Saturday, September 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Migrant Workers Adapting to Russian Culture as They Experience It but Not as Russians Might Like It to Be, Moscow Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 28 – Russians increasingly complain that migrant workers in major cities are not adapting to Russian culture, but in fact, according to a leading expert on migration at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the gastarbeiters are adapting to Russian mass culture as it actually is if not as many Russians would like to imagine it to be.

            Vladimir Mukomel, a sector head at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, says that talk about “a colossal cultural divide between migrants and the local population” is at a minimum an exaggeration and that people should be asking themselves just what “culture” the migrants should adapt themselves to (

                “The most critically opposed to migrants” among Muscovites “are those who came to [the Russian capital] not long ago and who feel the competition” that the new immigrants represent most severely.  Obviously, those on both sides of this divide should respect “other cultures and traditions,” but it is important to understand just what this means.

            Since Russians generally assume that it is the migrants who must adapt, Mukomel says, they should “be asking themselves the question just which culture [the newcomers] should accept?”  Most gastarbeiters live “in those districts where there is inexpensive housing,”places in Moscow which are the most “socially unfavorable” of the city.

            What culture do they come into contact with and are thus expected to adapt themselves to? A culture of “curses, drunkenness and loutishness”?  That is what they see around them, Mukomel says. “Is this the culture that we must impose on them?”  Obviously, that is not what Russians means, but they forget that “there is no single Moscow culture as such.”

            Those immigrants who are exposed to that kind of mass culture will adapt to it, the scholar says. Those immigrants – and they are far more numerous than many think – who are educated, speak Russian well, and live among Muscovites of a different kind will adapt to their surroundings as well.

            The reality is that migrants to Russian cities learn the Russian language within a few months, and over a roughly similar period, the sociologist continues, they adapt to the values of the Russians they live, combining as such groups do something from their pasts with the world in which they now live.

.  Mukomel’s message will not be a welcome one in many Russian quarters, but it is an important one and something that finds confirmation in the experience of immigrant communities in many other countries.  Unless and until Russians acknowledge this reality, their demands for gastarbeiters to change are likely to make the current situation even worse.

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