Timur Bulgakov has a black belt in karate, two university degrees, a powerful SUV and a small yet thriving construction company. The 28-year-old’s success is impressive for a Muslim migrant from Uzbekistan whose first job in Moscow 10 years ago was as a delivery boy.
However, his story is no longer that unusual.
The old Moscow, populated largely by Slavs, is rapidly giving way to a multi-ethnic city where Muslims from Central Asia are the fastest growing sector of the population. And they are changing the face of Moscow as their numbers rise and they move up the career ladder.
Muslim women wearing hijabs are a growing sight on the capital’s shopping streets. Bearded men sport Muslim skullcaps and hang trinkets with Koranic verses in their cars. Many more are non-practicing Muslims who blend in with secular attire, although their darker skin, accented speech and foreign customs often provoke frowns from native Muscovites. Meanwhile, their children throng kindergartens and schools.
Russia’s Federal Migration Service estimates that about 9.1 million foreigners arrived in Russia to work last year. More than a third came from three Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: About 2 million from Uzbekistan, 1 million from Tajikistan and more than 500,000 from Kyrgyzstan. Local experts say the number of Central Asian arrivals is at least twice as high.
The Central Asian migration has been the driving force in boosting Russia’s Muslim population to more than 20 million, from about 14 million 10 years ago — a phenomenon experts call one of the most radical demographic makeovers Russia has ever seen.
Muslims are expected to account for 19 percent of Russia’s population by 2030, up from 14 percent of the current population of 142 million, according to the US government’s National Intelligence Council report on global trends published this month.
“Russia’s greatest demographic challenge could well be integrating its rapidly growing ethnic Muslim population in the face of a shrinking ethnic Russian population,” the report said.
The changing ethnic mix “already appears to be a source of growing social tensions.”
By the most conservative estimates, 2 million Muslims now live in Moscow, a city of nearly 12 million.
Polls show that nearly half of Russians dislike migrants from Central Asia and Russia’s Caucasus — another source of Muslim migration. They have become the bogeymen of Russian nationalists, accused of stealing jobs, forming ethnic gangs and disrespecting Russian customs.
Central Asian migrants for years have filled the lowest paying jobs, working as janitors, street cleaners, construction workers, and unlicensed cab drivers whose run-down cars are popularly known as “jihad taxis.”
Many live in trailers on construction sites, in squalid basements and overcrowded flophouses or sleep inside their cars. The uncertain legal status of many of the migrant workers has left them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation from employers. They also have fallen victim to xenophobic attacks.
However, in recent years they are increasingly becoming more established members of the work force and a significant minority, like Bulgakov, now run their own successful businesses.
The undisputed star among Russia’s Central Asian business figures is ethnic Uzbek Alisher Usmanov: His interests in mining, telecoms and Internet startups have made him one of Russia’s richest men, with a fortune estimated at US$18.1 billion.
Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in Kazakhstan and educated in Uzbekistan, has directed some of Russia’s biggest grossing movies. Recently he moved to Hollywood, directing this year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
While the Central Asian influx has caused frictions, there are also abundant signs of Muscovites embracing things Central Asian. Uzbek restaurants, fast-food joints and clay-oven bakeries have become ubiquitous; fashionistas sport oriental silk scarves and pashminas and many Russian housewives buy halal meat believing it to be healthy and devoid of preservatives.
The trend may have deep roots in Russian history as Moscow has absorbed Muslims into its population for centuries.
The principality of Moscow emerged as a regional power some 700 years ago, when the Golden Horde, a state dominated by Mongols and Muslim Tatars, controlled parts of what is now southern Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. As Moscow took over the Horde’s territories Muslim nobles became part of the Russian elite and Muslims were free to practice their faith under the czars.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov proudly wrote that his aristocratic family descended from Nabak, an illegitimate son of Genghis Khan. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and writer Mikhail Bulgakov were the offspring of Tatar nobles.
“Muslims are not newcomers here, and all the current problems are temporary,” said Vladilen Bokov, a devout Muslim and member of the Public Chamber, which advises the Kremlin on social issues.
Czarist armies finished the conquest of Central Asia by the early 20th century and the Soviet era reshaped their economies and agriculture and made “Russification” a key to success for several generations of their best and brightest.
Communist Moscow tried to win over Central Asians by building schools and universities. Their graduates are still qualified to work as bank clerks, computer engineers, artists and medical doctors in Russia. Employers often praise them for their hard work, career ambitions and indifference to alcohol — Russia’s proverbial scourge.
Construction company owner Bulgakov has faced his share of hardships. He recalled how he stole some undercooked buckwheat from a dormitory kitchen several days after losing a job. He lost another job after beating up his supervisor for calling him a churka, a pejorative term for Central Asians.
Bulgakov said that during a hospital visit he heard a doctor reproach his ethnic Russian wife for failing to “find a decent Russian man.”
After several years of selling construction paint, Bulgakov started his own company.
Now his firm renovates the apartments of affluent Muscovites and works on occasional contracts with the Defense Ministry. He has joined the United Russia party and wants to run for office in the Moscow suburb of Ivanteevka where he lives.
Bulgakov has this advice for fellow Central Asians seeking a better life in Moscow.
“If you want to work, just work,” he said, “If you don’t, you’ll find a thousand excuses — ‘I am being oppressed, abused, beaten.’”