II Mobility as blurring national, transnational and digital boundaries

Smartphone transnationalism in non-Western migration regimes: Transnational ethnography of Uzbek migrant workers in Russia

Rustamjon Urinboyev


Much research has explored the reproduction of transnational communities and relations, with a particular focus on locality, identity and culture. However, the existing research emanates from case studies of immigrant communities in Western-type democracies, whilst we know little about migrant transnationalism in non-Western migration regimes, such as those in the Russian Federation (or Russia) where migrant workers are subjected to numerous human rights abuses and have limited possibilities for transnational activism and collective mobilisation. Moreover, the role of new media, such as smartphones and social media, in migrant transnationalism remains under-researched. Given the historical, sociopolitical and cultural differences between Western and post-Soviet societies, we cannot assume that the methodological tools and theoretical perspectives developed in Western contexts are necessarily applicable to Russia, where the repressive sociopolitical environment, lack of democratic culture and arbitrary law enforcement leave little room for migrant legalisation and transnational activism.

The above considerations inform my position in this chapter, which aims to contribute to debates within the migrant transnationalism literature in two distinct ways. First. I present the results of extensive multisited ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Moscow, Russia and the Ferghana region of Uzbekistan. My case study examines Uzbek migrants in Moscow and their families and communities in the Shabboda village in Ferghana. Unlike in Western countries, where migrants establish relatively functional transnational communities, there is little in the way of an ‘Uzbek transnational community’ in Russia given the restrictive legal environment and antimigrant sentiments. Whilst Uzbek migrants’ transnational activism is hardly visible in public places, I argue that rapid improvements in communications technologies (e.g., smartphones and social media) have enabled Uzbek migrants to remain in touch with their home societies, as well as create permanent, smartphone-based translocal communities in Moscow, typically centred around migrants hailing from the same mahalla or village in Uzbekistan. Like all transnational communities engaged in the production of locality and identity, Uzbek migrants based in Moscow maintain daily interactions with their village. What makes this community distinct is that they reproduce and rely on their village-level identities, social norms and relations (e.g., reciprocity, trust, obligation, age hierarchies, gossip and social sanctions) as a form of law and governance when regulating their contractual obligations and relations in the informal migrant labour market.

The existence of this smartphone-based transnational environment helps migrants cope with the challenges of musofirchilik (being alien) and avoid or manoeuvre around structural constraints such as complicated residence registration and work permit rules, social exclusion, racism and the lack of social security. Based on a ‘thick’ ethnography, here I advance the notion of ‘smartphone-based migrant transnational communities’ as a subset of the migrant transnationalism literature that describes hidden and low-profile transnational practices, relations, identities and networks in nondemocratic political regimes. Such communities emerge as a necessity to cope with the repressive political environment, xenophobia, weak rale of law, lack of social security and risks associated with informal employment.

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