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How to become an Irkutskian

How do coming from Central Asia people interact with the city?

Moving from one country to another means not only changing a geographic location. It implies entering a different world with its own official and unofficial rules. Irkutsk, like many other Russian cities, became a place for permanent or temporary residence for people originating from Central Asia. But does Irkutskbecome their home? To what extent does this city allow someone to feel as an Irkutskian while remaining yourself and retaining your own identity?

"Irkutsk is not simply a typical provincial city, it is a typical city of resettlers. Here, it is almost impossible to find people whose ancestors in fairly remote generations were Irkutskians or even just Siberians. People living here are people without a root system. Practically all of them descend from newcomers and are proud of it".

Sergey Shmidt
"Irkutsk is not simply a typical provincial city, it is a typical city of resettlers. Here, it is almost impossible to find people whose ancestors in fairly remote generations were Irkutskians or even just Siberians. People living here are people without a root system. Practically all of them descend from newcomers and are proud of it".

Sergey Shmidt
Our research work focuses on people coming to Irkutsk from Central Asia. They happened to come here in different times and for different reasons; they stayed in the city for a longer time if not for ever. The research work represents only male migrants, and it does therefore not reflect the whole picture: women are also coming for earnings to Russia, however, significantly less than men; besides, cultural particularities make it difficult for them to communicate freely with men outside of their family. The phenomenon of migration itself, its direct and indirect consequences stayed outside of our research work. After all, we were interested in the process of "entering the city", that is integration into the life of the city, and in understanding Irkutsk as their "own place".
Entry Point
"I myself came to Irkutsk in 1980. I was then doing military service at the Belaya Station, in the airforce regiment as a medical attendant for two years of extended service. Once the service time ended, I liked the city and stayed here to study; I graduated from Irkutsk Agricultural Institute and married here…"

Moving to Irkutsk in Soviet times is a common and typical. Military service became the reason to get to know Irkutsk: E.T. was sent for military service from the Kirgiz Soviet Socialist Republic to Irkutsk, he stayed here to study and tookRussian citizenship right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
I walked through the city and thought that it is hospitable, and already at that time I was thinking of staying here for studies
By the end of 1980s, Irkutsk offered several ways to get higher education at Irkutsk State University and in six large institutes specialising in economics, railway transport, polytechnics, agriculture, medicine and pedagogy. Besides, there was a big military school preparing experts with a higher education diploma for military aviation.

Even today, getting a degree in Russia remains quite a common practice for young people coming from former Soviet Republics. Quite often, students would stay in Irkutsk after having finished their studies.
"My father is an electrician. So, he came here, and then he brought us here; but later they all left, my parents and all. And I stayed to continue studies".

A.Kh. (Master's student, second year)
The civil war in Tajikistan was an armed conflict between clans and groups within a single ethnos, between the supporters of official power and different groups represented by the United Tajik, which rose up following the declaration of independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1992—1997).

Wikipedia (Russian version)
"I came here in 98… for earnings. At our place, in Tadzhikistan, after the civil war, it was difficult to live and work… I stayed here and attended preparatory courses for three years. In 2003 I entered the economics institute; having finished my studies, I filed my papers for citizenship. I wanted to get it after the university and to stay here. I got it in 2008, and married here".

Often, coming to Russia for earnings is not a personal choice, but is due to wars, ethnic conflicts, or if there is no possibility to earn a living.
"During the civil war in 91−94, our folks, everybody migrated wherever they could. One person came here, stayed, earned money, looked around, met someone, settled in and went back to the homeland. [Then] he brought 10 to 15 others along with him. My father came here in 97, and in 98 I came here with him. I came for the first time in my life and stayed here".

R.I.: Were you thinking of staying here?
E.Т.: When I was leaving I didn't think of anything…It was just… just like, you know, I was just migrating.
"I came to Irkutsk in 2001. At that time I was working as a general labourer, paid for work done… for short terms — for 6 months at most, or four to five months, then I went home and came back again… From 2005 to 2008 I didn’t go to Irkutsk, I was working in my homeland. Since autumn 2008 and until today I have been living in Irkutsk. But I go home every year, sometimes twice a year. My family lives in Uzbekistan".

This is a usual story for the early 2000s, when there was quick economic growth began in Russia, following a long period of stagnation and the crisis of 1998, while the economies of Central Asian countries were still in decline.
"A friend of mine was working here, and one day he came to our village… We talked and I asked him, just like that during the conversation, what if I were to come with him. 'If you came, I could help you, for one month at least; I can help you in all things, moral support and financial, he said".

"So that’s how I happened to come here. So, I came… and some time later, ten days later, I felt I was not troubled, I was sleeping well and nothing was worrying me".

One can see how personal stories depend on the context of the history: in Soviet times young men often had their military service outside of their homelands, the Soviet Republics; in the 90s and at the beginning of the 2000s, it was the demand for labour that attracted many people from Central Asia.
City of Opportunity

Irkutsk citizens are proud of their city as a city with a history and cultural traditions, as an old Siberian city. Yet, someone who has lived in Samarkand or Bukhara (both cities have more than two and half thousand years of history) sees the 355th anniversary of Irkutsk from a different angle.
"When someone from my place comes for the first time to Irkutsk, and I am showing them the city, the visitor would often say: 'Oh boy, do you call this a centre? What is that?' [meaning the area around the Central marketplace, in particular the former market Shangkhaika] I say, 'Well, the city is still growing'. So, I explain that it [the city] is still young".

Irkutsk as the "city of opportunity" might be seen from a different angle as well, because life in Russia usually seems to revolve around Moscow and Saint Petersburg. At the same time, migrants perceive Irkutsk especially as a suitable place to improve one’s life.
A.K.: My father came here on a business trip and stayed here.
R.I.: Didn't he explain to you why he came here himself first and brought you afterwards?
A.K.: Well, he reckoned the education here is better and there is a prospect. I think so too, there are prospects and possibilities here. More than there.
"My brother, he graduated from the Medical institute and wants to continue [his studies] here, he wants to do a medical internship and bring his family here. This, I wanted myself: there is no prospect for him there; to have a prospect there you have to have an uncle or good money, to pay first to get further. To study seven or eight years, in order to work later as a male-nurse, is also not right…"

However, the relationship to Irkutsk can’t be reduced just to pragmatic plans to earn money, get education and leave. The city is considered not as a transit point on the way to a better life, but as a place for living, as a second or even first homeland.
"I don’t want to leave for somewhere else, because I like it here, this city… Well, one can say it is a multi-national city. First, in Irkutsk there is no such thing like you are not Russian, you are Tadzhik, you are Uzbek and so on. Here, in Irkutsk, for 17 years of my life… since 98 I have never heard and never saw someone saying 'You are like this, you are not from here, go away'. Yes, I never heard or saw anything like this".

As a homeland, as my second homeland I count Irkutsk… I don’t consider myself as a newcomer in Irkutsk… I believe I grew up here, I was born here, this is what I feel
"Irkutsk is like a home city for me, I think so".

"The city where I come from originally is already a bit strange for me, I would say so. I have already… I've lost the feeling for it got out of habit there".

"Then I felt that Irkutsk is a hospitable city, welcoming people, very friendly to each other…"

As an example of inhospitable cities one would usually mention Moscow.
"Now, when I am come to Moscow… the way folks behave here and in Moscow is like day and night… Yes, a large city, when you go to Moscow, when you walk there, if you ask a question on the street — no one would even speak to you. They would walk on as if nothing had happened. Here it is different. Here… You ask people who are tired (and that can often happen) — they would still explain in a normal way, where and what. Or, for instance, I was driving home one night. Someone asked me, 'How can I get to Listvyanka?' They were from Krasnoyarsk. [I] was driving in a different direction, I said, 'Follow me, I will show you the road'. From the airport I drove them to the road, I stopped and explained that the road is straight, there are signs. I drove [home] and felt good. If you happen not to know your way, you just ask, and you will be told. Try it in Moscow, no one will even speak to you".


This story shows that for V. G., not only the welcoming atmosphere itself is important in the city, but also maintaining this atmosphere.
Conflicts, difficulties, deprivation
"Those who have settled down here are more or less [living] in the city, someone like me, who [came] earlier. Some do business, some work, they have got [something]. Those, who come and go, they live badly. They don’t live, they just… exist. They live in [such] conditions, so these are not conditions for humans".

Lodging is one of the main topics work migrants talks about. In general, seasonal workers come to earn money for their families and have to spend less and save money whenever possible, including concerning lodging. Quite often, they live directly at building sites, in houses scheduled for demolition etc.
"I was renting a flat in a wooden ramshackle house, a room in it… I didn't know that his guy has served a term, that he was an alkie. I said, 'What do we do regarding payment?' He said to bring a bottle every evening. I said, 'How do you mean a bottle? A bottle costs quite a lot.' He said, 'No, I mean this kind of alcohol.

He showed me a bottle, I could read on it that it is something for windows cleaning. Every evening after my work I always went there and bought such a bottle. At one point I got tired and bought 10 or 15 of them. I hid it under my bed, in order not to look for them each time. One day I noticed that my food started to disappear, that someone slept in my room. I asked, 'What is this? I lock the door, you have got a spare key, and you are taking my food.

One night there was a crowd. All of them had ugly mugs, prison-like expressions. One of them, then another one, started getting at me. I said, 'If it is like this, I am leaving tomorrow.' That night I was scared. They stayed until the morning, sitting and boozing. I hardly slept that night, the day after I took my belongings and left. Afterwards I was living at the building site. He came to ask me to come back, said, 'You know, I don't have anybody, no kids, no wife, I am alone. Come back.' I said no. He came again and again, asking for money for booze. I said, 'I am tired of you. May be you can go and work somewhere, as a watchman?' Nobody wanted to take him, because he is a drunkard — who needs him…"

Local citizens are not a homogeneous mass of "locals". The same with seasonal workers. As one can see in from this short story, their relationships are not simply good or bad.
"Employers don't want to make a working contract, because it is better for them if they work without one. There are cases like the one last year. One of our men fell down from the 5th floor. An accident. He died. They didn't have any working contract, and they said, 'He didn't work with us, he was just visiting us.' Although he was [working] there for three months. It turned out, there were witnesses. But nothing could be proven".

"Our folks are very trusting. A man comes, makes an agreement, and does everything. They are often ripped off, fobbed, left alone. Quite often, we cannot help, because there is no proof, no papers, no contracts… It happens that an employer says, 'Well, there is no money, not that I refuse to pay; when there is money, I’ll pay'… Some even [say], 'I don’t know them at all.' They were working, they have done [the job], then [the employer] would call the police and the police would come and take them, that’s all".

Relationships between employers and migrants develop in different ways. Working at a building site or on interior finishing always implies a risk: one can be easily left unpaid.
"I was then living in a different place. There were young junkies there. At night you go to a shop to grab some food, you leave and they are already at it… I left this place too — with great difficulty. And yet, when I was living in Zaton-place, there are two-storeyed wooden houses and the residents said, 'Be careful, all the more, you are not Russian, God forbid… you never know…'

To remind a migrant that he is "from outside" or to emphasise his rightlessness is advantageous not only for employers, but also for those working for state authorities.
- I am asking, why do you grow a beard?
- This isn't forbidden, is it?
- Passport… There you haven't got a beard. Why do you go around like this? You are attracting attention to yourself! Because of this, they'll put you in a police car, by in a patrol car, and you will spend the whole day there, because of the picture not matching.

Don't stroll around, don't walk at night, keep a distance away from young men, to from drunkards. Especially to from drunk women and young ladies…"


The risks are connected with the numerous limitations imposed by the status as a migrant. This status itself contains many contradictions: it creates many "grey areas", possibilities for manipulations and extortion. Migrants have to adapt to this state of things.
"In general, the most suffering comes because of state authorities. One has to walk go away without a passport — it is taken away. How is it taken away? They give you a scrap of paper, 'Once you pay the money as stated here, you bring the receipt, then you will get your passport back.' And then, if something happens, the officer would say,'I never took anything, I see you for the first time".

The topic of citizenship is brought up not only by representatives of the state authorities. Here is a story told by one Irkutsk blogger:
"Around eight o’clock I was going down the street and I heard from a distance two women having a row. They were shouting at each other across the street. When I could catch their words, they were already at the stage of 'Who do you think you are?'. One of them was sitting on a bench, surrounded by women like her — with headscarves, colourful but worn out clothes. The other was in a t-shirt and leather skirt, she had a dog and was standing near to a brothel and looked like its mistress (or maybe its sales manager). For the sake of her words I have written this blog entry: "You are nobody! Remember this: you are nobody! And I am a Russian citizen. If you don’t like it here, go back to your own monastery!"
Such outbursts can be taken badly.
I love the city. I love people, but I am afraid to call it home. Some people said to me, 'In any case, you are a foreigner, we can always bring you down.' Until this moment of time I had never thought that I'm a foreigner. It pained me. I will never forget these words
While just remembering this episode, U.K. reacts very emotionally. Obviously, his feeling of being from abroad was not constant and, all the more, appeared to be completely new to him, in spite of his not having Russian citizenship.

My conversation partners consider that negative actions and words coming from locals are related to education, personal traits, even if there is a clear distinction between "us" and "them".
"Negative things depend on the people themselves. The way I behave will be the way I will be treated. As long as I am living here, never ever, not a single time has someone said to me, 'You, you go home, you are like this or like that.' Someone comes and says: 'I was spoken to like this.' I say, 'Why is nobody speaking to me like that? So, it is you who behaved that way".


"Even five fingers are not alike. We also have bad and drinking people, everything this can happen. I am not saying that our folks are better. We also have people like this".

"There are no complaints about simple folk. A common language will be always found, the work goes well, everything is Ok, is all right".

Everyday communication
"Well, yes, Vasyli. When I was here at the beginning, I was called Vasya. The name remained. Because some people have difficulties pronouncing my name. Vasya, I like it like that".

"Maxim, because it is easier for me and for everybody…"

It is quite a common experience among migrants: to call yourself with a name that sounds Russian. Turkic, Arab and other names are difficult for a Russian to remember and to pronounce correctly.
Roma, is this Roma or actually Muzafar?
"Standing at a bus stop and talking loudly in their own language. I think that the majority of Irkutsk locals don't welcome this, when strangers talk in their own language. Some would say, 'Well, why not?' 'Is there a law forbidding me to speak my own language?' I answer that there is no such law. But one has to show respect, in front of these people, try to behave normally".

In some way or other, the topic of speaking in Russian or a native language was brought up in every conversation.
"I am sitting with my folks, no matter where, speaking in Tajik, and Russian words will come out".

"My little sister is learning only in Russian. She's almost stopped talking Uzbek, she is learning here, she is in third grade already".

"My father said the same things to me. If, for example, you are standing close to a Russian, don't hesitate, talk in Russian".

The need for the Russian language is directly related to the strategy chosen by the migrant. As a rule, seasonal work in a small group of fellow countrymen doesn’t require Russian. In such a case, the migrant’s world is generally limited by the circle of his fellows, and communication with the employer defines the necessary maximum in language. The attitude of people who are aiming towards integration in the receiving community is totally different. Then, the knowledge of Russian is perceived as a necessity. One can see it in particular in matters regarding children’s education.
My father told me to speak Russian, so that I learnt it faster
"We often meet, talk and explain: 'When you are talking to [state] authorities, don’t say 'ty' to people [addressing informally, translator’s note], always say 'vy'. This is from not knowing the language; it sounds rude. It is good that here, in Russia, people understand, when… well, when a non-Russian is talking".

"When it turns out that there is a Russian is among us, I would always speak Russian, so that he is not offended, or she."

Speaking Russian in the presence of Russian-speaking people is considered as a part of good manners. The same was confirmed by A. Kh. He considers it a general rule to speak Russian in the presence of Russian-speaking people. However, this doesn’t eliminate the practice of using one’s native language in every-day conversations with countrymen.

What might seem rude to a Russian-speaking person is often just a lack of knowledge of the language. One of the typical examples is addressing someone with "brat" (brother). Often, it is an attempt to be polite. It is important to note that even people having good knowledge of Russian experience similar problems; for instance, not finding the right word they might address a tram conductor as "khozyaika" (mistress).
"They try not to go out [in the city], because they are saving every kopeck, they understand they came here, they will have that much money, which has to be earned by hard work; he would keep everything to feed his family there".

Such necessitated self-limitation triggers a specific format for communication with the outside world. Generally, migrants coming for seasonal work don’t need any active contacts with their direct employer: everything will be agreed on by the "brigadir" (team boss), and the application process will be by word of mouth, which allows employers to know who can be hired and for what money.
I get mixed up myself, there are so many federal laws. I've come to such a conclusion: all migrants are obliged
In recent years, the tightening of the law for migrants has made procedures more complicated and increased the number of different intermediaries between labour migrants and employers. However, it hasn’t eliminated the demand for migrants labour from Central Asia, which is easily seen when looking at the nearest building site. The most common and often occurring problem the migrants talk about is overcoming of difficulties related to getting diverse documents and legalisation of their status.

Here is a short and comprehensive story about the relationship between an employer and a migrant (found on the internet):
"I am working in a market for construction materials. One of my subordinates is a non-Russian load handler (may be an Uzbek, may be not, don’t know). Yet, I hate it when the customers start to mob them around. Once, after an older couple had insulted him, he turned around and went into his room. The woman was shouting, the old man lifted and carried the bag of cement by himself. I criticised the woman and said to her that she shouldn’t lay into the loader, she should tell me and I would have a talk with him. After loading the cement (50 kg, one bag), the woman came and asked to get the money back originally paid for loading. You should have seen it, when I gave her 5 roubles (which is still one rouble more than the loader would have earned)".
There is room for cooperation, the main resource of the city is the people living in it permanently or temporarily after all.
"I've been working with good people so many years. I don't know, maybe just got along well, but I have worked for one-two-three years with locals, and we kept together. They were waiting for me, when I was leaving, asked when I would come back. No fighting, no yelling. Furthermore, we helped the locals, explained how to work, to earn money. 'You are a Russian citizen, aren't you?' You go and make a contract in your name; we provide workers and will be responsible for the quality and delivery times. You are responsible for the contract".

While working on a building site, V.G. made the acquaintance of a university teacher of physical education. This became the beginning of his way to university.
R.I.: How did you become acquainted?
V.G.: Mere chance. I worked on a building site, they came to take wood boards, and we had to load them. One word led to another, we got acquainted. We went to his garden to unload the wood boards… Then, through him I got acquainted with others and started doing bare-knuckle boxing.
How to keep traditions
One has to adapt to new conditions and change one’s usual way of life. Or may be try to keep them, even if in a modified form.
"When I came back to my homeland, to Uzbekistan, I found it strange that one may haggle when buying something… Here, you wouldn’t haggle in a supermarket".

It is different, when changes happen in the area of religion, which is directly related to the question of identity.
"Previously, when I studied here, it was difficult to get halal meat. Several people had to gather money to buy a cow or a sheep and then to keep 5 to 6 kg of meat for oneself. And today, in any place of the city you can buy halal".

The space of the city is changing as well.
"We celebrate festivities at home. We observe Ramadan [period of fasting]. Until last year I observed it every year. This year I could not. Well, I had exams. I wanted to observe it, but I thought it wouldn’t work out, so I skipped this year".

M.S. (student, second year)
To be honest, I eat everything. After all, it doesn’t depend on food, I think so. For instance, if you take a chicken — that chicken is fed with everything as well. I don’t choose one or other food. But when I am with Uzbeks, Moslems, I try not to eat pork
Not all religious norms can be observed.
"If he is going to pray five times a day, who’s going to him? Who’ll his family?"

"It is quite rare that someone [ from amongst] young people would ask about a mosque… A very small part attends the mosque, but not regularly, not always".

However, the endeavour to keep traditions is still there.
"And still, one shouldn’t be an animal and should come and pray".

The same in one’s private life: a marriage should be blessed, and extramarital relationships are considered to be adultery.
"If I go out now and meet a girl, this is a sin. I mean meeting a girl in order to, so to speak … to make love. This will be a serious sin".

Nikah (wedding ceremony in Arab‎) is marriage in Islamic family law; it is concluded between a man and a woman.A man can marry only a Muslim, Christian or Hebrew woman.

Wikipedia (Russian version)

V.G.: Without a nikah, a marriage is not a marriage for us. Some would say that is adultery…
R.I.: Is nikah more important than a ceremony in a Civil Registry Office?
V.G.: Yes, it is. Because it is God's will.
However, life is making its adjustments here as well. "A heart wants what it wants" is a common attitude, especially regarding relationships of young people.
"You meet someone here, not deliberately. As you say, a heart wants what it wants. If it is your destiny, you will fall in love. For instance, why did I choose a Russian woman, what is the difference? She is a good and decent person, she doesn’t drink and smoke, she has got a good helping family".


I don't choose to marry only a Muslim woman… Previously it was like this [that the parents decided], and now it is different
R.I.: People coming here, do they seek to marry only a representative of their own nationality?
E.T.: No, not young people of today. Young people love whom they love.
Accidents on building sites are not rare. When an accident ends up with the death of a person, and when his family is not able to pick up the body or organise a funeral in Irkutsk, then the money for the funeral will be given by everybody who can give something: by co-workers, friends, acquaintances, sometimes employers.
"Recently we sent a body bag… The second person was buried here. His parents agreed to bury him here. In such cases we have to gather money: some would give 10 roubles, the other 50 roubles. Some help from their working place. Sometimes, there are good employers who compensate the costs for of a funeral".

"Some come here to pick up the coffin. We send it without a peep, without yelling. Some cannot come. I call the homeland… and get a note, 'We agree to bury him there".

Generally, the religious life of migrants from Central Asia is related to Irkutsk Cathedral Mosque on Karl-Liebknecht-Street. Until 1920 this street was called Salomatovskaya; one side of the street was traditionally populated by Muslims, the other side was populated by Hebrews and a synagogue was located there.
R.I.: Do you go to the Mosque on the Karl-Liebknecht-Street?
V.G.: Yes, I do. And, in case we are in Zhilkino district on Friday, there is a mosque there as well. Well, a prayer hall.
Azan is a call to prayer; in Irkutsk Cathedral Mosque it is called out only on Fridays, just once a day 'in order not to disturb locals', the imam of the Mosque says.

Jummah Namaz (Friday prayer, in Arab) is a mandatory congregational prayer for Moslems. It is held on Friday in a mosque, instead of the noon prayer. Holding of the Jummah Namaz is stipulated by the Quran.

Wikipedia (Russian version)

The Friday prayer is held not only at Cathedral Mosque. In Zhilkino district there are several large warehouses for vegetables. A prayer room is organised on the territory of one of them, it is open on Friday. In general, it is attended by people from Irkutsk-2, Novo-Lenino district and the suburbs; those who work in the warehouses or close to them come to this prayer room as well.

The beginning of the prayer on Karl-Liebknecht-Street is visible to everybody. Here, on the contrary, it is impossible to guess that it is prayer time, if one doesn't know where the small groups of people are heading, and why so many cars are coming to one warehouse for vegetables, and why the halal meat shop closed the its doors.
"To make a conclusion… I will do my utmost here, in this city, in this country, that there is peace and love and respect for all people, that this country prospers. We are living and working here. You can say it in Oriental style, in my home country we say that if you spend a day somewhere, in a nomad’s tent or in a house, if you were offered food, were respected and taken care of, then it is your duty to have the greatest respect for this house, forty times more. I say to my fellow countrymen: we find bread for us and our children here, therefore, we bow down before this state, these people, because nobody troubles you, pursues or offends you, and this is the most important. We came and found jobs here. And in return for the respect of this country, these people, we have to answer with even greater respect".
Migrants have got different motives coming from different life circumstances. So, their strategies towards the receiving community are different as well. It does not always assume integration in the life of Irkutsk. We shouldn’t simplify the problems, conflicts of different views, discrepancy in experiences and practices. However, migration remains a resource for the economic development of the city and its cultural diversity, which is proven by the history of Irkutsk.

Sasha Yanchenko

Dasha Kochetova
Anton Klimov