within neighborhoods and seldom venture out of those areas. However, this turned out to be a false assumption. In a pilot study conducted in 2012 we interviewed several families that lived in one of Moscow’s vernacular districts. We chose to question their friends and acquaintances in Moscow and gave them our questionnaires. Only one-third of the questionnaires were filled out in this district and the surrounding area, while two-thirds were completed in other parts of the city. Interviews we took in the same district showed that the majority of migrants with whom we talked had relatives or friends living in other parts of Moscow. This led us to the conclusion that we could not speak of communities tied to a certain territory in the city, because migrants live in all districts in Moscow—in working class suburbs and in the upscale city center – and are not confined to a certain area.

Based on the results of the pilot project, we worked out a methodology for the main survey, which we hoped would give us an insight into where migrants settled in Moscow, how they chose their residences, where they met with friends and spent their free time, and how they organized and ran their households. We selected four vernacular districts and in each of them we distributed one hundred questionnaires among Kyrgyz and Uzbek migrants. We also conducted fifteen in-depth interviews (sixty in all) with migrants in each of those districts, asking them to tell us about their life in Moscow, work and leisure, and places where they met with friends and visited most frequently. We also asked them to draw mental maps of Moscow as they saw it and mark the places they most often frequented.


The degree of a migrant’s integration into city life depends on many factors: length of stay, occupation, social connections, age, and marital status. But the city influences a migrant’s adaptation too. As migrants note, their life in Moscow some 8-10 years ago was different from their life now. A 46-year-old Kyrgyz woman who came to Moscow in 2004 said at that time (at the beginning and in the middle of the 2000s) that practically all Central Asian migrants lived in basements, never went out, and their lives were limited to work and living spaces. By contrast, three to four years ago migrants started to go shopping, celebrate holidays, and meet with friends in “their cafes.” Migrants have opened more cafes and restaurants in Moscow over the past several years. Migrants can also be seen more often going to discount shops not only in their neighborhoods, but also in adjacent ones.

Migrants say that migration itself has changed: while previously only men came to Moscow and only a few of them brought their wives, now the number of female migrants is growing. The latter have different explanations for this. Some say that being with their husbands is what “a Muslim wife” must do; others admit privately that their husbands’ hard drinking was a reason to leave their respective countries and come to Moscow. But the main factor motivating women to move is their willingness to work alongside their husbands or make their own money. Migration specialists talk about the feminization of migration and “… different models of women’s labor migration: they migrate as migrants in their own right (independently) or as members of the principal migrant’s (i.e. husband’s) family. Some migrate with children; others leave the children at home with relatives. Some seek to earn money to support their families; others want to become independent and start a new life in a different country.”

A new group of migrants has appeared consisting of the children of those who came to Russia in search of work several years ago. Having graduated from school in Kyrgyzstan, some teenagers accompany their parents who live and work in Moscow. Since many of them have not yet reached the age of 18, do not speak Russian, and are strangers to “Moscow life,” their parents often leave them at home for a couple of years. Young people who move to Moscow to join their parents or relatives told us about “an adaptation period.” Girls especially said they were under particularly close control by their parents or relatives. The young people we interviewed said this period allowed them to get used to the city, make friends (usually among their parents’ friends), and find work. Many young people who come to Moscow do not speak Russian, and this period gives them time to study the language by watching television or talking with “the locals.”

According to the migrants, this new younger category differs from the older generation: the younger generation is more deeply integrated into Moscow life even though the social connections of this group are limited mainly to migrant communities. Young Kyrgyz told us that they have barbecues in parks, meet friends in cafes (not necessarily Central Asian ones), and go to discotheques. A Kyrgyz woman with four sons told me that two of them had married ethnic Kyrgyz girls in Moscow even though their parents had found fiancés for them back home. But the sons had insisted on weddings and celebrated in a Moscow restaurant, having invited “… all relatives. Some came over, but many were already here.”

Migrants from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan rarely bring minors with them. Only 12% of those interviewed said they were living in the same flat with children (not necessarily their own; often they live with their neighbors’ children). We found similarities in surveys conducted by our colleagues. Yulia Florinskaya says that “about one-third of migrants with children under the age of 16 bring them along (about 15-16% of migrant workers arriving in Russia).” Many families cannot bring their children along since only a few can afford a separate room for a family. Migrants with children in Moscow use local schools, polyclinics, and additional education centers. The main criterion for selecting a school or recreational place for children is its accessibility, both financial (free education) and territorial (located in the same neighborhood). Whenever possible, migrants arrange for their children to go to schools and participate in other extracurricular activities near their homes so that the children can get home safely on their own.


It is a widespread belief that migrants “live in the basements,” but our interviews prove that wrong. Most migrants rent apartments and rarely end up in basements (only 3% of those interviewed), which they were forced to vacate several years ago as a result of anti-migration campaigns in Moscow. Another form of accommodation is “dormitories.” In most cases, local authorities allow migrants to use abandoned houses or kindergartens as living space.

Beds are provided and a dormitory superintendent is appointed to keep order and solve daily problems. However, the number of such places is decreasing annually. An abandoned kindergarten served as a dormitory for several years, but had to close down after local residents protested and launched campaigns against illegal migration. However, most migrants did not leave the area; rather they moved into flats in nearby buildings.

Migrants, just like the Russian media, call such apartments “inflatable.” These are usually two- or three-room flats with four to eight migrants of both sexes living in the same room. An Uzbek woman who had come to Moscow to work told us that she was sharing a room with nine other people: three families (husband and wife) and a woman with two children (an infant and a 15-year-old daughter who looked after the baby). Usually curtains or furniture divide a room to ensure some degree of privacy. Most often (in about half of those interviewed), migrants live in the same room with people they barely know and only met when they arrived in Moscow. Slightly less than half of the migrants live with relatives, and one in four lives with fellow citizens.

As a rule, migrants find a place in such flats through social networks. Upon arrival in Moscow, a migrant usually turns to relatives or fellow citizens who find a place not in the relative’s flat, but in an apartment rented by acquaintances. A migrant can later change flats, but usually tries to find a place near his/her work. This saves travel time and the migrant can stay in the same region, thus avoiding passport checks. A migrant can find accommodation in any part of the city, whether a remote suburb or the downtown core. As we noted above, Moscow remains a socially mixed city: communal apartments, old buildings, and dilapidated flats still exist in central districts and Muscovites prefer to rent them out to migrants.

Notably, social networks – relatives and acquaintances that live in Moscow – play a special role in a migrant’s life in the city. They can help migrants find work and accommodation. The necessary documents and papers can be obtained through well-established schemes operating among those who belong to a certain community. Frequently, local residents prefer to rent flats only to Slavs and some organizations only hire Russian citizens. Thus, migrants are forced to rely solely on “their own people.” Furthermore, there are no local consulting centers that could suggest legislative solutions to certain issues, and the handful of public organizations in Moscow cannot solve all problems (moreover, migrants are often unaware of this assistance).

Social networks help migrants find work. Learning that there is a job opening for a janitor or cleaner, a migrant will tip off fellow citizens who convey this information to those who want to come to Moscow or change jobs. And so it is not surprising that migrants from the same region of Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan often live in the same district, even though they did not know each other before coming to Moscow.

Our survey also dismissed the general belief that migrants work without days off. We found that only one in five migrants work seven days a week, while others have one or two days off per week. However, migrants prefer to do extra work on their days off. This is particularly common among women who usually clean flats or offices or babysit when they are not busy at their main workplace. Migrants work hard and try to save as much money as they can. Each migrant interviewed had a goal: young men needed money to pay for their weddings; families were saving up to build a house; and women were working to renovate their homes. Many stay in Moscow so that their children can have a future either in their home country or in Russia. The home-to-work pattern dominates migrants’ lives, but many are venturing out of their rented flats more often for leisure and recreation activities.


As we discovered from the questionnaires and interviews, migrants spend their free time in different ways and not necessarily in “ethnic” places like cafes, restaurants, or markets. Many migrants frequent popular fast food outlets like Rostik’s and McDonald’s because they are conveniently located (usually not far from a subway station), are inexpensive (one can order a cup of tea and spend time with friends), and people can stay as long as they like in those restaurants.

On weekends, migrants also visit shopping malls in their own region and in other parts of the city. Migrants prefer to spend time in fast food cafes at these malls, which are easy to reach and affordable. Migrants choose them as a place of comfort that gives them a feeling of financial and personal security. Also, they can stay as long as they like and are not pressured to leave by the administration, because these places are open to everyone. Another criterion of “the level of comfort” is the increasing number Central Asians who work in fast food outlets as service staff.

However, visits to shopping centers are not only limited to fast food restaurants. Migrants also frequent supermarkets and low-cost chain stores. As a rule, migrants do their everyday shopping at nearby discount stores, such as Pyaterochka or Dixie. They also shop at French retailer Auchan and low-priced clothing stores such as Familia.

A migrant can go to stores, shopping malls, or marketplaces just for a walk, to look at prices, or choose goods before making a large purchase when going back home. Migrants can also stop by cafés along the way to spend time with friends.

“Ethnic” cafes are also a place where migrants go with friends and relatives, but in most cases they choose them for family events or birthday parties. There are several Uzbek and Kyrgyz cafes in Moscow, most of which were opened by migrants from those countries. People go there to chat with fellow citizens or to hold a wedding party. Unlike Rostik’s or McDonald’s, which are easy to reach by car or public transport, these cafes are often far from the subway or the city center.

The most favorite places in Moscow for migrants are surprising and range from the park near the central Pushkinskaya subway station to Red Square. When we asked which tourist sites migrants had already visited in Moscow, practically all of them named Red Square. “I took a walk around the city and went to the Kremlin and VDNKh. I wanted to see our country, the Soviet Union you could say. We were like the Uzbek republic,” one of the Uzbek migrants told us. Significantly, many named precisely this reason – the historical past and common history – when choosing the first place to visit in Moscow. Many said they wanted to see places they had heard about since childhood or had seen in movies.

Yet many migrants are disappointed by Moscow. Young people often say that they expected to see a megalopolis with skyscrapers, but ended up living in the suburbs surrounded by five-story buildings similar to those in their own countries. “It’s just like in Soviet times. I expected much more. Television shows American or European cities with beautiful high-rise buildings, but here it’s like back home in Tashkent,” an Uzbek builder said.

* * *

Moscow has attracted migrants for years. Migrants work in the service sector and retail trade, at warehouses and construction sites, and as cleaners and janitors. Immigrants usually work twelve hours per day and share flats with their fellow citizens. Their children go to Moscow schools and frequent municipal leisure centers. They live next to us, in the same buildings, and on the same floors. They like to buy food at Auchan and clothes in discount chain stores all over Moscow. If they need to meet with friends, they do so at Rostik’s and invite relatives and friends to celebrate a birthday at a restaurant that serves pilaf and lamian. We talk about these new residents of Moscow who are here temporarily for a year or up to a decade. Indeed, a substantial part of their lives is spent in the Russian capital.

Unlike in Paris or Berlin, where everybody knows the districts where migrants live, migrants consider them their own, and researchers define them as “urban ghetto,” we found no such places in Moscow. In Moscow, any district a migrant visits most often or where he lives can become “his place.”