18 November 2007

Brown Reconstruction in Moscow?

Over the past five years, Russia has become the primary destination for labour migrants from Central Asia. Fuelled by poverty and unemployment, labour experts say the number of unskilled workers from the region in major Russian provincial cities continues to rise, with construction firms and service providers keen on hiring cheap illegal labour…There were serious violations of migrants' rights ranging from forced labour to debt bondage, [Yelena] Tyuryukanova maintained, adding that most Central Asian labour migrants were involved in manual labour in Russian cities. "The work conditions are often equal to slavery," she explained, adding that they were under pressure from both employers and the police.

IRIN Report on Humanitarian Affairs (2004)

Russian economic growth hit a six-year high of 7.9% year on year in the first quarter, propelled by strong growth in construction, manufacturing and trade… The main factors behind the 7.9% headline growth figure were a 23.2% rise in construction, an 11.8% expansion in manufacturing and a 9.1% increase in trade. Large gains were also registered for hotels and restaurants (13.9%), the wholesale and retail trade (9.1%), financial intermediation (9.9%) and transport and communication (7.9%).

The Economist (June 2007)

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather—how shall we end the list and where?

W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935)

For now, let’s stop in Moscow.

I’ve been doing some reflection lately about the content of MTBE. Aside from the occasional literature and arts posts, it seems that my blogging evinces a certain obsession with the escalating problems of racism and ethnic violence in the Russian Federation. To some degree, this is a natural result of both my experience in Moscow and my research on the lives and labor of people from Africa and Asia in interwar Moscow. Like me, the subjects of my dissertation research continually returned to the problems of racial violence. In some sense, I like to consider my work as a descendent of Katayama Sen’s writing on organized anti-Asian politics and violence, the Gadar Party’s record of attacks against their membership in California, William L. Patterson’s protests against lynching, and George Padmore’s condemnation of the armed suppression of anticolonialist strivings from Haiti to South Africa. But a recent link and comment forwarded by a friend (hat tip to the Kamchatka bureau ) has me pondering the ways in which ethnic violence in Russia is presented—in the media and, ultimately, on this blog.

First, let me make it clear that I think that the on-going racist murders and attacks cannot get enough coverage until something is done to stop them. The problem, as I see it, is that both Western and Russian media have developed something akin to ethnic-violence porn, a visceral fascination with racist youth and the possible roots of their extremism. Televised specials like the Ross Kemp’s work on neo-Nazis in Moscow or Current’s “From Russia With Hate,” attempt to demonstrate the madness of extremism through displays of violence and then get to the bottom of the lunacy by getting inside the heads of the movements’ leaders. It’s a presentation of the problem that reproduces the visual logic of the movements’ own video propaganda, only with the addition of negative commentary. (To the Current producers’ credit, they note their uneasiness about this quandary.) Little attempt is made to more broadly situate the problem of ethnic violence, or its political and social consequences. It's sensationalism without sense.


But more importantly, the constant rendering of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, along with Africans and Asians, as victims has a demeaning underside of reinforcing the racist understanding of the place non-ethnic Russians in Russian society. Perceived as down-trodden, non-contributing guests of a host society, one is left with two possible feelings: pity and/or contempt. Actual, complex human lives are occluded from view in this mode of representation.

Contempt and pity, invisibility—it’s a story familiar to anyone vaguely aware of African American history and literature, even if only the titles of books. It was the brilliance of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, among other works, to up-end such a framing of “the problem of blackness,” which he first introduced in his Souls of Black Folk. His interpretation proceeded from the simple premise stated in his preface: “In fine, I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings…” From thence, he underscored the labor and self-activity of the black worker in building modern America and struggling for democracy. Certainly, the story of migrant workers in Moscow isn't the same as that of black workers in America. But the comparison does lend itself to a number of salient questions.

How might Du Bois's vision help us think about present-day Moscow and dislodge the current construction of the problem of the guest-worker? How might we recognize “that dark and vast sea of human labor” that has helped build up this outrageously expensive financial and commercial center? How can we imagine a Moscow that recognizes the two million undocumented workers in the city as "ordinary human beings?"

A story that answers these questions requires more than fly-by-night, sensationalist coverage. Rather, it demands the excavation of Russia’s imperial pasts, a detailed examination of the labor question in the former Soviet Union and the contributions of migrant workers, a serious investigation of the nationalist rhetoric of Russia’s leaders with the failure of these leaders to effectively prosecute racist crimes, and an analysis of the appeal of racist extremism among everyday Russians. Like Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, such an undertaking, done properly, would be a behemoth of theoretical and investigative work. (As such, it’s not a story particularly well-suited for blogging, a medium usually consisting of short posts and largely reliant on links to mainstream media or other privileged, computer-savvy individual bloggers.) But it may well be one of the most important stories of contemporary Moscow (and Russia) that I can imagine.

I've tried on and off to get at some of the complexities of life for foreigners and migrants in Russia--through my own reflections, coverage of events like Durga Puja, reviews of how gastarbeiters are presented on TV, and notes on the contributions of Chinese workers in Siberia. But maybe not enough, in retrospect, to counter-balance the construction of the helpless, down-trodden "problem" mode of representation. While I can’t dedicate myself to a new investigative project (my head needs to stay stuck in the 1920s and 1930s to a certain degree) I will henceforth—in addition to continued coverage of the problem of ethnic violence—do my best to scour the RUnet and academia for a more complicated vision of Moscow Through Brown Eyes. In the meantime, Russian readers can check out the following related articles from fergana.ru: “Invisible Muscovites” and “Are Migrant Construction Workers Building a New Russia?

And maybe someone else can write a dissertation on Brown Reconstruction in post-Soviet Moscow.

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