A Tajik Moscow

9 January 2013, 15:09

A Tajik street cleaner recently became a hero in Moscow. What he did has been discussed on the internet more than Vladimir Putin's back problems. A man was digging his car out from under the snow one morning in Moscow when he spotted a street cleaner. “Hey you, Akhmet, give me a shovel!” he yelled to him. “I’m not Akhmet,” was the answer. “What does it matter? Give me a shovel!” “If it doesn’t matter to you, then wait for Akhmet,” replied the street cleaner and he went away with his shovel.

The online community suddenly exploded in a fierce argument. “Well-done, non-Akhmet! He showed his dignity and cut the boor down to size,“ some said praising the street cleaner. “The wogs have gone too far. They feel like masters here and are insolent beyond measure,” others have complained. The debate, as is the custom in the RU-net, reached the You-fool!-Look-at-yourself! stage and spiralled into a study of the eternal question: Who is to blame for Russia’s woes: foreigners or foreigners together with other foreigners?

No-one knows exactly how many Tajiks are there in Moscow. The official statistics state 20,000, but even if that is true, it is merely an official count. In fact, there are multiple times more. How many times more is anyone’s guess. An officially registered Tajik in Moscow is as unthinkable as officially imported heroin. In contemporary Russia, which rests on criminal schemes involving free or next-to-free labour, illegal migrants are not under any control and their numbers are outside of the realm of official statistics. Their relationships with the law stop at the local cop who promises to “legally” kick them out of the country if they fail to put another thousand roubles in his pocket by a set date.

If you visit Red Square on the New Year’s Eve, you will experience something unforgettable. You risk finding yourself, all alone, in a huge crowd of Central Asians. This national holiday is the time for the Tajiks. The migrant workers use their only day off to relish the exotic entertainment (the only one they can afford) – of riding the metro and flocking to downtown Moscow. On workdays they simply have no time for play and are also reluctant to face the police. However, there is an unofficial (well, there couldn’t be any other), unwritten truce in the capital, and any Tajik, whether he is a legal migrant or not, can come out in public once a year.

If you mentally travel in time to 2030, you will begin to understand who will rule your country in the future. You will begin to see clearly what the poet meant when he wrote: “There are masses, countless masses of us / Come and try to fight us.” This is not a challenge – just a derisive statement of the impossible. There is no hatred or offence inside of you – merely bewilderment that all these things are happening so quickly.

These game-changing shifts are not simply visible and palpable – they are right before your eyes. Natasha, a neighbour girl, first began to show an ever bigger belly and then came out pushing a pram with a smiling dark-skinned boy named Rakhmet inside. His father, math teacher Sultanbek from Nurek, had been a member of a crew that remodelled a flat next door. Rajab, another man from the same crew, figured out that it was cheaper to bring his entire family, wife and three children, to Moscow. He chipped in with another family and rented a nearly abandoned and unused pensioner’s dacha in the Moscow area.

Two years ago, there were just two families like this in our town – they shared a ramshackle house nearby and a used Daewoo with tinted glass which they bought from a local bandit with money working overtime at a construction site. Now there are at least two to three such families in every street. They lead a quiet life; their children have grown up, learned Russian and started going to school, where they are bullied by their peers. New babies are being born, and the Tajik mothers, who have never learned Russian and do not communicate with the locals, sing their own lullabies to them. Over time, their sons will grow up and become the main fiancé prospects in the village. Any reasonable mother would be happy to marry her daughter off to a Tajik, because they traditionally do not drink alcohol and, at the same time, will not force their wives to wear a yashmak – that is an effect of living in a different culture. Mixed marriages proliferate and increasing numbers of nice dark-skinned babies are coming into this world.

In Moscow, the Tajiks usually work as street cleaners or, less frequently, loaders. They pool together to rent flats, paying 1,000-2,000 roubles a month apiece and cramming 10-15 people under the same roof. In rarer cases, they bring along their families. Normally, there is no place for the family to live here, so the breadwinner remits most of what he earns back home. Those who want to have their families with them try to get a job with a construction company near Moscow.

However, they do not have much choice as they face quite some competition from their countrymen. By Moscow’s standards, they earn peanuts – 8,000-15,000 roubles (US $250-500) a month. Yet, given that they live with their belts tightened and send every penny they can home to Tajikistan, where prices are much lower and people have no money whatsoever, you can say that they live tolerably. In the Moscow area, they live an almost comfortable life.

There are about 10 Tajiks per courtyard in Moscow. But when the snow season sets in, their numbers leap to 20 and more. It is not quite clear where they come from in such numbers or where they go to afterwards. Faced with high competition, they are very diligent workers. The Tajiks are not going to protest against brazen fleecing by their masters and housing and maintenance departments – otherwise they will have to go back to Tajikistan.  Meanwhile, housing departments have long been using a well-known scheme: the chief has his relatives, friends, relatives of friends and friends of relatives on the official payroll with nice salaries of 50,000 roubles (US $1,700), while the illegal Tajik workers do all the work for peanuts and receive their wages when the chief feels like paying them.

But this is where the masters are in for a sudden surprise. Several days before the incident illustrated above, something else happened in Moscow which, remarkably, went almost unnoticed. Society might have been busy with other things, or perhaps the story was intentionally hushed up. It was actually an unprecedented event: Tajik street cleaners in Moscow went on strike. Amidst a fierce snowstorm which traditionally caught the Russian capital unawares, the Tajiks, enraged by the treatment they were receiving from housing departments, refused to shovel the snow. Many Moscow courtyards were snowed in. Via carrot and stick, the street cleaners were finally persuaded to go back to work. But one thing has become clear: the floodgates are now open. Migrant workers are now speaking up for themselves, defending their rights despite the sharp discontent and protests voiced by the locals, including the driver who demanded a shovel from the man not-named-Akhmet.

As soon as the Tajiks began to come to Moscow in large numbers, they became the butt of many jokes. But after a while, the jokes disappeared as they became a mundane fixture in the capital. As before, they remain a kind of litmus test that shows how tactful society is. Tactfulness on the civic level is nothing but political correctness which, as many (including the unfortunate driver) claim, is the cause of Europe’s decline. It is doubtful that these people have read Spengler in large quantities – he does not say a word about Tajiks. But that perennial Russian chauvinism has always been eager to stand in defence of any piece of land where nationals it dislikes begin to show up. Russian chauvinists loathe the Tajiks because they have flooded Russian cities and believe they also have the right to live there. Because they are dark-skinned. Because they work. Because they marry Russian girls. Because they don’t marry Russian girls but instead bring along their Tajik women. Because they don’t drink. Because “just look at these mugs – they can’t speak a word in Russian”. You would think that some Russians have a burning need to discuss complex philosophical problems with the Tajiks that the latter are failing to perform.

Surveys show that most of the Moscow-based Tajiks have higher or incomplete higher education which they had no use for in their motherland after the USSR broke up.

They came to Russian cities not because they had a good life back home and not even to find this kind of life in Russia. They only want hand-to-mouth subsistence – something the monstrous Soviet empire buried as it collapsed. The Tajiks in Moscow are kind and friendly as individuals, but as they keep coming to the Russian capital in trainloads, they unwittingly exact revenge on the city which crowned the inhuman empire that lured their motherland into its snare, drained it and then dumped it. Moscow is not Babylon-like New York which absorbs all identities while preserving its own distinct face. Moscow is cruel but weak, despotic but indulging. It cannot put up resistance to ex-Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s experiments or the intrusion of a foreign culture – it dissolves in it, becoming blurred, losing its own traits and entering a desperate, dull rage.

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