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Russia To Test Migrant Workers On Country's History

A clerk checks a migrant's passport at a migrant center in the city of Krasnogorsk, outside of Moscow. Will the new requirements help migrants, or just present another opportunity for corruption?
A clerk checks a migrant's passport at a migrant center in the city of Krasnogorsk, outside of Moscow. Will the new requirements help migrants, or just present another opportunity for corruption?
So you want to work in Russia? You may be a skilled bricklayer -- but do you know when Ivan the Terrible reined in the boyars? Or when the Polish-Lithuanian forces were expelled from Muscovy? When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg?

No? Well you might want to start hitting the books.

According to new regulations coming into force at the start of next year, those applying for work permits in Russia will need to pass a Russian history and civics exam. The new requirement, which adds to an existing mandatory language test for foreign workers, will affect millions of migrants seeking employment in the country.

Russian officials portray the measure, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in April, as an effort to legalize and better integrate migrant workers, most of whom come from former Soviet Central Asia and many of whom work illegally in the shadow economy.

Dmitry Vyatkin, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, says the knowledge of Russian civics and history would also enable migrants to "know their own rights" and protect themselves from exploitation. The requirement, he says, "should not be seen as discriminatory. In fact, it protects the rights of both Russian nationals and migrants."

But Svetlana Gannushkina, who heads the Moscow-based advocacy group Migration and Rights, dismisses the new requirement as "pointless both in legal and practical" terms.

Gannushkina also warns that the new tests could easily become a pretext for corruption. Forcing migrants to pay bribes for the documents they need to obtain work permits is already a booming business, she says, and adding a test requirements will only intensify this trend.

Will Tests Be Ready On Time?

Four universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg -- including the capital's People's Friendship University, which has a long history of teaching foreign students -- have been authorized to organize the tests in conjunction with educational institutions across the country.

But with less than six months before the new regulation goes into force, it's unclear whether these institutions will be prepared to administer the tests.

Maria Finashina, director of the Moscow-based Russian Language and Culture Center, one of the schools giving the tests, says it has yet to receive any manuals for the history and law exams. "The new questions and other details haven't been worked out yet, but I believe we still have time to be prepared until January," she says.

Officials at the People's Friendship University say new questions and manuals are being finalized and will soon be distributed to all institutions administering the tests throughout the country.

But Andrei Petrov of the Russian Historical Society says he expects that the new tests will be more of a "pilot project" in 2015. "It's impossible to bring in such an enormous system without experiencing any problem," Petrov was quoted by Russian media as saying. He added that special courses, brochures, and textbooks should be made available for migrants.

Likewise, Zhana Zaionchkovskaya, head of the Migration Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science's Institute for Economic Forecasting, says the authorities should find more effective ways to "educate" migrants about their rights. "Migrants' countries of origins should take part by organizing short-term courses to prepare them for such tests, and also to teach everything they need to know before coming to Russia," she says.

Just Another Bribe To Pay?

While the history, civics, and language exams appear to be primarily aimed at Central Asian migrants, they also apply to others working in Russia -- including Westerners.

The legislation requiring the tests stipulates that only highly qualified specialists, and students and graduates of officially registered Russian universities are exempt from the exams.

Russia introduced language tests for those seeking work permits in November 2012. These include a 15-minute reading test, a 10-minute conversation exam, a multiple-choice grammar test, and another to evaluate applicants' ability to fill out simple forms, such as a job application.

Those who pass the test receive a certificate that is valid for five years -- and costs the equivalent of $90 -- and can be used to apply for a work permit.

Russia's Federal Migration Service estimates that approximately 12.4 million migrant laborers entered the country last year. But according to official statistics, just over 18,000 migrant laborers obtained such language-test certificates in the first half of 2013.

Indeed, Finashina of Moscow's Russian Language and Culture Center says few migrants have come to take the exams. "We had 10 people who came to take the tests in April, and no one came in May," she says.

Abdullo Davlatov, head of the Society of Tajiks in Russia, says that "in theory, the introduction of the compulsory tests is a very good idea, because when someone wants to live and work in a foreign country, they must learn its language and laws."

But in practice, he adds, the test requirements just provide another opportunity for corruption. Some migrants, he says, pay bribes of up to $300 to buy certificates for the language tests. And he fears that the history and civics tests will turn out to be "just another document on a migrant's list of papers he has to pay a bribe for."
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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