Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - Home from home

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

A 1996 UNHCR survey revealed that since 1989 more than 9 million people have been displaced within or between CIS countries, as a result of conflicts, environmental disasters or a range of fears and pressures arising from the sudden and unprecedented disintegration of a single state the USSR into 15 separate ones. The five Central Asian republics were particularly badly affected with more than 4.2 million people on the move an astonishing one in 12 of the region's inhabitants. Behind these awesome statistics lie countless painful and poignant individual stories of people whose personal lives have been thrown into turmoil by the extraordinary historical legacy left behind by the former Soviet Union.

Alexander and Raya Vazun, a couple born in Kazakstan, are just two of the more than 2 million ethnic Russians who moved from Central Asia to their ethnic "homeland" because of a mixture of economic and other fears. After 21 months in the Russian Federation, the Vazuns returned disillusioned and impoverished to their parents' home in Talgarsky Rayon, Kazakstan, with their two young children.

Interviews by Rupert Colville

Alexander Vazun, aged 28:
"We were born in Kazakstan. We had lived here all our lives and had lots of friends. But life became really hard after the country became independent so we went to Russia with the idea of improving our situation.

We moved to Ulan Ude City in the Buryatskaya region of Siberia in February 1992 because we thought life would be better there, that it would be easy to find a job and a house, to earn some money.

My older brother had moved to Ulan Ude about 10 years ago. He is a tractor driver working in a collective farm that produces mink and fox fur. When the Soviet Union existed the collective farm was financed by the central government but when the USSR collapsed the farm suddenly didn't even have enough money to buy food for the animals. My brother was lucky because by then he had his own house and land and poultry. He still believed he would be able to help us if we joined him, but it turned out differently.

Everything was collapsing when we arrived. I am a heavy goods truck driver and thought it would be easy to find work. But there were many people already without jobs and there was no money to pay salaries or buy food. I did eventually find a job as a driver but soon resigned because I wasn't being paid.

Then I was employed to kill farm animals by lethal injection but I was paid in fur rather than money. The official price for a pelt was 175,000 rubles ($34) and my official salary was 300,000 rubles ($59) so they gave me two pelts a month. But when I took the furs to market I could only get 7,000 rubles ($1.40) a pelt. So I was only getting 14,000 rubles ($2.80) a month. Raya also found a little work, but for even less money on the farm.

In addition, the local people did not accept us. They were unfriendly, even hostile."

Raya Vazun, aged 26:
"At work, the local people were jealous that newcomers tended to work harder and earn more money. Their standards of work were very low. It's beyond words how much they drink. The Buryat people [the original non-Russian inhabitants] were friendly. It was just the other Russians who were hostile to us."

Alexander Vazun:
"Luckily, we had not sold our house in Kazakstan because our parents were still here. We returned in November 1994. Eventually I found a job driving a small lorry for a transport company. I still haven't received my salary and even when I do I don't think it will be enough for my family to live on. We're planning to buy some pigs and chickens to help us survive. At the moment, we live off my father's salary and my mother's pension."

Raya Vazun:
"Even though we're Russians, when we returned here I felt that we were home. In Russia, we were strangers. When I came back my friends and neighbours said 'Have you come back for ever?' I said yes. I was really happy to be back. But I can't find any work. Many enterprises are closed. There's no longer any money to finance them. But still the economic situation, our economic situation, is better here than it was in Ulan Ude."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)