Friday, August 26, 2016


Interview: Russia As A 'Chance For Survival' For Tajik Migrants

Ksenia Diodorova: "I find people's attitudes toward labor migrants deeply troubling."
Ksenia Diodorova: "I find people's attitudes toward labor migrants deeply troubling."

Ksenia Diodorova, a Russian graphic designer, says she is troubled by the deep-seated hostility toward migrant workers in her country. Her photo essay "In The Cold," shot in both Russia and Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan province, aims to dispel some of the misconceptions held about migrants from Tajikistan. She spoke with Andrei Shary of RFE/RL's Russian Service about her project.

RFE/RL: How was the idea for "In The Cold" born? What brought you to the Pamir mountains?

Ksenia Diodorova: My initial idea was to shoot a series of portraits of migrant workers, women, to show female migrant workers not as cashiers but as beautiful women. I was looking for a way to shine a light on labor migration from a different perspective because I find people's attitudes toward labor migrants deeply troubling.

I had also long wanted to work on the theme of isolation, when a village high up in the mountains is cut off from the world in winter and people there live with a completely different conception of time, one that is totally foreign to city dwellers. Then I met with an anthropologist from Pamir who got me interested in that region. So these three ideas merged into this project, "In The Cold," which is about the parents of migrants workers who live in the mountains.

I spent a month in Tajikistan traveling from village to village in the Bartang valley. I visited five or six villages and lived several days at a time with different families.

RFE/RL: Would you describe this region as a lost world?

Diodorova: In a sense yes, it is a lost world. But I wouldn't say that life there is oppressive. From a Western point of view of progress, of course people there lag behind. At first, my project was titled "Lost In The Cold," but I eventually dropped the word "lost." The people there aren't lost, they just live differently.

RFE/RL: Did you really suffer from the cold in Tajikistan, or is it a metaphor?

Diodorova: It's a metaphor. I tell a double story, the first part of which is shot in Pamir and the second in Russia. Those in Pamir live in climatic coldness, while their relatives in Russia live in social coldness."

RFE/RL: Which kind of coldness is harsher, in your opinion -- climatic or social?

Diodorova: All the protagonists in this project possess such inner strength that they don't seem to mind. These are people who never complain – neither there [in Tajikistan], nor in Russia.

  • Ksenia Diodorova spent the month of January 2014 in the Bartang valley of Tajikistan's mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan province. She lived with local residents whose sons, daughters, siblings, or parents are working in Russia. 
  • This is one of Tajikistan's most isolated regions. In winter, snowfall cuts off the valley from the rest of the world. Roads are often unpassable, electricity supplies are sporadic, and only one village has mobile phone reception.
  • Eight people whom Diodorova met in the Pamir mountains soon came to Russia. They are now migrant workers. They will set aside as much as possible from their meager salaries each month to support relatives in Tajikistan.
  • Left (in Bardara): Garibsulton has two children. She moved to Moscow several years ago after her husband, a schoolteacher, died of cancer. She works in a shopping mall cleaning dishes at an Uzbek cafe run by a man from Azerbaijan. Right (in Moscow): Garibsulton lives in a dormitory for migrant workers near the shopping mall. She pays 3,000 rubles per month and gets free meals. This is a good arrangement; she is able to send almost all her salary back home. 
  • Left (in Bardara): In winter, Tajik women knit traditional Pamir dzhurabs, brightly colored socks from goat or yak wool. This is Faridun's home. His brother, who has just returned from Russia, is sleeping. Right (in Moscow): Faridun works at a car wash outside Moscow. In January, his wife had a baby girl. When he next sees her, she will be 18 months old. 
  • Left (in Khuchez): Khairulo and Baskhotun's son, Mirfaroz, has lived in Russia for seven years. He works on a construction site. Right (in Moscow): Mirfaroz announced in March that he planned to get married in Moscow and promised to bring them over for the wedding.
  • Mirfaroz married his fiancee, Fazila, a month later. His mother traveled all the way to Moscow for the wedding.
  • Left (in Roshorv): There are six sisters and three brothers in the Kubaev family. The husband of Gulsara, one of the sisters, and her brother, Kadam, work together on a construction site in St. Petersburg. Right (in St. Petersburg): Kadam hasn't been to Tajikistan for seven years. His relatives would like him to marry, but he says his priority for now is to support his family and pay for his sisters' studies.
  • Left (in Ravmed): The name of the village where Dzhuma and his family live means "the path to hope" in Tajik. Dzhuma's brother Alikhon went to Russia 17 years ago and hasn't returned since. His wife Tamina came back to the village several times to give birth. Alikhon says he sends all his money home and can't afford two tickets to Tajikistan. Right (in Moscow region): The couple's youngest daughter is six years old. She calls her father "uncle" and her mother "auntie." Their eldest son studies at a prestigious, paid school in Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan province.
  • Alikhon and Tamina's children are raised by relatives in Ravmed. This is Navishtano, their youngest daughter.
  • Left (in Roshorv): Dzhuma went to Russia three years ago to support his brother in Tajikistan. His brother studies at a technical school specializing in economics and practices sambo, a type of martial art popular across the former Soviet Union. Last, year, he won first place in a national tournament. Right (in St. Petersburg): Dzhuma first worked in Moscow before joining his other brother in St. Petersburg. He now offloads goods at a supermarket from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
  • Dzhuma's nephew is afraid of the dark. There are two light bulbs in his home, one of which is powered by a small solar panel and left on all night. Almost all houses in Roshorv are equipped with solar panels, purchased as part of a EU initiative. Power supply to the village otherwise is very poor; outages happen several times a day. 
  • Left (in Moscow): Migrant workers tend to live in cramped quarters, often sleeping in bunk beds. Many construction workers live in makeshift accommodations directly on building sites. Right (in Moscow): Someone wrote "Pamir" on a board at this construction site. 
  • Migrant workers also share their meals. Construction brigades often include several men from the same village or family.
  • Left (in Khichez): Tajik migrants rent out flats with relatives or people from their home village. The rent for migrant workers is 1.5 times higher than for Russians. Six or seven people live in each room. Right (in Moscow): In the evening, mattresses are unfolded and spread on the floor. That's how people sleep in Pamir, lying close to each other to stay warm. 
  • Left (in Roshorv): This is Shakartokhun. Her son and daughter work in Moscow. Her husband was recently deported from Russia. Getting proper documents in Russia is difficult. It's also expensive -- $45 for a three-month residency permit and $880 for a one-year work permit. Right (in Moscow): Deportees have three days to leave the country. If they can't afford a ticket back home, they are placed in a special detention center. Some of them are forced to "earn" their return ticket by working without pay. This can last up to six months.
  • Young women wash the entrails of a slaughtered sheep in a river in the Pamir mountains.
  • An open-air "gym" in the Bartang valley.
  • Left (in Ravmed): Kholik serves as the khalifa, or Muslim cleric, for two villages in the Bartang valley. His son Karim has not been home for seven years. He works as a warehouse porter in the Moscow region. Three years ago, Karim's wife returned to Pamir to give birth. Right (in Moscow region): Karim has never seen his daughter, Noziya. He speaks to her on the phone, but she always repeats the same phrases: "When are you coming back?" and "Send money."
  • Diodorova says her project with the Gorno-Badakhshan Tajiks is meant to explore two kinds of coldness -- the climatic chill at home and the social isolation in Russia. But she says all the Tajiks she met "possess such inner strength they don't seem to mind. These are people who never complain -- neither in Tajikisan nor in Russia." 

    Diodorova is currently raising money to publish a book based on "In The Cold." For more information, interested contributors can go to


RFE/RL: Are there any family stories or circumstances that particularly struck you in the villages you visited?

Diodorova: A common situation that really touched me is the fact that because of migration, children are growing up without their parents. The children of labor migrants don't see their fathers and mothers for several years at a time.

RFE/RL: How do the people you spoke to relate to Russia and Russians? Do they resent Russia for the way migrants are treated there? Do they admire it? Or is it simply an inherent part of life for Tajiks?

Diodorova: I think they see Russia as part of life. It's obvious that the majority of migrant workers are socially isolated. I think they see Russia as a chance for survival. They know that it is tough there and that the attitude toward them is ambiguous.

RFE/RL: Your project aims at dispelling some of the stereotypes targeting Tajiks and migrants workers in general. Could you list some of the stereotypes that you would like to challenge?

Diodorova: Tajikistan has an ancient culture and very rich traditions. Through the viewpoint of ordinary people, I would like to show that their philosophy holds great worth, that things are not as simple as they may seem to those who think that women there are barred from leaving their homes, that they all wear veils, that Tajiks live in filth, don't wash their hands, and sleep on the floor. This is what I'd like to tackle.

I don't think I'm in a position to do anything about all the other stereotypes -- along the lines of "migrant workers steal our jobs" or "why can't they stay in their own country." These issues belong to the governmental and political spheres, and these are absent from my project. This is a project from ordinary people for ordinary people."

Diodorova is currently raising money to publish a book based on "In The Cold." For more information, interested contributors can go to her page here

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