Migration, whether in TOL’s “home region” or elsewhere, is often treated by the media as mainly a question of numbers. So many people out, so many rubles/dollars/soms/pesos in … Often left hanging is the other side of this equation, the fact that most migrants leave families behind, and that those families may use that remittance money for many things besides basic necessities. The collective actions of migrants and their families, and the stories of individuals and their changing ways of life, are helping mold and push societies in unexpected ways, and nowhere more so than in countries on the fringes of the old Soviet Union. This was brought home to me in a scholarly article published last year in the journal Central Asian Survey by social anthropologist Eliza Isabaeva of the University of Bern, “Leaving to enable others to remain: remittances and new moral economies of migration in southern Kyrgyzstan.” (The article was briefly made available last year in a special offer to non-subscribers. Since it’s no longer free, I hope the publishers won’t object to me quoting extensively from it.)
Isabaeva did fieldwork in a remote Kyrgyz mountain village in 2008, Sopu Korgon, a place where thin, rocky soil makes agriculture unprofitable and other jobs are scarce, thus forcing many residents to seek work elsewhere once the subsidies from the center stopped coming. In the first years of independence the primary destinations were Osh and Bishkek; as Kyrgyzstan’s weak economy fell further and further behind those of Kazakhstan and Russia, those countries become the main lure for migrants, whether seasonally or for longer periods. TOL readers probably know that the economies of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, along with Moldova, are kept afloat largely thanks to the constant flow of rubles migrants send back home. The Russian central bank estimates that Kyrgyz workers in Russia sent home nearly $900 million last year – and that doesn’t include money sent by other than bank transfer, or carried home in person.
Isabaeva “sought to explore [her] respondents’ perception of migration and remittances, particularly their use by, and effects upon, those who stayed behind. Preliminary reading on Mexican, Moroccan and African migrations and remittance investments in home-town communities suggested that remittances can come to act as a powerful, if contested, vehicle of community development.”
One of her first tasks was to find common terms with which to talk about the phenomenon Westerners call “migration.” In a fascinating passage, she explains that the usual local terms refer to trading abroad (kommertsia) and traders or merchants (kommersanttar) in words derived from Russian, or extend the Kyrgyz word talaa, “field,” to many kinds of work abroad, especially in construction or agriculture rather than market trading. “In the field” was the most common answer to the question, “Where are your children?”
You can make money in “the field,” and you can pick up foreign ways there; you may decide to stay, leaving your family behind. “Being ‘in the field’, my informants seemed to suggest, always carries the risk of losing one’s way, spatially, socially and morally,” Isabaeva notes.
Yet this author’s perhaps surprising conclusion is that the complex, shifting flows of people, money, ideas into and out of isolated communities like Sopu Korgon can help prop up crumbling institutions, at least in the short to medium term. To celebrate 20 years since they graduated from the village high school, one group of migrants donated money to build a new fence for the school (one of the best in the area, villagers boast). The village kindergarten “largely functions through fees paid by absent migrant parents.”
Indeed, Isabaeva argues, remittances have not only contributed to diversifying the local economy and improving people’s material well-being. Villagers often used the words “development” and “progress” when talking about recent times as compared to the hard times of the first post-independence years:
“If we follow an approach to development that includes elements of social wellbeing, poverty alleviation, income equality, gender equality and universal access to primary education, health care and meaningful employment … we can see migrant remittances in Sopu Korgon as performing an important development function. Far from leading to a retreat from collective commitments, remittances can play an important role in keeping other family members together and in reproducing the village as a social and moral unit.”
As a non-specialist whose understanding of Kyrgyz society has been largely shaped by reports on TOL and other media, I picked up a couple of things in Isabaeva’s article that could be seen in a different light. One way that remittances help sustain the social and moral needs of the village is by enabling migrants’ families to keep up the important rituals that accompany major life events, she writes: “money transfers play an important role in lifecycle
rituals in order to maintain a meaningful connection with the place of origin in the face
of protracted absence,” citing a study by another researcher in a different part of Kyrgyzstan.
However, these rituals, especially weddings and funerals, are now performed in a society with much wider extremes of wealth and poverty than existed in Soviet times or, I would guess, during the first decade after independence. As Hamid Toursunov and Bakyt Ibraimov wrote in TOL two years ago, reporting from the same province where Sopu Korgon is located, rising wealth in some sections of the population is pushing up the costs of these ceremonies, often to several thousand dollars – an enormous financial load for many Kyrgyz. Our story didn’t say so, but could it be that remittances are one of the reasons driving some families into a competition to stage the most elaborate funeral or grandest wedding?
One paragraph in Isabaeva’s article can be read as outlining another way in which the outflow of migrants could undermine village society to the point that it ceases to function. She writes, “It is difficult to predict for how long migrant transactions will keep
families together; but for any given family it is likely to persist until such time as young children grow up, teenage children finish school, or until a migrant family member settles down in their place of destination, finds a job and is ready to welcome a sibling, relative or a friend. Being ‘ready’ normally means finding a job for a potential migrant. When the job is found, a newly arrived migrant will be able to earn money, lead his or her life and send money back home.”
Assuming that Russia, especially, continues to attract Kyrgyz migrants, and assuming further that many of those migrants will permanently settle in their new homes – and neither of these is a given by any means – the cycle Isabaeva describes could in the coming years lead to the deaths of villages from wastage, if not the one Isabaeva visited. The slow death of a village has been a recurrent, sad theme in TOL over the years. We’ve seen this happen in Armenia, Albania, Macedonia, and Azerbaijan.
I hope the people of Sopu Korgon will be able to keep on holding weddings, and funerals too, for many years to come.