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BISHKEK | For years, train stations like Bishkek’s were a kind of symbol of post-Soviet decline and economic collapse – but not because they were abandoned, like so many factories in Kyrgyzstan had been.
Rather, the Bishkek train station enjoyed a boom: the harder life here became, the busier the station got.
It was labor migrants who kept this place alive. As people fled poverty and unemployment, the Kyrgyz state railway company opened several new routes, all to Russia: Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Novokuznetsk.
I thought about this while standing on the platform waiting for the Bishkek-to-Moscow train. As soon as it pulled in, its doors were jammed with passengers trying to lift their huge Chinese-made bags into the cars.
But my carriage was oddly quiet. To my astonishment, only two passengers sat in a carriage built to accommodate a few dozen people.
“What happened to the train, why is this carriage empty?” I asked Samara, a conductor who didn’t want to give her last name. “Is it always like this?”
The train turned out to be half empty, and even the cheap second-class carriages called platskart were not full. “There’s been a decline of passenger traffic lately,” Samara said. “It’s quite unusual. Normally, after March and throughout the summer, trains going to Moscow or to other Russian cities are packed. But this year that’s not happening.”
The economic downturn has meant that fewer opportunities await migrants in Russia – a huge blow for many households in Kyrgyzstan. Officially about 500,000 Kyrgyz work abroad, mostly in Russia; unofficially, the number could be twice that. The remittances they send home make up one-third of their country’s GDP.
Many families in Kyrgyzstan can survive economic hardship thanks to those payments. Maybe that’s why those who came to see off their relatives leaving for Russia didn’t look particularly sad at parting.
There is nothing glamorous about Soviet-era trains. They are noisy, stuffy, and smelly. But my carriage looked surprisingly pleasant. It was clean, it didn’t smell, and it wasn’t crowded. Shelves and corridors were not occupied by ticketless passengers who had boarded by bribing conductors, a practice Kyrgyz trains have become known for.
When the train stopped at the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border a few hours later, people were noticeably nervous. The clatter of wheels gave way to a tense silence. Labor migrants fear a border post like babies fear an injection. The very sight of it makes them feel uneasy.
A lawyer from a firm hired by Kyrgyz Railway to provide legal assistance to passengers on this route explained why.
“During a border check, police officers or border guards might illegally take passengers to a platform and start a personal examination, violating legal procedures,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity. “They can confiscate their belongings or demand money. Law enforcement officers usually give absurd reasons, such as that the confiscated item has no technical passport or a warranty document.”
With little knowledge of their rights, migrants make easy targets. Some passengers told me about police officers who had threatened to kick them off the train unless they handed over cash. Although such incidents have likely declined since lawyers began riding the trains, they undoubtedly still occur.
Aside from the tense brushes with the law, for many the four-day journey is nothing but boring. Some try to sleep despite the noise of the wheels. Others play cards or read newspapers. For many, these are the last days of rest before reaching their destination, where backbreaking work awaits them.
Ulanbek Chongurbaev has been working in Russia as a builder for six years. He earns 20,000 to 25,000 rubles ($650 to $800) a month and sends money home, where his parents are using it to build a house.
Chongurbaev complained that he had gotten a chronic back ache from carrying heavy bags. He lives on the construction site with other Kyrgyz workers.
He and his co-workers have been cheated several times by their Russian employers, he said, but added, “It was our fault, too,” for working illegally.
“The employers would give us some cash in advance, but when the job was done they'd kick us out without paying anything. We couldn't do anything. We had no work permit or other documents, and they exploited that. They threatened to turn us in to the police.”
As he spoke, a small piece of paper lying on the table amid a bottle of Coke, boiled eggs, and sausage caught my attention. It was a migration card, a crucial document required for registration in Russia. But as I found out, just having this paper is not enough for migrant workers to become legal.
“One of the main problems for us is registration,” Chongurbaev said. “Even if you have it, police may still arrest you.” A man sitting with him explained that it takes a lot of time and money to register correctly, so many workers use the services of illegal firms that make fake stamps and registrations.
“This registration is valid only for that area where you got it because it was done with the blessing of the local district police officer,” Chongurbaev’s companion told me. “But if you go to another area, the police won’t accept it, and they’ll arrest you.”
In order to avoid these problems, many migrants get Russian citizenship. Among them is Saykal, a cook at a Moscow café who was heading back to work after a short holiday. She is satisfied with her job, which allows her to take a paid vacation once a year
“It’s easier to find a job with Russian citizenship,” Saykal said. “I don’t need a work permit. Also, police might arrest you even if your documents are fine. They demand money, and when they’re done with you they take you far away outside of the city and drop you there. That won’t happen if you have Russian citizenship.”
But some passengers said that they would never be accepted into Russian society even with Russian citizenship. Obid, who sells clothes in Samara, said that once police stopped him for speeding and beat him up. “When we said, ‘We’re Russian citizens,’ and threatened to complain, they said, ‘Just because you have a Russian passport, that doesn’t mean you are Russians.’”
Obid, 45, says he is forced to work in Russia, far from home where he could enjoy life in his old age. He was visibly angry about his treatment at the hands of Russians.
“There they call us chernyie [blacks],” Obid said. “And black people, even with a Russian passport, will be treated as second or even third class.”
The people on the train had all sorts of stories – of police raids on flats where 30 workers were sleeping, of spending nights in basements and forests, of scuffling with nationalists.
“We often came across skinheads,” said Shukhrat Ubaydullaev, a 23-year-old trader who first came to Russia with his mother when he was 12. “They raised their hands when greeting each other. ... They would approach us because we were clearly non-Russian and shout, ‘Russia is for Russians!’ Sometimes we'd fight with them, but usually we'd run away. They would be in groups.”
Despite these difficulties, migrants still go to Russia. If there were no Russia we would starve, passengers told me. Indeed, almost every passenger on the train survived thanks to Russia, earning 10 to 15 times more than they would in Kyrgyzstan.
Some passengers were so thankful to Russia that they even want Kyrgyzstan to become part of it. “Why don’t we join Russia?” Samidin Sulaymanov, a builder who has worked in Russia for 11 years, suggested. “We’re living at Russia’s expense. Most of us have Russian citizenship. Our families would stay in Russia for good.”
“Yes, we’re blacks in Russia, but who are we in Kyrgyzstan, where we have no job?” Sulaymanov said with a sad grin. “It’s better to be a black than to watch your children starve.”