Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Moscow Diary: Unwanted workers

Russia's economic boom attracted thousands of workers from former Soviet republics. But as the global economic downturn bites deeper, those same migrant workers are bearing the brunt of it, the BBC's James Rodgers discovers.

His diary is published fortnightly.


It is the only reason for empty seats in the Moscow metro at rush hour - a homeless person or two has fallen asleep on one of the benches.

The smell of their unwashed bodies has driven their fellow passengers to the other end of the carriage. Scented secretaries cover their noses with their scarves.

Moscow metro
Some passengers on the Moscow metro are more welcome than others

The sleeping faces of the two men I saw that evening looked like they came from Central Asia, just some of the thousands who have made their way to Moscow from impoverished former Soviet republics.

As Russia gobbled up the benefits of its recent boom, these people gathered up the crumbs which fell to the floor: jobs. They may have been low-paid, difficult, dirty, and sometimes dangerous jobs, but jobs they were.

I have visited some of the places where they live - shacks and makeshift houses on the edge of the city that are cold in winter, hot in summer and fire hazards for all seasons.

However harsh the conditions, they could usually find work of one sort or another. They cleaned the streets of the Russian capital.

They toiled to build the new flats and offices which towered above.

Like millions of others - and not just in Russia, of course - these migrant workers are now much worse off. Even their previously unwanted jobs are scarcer.


Walking around Moscow I get the feeling that I am seeing the end of an era.

A huge historical upheaval? No. There may be street protests in the months to come, but no revolution.

A Moscow currency exchange
Russians have been anxiously watching the rouble's decline again

It is more subtle than that. Moscow's traffic jams are thinning. It feels like there are fewer people commuting to the capital. Shops are closing and being sold, although - like the hard times - that is not unique to Russia.

It is the Putin era which is ending.

I do not mean that Mr Putin's political career is over, or his influence spent. I mean that the good times which Russia came to associate with his name are finished, for now at least, and will never return in quite the same way.

The change is affecting many elements of the Russia which he led - the businesses which boomed on rising oil prices, the retailers who couldn't sell designer clothes and digital devices fast enough, the migrant workers who came to look for work.

The cracks are not confined to the economy. Political alliances may be starting to feel the strain.

"We are working very slowly, unacceptably slowly for a crisis," President Dmitry Medvedev says of the Russian government. That government is headed by Mr Putin.

The Russian financial crisis of 1998 created the ruins from which Putin's Russia rose.

2008-2009 could come to be seen as just such a starting point for what is to follow.


Thanks to those people who commented on my account of being detained in Northern Russia.

My intentions in writing about it were to try to give a fuller picture of what it can be like to work as a journalist in Russia, and to start a discussion.

Those people who posted comments about what would I expect if I were caught wandering around an RAF base or around Norfolk, Virginia, seem to have misunderstood what I was trying to say.

My point was that I was nowhere near any military installations. I was well outside the built-up area of the town where they are based even if, as I discovered, within its administrative boundary.

Do you think I would have been released after three hours if the investigators doubted the truth of my story?

Your comments on James Rodgers' diary:

The same sights and situations can be seen in cities all over the developed and developing world. People migrate because they are pushed by poverty and lack of economic prosperity. They are attracted by the exact opposites. When those dry up, then the migrants are the first to be thrown out of work be it in Moscow, St. Petersburg, New York, London, Paris, Berlin or Warsaw.
Mike, Warsaw, Poland

I would like to thank you for your close attention to Russian problems. Not many foreign journalists seem to really try to understand, not only to put their opinion forward. The only thing is that I believe that the era you are writing about, is that it is not over at all. The country renewed itself, it is reborn from the ashes thanks to Putin. We are not going back to the Soviet times or the 1998 crisis. I personally think that Russia is in a better position than other countries to overcome this crisis.
Olesya, Russia, Moscow

I would personally disagree that we shall soon see protests across Russia. The majority of people understand that the crisis is only temporary, as is the low price of oil. The general attitude of the people is very different from the crisis in 1998. While in 1998 many did generally believe that there is no way out of the difficult situation, now the majority believe this is something that will last no more than several years if not sooner and the economy will be booming again.
Slava, Moscow

The funny thing about James Rodgers' story is that it's not only true, but it is backed up by other countries' stories such as the situation in Ireland. For the past 10-15 years, Irish were experiencing vast economic boom, and it has ended with the arrival of a financial crisis. The first thing I've noticed after coming back to Dublin was that there are fewer people in the streets and so on just like in James Rodgers' story on Russia. Let us all hope that it won't take too long for both Russian and any other economy in the world to fully recover.
Lidia Okorokova, Dublin

I lived in Russia from 1992 to 2004 and saw the 1998 economic collapse come and go. This collapse will very probably be exactly the same - once the oil bounces back so will Russia.
Dimitri Ilic, Windsor, UK

I had the chance to talk to an immigrant worker from Kirgysia this January. He was quite happy with his job on the construction site. Being paid 30k roubles (EUR 650) his wage was six times higher than the highest in his homeland and enough to feed his wife and five children.
Anatoly, Saint-Petersburg, Russia

My parents in Russia live the same way they lived 10-15 years ago: saving every rouble they could. Yes, they do love Putin, but not for the oil money. They appreciate his efforts to get Russia up from its knees, because they believe we're a great nation and we should be positioned that way in the world. I doubt that my parents' life will be different from now on because of the crisis - may be they won't be able to afford a new TV set, but that's about it.
Vera, LA, US

Many Russians are in despair now. Putin promised us a rich and stable state with powerful industry and military. Instead of that we got a poor and unstable state with corrupted government. Up until very recent times, we were assured that 'there will be no crisis for Russia', but huge numbers of people lost their jobs and any means of income. Now they say "the West is responsible for crisis", but who cares who is responsible? People are losing their faith in Putin and "his mission".
Andrei, Moscow

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James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

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