Moscow, Russia – Ravshan and Joomshut are two comical characters playing labour migrants from ex-Soviet Central Asia in Our Russia, an immensely popular TV show.
Their broken Russian, bad hygiene, servitude to their Slavic boss and complaints about their unfortunate sex lives have made their names a slur – a negative symbol of many Russians’ attitudes towards the natives of the mostly Muslim region of more than 60 million.
The duo’s slapstick image masks the fear of “darkies”, as some xenophobes call Central Asians and other Muslims, said Sandjar Yanyshev, a Moscow-based, Uzbekistan-born essayist and poet. Their skin is dark, their culture is a riddle, their presence in Russia fills some locals with fear, and the fastest way to overcome this fear is to make fun of it, he said.
“What’s funny is not dangerous,” Yanyshev told Al Jazeera.
Millions of Central Asians – mostly from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – work in Russia, usually in low-paid, menial jobs. They face widespread xenophobia: Some 27 percent of Russians feel “irritation, dislike or fear” towards Central Asians, and almost one in five Russians think that their presence in Russia has to be “limited”, according to a survey by the Levada polling agency conducted in July.
Hundreds of them have been killed and thousands wounded in hate attacks by ultra-nationalists and skinheads, and corrupt police officers routinely prey on them to extort money, otherwise threatening detention or deportation.
And yet, some Central Asians manage to succeed beyond expectations.
Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s wealthiest oligarch with a net worth of $15bn, is an ethnic Uzbek. The son of a minor Communist official now controls steel factories, co-owns the UK’s Arsenal football club, and is reportedly very close to President Vladimir Putin.
Uzbek singer Nargiz Zakirova, who boasts a coarse, three-octave voice, a shaved head and elaborate tattoos, tops the list of Russia’s most popular touring artists after her success in a television show for aspiring singers.
I am a grown man who can abstract my mind from the society that dislikes my ethnicity. But a child's overcoming of it is incomparably more difficult. He does not have to be at war with the outside world.
One of Russia’s most successful rappers, Jah Khalib, and film director Timur Bekmambetov – who directed some of Russia’s most profitable films, in addition to a movie with Angelina Jolie – hail from Kazakhstan.
Cosmonaut Salijan Sharipov, who has spent more than 200 days in outer space, was born in southern Kyrgyzstan. He conducted a series of scientific experiments and had a copy of the Quran with him.
Unlike Muslims moving to other European nations, Central Asians share a cultural background with many Russians and often speak their language fluently.
“We’ve studied this language since school, we know it, and it makes things easier for us here,” Khakim Ganiev, a chef and author of best-selling books on Uzbek cuisine, told Al Jazeera.
Despite being labelled a blue-collar workforce, many Central Asians work as software engineers, designers, medical doctors and scholars.
Success in Russia, however, does not always guarantee a carefree life and freedom from xenophobia.
Aziz Beyshenaliev, an ethnic Kyrgyz who studied the Chinese language and acting in Uzbekistan, moved to Moscow in 1997, and worked as a courier and loader before securing small roles in films and television series.
In dozens of movies, he portrayed medieval nomadic warlords, World War II heroes and a Kazakh intellectual who fought for Central Asia’s independence from Russia but died in Nazi Germany, among other characters.
But in 2015, Beyshenaliev decided to leave Russia because his son Seitek, a lanky, amiable palaeontology buff with distinct Asian features, faced ostracism and frequent hate attacks in school.
“I am a grown man who can abstract my mind from the society that dislikes my ethnicity,” the 46-year-old told Al Jazeera. “But a child’s overcoming of it is incomparably more difficult. He does not have to be at war with the outside world.”
Seitek, now 15, thrives in a new high school in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s multi-ethnic economic capital, and his father took up film directing and theatre acting.
The arrival of Central Asians continues Russia’s centuries-old coexistence with Muslims.
Descendants of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan ruled the Golden Horde, a medieval superpower that controlled parts of southern Russia and Eastern Europe. Its rulers embraced Islam in the 14th century, but as their power disintegrated, hundreds of nobles pledged allegiance to the emerging principality of Moscow.
They converted to Orthodox Christianity and spawned dozens of Russian aristocratic families. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame proudly said that his family originated from Nabok, Genghis Khan’s illegitimate son.
Russian czars vanquished Central Asia and the Caucasus that once belonged to Persians, Arabs and Turks. In an effort to cut the USSR’s Muslims from their roots and religion, Communist Moscow replaced their Arabic-based alphabets with Cyrillic scripts – a factor that still affects their cultures.
“It is easy for our kids to go to school here because everything is in Cyrillic,” Pairavsho, an ethnic Tajik man living in the village of Rozhdestveno, 200 kilometres northwest of Moscow, told Al Jazeera. Almost half of the schoolchildren in the village’s only school are now Tajiks.
Millions of Slavic civilians were evacuated to Soviet Central Asia during World War II and received a warm welcome that contrasts with today’s xenophobia.
The exodus of Central Asians is an echo of USSR’s sometimes-catastrophic policies that reshaped the regional economy and agriculture. Moscow forced the region to focus on cotton, a water-thirsty, soil-depleting crop.
“Cotton became a curse of its people,” Shukhrat Ganiev, an expert with the Humanitarian Rights Center, a think-tank in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara, told Al Jazeera.
Diversion of the region’s major rivers to new cotton fields in steppes and deserts dried up the Aral Sea, the world’s fourth-largest body of water the size of Sri Lanka, causing what the United Nations dubbed “the largest man-made environmental disaster in history” that fosters labour migration.
Moscow boosted industrial development in Central Asia, but the plants and factories were designed as part of the unified Soviet economy, and the USSR’s 1991 collapse decimated the region’s industrial output – while the region’s longtime autocrats with a Soviet mindset still try to control their economies, Ganiev said.
“Unfortunately, we have not moved away from the Soviet vision of our economy’s development,” he said.
Central Asia now faces further de-industrialisation because of cheap Chinese exports, while global warming, melting glaciers and ineffective water management could trigger wars over water in the arid region.
Migrants’ earnings keep their motherlands afloat. In 2016, their remittances contributed more than a third of Tajikistan’s GDP and a fourth of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, according to the World Bank.
The success of some Central Asians in Russia heralds integration for many more of their compatriots. Some 800,000 have become Russian nationals, and their presence in the already multi-ethnic nation of 143 million has contributed to Russia’s cultural diversity and economic growth, said Sergey Abashin, an anthropologist and migration analyst with the European University in St Petersburg.