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Imagination and creative navigation simplifies life for Central Asian migrants in Russia

Men in orange visibility vests standing around a construction site under a grey sky.

Associate Professor Rustam Urinboyev spent more than five years studying the experiences and life stories of Uzbek migrant workers in Moscow. In the book Migration and Hybrid Political Regimes: Navigating the Legal Landscape in Russia, he reveals how migrants navigate an ever-changing migration system pervaded by corruption.

From April to November, working age men are rare in the Fergana Valley in Eastern Uzbekistan. High unemployment and population density make more Uzbeks migrate from the valley than from any other part the country. The typical migrant is a young man with a secondary school education. He heads about 3 700 kilometres North West, to the Russian capital Moscow, where he finds work in construction, service, or retail. The enriched Russian economy has turned the country into a “migration hotspot”, attracting migrant workers from former Soviet republics who can enter the country without restrictions. An estimated 2.2 million Uzbeks currently live in Russia.

For a total of 14 months between 2014 and 2019, Rustam Urinboyev followed the lives of Uzbek migrant workers in Moscow, and studied the everyday life and social relations in their home villages in the Fergana Valley. Particularly, Urinboyev’s ethnography explores how migrant workers adapt to the legal reality in Russia’s hybrid regime – an illiberal “political regime that [is] neither clearly democratic nor conventionally authoritarian”, where the rule of law is weak and corruption prevalent. Russia’s ambiguous immigration laws (difficult even for local lawyers to understand fully) exacerbates the repressive environment, forcing Uzbek migrants to rely on informal channels and unverified information circulating in their transnational social networks.

The cover of the book Migrantion and hybrid political regimes

“Given that the majority of migrants entering Russia are not well-educated, do not speak Russian, have poor knowledge of laws, and originate from the rural areas of Central Asia, it is highly unlikely that they can comply with the fluid immigration laws and operate legally within the labor market,” Urinboyev writes.

The research project coincided with the implementation of a three-year entry ban on foreigners who commit two administrative offenses within three years. In Uzbekistan, Urinboyev observed how migrants banned from re-entry into Russian gathered in “gossip hotspots” to discuss strategies on how to enter Russia. There are always ways to get in through informal channels. Russian police officers, migration bureaucrats, and border guards looking for favours and bribes permeate the Russian migration regime. The legal status of a migrant worker, Urinboyev notes, does not come down to having the required paperwork. It is rather a matter of situation or creative manoeuvring:

“… a ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ status hinges on contextual factors, such as how, when, and where the interaction between migrants and Russian state officials takes place, as well as on individual factors, such as migrants’ knowledge of informal rules and their ability to adapt to the legal environment (their street smarts and ability to find common ground [obshchii iazyk]) with state officials, bribery skills, and connections with street institutions, such as intermediaries and racketeers).”
Urinboyev’s work resulted in the book Migration and Hybrid Political Regimes: Navigating the Legal Landscape in Russia, published by the University of California Press. One of the central findings is that immigrants in hybrid regimes like Russia’s experience that with the right skills and networks, the corrupt legal system allows them to move around ambiguous laws and arbitrary state officials. This differs from Western-style democracies, where undocumented migration is somewhat of a dead end due to strong rule of law.


Read or download Migration and Hybrid Political Regimes: Navigating the Legal Landscape in Russia at

Visit Rustam Urinboyev's personal page for more information about his research.

Photo of Rustam
Rustamjon Urinboyev is an Associate Professor and senior research fellow at the Department of Sociology of Law. He received his PhD in sociology of law for a thesis entitled: “Living Law and Political Stability in Post-Soviet Central Asia” (2013), which explored the interconnections between informal economy, community-based traditional governance institutions and political stability.