Photo Essays

Picturing Russia’s Central Asian Diaspora

A 20-year-old girl rides the Bishkek-Moscow train to Russia for work one week after her marriage. (All images courtesy of )
A 20-year-old girl rides the Bishkek-Moscow train to Russia for work one week after her marriage. (All images courtesy of Elyor Nematov)

Travel to Russia these days, and chances are the person serving you your food is a visitor to the country, too. Every year, 5-6 million Uzbek, Tadjik and Kyrgyz people arrive in the country to work in restaurants, construction sites, farms and manufacturing plants. They are maids, taxi drivers, street sweepers and garbage collectors. In Krgystzstan alone, one quarter of working-age citizens live outside the country.

“Fewer and fewer people [in Central Asia] have never been to Russia,” documentary photographer Elyor Nematov told Hyperallergic. Nematov was born in Uzbekistan, and he counts his father and brother among the migrants. It’s what inspired him to document the train journey from Bishkek that many take into Russia, the challenges they face once they arrive, and what happens to their loved ones back home. Nematov’s I AM A FOREIGNER, soon to be on display at New York’s Photoville, illuminates an important chapter in the history of the region.

“Each migrant worker has his own experience, but many are second-class people in Russia. Prejudice against migrants is the basis for an understanding of migrants,” Nematov said, alluding to the fact that Central Asians often migrate illegally and, for that reason, are more easily exploited. They live and work in often-times poor conditions, sometimes receiving only one-third of their promised salary wage, and sending the little pay they get back home to their families. Fewer than 10% have health insurance. 

Despite such problems, interdependence between Central Asia and Russia has not only increased, but it has also embedded itself in social life, as Nematov’s photographs make clear. “For some Central Asian families, it’s important for people to be in Russia, to survive there and earn money,” Nematov explained. “Now when you get married, the parents of your bride may ask you, ‘Have you been to Russia?’”

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A young woman points out a picture of her daughter, who she left with relatives so she could work in Moscow.
A young woman points out a picture of her daughter, who she left with relatives so she could work in Moscow.
The Bishkek-Moscow train
The Bishkek-Moscow train
A woman on the train sends a message to her sister with whom she left her 5-year-old son.
A woman on the train sends a message to her sister with whom she left her 5-year-old son.
A very young labor migrants unwinds at the end of a long  day.
A very young labor migrant unwinds at the end of a long day.
More than 90% of Moscow's streets are cleaned by labor migrants.
In Moscow, a migrant sweeps the subway stairs. More than 90% of the city’s streets are cleaned by labor migrants.
A garbage collector.
A garbage collector in Moscow.
Police in Vnukovo after raiding and detaining several dozen labor migrant from Central Asia, who wait in the bus behind.
Police in Vnukovo after raiding and detaining several dozen labor migrants from Central Asia. They wait in the bus behind.
A labor migrant in Moscow after Friday prayer, run under the supervision of the police.
A labor migrant in Moscow after Friday prayer, which is always run under the police’s careful supervision.
In a cargo container waits the dead body of a 19-year-old Uzbek man, who hung himself while in insolation at a detention center. Before his death, he had been interrogated without a lawyer present.
In a cargo container waits the dead body of a 19-year-old Uzbek man, who hung himself while in insolation at a detention center. Before his death, the detainee had been interrogated without a lawyer present.
A Uzbek woman awaits her sons. She has no idea what city they are currently working in.
An Uzbek woman awaits her sons. She has no idea what city they are currently working in.
A 12 year-old-girl in Uzbekistan. Many parents leave their children with their elder daughters while they are working in Russia themselves.
A 12 year-old-girl in Uzbekistan. Many parents leave their children with their elder daughters while they are working
in Russia themselves.
The family of a deceased migrant worker in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
The family of a deceased migrant worker in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
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