Slaves from old empire rebuild Moscow

Workers lured from nearby republics, writes Helen Womack in Moscow

Helen Womack
Friday 01 May 1998 23:02

IF Russia's Communists watched the independent NTV channel instead of scorning it as an organ of "Zionist propaganda", they would have gleaned some interesting information over recent weeks that might have enabled them to march for May Day under the slogan: "Slaves of the Former Soviet Union Unite!"

The hard-hitting television station, which supports Russian democracy but does not allow President Boris Yeltsin to sit on his laurels, has been running a series of reports on what it calls the emergence of slavery in the country that once followed Lenin but has now turned to building capitalism. It has been well known for some time that the Russian mafia tricks Slav girls into slavery with the promise of lucrative work abroad. The young women leave Russia or Ukraine naively thinking they are going to be "dancers" and find themselves in brothels anywhere from New York to Amsterdam, unable to return home because their pimps have confiscated their passports.

Now, according to NTV, the same cruel technique is being used in other areas of the former Soviet Union and is affecting workers in a wide range of industries. The slave traders play on the difference in living standards between the former Soviet republics and depressed parts of provincial Russia and the capital, Moscow, where the mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has managed to give some residents at least a sense that they are approaching the level of life in the West.

One of the television reports showed a mini-supermarket in Moscow that was busted by police after a teenage girl, originally from Kazakhstan, escaped from the basement and said she had been held there for nine months and forced to work from morning to night without pay. Police found several more teenagers in her position when they raided the store. All from the Central Asian republic, where poverty is even deeper than in Russia itself, they had been sold for $1,000 (pounds 600) each by their parents to the shop owner, who was also a Kazakh. Well-heeled Muscovites had no idea of the conditions when they came in to buy their expensive imported groceries.

The case of the Kazakhs might have been a one-off human rights scandal. But then NTV went on to show construction workers from Ukraine and Moldova labouring on building sites in Moscow for wages so small that they could only afford to buy one box of porridge each per week. They could not leave because their employers had taken their passports, the television said, adding that "slave" was indeed a more appropriate term than gastarbeiter for a guest worker in this situation.

And yet the provincial poor continued to flood into Moscow, hoping that things would be different for them and they would find the streets paved with gold. If it was a choice between risking their lives and not being paid in obsolete coal mines in Ukraine or Siberia or taking a chance in the Russian capital, then Moscow seemed the better option.

They gathered at Moscow's Kievsky railway station at eight o'clock each morning, offering themselves to employers at an impromptu labour exchange. Trade unions were powerless to save them from exploitation because none of the immigrant workers had a Moscow propiska, the supposedly abolished residency permit of Soviet times that still in fact controls the movement of the non-Muscovite population as the pass laws once restricted the blacks in apartheid South Africa.

Having watched the NTV series, I decided to try and find a slave. I strolled past various apartment blocks under construction but found the guard dogs off-putting. I watched workers finishing off flowerbeds and lamp- lit paths around the newly completed New Opera, which is to give competition to the Bolshoi Theatre. Well-paid Yugoslavs and not slaves had built that, I was told. On one warm evening, I also moved among the roller skaters in the Alexandrovsky Gardens under the Kremlin wall, which is having its famous red bricks renovated. I noticed that at sundown, the workers came down from the scaffolding and disappeared into a row of metal huts at the lower end of the garden.

Russians soldiers guarded the huts. "Can I speak to one of the lads from Ukraine or Moldova?" I asked, hoping that the conscript would not find my accent too foreign and take me for a relative of one of the builders. A few moments later, a thin man with a moustache came out. We sat on a bench a few yards from the huts. He introduced himself as Georgy Tatar from Moldova, on the border with Romania. He did not run away when he learnt that I was in fact a British correspondent.

"There are hundreds of men working here," he said quietly. "It's like in ancient Egypt. I came from my village because I could not feed my wife and kids. I was promised $400 a month but I have been working here for two months and I still have not been paid. I manage to eat by borrowing money from the other lads."

Mr Tatar said foreign workers from countries such as Czechoslovakia were paid properly and put up in hotels but men from former Soviet republics that the Russians call the "near abroad" were treated worse. "We just change our clothes in these huts. At night, we are bussed out to a barracks at Teply Stan [on the edge of Moscow]. We sleep 12 to a room.

"You don't need to be afraid of the soldiers. They're just from the stroibat," he added. He was referring to a unit of the Russian army that is reserved for the lowest of the low, including those who refuse to bear arms. They are indeed slaves, spending their two years of compulsory military service building roads and working on other construction projects for nothing more than cigarette money.

"Are you free?" I asked Mr Tatar, tentatively. "I mean, do you have a passport, can you leave any time you want?" He put his hand in his jacket and pulled out his documents.

"In theory, yes," he said, "I am free. But I have no money for a ticket home. My wife and children do not want to see me empty-handed. So I must go on building Yeltsin's castle. I hope one day they will pay me."

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