Russia’s migrant phobia primarily a political, ideological phenomenon: Sergei Abashin
On the eve of the centenary of the October Revolution, the Central Asian Analytical Network (CAAN) is returning to the question surrounding the administrative and territorial demarcation of Central Asia. In a conversation with the political scientist Raffael Sattarov, well-known Russian historian, ethnologist and anthropologist, Sergei Abashin, will shed light on some dark corners of the region’s Soviet period and reflect upon current questions that define the relationship between Russia and the Central Asian countries, most prominently nationalism, labour migration and post-Soviet integration.
Recently, there was a lively discussion all over Central Asia on the history of the region’s border demarcations. There were two kinds of participants: loyal historians and nationalists versus a few people, who argued that history should be left in peace and not manipulated. The controversy basically concerns the question of how successful have the territorial demarcations that have been implemented by Moscow in Central Asia been? Or are we are looking at a failed project that just inflames inter-ethnic conflict and encourages territorial demands among these countries today?
I have published extensively on this particular topic, but I still wish that there was more research going on. So far, we can conclude that the administrative-territorial demarcations that were undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s were an intricate process involving a multitude of political actors. Moscow had the last word, of course, and it should be stressed that Stalin played a key role in this process in so far as these questions touched upon his immediate responsibilities as Commissar for the national question. This does not mean, though, that all decisions in this process were taken exclusively by Moscow. The capital was far away and simply could not know and understand what was actually happening on the ground.
Modern historians, who study the reforms have concluded that local elites were actively taking part in shaping the demarcations—lobbying for their interests, competing with each other and trying to convince the Kremlin of their viewpoints. But Moscow itself did not have one single plan or position. The Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, for instance, often saw things quite differently from the Commissariat of Nationalities. A number of departments at the center of power, as well as local forces, tried to shape the demarcations according to their wishes and quite frequently, they all met in the middle and compromised.
Moscow was, moreover, not only interested in dividing up the region into national republics in order to manipulate local relations and conflicts, but also in not letting the matter spill into open conflict. In that way, compromises were convenient to give all sides something of what they wanted. Research has further shown that not only political, but also economic factors have to be taken into consideration. The Kremlin not only needed a region that was divided by national republics, but also one that could provide economic and human resources.
At the time, the USSR already considered itself a central international power and was looking to expand its influence eastward. The new modernised republics were then regarded as instruments to achieving exactly this. And accordingly, there was a strong incentive to develop the region’s infrastructure, transport systems and industries. This is why economic factors were as much a factor as nationality issues in the reformation of the republics’ borders.
Considering that each nation and nationality is a unique social construct, to what extent do you think it was appropriate to divide up the nations in a way that was as a concept hitherto unknown to the people in the region? In today’s debates among historians and linguists of Central Asia, who are examining the historical and ethical angle of these questions, things can get comical when someone is trying to argue that one figure or another was in fact Tajik or Uzbek. So, what can explain the choice of a distinctly national approach?
The position you describe was not only to be found in the USSR, but also in the West. Just look at how the borders were drawn in Eastern Europe and the Middle East after the First World War. We have to remember the context of these times. The ruling class was convinced that all states had to be nations, overlapping with the home of some ethnic groups or nations. This was not only the point of view of the Bolsheviks or Leftists, but a diverse group of political forces were thinking that a state was only able to modernise its society and develop its economy and society in a national context. It is also clear that the Bolsheviks were able to fulfil one central goal through the national demarcation of Central Asia, namely the break-up of the “Muslim Opposition Front,” which they saw as a hostile and archaic adversary.
But apart from that, there was still a consensus that the nation was a single political formation to achieve progress. This view was also gaining momentum among local elites which were, for instance, looking towards the reforms in Turkey that had a distinctly nationalistic tone. Like this, all those different projects and aspirations converged at some point and formed the basis for cooperation in the Kremlin and local politicians and intellectuals on this question. Crucially, this consensus was deemed compatible with the ruling ideology.
You have just mentioned that the Bolsheviki were hostile to religion. But when we look at that period retrospectively, we can identify a paradoxical moment: in European Russia and the Western parts of the former Empire, churches were burning and all valuables, gold and icons, were taken away by the state. The treatment of Muslims, though, was much less heavy-handed. For instance, the Bolsheviks were referring to the Central Asians as “Muslim Comrades of Turkestan,” “Muslims of Turkestan, freed from the feudal yoke,” and so on.
Furthermore, they even began to return cultural and religious treasures that had been confiscated under the tsar, like the famous Samarkand Kufic Quran. Can we thus say that the repressions against Muslims were much less harsh than against the Orthodox community?
Indeed, and I would even add that all the way through the 1920s, Sharia courts, Muslim schools and Waqfs [Muslim religious foundation] all continued their activities while many Muslim institutions continued to exist until they were finally shut down in the late 1920s. The reason has nothing to do with positive attitudes towards Islam over other religions. It was pure pragmatism.
Central Asia was an extremely difficult terrain for the Bolsheviks and although they would have been able to militarily suppress religion, what they needed was the population’s loyalty, but not forced submission. They rather sought to make allies among the locals and their elites and compromised on religion to achieve just that.
The logic behind this could be described like this: “We Bolsheviks have established control over a region, where millions of practicing Muslims live and we cannot open up and staff thousands of courts within a year or two, who could work according to Soviet law. Whether we like it or not, we will allow traditional Sharia courts to take care of non-criminal administrative issues, such as family feuds. For a lack of resources, we cannot ensure that everyone will have access to schools with Communist standards. Let us therefore set up a balanced system: the funds from the Waqfs will be used to run Muslim schools, where basic reading and math will be taught together with religious subjects. For us, it is easier and cheaper at this point to introduce a few secular elements into these religious institutions than to break-up the whole system and start anew.”
The Bolsheviks did hold utterly utopian views, but were often very pragmatic in governing the country, if reluctantly. But obviously, pragmatism and compromises were not permanent.
From the late 1920s, all these religious institutions were changed and in the 1930s, mass repressions against any religious activity were launched. When the Soviets had amassed enough power, they walked back the former compromises that had now become constraints to their power.
I would like to touch upon the Jadids [a pro-Western Muslim Reformist Movement in the 19th and 20th centuries]. There are some quite different assessments on what they were trying to achieve. The official historiography in Uzbekistan is portraying them as fighters for national independence and against colonialism, czarism and even Bolshevism. Another school of thought holds that they were rather an integral part of Russian colonialism in Turkestan as their public appeals stressed similarities with Europeans, education and development, but not the fight against colonialism. Which of these two comes closest to reality?
Historians today have substantially progressed in studying the intellectual life in Central Asia at the beginning of the previous century. More and more of them would now reject such a rigid dichotomy, according to which local elites were divided between Jadids and Kadmists [Conservative Muslim Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries]. We are rather looking at a complicated constellation with the Jadids arising, not as a monolithic group, but rather a conglomerate of different people with different ideologies. There were so-called “Rightist Jadids,” who rejected Bolshevism, as well as “Leftist Jadids,” who quickly integrated into the Soviet power structures and some of which even adopted a Communist ideology. And many were constantly searching for new ideas and changed their views over time.
We know that most Jadids were harshly suppressed in the 1920s and 1930s, including the so-called traditionalists. This group thought much about reform and the necessity of change in the entire region, but was also quite diverse. Some of them would neither work with Imperial nor Soviet authorities, others would cooperate with both. Frankly speaking, the Muslim Clerical Board that was founded in the 1940s was not made up of Jadids, but of traditionalists. Relations between the different Muslim groups and the Imperial or Soviet authorities were constantly in flux. The Russian Empire first saw the Jadids as a useful influence on Central Asian societies as they were pushing for progress, but later began to consider them dangerous dissidents and hostile revolutionaries. At this point, the more conservative Kadmists suddenly discovered their affection for the Russian Empire and later for the Bolsheviks.
Today, the reformist Jadids are generally well-regarded again because they represent a truly local historical vanguard for the modernisation of the state outside the Soviet context. While there is some truth to this picture, we can also observe a certain simplified idealisation of the time, but no outright falsification.
The post-Soviet Turkic countries are using the Latin script today or are transiting there. They usually justify this with an aspiration to join the club of progressive countries and modernise their societies. Does this not seem like an incarnation of the early 20th century when the Bolsheviks relied on pan-Turkism in the region? And when did these ideas take root among the intellectual and political elites of Central Asia?
Let me begin by saying that we should be careful to say that Bolsheviks and pan-Turkists cooperated with each other. Yes, at some point, the Bolsheviks saw the pan-Turkists as a revolutionary and anti-Imperial force that could be used to split religious opposition, fight the English, conduct reforms and modernise society. The Bolsheviks really wanted to tap into the pan-Turkists’ nationalist energetic zeal, which had quite a lot in common with the Communists’ own momentum. But in practice, the cooperation proved not all too successful, and was best exemplified by the Young Turk [early 20th century Turkic modernisers] Enver-Pasha, who first made a deal with the Bolsheviks, only to later lead the fight against them in Central Asia. It was becoming clear that pan-Turkism was increasingly an opponent and competitor of the Soviets.
This duality is also on display in the attitudes towards the Latin alphabet. At first, the transfer to Latin was encouraged upon the advice of local reformers, who had convinced Moscow that the new script would help contain religion and promote reforms. Later, though, the Kremlin clearly decided that the Latin script will mean that Central Asian countries are moving away from Moscow and pursuing an alternative political path. As a consequence, a forced conversion from Latin to Cyrillic took place in concert with a subsequent intensive Russification of education and culture.
When it comes to the most recent designs to switch to the Latin script in Central Asian countries, I would not like to judge whether this is good or bad. I think that it is in many ways an inevitable process because the question of alphabet and language was already one of the most important issues during the Soviet modernisation project of the 1920s and 1930s. The debates about the alphabet and the role of a unified language with common grammar, phonetics and vocabulary for nation building and self-awareness were already taking place at exactly that time. Language played a key role in the symbolic meaning of authority, governance, mobility and access to resources.
What were the main concerns for the Central Asian elites during the Perestroika reform of the late Soviet age? Nobody at all was in fact asking for full and immediate independence, but rather favouring the granting of more rights to the national languages and to give them state recognition. Since then, the sensitive nature of the language question persists, and we are witnessing constant political appeals, emotional discussions and even conflicts around this topic. And it is through the language question in particular, that discussions about the future of the country, about majority and minority, about who can speak for the elite and about the relations of independent states towards Russia are articulated. It has become an integral part of nation-building in Central Asia, and it is thus inevitable that politicians will return to the language question until the countries in the region consider themselves fully developed nation states.
With your permission, I would like to touch upon the complex of the “Soviet Kishlak [rural settlement of semi-nomadic tribes].” Noblesse oblige—nobility comes with obligations. When talking to Russian historians and politicians about the collapse of the USSR, one often hears the following argument: “While in Russia, the villages and their rural cultures were dying out, the situation was wholly different in the Central Asian Kishlaks, where gas and electricity was supplied and infrastructure, roads and factories were built.” Roughly speaking, Russia was developing the Central Asian countryside at its own expense. How would you evaluate the merits of this thought process and what were the commonalities and differences of the social changes that Russian villages and Central Asian Kishlaks were undergoing during Soviet times?
The distinction between the villages in the two regions is certainly quite interesting, but it fails to account for the ideological foundations and special characteristics that Soviet modernisation projects had at their core. What was the Soviet Union? When we take away the ideology, the USSR was a rapidly modernising society, undergoing a process of transition from a mostly agrarian to an urbanised industrial economic model. Moreover, this quick modernisation was taking place without open borders and the free movement of capital. And all of that happened within the context of external self-isolation and the maximal exploitation of all available domestic resources.
Kolkhozes [Soviet collective farms] were founded to seize ever more corn from the peasants and to exchange it for Western technology and to build factories. As soon as they were finished, workers were required, and the peasants started moving to the cities. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan played a particular role in this version of modernisation, because cotton was the main resource there instead of corn. And cotton ensured the supply for one of the foundational sectors of the Soviet’s modernising economy—the textile industry. For this, though, it was necessary to keep workers in the countryside and this is why the Kishlaks were not destroyed, but schools, cafés and roads were built. The Kolkhozes were allowed to keep some livestock and grow some vegetables and fruits for private sale. But the informal economy and social subsidies allowed people to live in the Kishlaks and ensure the supply of strategic raw materials for the state economy at the same time. Of course, this is just a very brief overview to illustrate the basic logic of the situation at the time.
It is an utterly different matter to think about the direction that the economies of the USSR and of the Central Asian republics would have taken, if the Soviet Union had survived. It is hard to say. Maybe the country could have opened more to the world markets and maybe an active industrialisation would have set in all over Central Asia. In that case, people in the villages might have moved to the cities to work in industry in larger numbers; these tendencies had already been on display.
For a long time during collectivisation, people in the Kolkhozes were not given passports and were not allowed to leave their place of residence. Such rigid measures were not pushed for in Central Asia.
Oh yes, they were. In Central Asia, peasants in Kolkhozes were equally denied passports, but the problem was that the construction firms still needed workers. So, a time schedule was set up, which allowed peasants to go to the cities and the scheme later became permanent. We can see that even though leaving one’s home was in effect forbidden, migration was in fact widespread and quickly changed the relations between rural and urban people—just as in Russia. In Central Asia, though, there was a different policy, which did not see people as human resources for industry, but kept them in the countryside to mostly pick cotton. And the demand for labour was satisfied by bringing in willing cadres from Russia’s European parts, Ukraine and other republics.
Let’s talk about migration. You have mentioned that those who would in Soviet times go to the cities to work there for a limited amount of time were hated by the people there, especially in the capital. Today, migrant workers from Central Asia have taken their place. In the region itself, there is an ongoing discussion about the problems of labour migration. There is also some stress on the fact that young Central Asians are today going voluntarily to factories in Western Russia, while their forefathers rebelled against an attempt to recruit them for the same in 1916. How far can these discourses nurture nationalist sentiments and is it fair to compare these two historical examples of labour mobilisation?
Post-Soviet migration is connected with the character of the economy that has developed in the region since the dissolution of the USSR. Remember when I talked about emerging trends during the late Soviet period; one of them was a change in migration patterns. Few keep in mind that labour migration from Central Asia to Russia was growing already before the Soviet Union’s demise. During the 1980s, workers from Moscow factories were recruited from Central Asia, stayed for two or three years and then returned. Service in the pioneering units of the army was in fact also labour migration in its own right as these soldiers often worked on civil construction projects. At the same time, plans were drawn up to move whole Central Asian families to Russia and the Far East and it became clear that the region held a surplus of workers and labour. Today’s labour migration to the Russian cities from the Central Asian countryside is basically continuing this trend and represents the next step in the modernisation reforms during the first half of the 20th century.
Mass migration always plays an important role in the national imagination, which is a central component of nation-building. Usually, these movements are perceived negatively as a threat to a nation within defined borders, because mobility is leaving this defined framework behind. So, as long as Central Asia’s people, governments and elites think in national categories, they will continue to see migration in negative terms.
How far has migration defined the agenda and the political climate in Russia itself and how will this question influence politics and society there, especially in the context of the upcoming elections?
We can observe that migration is today one of the key topics, not only in Russia, but in absolutely all major countries of the world. It is a symptom of the new wave of nationalism that has emerged from the shadow of globalisation. Russia’s authorities and elites are now also beginning to think of the country in more and more nationalistic terms. Fierce discussions are taking place about “who we are,” an inclusive Russian state or a more exclusive Russian nation, about how to deal with national autonomy and migration. I have said before that mass emigration is seen negatively in the national imagination. But mass immigration is equally seen through the prism of threats and risks to the nation. Thus, if the process of nation building continues to crystallise itself in Russia, the migration question will remain among the most important political topics in the country.
But this does not mean that migration is doomed to become a continuous headache. The numbers tell us that the controversies on the topic peaked during Moscow’s mayoral elections of 2013 when all political forces—left and right, pro-government and opposition—decided to use the negative imagery of migrants to boost their popularity. But then, 2014 saw the emergence of Ukraine as a national concern, which plays an even more significant role in Russia’s nation-building than migration. And accordingly, the arguments on migration lost their former zeal and moved to second place, though they certainly did not disappear. Whether the argument will return once more depends on a number of factors, among them the future of Russian-Ukrainian relations.
Negative attitudes about migration extend not only towards Central Asians, but also to Russians themselves, especially if they are from Caucasus, Buryatia, Yakutia and so on. What lies at the core of this phenomenon?
This also stems from nation-building and the question about what Russia really is. If you define the Russian nation in a strictly ethnic sense, then there must be a hierarchy to separate Russians and those assimilated from minorities and their interests. The most “troublesome” minorities can then, according to Russian nationalists, be separated from the country. There are many viewpoints on this question in society, but one consequence of this argument is the rise of public xenophobia and racism towards anyone who seems different in everyday life.
Certainly, labour migration from Central Asia also has material benefits: the region is compensating for labour shortages elsewhere and the workers profit from an income. Is there a parallel process of mutual cultural exchange going on or is each side really just trying to stay among themselves in some sort of “cultural ghettos?”
Xenophobia towards migrants, what we call Migrantophobia, is primarily a political and ideological phenomenon. It is mostly to be found among various media outlets, in political communication, as well as in heated online discussions. Polls tell us that people are especially negative towards migrants in times of political upheaval when, in the heat of the moment, a lot of bad things are said and written about migration by journalists and politicians. This is exactly what happened in 2013, as I mentioned before.
In everyday life, though, things are different as people routinely and inescapably interact with newcomers—in shops, markets or at their country houses. This leads some to argue, for example, that they do not like newcomers, but nevertheless need affordable labour. “Let them be strangers, at least I can afford to do what I want to do!”
Thus, the public and private spheres are working according to completely different sets of rules. But that does not mean, of course, that there are no conflicts and xenophobic incidents every day, but usually they are few and locally isolated. People usually try to stay among themselves and don’t try to actively seek out others from a different background. Whatever one’s attitude towards migration, there is usually a healthy understanding that people need, even depend on, from each other. And if, for example, two or three million migrants were to suddenly leave Russia, problems would quickly ensue: many firms would go bankrupt and close, prices would rise and wages for Russians would fall. In my view, this mutual dependence will become even stronger and it is very important that politicians, journalists and experts are ready for this—that they understand, study and acknowledge this phenomenon.
Talking to different Russian experts, I have noticed some strong opinions among liberals, as well as conservatives, that they were not against integration in the post-Soviet space per se, but preferred nations with similar culture and identity. Each time, they stressed that integration should be pursued between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia and Georgia. These views were after all already to be found during Soviet times. My question is certainly speculative, but I would like to know your thoughts on why even political scientists in Ukraine are saying these things, that it is better to associate oneself with the European family, instead of countries, such as Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, with their bygone societal structures that are organised feudally or as hordes.
The political discourse in modern Ukraine defines national identity as an anti-point to the “Asian Russian.” During the current civil war, the imagined border ran between “us”—nearly a European nation—and “them”—who are defined as wholly Asian. This argument was then supported, as you mentioned, with Russia’s Central Asian migrant population, as well as with the close relations between Moscow and the countries of the region. I would just note that this imagined dichotomy gained a lot of traction after the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, but that all Ukrainians definitely do not think that way.
Another interesting question is why particularly “the East” and “Asia” are seen as alien. It is a popular oriental image, which has been explored by Edward Said. “The East” has long been described as backward, aggressive and irrational, and Islamophobia, as well as Migrantophobia, are then further added to the mix. The result is a readily prepared formula to divide “us” from “the alien other,” which is actively used all over the world, including in Russia and Ukraine.
I think it is also important to stress that the identification of an individual is usually multi-faceted. A person is able to combine within himself different sets of belonging, which enable him to differentiate between “us” and “them” in multiple ways—and not only in national categories. In the religious context, we identify as Christian or as Muslim or as something else—and the dichotomy of “us” and “them” suddenly has a different meaning.
These distinctions are yet different, for instance, when we try to identify with the Soviet heritage. Here, we can talk about common Soviet memories of the Great Patriotic War or life as a refugee, but then again do the people of Central Asia become “foreigners” for Russians. We see that the dividing lines are changing quickly and even a nationalist can turn into a Soviet or Imperial patriot if this heritage is separating him from someone else.
Talking about pragmatism, though, I think that any Russian government, even the most nationalist one, will have to establish normal relations with the countries of Central Asia. No matter how much they might not like migrants; there is an objective mutual economic dependency in terms of workforces, export markets and, most of all, through cotton and other resources. Russia needs stable neighbours and safe transit routes through their territories. Any nationalist must also understand that Central Asia is an important building block for relations with China, Afghanistan and Iran. All of these questions require active negotiations and compromises or even variously integrated international institutions. This does not mean that we don’t need to worry about nationalists in power; they can still do a lot of unwise things, disrupt the lives of many people and even bring about serious catastrophes. But despite that, I think that pragmatism would compel even them to change their radical attitudes over time.
You are working for a prestigious international academic institution, the European University in St Petersburg, which these days, is under heavy pressure from arbitrary bureaucrats. Therefore, I must really touch upon the state of social sciences today. Where did so much incompetence, unscientific reasoning and thinking in conspiracies come from? And is there light at the end of the tunnel?
I have said before that the problems surrounding post-Soviet nation-building and migration are not unique. This concerns academia as well, and we see challenges in this regard all over the world: I am thinking about pressure on the funding of universities and academics, as well as the decline of esteem for science within modern society. We are witnessing a great global crisis of human and social sciences, and this is partly why we see those charlatans and dubious experts that you mentioned, emerge.
There is a big debate on the causes of this crisis. I would highlight, for example, that the epoch of modernisation, which spread mass education, is over. Many people today have average and higher education and direct access to information, for instance through Wikipedia. That way, the distance between a professor, a historian, a sociologist or an expert on international relations and a normally educated person, who can just read the most relevant books and articles on the internet, has greatly declined. If there was a gap once, it is now gone.
In the post-Soviet space, this crisis has its own characteristics. The colossal economic crisis of the 1990s killed off many academic institutions. For science, the next generation is always extremely important, but young people at the time simply did not consider scientific careers and many left the country. Furthermore, the decline of the old ideology and intellectual traditions, the development of an inferiority complex towards other scientific institutes around the world, the incapacity to compete with American and European science and occasional self-isolation for self-protection have to be considered as well.
Clearly, there are excellent specialists working in Russia, as well as in Central Asia. Our European University, the Higher School of Economics and other universities, as well as academic institutes, have highly qualified staff in various scientific disciplines. True, there is still an impression that they work only for themselves, write for themselves and discuss interesting problems among themselves; all the while the public and political elite is not interested in their findings. In their sphere, a different approach prevails, where credibility is evaluated differently while propaganda and hysteria are taking precedence over professionalism and expertise. Let me repeat, I mean human and social sciences here. Like that, the global crisis of human and social sciences is complemented by a special post-Soviet crisis and I am honestly quite pessimistic. I do not see how we can escape this trap.
Translation by Toni Michel