East to West Migration
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East to West Migration

Russian Migrants in Western Europe

Helen Kopnina

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eBook - ePub

East to West Migration

Russian Migrants in Western Europe

Helen Kopnina

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About This Book

The collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe brought widespread fear of a 'tidal wave' of immigrants from the East into Western Europe. Quite apart from the social and political importance, East-West migration also poses a challenge to established theories of migration, as in most cases the migrant flow cannot be categorised as either refugee movement or a labour migration. Indeed much of the trans-border movement is not officially recognised, as many migrants are temporary, commuting, 'tourists' or illegal, and remain invisible to the authorities. This book focuses on Russian migration into Western Europe following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Helen Kopnina explores the concept of 'community' through an examination of the lives of Russian migrants in two major European cities, London and Amsterdam. In both cases Kopnina finds an 'invisible community', inadequately defined in existing literature. Arguing that Russian migrants are highly diverse, both socially and in terms of their views and adaptation strategies, Kopnina uncovers a community divided by mutual antagonisms, prompting many to reject the idea of belonging to a community at all. Based on extensive interviews, this fascinating and unique ethnographic account of the 'new migration' challenges the underlying assumptions of traditional migration studies and post-modern theories. It provides a powerful critique for the study of new migrant groups in Western Europe and the wider process of European identity formation.

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Chapter 1


In this chapter, I address some theoretical topics of migration, summarizing contemporary critique of classical theories. I argue that although the criticisms of classical migration theories are partially valid, contemporary theories often lack the interdisciplinary and humanitarian approach of the classical theories. I refer to the work of the sociologist Halbwachs (1960), whose classical volume Population and Society I find particularly relevant to the understanding of modern migration patterns. I argue that few contemporary works on the anthropology of migration show the intellectual vigour necessary for expanding migration theories in general or providing ethnographies that have the potential of becoming ‘anthropological classics’. However, there are impressive advances in migration anthropology regarding questions of migrant motivation and social context (Baumann, 1995; Gardner, 1995; Hardwick, 1993; Raj, 1997; Rouse, 2002; Rex, 2003).
Secondly, I address the issues related to the history of Russian migration, including a discussion of its significance for Russian culture. I also include a brief survey of ‘waves’ of Russian migration to the West in the twentieth century.
Thirdly, I briefly examine the recent history and the social context of migration to Britain and The Netherlands. As mentioned in the Introduction, I shall not attempt a detailed comparison of Russian migration to these two countries. The results of my research show that Russian migration to both Britain and The Netherlands exhibits similar features, such as the proportionally low numerical mass and the lack of historically formed ‘established community’ in both countries.
The bulk of this chapter focuses on the issue of ‘new’ migration during the 1990s when not only Russian, but international migration patterns changed from prior forms (although ‘new’ movements may still include traditional patterns). I refer to the sociological studies of Codagnone (1998) and Snel et al. (2000), pertaining to Russians in Britain and The Netherlands respectively, as well as to Hammer et al.’s (1998) volume on new international migration. The concept of transnational migration, with references to new types of ‘community studies’, is particularly relevant here (Rouse, 2002; Vertovec, 2002; Rex, 2003). I give particular focus to the phenomenon of illegal and generally unregistered migration. I stress the need for more ethnographic studies of the new migrants in order to elicit detailed knowledge about the groups which, although numerically large, are statistically invisible. I refer to groups of Russian migrants, such as asylum seekers, commuters, contract workers and ‘new Russians’ who reflect the social diversity of the new wave.
I do not attempt, however, to dwell upon statistical data in the case of the new migrants as such data can be largely misleading. Statistical data on Russian migrants in Britain and The Netherlands will only be mentioned in so far as it indicates certain trends in official (or registered) migration, or hints at the gap between the suspected numbers of migrants and the available numbers. I also do not extensively address migration policy in Britain and The Netherlands.1 This information is too vast to be included in this chapter. A summary of legal information can be found in Appendix 1 of this book.

1.1 Contextualizing Migration

Migration has been a vast subject in social sciences since the beginning of the twentieth century. Anthropology did not seriously address the subject until the 1970s, when anthropologists showed increasing interest in studying urban communities and ‘ethnic groups’ in their own ‘back yard’. This led to a shift of ethnographic attention to migration (Baumann, 1995; Calgar, 1997; Hannerz, 1996, etc.). The new focus is due to the reformulations of the old conceptions of social processes in general, and of culture in particular (Boissevain, 1975; Abu-Lughod, 1991. These are the topics discussed in the chapters on community and culture. Recent anthropological interest in migration can also be explained by the spread and recognition of the actual phenomenon in Western Europe, as well as increased government funding for projects that instruct migration policy (Akhbar and Shore, 1995).
Yet, there are still too few works in anthropology that attempt a holistic ethnographic account of particular groups of migrants, and still fewer that attempt to tackle and bring insight to general theories of migration. I shall mention, in the following sections, such notable exceptions of anthropological works as Baumann’s (1995) study of Asian migrants in Southall, Hardwick’s (1993) study of Russian migrants on the Pacific Rim, Raj’s (1997) book on Hindu Punjabis in London, and Rouse’s (2002) study of Mexican migrants in the USA. It appears that anthropologists have yet to discover ways of addressing the topic of migration using their methodological advantage as ‘trained ethnographers’ and their theoretical commitment to holistic analysis. My research attempts to exploit both the methodological and analytical potential of anthropology. In this way, I seek to contribute new insights to the study of migration in general, and to Russian migration in Western Europe in particular.

1.1.1 Contemporary and Classical Theories of Migration

Contemporary migration theories, such as those presented in the interdisciplinary volume International Migration edited by Hammer et al. (1997) and by Courgeau (1995), are often dismissive of the classical theories which they present as rigid and one-dimensional. ‘Transnationalism’, ‘hybridity’, and ‘cosmopolitanism’ became popular terms used in anthropology to describe groups of migrants (Appadurai, 1991 and 2002; Cheah and Robbins, 1998; Moutsou, 1998; Carruthers, 2002; Ong, 2002; Rex, 2003). These terms stem both from ‘globalization’ concepts, and postmodern anthropological critique of classical theories as static and closed in opposition to dynamic and open conceptions. However, despite the fact that the conditions of migration might have ‘globalized’ (relative freedom of movement, spread of information technology, etc.), the results of my research make me sceptical about certain contemporary theories. Although contemporary critique of the classical theories is relevant, there is little in the way of alternative theories produced in the postmodern period.
Some of the classical theories produced since the beginning of the twentieth century adopted a macro-approach to the study of migration without particular attention to ethnographic details. They tended to operate with rather simplistic economic theories (like Ravenstein, 1889; Lee, 1969). Still, these classical theories retain their appeal and relevance due to their interdisciplinary and humanitarian nature.
An example of such an insightful work is that of the sociologist Halbwachs (1960). Halbwachs conjures up and simultaneously challenges the idea of a migrant community, raising issues highly relevant to my arguments in the chapters on community and subcommunities. Halbwachs speaks of a migrant as a member of a group who ‘becomes an immigrant by the [virtue of the fact that] he begins to share the circumstances of other men who form a group, beside whom he works, and in the midst of whom he lives’ (Halbwachs, 1960: 113). Migrant groups form ‘collective conceptions’ which are ‘particularly coloured by the mental and moral reaction of the group toward their physical surroundings’ (Halbwachs, 1960: 114). This does not mean, however, that a migrant ‘mixes’ with other migrants. This point is crucial to my argument developed in the chapter on subcommunities about various factors that set groups of Russian migrants apart, preventing them from forming a unified community:
The immigrants, as a group, have no ambition or concern except to go from one country to another. This exhausts whatever their minds can really have in common. Each one in the group preserves his individual ends and preoccupations, all the more because he is separated from his group of origin, and from this point of view he is not in solidarity with the others. (Halbwachs, 1960: 115)
Halbwachs accentuates that migration is not just an unobstructed move from one country to another. He explains that it is, rather, a difficult passage that requires breaking the hold of one’s own country and resisting ‘repulsion’ from the country of destination. ‘If men were, then, only inert dust like the sand of the dunes, they would be distributed here and there at the mercy of chance, they would turn aside from obstacles, they would be scattered into vast open spaces, now attracted by some, now repulsed by others like magnetic particles’ (Halbwachs, 1960: 191). Although the migrants of the 1990s are relatively free to move from country to country and do not necessarily feel ‘exiled’ or cut off from their country of origin, their sense of purpose, as well as their feeling of ‘rootedness’ in space and time, suggests that they are guided by rational and clear motives. As I shall further discuss, motivation is often the factor that distinguishes migratory waves and that characterizes individual migrants within such waves.

1.1.2 Motivation

Earlier studies often represented migration in macro-terms, as a sort of unified phenomenon in which the masses are guided by more or less clearcut motivations (Ravenstein, 1889; Jackson, 1969; Lee, 1969; Taylor, 1969). These motivations were often described in terms of ‘push and pull’ factors, discussing migrant behaviour as a rational and unobstructed balancing of the ‘plus and minus’ considerations. The actual dynamics and social processes involved in migration were rarely discussed. These theories often concentrated on economic or political motivation in exclusion of other factors (see brief summary and critique of these theories in Hammer et al., 1998 as well as Courgeau, 1995; Davis, 1988; Melotti, 1997).
As I shall discuss further in the section on new migrants, although migration of the 1990s is often viewed as a ‘selfish’ migration (Glenny and Stone, 1990), my interviews with the migrants revealed a complexity and diversity of motives that could not be described as merely ‘economic’. Although ‘nothing can compare with the desire inherent in most men to “better” themselves in material respects’ (Ravenstein, 1889: 286), I believe that economic motivation alone is never enough. Recent studies of illegal migrants show that ‘economic motivation’ may also be broken down into related social and cultural motives. These include providing financial support for the ‘stayers’; the element of ‘adventure’ and ‘challenge’ present in the decision to migrate; or the opportunity to get specific education or jobs (Hammer and Tamas, 1997; Staring, 1999). Halbwachs (1960) notes that migration ‘is not primarily or exclusively a question of economic motives’, but a path that involves deeper collective processes.
Fischer et al. (1997) criticize the rigidity of classical theories regarding motivation which view the migrant as a rational utility maximizer. Contrary to the assumptions of mostly economic classical theories, they assert that migration is not cost- and risk-free. Rather, they stress that potential migrants are a heterogeneous group of people who do not have access to perfect and cost-less information, and who do not behave in an unconditionally rational manner. In sum, the potential migrant is not an autonomous human being but is embedded in the social context. The authors argue in favour of the dynamic view of the migration decision, emphasizing the significance of ‘pioneers’ and ‘chain migration’ in the early waves of migration. Anwar, an anthropologist of migration in Britain, noted that in the case of Pakistani workers, pioneer migrants decisively influenced those who followed ‘by their letters, visits and remittances home, demonstrating economic opportunities’ (Anwar, 1995: 238).
In contrast, Russians in the CIS, Britain and The Netherlands demonstrated that, in this modern age of open commuting and relatively easy information flows, those whose families already reside abroad may decide not to migrate precisely because their expectations become more realistic. In this respect, we may question Fischer et al.’s (1997) criticism of the classical theories. Modern Russian migrants do appear to be more informed and freer to choose whether to stay or go than members of the previous waves. Although my data on Russian migrants does show that the migrants are both socially heterogeneous and influenced by diverse motives, as Hammer et al. (1997), few recent migrants are guided by dreams and illusions, the way previous waves might have been. They do not tend to imagine Britain and The Netherlands to be countries of unlimited opportunities where they will effortlessly find employment, housing and the like (Staring, 1999). Rather, many Russians evaluate available information and realize that migration might not be their best alternative. Instead, their options have broadened to include a temporary trip abroad or, perhaps, the choice of staying home altogether.2

1.1.3 Why do Some People Stay?

Hammer and Tamas (1997) ask this question about contemporary migrants. Indeed, given the continuous lack of political and social stability, and the deteriorating economic conditions in many countries of the CIS, it is surprising that so many Russians choose against permanent settlement in the receiving country.
The question is not why so many migrants left East for West, but actually why so many – given large differences in economic well-being between East and West, ethnic tensions and violence – have not taken the step towards the wealthier and relatively safe close-by countries of the EU. (Snel et al., 2000: 29)
Returning to the critique of the classical theories which viewed migration as a direct outcome of economic and political turmoil in the country of origin, Codagnone, an anthropologist of European migration, suggests that the decision not to move is as complex as the decision to move.
The predictions about massive emigration from the post-Soviet space were based on the assumption that worsening economic conditions and rising unemployment would be followed by waves of economic migrants … Then why has, if not massive, at least more considerable out-migration from Russia and the other republics not occurred so far? The fact presents a challenge to the standard assumptions of migration theory and suggests that economic deprivation alone does not determine mobility decisions. (Codagnone, 1998)
During my trips to Russia and Belorussia, I met the families and friends of my ‘Dutch’ or ‘British’ informants. They were more aware of migration options than those whose families have not migrated. For these Russians, migration was rarely considered a viable solution to economic or political problems. In fact, those who visited their relatives or friends abroad generally had a more negative attitude to migration. As the father of my Amsterdam informant put it: ‘I’ve seen where and how [my daughter] lives and it’s not all as rosy as I expected. I’m glad to be staying here [in Belorussia]’ (Grodno, 1999). During the Soviet times, the iron curtain left the West veiled in the aura of mystery; and far away countries promised to bring freedom and riches. Presently, few illusions about the West are left in the CIS. With more realistic information available regarding the conditions in the receiving country (threat of unemployment, social isolation and devaluation, etc.), many Russians prefer to stay at home.
Some CIS citizens are still enamoured by the idea of ‘leaving for the better world’. They do not see this, though, as practically feasible, either because of economic or social reasons. My acquaintance in Moscow said: ‘I’d love to go [to the West], but I haven’t even got the money to pay the fare [for a ticket]. I don’t know anybody in any [foreign] country; I don’t speak any languages – I don’t think I’ve got a chance’ (Moscow, 1998).
Others reported that migration was not even on their minds. As the friend of my Belorussian informant from London aptly put it: ‘When you live in a sty you cannot imagine what it’s like to live in a castle. I don’t want to hear about how rich or happy somebody else is. Envy eats you up more [than the actual situation at home]. It might be better there [in the West] but I’m here and that’s as far as I’ll get’ (Minsk, 1999).
On the other hand, the answer to why people stay may lie in the increasingly restrictive migration policy of the West European countries.
In the near future, large quantities of emigration are unlikely to occur as the majority of countries in the West are concerned about the flow of emigrants from East European countries and Russia and take defensive measures, including more severe laws of entry and introduction of stringent migration quotas to limit the undesirable migration. (Tishkov, 1996: 41–2)
In t...

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