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The road to the East. Ukrainian workers in Russia after 2014

A porch by a shared living block for Ukrainian migrants. St. Petersburg, 2012. Photo by Aleksandra Renoire Alekseeva.

As a 45-year-old woman scoops up another spoonful of cereal for the three year old child she has professionally taken care of during the past couple of years, she tells me:

‘I’m not a migrant, I’m a gastarbaiter [a derogatory word for a guest worker]. And so I’m underground (podpolnij).’.

Ljuba first came to Russia a long time ago – before her place of birth in the Donbass became a ‘non-controlled territory. Her story, like many others, is fairly standard: she couldn’t sustain herself economically or help other relatives that she had to look after at home. And so, she packed her belongings and headed to Moscow to try to earn a living. Moscow turned out to have many different aspects – it was dirty and clean, bad and good – but most importantly it gave her the possibility to work. She had to forget her trade and work for whoever offered employment. In any case, Ljuba was satisfied with her life. 10 years have gone by, her son has grown up, her mother got old, but Ljuba still works in Moscow, although she also dreams of returning home when it all gets better back there.

The stories told by migrant workers from post-Soviet countries residing in large Russian cities are relatively similar. The standard story goes like this: facing a non-sufficient wage in their home country, people look for a way to earn money abroad. Often they have to accept the work that doesn’t appeal to locals, such as nursing, being a nanny, a plasterer, a construction worker, a street hawker, or a cook… Many of these people preserve their national identity and say that they would like to return, but nevertheless, they stay in the host country, bringing their children and relatives with them.

Labour migration from Ukraine to Russia displays several distinct traits. First, upon arrival, Ukrainians find themselves in a country where most foreign workers come from ‘the East’: the Russian Caucasus or Central Asia. These regions are often seen to be ‘backward’ and ‘religiously hostile’ by the dominant population. It would seem that Ukrainians should enjoy advantages over other labor migrants they are ‘brother-Slavs’, they do not appear physically distinct from Russians, and their mother tongue is often Russian too. But these cultural triggers do not always fire, and it so happens that the main classificatory categories applied to Ukrainians are those of ‘strangers’, ‘newcomers’, and ‘migrants’.

Secondly, the political relationship between the two countries influences migration flows greatly. At a certain point, this relationship became – to put it mildly – strained. Since 2014, some people who used to work abroad in the past stopped going to Russia, choosing Poland instead; some decided to stay in Russia and not come back.

Thirdly, migration from Ukraine to Russia has a long history. It is not the case that people started moving between these two countries only several years ago. The exchange of people started in the mid-50’s at the same time that other labour migration processes were launched in the USSR. Some current Ukrainian citizens come from different regions of then-Soviet Russia, and many of them still have friends and relatives in the ‘enemy country’ (as they sometimes call it).

A shared foreign workers’ accommodation. Courtesy of Metagazeta

What do foreigners from CIS countries[1] encounter in Russia

Upon arriving in the host country, Ukrainians find themselves subject to the very same laws applied to migrants from post-Soviet Central Asia and other CIS countries. That is, they have to acquire a ‘patent’ to be able to work. The patent system was introduced in 2014, replacing the old, more complex bureaucratic system involving two types of documents. Previously, one had to acquire a work permit to work for a business. To work for a private individual a patent was required. This gave rise to confusion and inconvenience. For example, a person could  start working on a patent-based job, and then, if she got dismissed earlier than expected, she couldn’t start working for a construction site (usually owned by a company) because she didn’t have a permit.

Between 2014 and 2015 the work permit system was discarded, and the single patent system for all types of employment became the standard. Patents are issued to workers, not to companies, and the regional administration has the right to set quotas for the number of patents issued. The document is issued at the regional MCPPS (Multifunctional Center for the Provision of Public Services, multifunkcionalny centr), where there are often multi-day queues for precisely this service.  The price for the patent has tripled since the 2014 reform. Today, in 2019, it costs 1200 rubles (17 euro) a month.

The value by which the price is multiplied depends on the country’s region (in Moscow the multiplier is 2.28938). There is also a deflation coefficient, which changes with the year (as of 2019, it is 1.729). A patent in Moscow will cost 4750 rubles (67 euro) per month, taking into account the coefficients. Additionally, one is required to take out medical insurance at a cost of around 1800 rubles (26 euro) a year, as well as to pass exams in Russian language, history and literature (around 4000 rubles [57 euro]). Thus, a foreigner from the CIS who wants to legally work in Moscow has to pay 62 800 rubles (891 euro) a year.

If one’s papers are not acquired within three months, it is required for her by law to leave Russia and not return for at least another three months. In practice, many people exit the country and immediately come back. This allows migrants to work for a significantly longer period, although illegally and without paperwork. If detected, migrants are deported for 3 to 5 years.

The registration line at the Federal Migration Service. Courtesy of Russkiy Mir

“In fact, here they are good to the khokhly [Ukrainians] …”

Oftentimes Ukrainians end up immersed in the broad migrant community rather than moving into higher social strata. They associate with other migrants at work or at their places of residence. Migrants of all sorts become friends.

I met Lyuba through common friends. She is a full-bodied woman of around 45 years with kind eyes. We sit in the kitchen, where she talks about her life, how she fell and broke her leg and how she visited  her friend in Luhansk.

One of the topics we talk about is her relations with people in Moscow. On the basis of common living quarters (hostels, ‘migrant’ areas), similar types of work (as a housekeeper, a nurse, a construction worker…) and similar troubles (finding housing, getting registered and acquiring a work patent), Ukrainians frequently get to know migrant workers from other backgrounds. They socialize over a long period, call each other up, stay in touch. Such relationships may be established on public transit or at work sites, among other places. Lyuba is currently renting a room in a hostel. She has Uzbek neighbours there. About her migrant friends she says:

I worked outside the city, and some Uzbeks and Tajiks were building houses nearby. We needed to mow the lawn, and they came over to us. They walked around and asked if there was any work for them.

Some of the Uzbeks worked as janitors. They often helped us if we needed to move something heavy from one place to another. Once I met a Tajik woman who worked as a housekeeper for a family. We still talk on the phone sometimes.

Sometimes romantic relationships develop between migrants from different countries. Lyuba was in a relationship with a man from Tajikistan, and the two lived together for some time. But at a certain point he disappeared. It is possible that he went back to his family at home (having a second family in Russia is not uncommon for many migrants).

Workers who share accommodation exclusively with other Ukrainians socialize slightly differently. They have less contact with the external migrant world, although they may still be a part of migrant communities.

Value judgments like “life is good in Russia”, “this country welcomes newcomers well”, and “there is no discrimination” are also often transmitted through common forms of migrant socialization. Lyuba elaborates at length about the good qualities of living in Russia, and how Ukrainians are well-treated there (‘In fact, here they are good to the khokhly [2]’). She emphasizes the quality of state free medical care:

I’ve had two surgeries here, and both times I had the very best medical care. <…> Once I fell and broke my leg. I called the emergency line and asked whether I could come to the hospital. I was about to take a taxi, but they said ‘Dear, stay where you are, we’ll send you an ambulance right away. Don’t try and go anywhere yourself’. I told them that I was a Ukrainan citizen, that I didn’t have any medical insurance, and they told me: that doesn’t matter. The ambulance arrived quickly, they took me to the hospital and rolled me everywhere in the wheelchair. At the end of the day, I paid nothing.

This motif recurs in the stories of other migrants I have known in the past.

Nevertheless, Lyuba says that she misses Ukraine. National folk tunes come often to her mind. Her Russian neighbours in Moscow used to play records of the Ukrainian band “Okean El’zi”. While talking about it, she emphasizes the essential interpenetrability of cultural borders, and, clearly, considers it unnatural when such dynamics are restricted.

Lyuba is lucky to reside in Moscow. Recently, Muscovites have started treating migrants more like decent people. However, in other parts of the country it may be otherwise.

People working in factories find themselves less rooted in the local culture and community life. Their opinions on life in Russia may differ from those of migrants living and working in cities. For instance, consider the worker I met on the Moscow-Odessa bus. He said:

It’s become difficult in Moscow now. The cops come asking for bribes. ‘You, from the warring side, what do you want from me?’

Ukrainians often work in low-status / blue-collar jobs in Russia, such as in cleaning. Courtesy of Pixabay

“What war? Between who and who?”

It seems that the war did not have much influence on the number of Ukrainian people willing to work in Russia. The migration patterns were formed long ago, and temporary fluctuations, as long as the economic incentives for migration stay the same, won’t change them. The Federal State Statistics Service’s data indicates a drastic increase in the amount of incomers from Ukraine to Russia per year in 2013-2014. It almost tripled during that time, growing from 55,037 to 126,819. Does this mean that since 2014, 100,000 Ukrainians have been coming to Russia each year? One of the possible explanations is that this data may account for the refugees from the “uncontrolled territories”. Initially, these people didn’t intend to become migrant workers. At the same time, the number of work permits fell sharply in 2014-2015 (see the table) due to the gradual cancellation of the old system of work permits. The number of patents granted did not increase. This could either mean that the number of illegal Ukrainian workers has increased, or it could mean that there has been an increase in those who received permanent citizenship and do not need to obtain a permit anymore.

The amount of work permit documents granted in Russia (by country). Source:

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has not had much of an influence on the attitudes of some  migrant workers from western Ukraine towards Russia. Vadim is from the village of Pilipets in the Zakarpattia region. In the 2000s, in order to feed his family and pay his daughter’s dowry, he went to Russia for work. He had a friend in Moscow who operated a successful business. This friend invited Vadim to be his personal bodyguard. He transfers money earned from this job back home even to this day. Unlike Ljuba’s son and mother, all of Vadim’s relatives have stayed back in their home village. Vadim says that it is more profitable to work in Russia than in Poland, partially because people are not allowed to overwork in Poland, whereas in Russia, if one wants to earn more money, one can work as much time as they want. Also,one can always come to an agreement with their boss, circumventing the requirements imposed by the papers. That is why Vadim isn’t going ‘to the West’, unlike many other inhabitants of his region, not even after 2014. He emphasizes that he isn’t the only one, and that no matter the political upheavals, the flow of workers to Russia will be maintained – including from western Ukraine.

Ljuba’s son Vitya didn’t accept his mother’s invitations to Russia for a while, but later gave up and went to Russia, being attracted by the economic advantages it offers. Initially he thought he would find decent work in Ukraine. He moved out only in 2018 when he understood that the ‘revolution’ hadn’t brought about the wealthy life promised by the now ex-president Petro Poroshenko. Lyuba says:

When the war started, my son moved to Kharkiv and got a job there. They didn’t give him official employment and told him it wasn’t necessary. He worked there for a couple months. It was hellish work, and he wasn’t paid in the end. They fired him, and that was it. He got sick three days before he was going to get time off on New Year’s. He had a fever when he last came to work, so he said to his boss that he was sick. He would have had to take sick leave if he had been officially employed, but since he was working unofficially, it was pointless to see a doctor. The bosses promised that he would get paid after New Year’s. So he came in after the holidays but didn’t get paid.

It turned out that he couldn’t earn anything in his homeland, not to mention that the average wages are much higher in Russia!

Here comes a different example: the workers building greenhouses near Novosibirsk whom I met on the Moscow-Odessa bus. Most of them come from a village in the Vinnitsa region. According to them, it is difficult to earn any money there, whereas they can earn more than 800 dollars a month working in Russia. This amount seems sufficient to them, despite the fact that they have to work overtime and in shifts and despite not having any leisure activities (the place where they stay is located in the countryside, where clubs and bars are absent). Some of them have been working like this for more than 15 years; others have started working just recently. For them, the average time of stay in Russia is a year, and the minimum period is 6 months. They mostly don’t visit their families back in Ukraine during this time.

Of those I talked to, all but one declared that they don’t feel any pressure from fellow villagers or neighbours at home for working in the ‘aggressor-country’. However, such an opinion may not be exactly what the neighbours really think. According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 63% of the respondents (Ukrainians) had a positive attitude towards those working in Russia. In the Western parts of the country, this figure drops to 49% but still remains at a fairly high level.

A question of some political interest is the attitude of the Ukrainians working in Russia towards the conflict. Not surprisingly, they almost unanimously agree that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a conflict between high-ranking politicians, and that it has nothing to do with average citizens. Survival and minimal well-being is much more important to them than ‘all kinds of politics’. In the bus I took from Kiev to Moscow I met workers who were building greenhouses near Novosibirsk. During our conversation, we had the following dialogue:

Building greenhouses is a common way to earn money among foreign workers in Russia. Courtesy to
  • What’s your attitude to the war?
  • Which war? Between who and who?
  • Well tell me yourself, between who and who.
  • Between the top-ranking politicians! Pointing his finger up.
  • We’re not involved in this.

I noticed that these Ukrainian workers tried not to talk about politics among themselves: they likely have different opinions, and therefore they may have an argument or even a quarrel if such topics are discussed. And they don’t want this, working as they are in the same team and sharing the same hostel room. As a result, an atmosphere of silence is established. Judging by how reluctantly these men shared their opinions on the presidential election that took place earlier this year (I asked them whom they were planning to vote for), they had not openly discussed this topic among themselves:

  • Who will you vote for?
  • Silence. A lone voice:
  • For Poroshenko.

What is more important, food on the table or the vyshivanka[3]?

Contrary to the occasional media accusation of such migrants of  betrayal, food for Ukrainian workers is not more important than ‘vyshivankas’, the symbol of their home culture. Their love for it, as well as for the language, remains intact, but it stays separated from politics. Thus the seemingly inevitable internal conflict is mitigated. Material values and the survival of themselves and their families turn out to be more important than politics, but not more important than culture and Ukrainian identity.

Contrasting their daily lives with elite politics, Ukrainian workers do not fully trust anyone. Having seen what is said on both Russian and Ukrainian television, having to face the opinions of Russians just as much as those of their relatives and friends at home, they prefer to remain neutral and try to distance themselves from politics and maintain a positive image of both countries and the people living there.  While justifiably pessimistic – the vast majority of the migrant laborers don’t see the possibility of any politics around themselves due to both the compromised status of “politics” and “political” in the post-USSR and their marginalized positions in both home and host societies.

However there are ways to make the lives of millions of labor migrants of all backgrounds significantly better, such as bringing them together to fight for their rights, introducing solidarity and political consciousness.

Initiatives to do so are numerous neither in Russia nor in Ukraine, however there are some, and there is hope for having more of them.

[1] Commonwealth of Independent States

[2]  A slightly derogatory Russian term for Ukrainian people.

[3] A type of national dress in Ukraine

Aleksandra is a social researcher and a science writer with interests in ethics and policing of technology, anthropology of migration, informal economics, and the countries of Central Asia. She graduated from the European University at Saint-Petersburg.