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Documenting Moscow's migrant workforce

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

A migrant worker wearing a Russian cartoon hero 'Luntik' costume takes a break from his work of distributing advertising leaflets at metro station in Moscow on Nov. 23, 2011.

Reuters photographer Denis Sinyakov spent nine months documenting the lives of Russia's enormous and mostly illegal migrant work force in the lead up to presidential elections that take place next month.

Russia’s demographic situation is one of the many contributing factors to the uncertainty facing the country. Not only does Russia have a decreasing population, but the chaos of the 1990s has created a situation where there are fewer young adults now than should be expected in a standard population. The result is a small, indigenous labor pool and a large influx of migrant workers to fill the gap. These workers are mainly from former Soviet countries in Central Asia – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan – places with their own economic problems, which also encourages migration.

Denis Sinyakov, Reuters photographer based in Moscow writes:

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Migrant workers work unload potato sacks at a vegetable market on the outskirts of Moscow on Nov. 11 2011.

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Migrants workers from Tajikistan relax on the roof of their shelter after working at local market outside Moscow, July 18 2011.

I don’t remember a time when Moscow hasn’t been flooded with them, migrants from Central Asia.

 When I moved here in 1997 they were already here. They had started appearing more than 20 years ago, the time when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Some fled civil wars, but more usually they were escaping the awful economic situation in their homelands. Not exactly an escape, but they came to make some money, leaving their families at home. The economic situation in Russia even now isn't enviable, at the beginning of the 1990s it was woeful, but none the less better than there.

 Muscovites have got used to living with them, used to regarding them as low qualified workers, as street sweepers and lorry loaders, cheap muscle on building sites. People are used to calling them “churki” and “sheep” and not finding those words in any way offensive.

Muscovites are generally not very tolerant people towards aliens, and aren't very fond of newcomers from the varied different regions of the Russian federation, or the Caucuses or from Central Asia. But only the latter group has it become habitual to offend in public.

 When I started to shoot this story I saw the following scene:  two women arguing about a dog belonging to one of them that was swimming with children in a river one hot July day.  In the same place migrants from Tajikistan were swimming, they were about half of the bathers present.

The women were shouting and arguing for a long time about the hygiene of the dog. Bystanders became involved and eventually sided with the dog owner, arguing that it was permissible since there were already several “darkies” swimming in the same place, so the water could hardly be considered clean. The darkies, deeply tanned only on their necks and forearms, listened silently and continued swimming and didn't pay any attention to what was happening. Everybody is used to it, but I felt deeply ashamed.

 That's what I wanted to photograph, but it seemed impossible. The unpleasantness of locals to the immigrants is an intangible, a mentality ingrained as part of the status quo, easy to seem unremarkable and by its nature unnoticed. However there are so many aspects to this relationship that reflect a multitude of issues confronting Russia at the beginning of the 21st century.

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Muslim migrant workers attend special prayers on the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha in Moscow on Nov. 6 2011

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Migrant workers from Tajikistan bathe in the Yauza river outside Moscow, July 6 2011

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters

Migrants workers from Tajikistan gather in a shelter to watch TV after working at a local market outside Moscow, July 6 2011.

Click here see more of Denis Sinyakov's photographs of "Russia's Untouchables" and read more about his experience covering the story.

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