Decolonial Disruptions in Central Asia: Understanding Reactions to Russian Migrants in the Wake of Putin’s Mobilization
by Aizada Arystanbek
In this paper, I focus on the complicated dynamics between Russian migrants and Central Asians that have been dominating public discourse in the region since February 2022. Russia has seen an outpouring of its population following the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This migration trend peaked in September 2022 with 200 thousand of Russian citizens crossing the border between Russia and Kazakhstan following Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial military mobilization. A year after the escalation of the war, this study argues for the need to diagnose how the influx of Russian migrants in Central Asia changes cultural and social discourses and ushers in new regimes of knowledge in the region’s decolonial consciousness. I am perplexed by the appropriation of resources, time, and energy by many Russian migrants on the land that still bears Tsarist Russian and Soviet imperial scars. There is a need to situate the current political migration in the context of coloniality and to excavate the labor of decolonial education and emotional and linguistic resistance that has been placed on Central Asians.
By collecting examples of public discourse, I demonstrate that the re-entering of Central Asian land by a large number of Russian migrants stirs up a historically rooted setup of settler vs. colonial subject dynamics leading to reflections on the region’s coloniality by its communities. The continuous debilitation of Central Asian lives for the sake of valuable and grievable Russian lives, where the privileged treatment of Russian migrants contrasts with the disenfranchisement of local populations, especially the ones that do not speak Russian, results in demonstrated widespread grassroot determination by many Central Asians to disrupt aphasia, an inability to speak, around the region’s colonial history through a new wave of decolonial organizing. Furthermore, I believe that decolonial rhetoric entering more public discourses has the potential to shift the focus from Russian colonialism, a limited historic period of time, to Russian coloniality, a power that remains uncontested today.
It is useful to briefly outline the domains of coloniality’s power and how decolonization is defined against them. Madina Tlostanova and Walter Mignolo (2009) outline four vectors of colonial power, including the struggle for economic control, the struggle for the control of authority, the control of the public sphere, and the control of knowledge and subjectivities. Decolonization, thus, is aimed at disrupting this matrix. Decolonial movements are framed by Tlostanova and Mignolo as “struggling against the oppressions and abuses, against the ignorance of the rulers of the state and corporation managers and for the knowledge and wisdom of all those human beings, around the planet, that do not, cannot play the game, historically established by the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality” (Mignolo and Tlostanova, 2009: 144). Decoloniality defines coloniality, it wills coloniality into being by bringing forth what has been taken for granted and normalized. At its core, decolonization is built on the hope of mapping a way out of coloniality.
Before I proceed further with my essay, I would like to use Trinh T. Minh-ha’s concept of “speaking nearby” to outline my positionality as a Central Asian scholar who does not wish to speak for or about the region and its people and rather aims to engage in speaking “that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject, [and] reflects on itself and can come very close to the subject without […] seizing it or claiming it” (Chen, 1992: 87). The plurality and multidimensionality of Central Asian experience are impossible to capture within one text, and this is not what I intend to do. My political dissent and forms of kinship between myself and my homeland, Kazakhstan, actively inform my research and help shape it into a project that is not only meant to contribute to academic knowledge on Central Asia and decoloniality but to provide Central Asians with avenues of understanding and digesting current events and discourses concerning migratory patterns and civil and political activism.
Debility and colonial aphasia
The Russian empire was a contiguous empire with its colonies located within close geographical proximity. Historically, compared to more violent conflicts between colonies and empires, the Russian rule over Central Asia had been relatively uneventful, even banal, often overlooked and romanticized even by Western leftists as a necessary building block toward communism. However, this banality implies a dangerous normalization of colonial violence and debility it engenders. While many of us in Kazakhstan are intimately familiar with the most blatant examples of debility institutionalized through colonialism, such as the effects of nuclear radiation in Semey where children are still born with disabilities, as well as national and governmental fixation on the growth of the ethnically Kazakh population following the 1930s genocide, other covert consequences of colonial domination go more unnoticed. Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropower helps frame these social events not as disconnected instances of exercising imperial power over the colonies but as a systemic consolidation of power to define which populations are disposable and how their disposability can be weaponized to augment the colonizer’s power. Mbembe extends Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower, a function of which he describes as “dividing people into those who must live and those who must die” (Mbembe, 2003: 15), to argue that colonial occupation inherently involves enforcement of new spatial relations to produce boundaries between those who are disciplined and controlled and those who are disciplined and disposed of. I expand on this in the following section.
The embodied experiences of bio- and necropower manifest in different ways across postcolonial nations. For example, the suicide levels in Kazakhstan rose by 27 percent from 1990 to 1994 and continued the trend throughout the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Buckley, 2007). Frantz Fanon wrote about the circulation of mental disorders within postcolonial communities during their transition from colonial oppression to national liberation (Fanon, 1963: 303). Fanon’s argument brings to our attention the mental and emotional consequences of surviving colonialism and the way these consequences echo throughout nations after they gain independence. Some regional scholars, such as Jakob Rigi (2003), who published his book on post-Soviet chaos in Kazakhstan, emphasize the loss of Soviet welfare as a cause of Kazakhstan’s social disintegration in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, the works of Fanon and Jasbir Puar (2017) help us center the impact of biopolitics in post-colonial nations’ bodies and collective psyche. In her book The Right to Maim, Puar outlines metrics of Foucault’s biopolitics as “birthrates, fertility, longevity, disease, impairment, toxicity, productivity” (Puar, 2017: xviii) arguing that biopower ultimately defines debility and capacity within a society. Puar’s interrogation of what “kinds of slow deaths have been ongoing that a suicide might represent an escape from” (Puar, 2017: 11) helps us frame spiked suicide levels in post-Soviet Kazakhstan not as a reactionary occurrence produced by the immediate change in social structures but as an outcome of a nonlinear temporality of slow debilitation, a part of subjugation of bodies to biopower in the Soviet Union and sovereign Kazakhstan. Connecting timelines of the Soviet and sovereign regimes and their exercise in the right to kill, to let live, and to debilitate should remain central to the Central Asian decolonial mission as it creates oppositional knowledge that has been largely absent in the public discourse of the region.
This absence is not a uniquely Central Asian phenomenon, nor is it accidental. Aphasia is a medical condition relating to the loss of the ability to understand or express speech. Ann Stoler defines colonial aphasia as an “active dissociation” (Stoler, 2016: 128) that has little to do with ignorance or amnesia. Colonial aphasia is a “political disorder” (Stoler, 2016: 166) that purposefully constructs inaccessibility to political, scholarly, and cognitive knowledge and sustains disregard for these contexts. Development of colonial aphasia, an inability to acquire critical knowledge about colonial pasts and ways to speak about it today, can be observed throughout Central Asia as its national governments often assume a subordinate position in their diplomatic relations with Russia and frame Tsarist and Soviet rule as a result of voluntary joining by Central Asian groups. By obscuring the colonial nature of Russian rule in the region, recognition and interrogation of coloniality become a domain of oppositional public knowledge intent on denormalizing acceptable narratives of histories and the present. State-sponsored colonial aphasia is rendered unsustainable in the current situation when Central Asians come face to face with new Russian migrants and the possibility of Russian military invasion of the region following the occupation of the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. Many Central Asians are struggling to articulate their fears and historical legacies, while also growing frustrated with the demonstration of Russian migrants’ lives being more valuable and grievable than that of their communities. Such was the case during the Bloody January protests in Kazakhstan and the border conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan last year. Maiming and killing of Central Asian lives rarely garner the same level of global media attention or even local humanitarian efforts, while grievable Slavic lives are centered in the discourse of the post-Soviet crisis.
Linguistic debility is a vivid example of informational and financial segregation of Kazakhstani society. Russification was an imperial quest of Tsarist Russia rooted in the civilizing mission of the Enlightenment (Hofmeister, 2016: 411). “Behind the requests for civilizing Central Asia sometimes hid hopes for long-term cultural, linguistic, and religious russification of the Muslim population” (Hofmeister, 2016: 412). Thus, Tsarist Russia introduced the idea of speaking Russian as a signifier of civility and proximity to the metropole. Today, the high prevalence of the Russian language in the region, supported by the economic disparity between the former metropole and colonial peripheries, maintains the debilitation of only-Kazakh-speaking populations in Kazakhstan.
For example, those who only speak Kazakh generally do not have access to certain job markets, which include more prestigious and financially lucrative modern professions, and to large parts of the global cultural and entertainment scenes. They are also expelled from many third spaces (physical locations other than home and work, such as restaurants and bars) that do not offer services and menus in Kazakh. Only speaking Kazakh in Kazakhstan renders individuals vulnerable to linguistic discrimination, misinformation about political and economic issues, and exclusion from civil activism. Throughout my life, I have also heard various other stereotypes perpetuated by Kazakhs about ethnic Russians being better and more trustworthy professionals, medical doctors in particular. Coloniality embedded in the Kazakhstani contemporary linguistic policies creates a hierarchy in which only-Kazakh-speaking populations are seen as less able and capable members of society, which also contributes to their more precarious financial position. This setup has not been invented by the newly arriving Russian migrants, but it works in their favor to not have to contest/justify their abilities since existing colonial categorization inherently recognizes these abilities giving them an upper hand for succeeding in a neoliberal economy.
While Central Asian communities have been affected by colonial aphasia and debility, this does not mean that these communities remain stagnant and complicit in these systems of oppression. On the contrary, one consequence of Central Asians becoming more exposed to the chasm between their lives deemed as ungrievable and disposable while the Russian migrants keep imperially constructed values of their lives is the growing awareness of colonial aphasia and debility. More people are offering educational resources in Kazakh, both online and offline, on Russian colonialism and its long-lasting effects on Central Asia. For the past few months, I have repeatedly seen Kazakhs reporting on social media about their demands for including only-Kazakh-speaking populations in the third spaces. Many interact with restaurants, bars, and businesses asking important questions about menus and services that are unavailable in Kazakh. This effort has already led to the introduction of Kazakh versions of more mobile apps while others are creating community spaces for learning Kazakh across the country in an effort to bridge the gap between only-Kazakh-speaking and only-Russian-speaking populations.
Creating spaces for only-Kazakh-speaking communities to not just co-exist with Russian-speaking populations but to transmit their knowledge of colonial oppression and debilitation remains of paramount importance. These disenfranchised populations contain the most valuable multitudes of knowledge that many of us, privileged enough to study in Western academic institutions and shielded from systemic exclusion through linguistic and class privileges, can only imagine and theorize about. However, it is important to note here that inclusion and centering of these communities should be rooted in their inherent entitlement to a dignified existence and not in their utility to resistance and knowledge production. Decolonial mission ahead of Central Asia depends on the undoing of colonial aphasia and debility of the most disenfranchised populations in order to forge movements tied to indigenous knowledge and life experience rather than imported measures of civility and value.
Constructing valuable vs disposable lives
The case of Russian citizens migrating to Central Asia represents migration from the colonial nation-state to its former colonies on an unprecedented scale, where this migration further destabilizes already skewed power imbalance between indigenous colonized populations and Slavic settlers. Before the escalation of the war in 2022, the migratory patterns permeated by coloniality involved a traditional scenario of labor flow from colonies to the metropole with thousands of Central Asian workers coming to Russia. In 2021, Russian authorities reported six million migrants living and working in the country with the majority of them coming from such Central Asian states, as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan (OCCRP, 2022). Employment in Russia has allowed many Central Asians to send money back home and support their family and loved ones. The majority of them settled for low-status occupations saturated in precarity and racialized treatment (Light, 2013; Agadjanian et al., 2017). The chasm occurs today when these valuable lives flee Russia to Central Asia, reversing the pattern. The inherent privilege granted via Russia’s imperial heritage and geopolitical history often makes the Russian migrants ignorant of their roles as re-settlers existing in the complex settler-colonial dynamic between Russia and Central Asia.
The history of Central Asian colonization by Tsarist Russia in the 16th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th century established a clear distinction between valuable and disposable populations where racialized bodies of Central and North Asian, as well as South Caucasians, were weaponized during military violence and redacted from historical narratives. Boram Shin (2015) describes how Central Asians’ contributions to the USSR army meshed together with Slavic soldiers under the Soviet label. The heroic image of the Soviet army defeating Nazism in World War II was constructed as an ethnically neutral achievement of the Soviet motherland. Shin reports that the Red Army specifically produced military propaganda targeting non-Slavic populations to recruit them into the army. A 1981 report by S. Wimbush and Alex Alexiev describes how the Soviet authorities utilized Central Asian soldiers in the military operations in Afghanistan in hope of cultural and religious proximity between the ethnic groups facilitating favorable results for the USSR, which eventually backfired into Central Asian Soviet soldiers fraternizing with Afghan troops.
The Soviet authorities substantiated their biopower, yielding regulatory sovereign power over bodies, sexuality, and populations in the name of the protection of life (Foucault, 1990), by constructing Central Asia as its own Orient (Bustanov, 2014) through violent unveiling campaigns and burning down of madrasas. The use of the Kazakh steppe for the construction of eleven gulags, nuclear testing sites, and the first and largest spaceport in the world, Baikonur Cosmodrome, evokes Mbembe’s argument of necropolitics, “contemporary forms of subjugating life to the power of death” (Mbembe, 2019: 92). Rendering entire populations disposable and their land as a tool for scientific experiments and political punishment helped the Soviet Union to magnify its necropower. In the Soviet imaginative geographies, which Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) defines as constructed borders of “ours” versus “other,” civilized versus savage lands, the Kazakh steppe was made to signify a space available for experimentation, deportations (Pohl, 2010), and extraction, thus normalizing the terror on the Kazakh land as necessary and useful in the historical narratives. The centripetal flow of resources from Central Asian colonies to Soviet Central Russia not only led to the devastating famine and genocide of the Kazakh steppe in the 1930s, but it also helped to secure the comfort and privileges of Russia’s metropole, the fruits of which many Russians still harness today.
One such privilege is that the Russian army today appears to target non-Slavic ethnic groups in the country for military recruitment. Catherine Putz (2022) reports that Central Asian migrants are joining the Russian armed forces due to the promises of pay and legal citizenship status. Given the large number of labor migrants in Russia and the unstable economic situation in Central Asia being aggravated by Western sanctions against Russia, the financial and legal incentives target the vulnerable and often young and clueless (Wood & Khashimov, 2022). The Russian government relies on biopolitical regulations of surveillance and policing to create incentives for non-Slavic minorities to join the army. Matthew Light (2010) argues that under Putin’s regime enforcement of migration policies in Moscow is “based primarily on reactive methods such as raids and mass document checks, which are often carried out openly in the streets and public places of the city, leading to a proliferation of corruption” (Light, 2010: 276). The Russian government has spent years disciplining and surveilling labor migrants and specifically targeting those who fit the profile of a typical Gastarbeiter, lower class non-Slavic looking men and women engaged in menial and hard labor. The promise of citizenship offers some stability and security from surveillance and policing, which could be hard to discard for many non-Slavic minorities living in Russia. Rising awareness of this situation, mainly thanks to activists from North Asian autonomous republics of Russia, such as the Republic of Buryatia, has spread across Central Asia, which contributes to the disruption of colonial aphasia and mobilization of decolonial oppositional knowledge. The current weaponization of non-Slavic bodies in Russia’s military aggression remains a key factor in the mobilization of decolonial discourses and knowledge, as it offers empirical evidence of continuous patterns in Russia’s imperial biopolitics toward ethnic minorities, including Central Asians. Public consciousness of racialized military recruitment techniques in Russia is juxtaposed against the influx of Slavic Russian migrants to Central Asia made possible by their class and racial privileges.
The guise of hospitality
The legitimacy of the current (re)settlement is defined not only by the military aggression of Putin’s regime but by the Soviet legacy of the “friendship of the peoples” narrative and essentialization of Central Asian hospitality as colonial subjects. The role of hospitality in commercial and imperial expansion was described by Immanuel Kant in To Perpetual Peace (1795). Kant describes the “right of an alien to not be treated as an enemy upon his arrival in another country” (Kant, 1983 : 118) if he behaves peacefully. However, a Kantian notion of cosmopolitan hospitality as a necessary public right of men is deeply rooted in coloniality (Gani, 2017) and confirms a permeation of the idea that the lack of overt violence guarantees the right of entry and even settlement. Continuous depictions of the Soviet Socialist Republics as groups sharing egalitarian kinship and brotherly ties, as well as positioning Central Asia as a nomadic and Muslim Other, has helped to cement the entitlement of Russians toward Central Asian spaces, resources, and time. Today, Central Asians are either lionized for their indiscriminate hospitality, such as allowing Russian migrants to spend the night in Oral’s movie theater, or scolded by outsiders for not living up to their hospitable subaltern identity.
In addition to carrying the imposed colonial burden of hospitality, Central Asians are also tasked with reasserting their agency and educating Russian newcomers on Russian colonial history and cultural insensitivity, such as contextually situating a Russian media article depicting Kazakhstan as a queerphobic place. It is always the task of the “uncivilized” to prove their place in the modern world as the postcolonial spaces are constructed as “living under the burden of charms, spells, and prodigies, and resistant to change” and “moved by the blind force of custom” (Mbembe, 2001: 4). Thus, people of sovereign Kazakhstan today are interacting with new-coming Russian migrants not only in the context of the current geopolitical situation but informed by the histories of colonial past coming into the present.
Russian migrants, on the other hand, are not presented with the task of proving their migratory gain, as many people in Central Asia come to their rescue by affirming their potential positive contribution to Central Asian economies and societies. Newly immigrated Russians are positioned as a high-quality cadre who could take local industries, especially tech, to new heights previously unreachable solely with just Central Asian talent. A vivid demonstration of this occurred in October 2022 when the founder of Chocofamily, one of the leading Kazakhstani business holding companies providing retail services, Ramil Mukhoryapov, who was born and raised in Almaty, hosted a press conference for the newly arrived Russians. Mukhoryapov reassured them that services are provided in Russian and someone’s decision to speak Kazakh even if they know Russian is a sign of the lack of culture and nationalism outweighing hospitality. A tweet by a female Russian migrant in Kyrgyzstan expressing anxiety and reluctance about living in a “Muslim country” has also gained traction online and could be seen as an example of how Central Asian Otherness, including Muslim identity, continues to be reproduced as a sign of dangerous backwardness, similarly to the Soviet era. The burden to prove one’s place in modernity, thus, comes at a cost of dialing down grievances of the colonial era and performing cosmopolitanism divorced of Central Asian embodied experiences of biopolitical debilitation. This burden, however, does not go unnoticed. Following the escalation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, proliferation of discourses on Russian imperial entitlement to Ukrainian land and the subsequent high number of Russian migrants to Central Asia have allowed for the disruption of colonial aphasia in the region and the production of decolonial oppositional knowledge. Furthermore, internal struggles for liberation and human rights protection in sovereign Kazakhstan contribute to these processes as the stakes of protecting postcolonial lives in the region are heightened.
Engendered by the Russian imperial history of positioning Russian settlers as a civilizing party with inherent value, social media continues to discuss Russian emigration with a focus on the migrants’ experiences and the gain they represent. The act of migrating and leaving behind one’s homeland does not obscure the historical and sociological construction of some lives as valuable and grievable, which transnationally travels with Russian migrants. The re-entry of Central Asian land by a large number of Russian migrants exposes the depth of built-in colonial biases in such mundane processes as seeking employment and going out to restaurants and bars. Thus, Russian migrants become signifiers of Central Asian colonial subjugation, which did not end with the acquisition of independence in the 1990s. This presence of signifiers of colonial violence and blatant reminders that local populations receive about their disposability in comparison to Russian migrants trigger an increased disruption of colonial aphasia in the region. The disruption occurs throughout various platforms, including art exhibitions, podcasts, lectures, articles, and social media content. By speaking out about these issues in physical and digital spaces, Central Asians are interrupting the region’s colonial aphasia with higher velocity than ever before leading to the construction of alternative discourses and new solidarities. ∎
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About the contributor
Aizada Arystanbek is a Kazakhstani intersectional feminist activist and sociologist specializing in gender and culture, nationalism, and decoloniality. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University. Aizada sees her work as an intersection of research and activism and is dedicated to contributing to the non-violent production of knowledge on Central Asia.