The global city and its underside: COVID-19 in Moscow

The global city and its underside: COVID-19 in Moscow

Anni Kangas and Zarnigor Omonillaeva

About one thousand Central Asian citizens were stranded at Moscow’s international airports, in mid-March, as states began closing their borders to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Airlines reacted by cancelling flights and large groups of migrants had to camp out in the terminals until human rights activists succeeded in drawing public attention to the issue and charter flights or other arrangements were made.

Some observers were quick to draw parallels between these events and the Hollywood film Terminal starring Tom Hanks. However, rather than life imitating a Hollywood movie, the pandemic crisis has interrupted the possibility of fixing attention on what happens on the surface of any global city. The underside – extractive economy, toil and subminimum wage work – has been brought within our field of vision (cf. Nuttall and Mbembe 2008: 22).

Laying bare the post-imperial situation
In pre-COVID-19 times several flights everyday connected Moscow’s international airports to Central Asian cities. They constituted some of the busiest migration corridors in the world. With 12 million international migrants residing in its territory, Russia has regularly been in the top-5 of the largest migrant host countries in the world.

Decisions to close state borders drew attention to the “post-imperial situation” (Abashin 2014) in which the less developed Central Asian states are a labour reservoir for the former Soviet capital. For example due to the extremely low salaries in Tajikistan approximately 10 % of its population have been estimated to regularly circulate between their home country and either Russia or Kazakhstan. The COVID-19 crisis is making the pitfalls of this development model very clear. The lockdown has already caused a considerable drop in transfers of money from Russia to the Central Asian states. As Central Asian states are among the most remittance dependent in the world, this has prompted fears of the vicious circle of underdevelopment spinning ever faster.

Women – the first affected
Judging from the requests for legal assistance, when the “non-working week” was announced on March 25th, it first hit hardest on Moscow’s migrant women working as nannies, cleaners and housemaids, as well as self-employed migrants providing repair services to households. Although labour migration to Russia is male-dominated, at the end of March more than half of those seeking assistance were women. After Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced a strict citywide quarantine on 30 March, and the federal non-working period was extended on 2 April, mass layoffs of migrant workers began: Construction workers as well as workers repairing roads also began to lose their jobs.

When the quarantine was imposed many workers were left not only without a job, but also without payment for the work already done. Late payments are, in any case, a common practice in particular on Moscow’s construction sites where a majority of Central Asian migrants work. This goes hand-in-hand with a business model where labour is subcontracted. In the first weeks of April most of the requests for legal assistance from Moscow’s Central Asian community had to do with filing cases against employers who had not paid wages.

The mechanisms of precarity
As state borders started to close, the effects of an economic model where people have no individual cushion against unexpected events were felt at the individual level at Moscow’s international airports. Tickets had been bought with the migrant’s last money. Unable to fly, there were no savings to rely on or apartments to return to.

As the migrant corridor between Russia and Central Asian states can be traversed without visas, most Central Asian migrants enter Russia legally. They then have up to 30 days to obtain a residence registration and the work licence called “patent”.  On the surface the system appears quite straightforward: there is a list of documents that migrants have to present and a fee that they have to pay. However, the events at Moscow’s airports exposed the more general truth that remaining an “authentically documented” migrant in Moscow is far from uncomplicated. However many migrants had no choice but to try to leave Russian territory, as their documents for legal residence were about to expire. The visa-free regime allows migrants to reside on Russian territory for 90 consecutive days. Violating the legal terms of stay may result in an entry-ban of several years’ (e.g. Kubal 2019). In this situation many migrants feared that they would be deported if they left the airport.

The cost of legal access to the labour market is high. The one time cost of acquiring a patent is around 350–450 euros, which is more than double the average monthly salary in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. Previous research shows that a large proportion of migrant workers indicate on their migration card a purpose other than employment, but end up working informally, without patent or registration (Heusala and Aitamurto 2016; IOM 2015), providing capital with a flexible “reserve army” of labour (De Genova 2019).

Many illegalized migrants find work in Moscow’s shadow economy where shady documents known as “clean fakes” are accepted (Reeves 2013). In the lives of migrant workers, this translates into precarity as such workers are not always able to demand their rights while employers are aware that entire families back in Central Asia are dependent on them.

In order to keep their patents valid, workers from within the visa-free regime have to make a monthly payment to the Russian tax authorities. The amount of the payment is fixed, it has to be done in advance and the sum is determined by the sector of employment. For example, a non-citizen employee in a Moscow beauty salon has to pay 4950 roubles (65 €) each month regardless of how much money they make. As if to reassure the Russian public that the state has found a way to extract value from migrant labourers, mayor Sobyanin, known to play to xenophobic sentiments, emphasized in a radio interview that migrant workers’ annual patent payments contribute 14 billion roubles to the budget of Moscow, i.e. more than the oil giant Rosneft.

With many migrants either losing their jobs or receiving a significant pay cut as a result of the lockdown, they are faced with the choice of either paying for the patent fee and going hungry or buying food and becoming “illegal”. Human rights activists as well as representatives of Central Asian states started appealing to the Russian authorities to postpone the patent fees and re examine the terms of legal residence. On 18 April Russia’s president Vladimir Putin did sign a decree, which freezes formalities and payments related to the stay and residence of foreign citizens in Russia for the period of 15 March – 15 June.

Exposing barriers in equal access to care
Stranded at the crowded airports under unhygienic conditions, Moscow’s migrant workers were obviously at a high risk of catching the virus. There is already data from various cities showing that the vulnerable populations — migrant, racialized and lower income households — are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. No such data is available for Moscow but social distancing is a policy of privilege in one of the most unequal cities in the world. Most of the city’s Central Asian labourers live in crowded conditions making self-isolation difficult. Those who have been able to keep their jobs are likely to work in tasks that cannot be done from home or where protective equipment is often lacking. In our conversations with Moscow’s Central Asian migrant workers we have heard stories of suspected cases of coronavirus infection at their places of work in construction sites or distribution centres.

As a health related crisis, COVID-19 is exposing the barriers to equal access to health care services. Migrant workers contribute to public finances through tax payments in addition to which they have to purchase health insurance. Employers also have to pay mandatory social security contributions and insurance premiums. However, the pandemic crisis is making visible the negligible extent to which these payments are used to improve the lives of migrant workers themselves. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, we have heard several stories where migrants suspecting coronavirus infection have been turned away at clinics or hospitals. This resonates with previous research suggesting that rules related to non-citizens’ access to health care are opaque, unpredictable and incomprehensible – or deliberately broken by hospital staff (e.g. Demintseva and Kashnitsky 2015).

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of voluntary support structures: Human Rights activists and members of the diaspora community are now operating a Centre offering advice in the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik languages. This is done in order to ensure that migrants who suspect they are infected receive adequate treatment and that their co-workers or flatmates are properly informed.

Thus pandemic crisis lays bare how the surface and underside entangle in a migrant metropolis called Moscow. As suggested by Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, we often tend to focus attention on the surface while the entanglements are, in fact, the most revealing facets of contemporary metropolitan life. The pandemic will eventually subside and illusions of normalcy will return. The surface will be polished but if we want to keep the door open to the possibility of a more just future, we must keep bringing the underside into view.

Abashin, Sergei 2014. Dvizhenija iz Central’noj Azii v Rossiju: v modeli novogo miroustrojstva. Pro et Contra 62 (1–2), pp. 73–83. Available here.
De Genova, Nicholas 2019. ‘Migration and the mobility of labour’. In The Oxford Handbook of Karl Marx. Ed. Matt Vidal, Tony Smith, Tomás Rotta and Paul Prew. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 425–440.
Demintseva, Ekaterina and Daniel Kashnitsky 2015. “Medicinskaja pomoshh’ migrantam iz Srednej Azii v Moskve v uslovijah social’noj iskljuchennosti.” Vestnik Rossijskoj Nacii 42 (4): 214–222.
Heusala, Anna-Liisa and Kaarina Aitamurto 2016. Migrant Workers in Russia: Global Challenges of the Shadow Economy in Societal Transformation. London: Routledge.
Nuttall, Sarah and Achille Mbembe 2008. ‘Introduction’. In Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. Ed. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe. Durham: Duke University Press. 1–33.
Reeves, Madeleine 2013. ‘Clean fake: Authenticating documents and persons in migrant Moscow’. American Ethnologist 40 (3), 508–524.


Anni Kangas is university lecturer in International Relations in Tampere University (Finland) and Principal Investigator of an Academy of Finland funded research project “Assembling a Post-capitalist International Political Economy” (no. 325976) Zarnigor Omonillaeva is a lawyer, citizen journalist and a human rights activist living and working in Moscow. The article draws on Omonillaeva’s everyday work giving legal advice to Moscow’s migrant workers.

Image: Zarnigor Omonillaeva