Roman on Sahadeo, 'Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow'

Jeff Sahadeo
Meredith L. Roman

Jeff Sahadeo. Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 288 pp. $42.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3820-3

Reviewed by Meredith L. Roman (The College at Brockport (SUNY)) Published on H-Russia (April, 2020) Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg (University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany)

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Jeff Sahadeo’s critically important study brings to life the experiences of a diverse array of migrants to Moscow and Leningrad from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Asian Russia that challenge us to rethink late Soviet society as a society on the move. Sahadeo convincingly argues that many of these Soviet citizens—whose perspectives have been largely unheard—did not dismiss as empty rhetoric the Soviet friendship of peoples (druzhba narodov). Rather, students, workers, professionals, demobilized soldiers, and merchants from the Soviet south and east embedded this concept with real meaning. They associated the friendship of peoples with the promise of social mobility, meritocracy, freedom of (internal) movement, the right to forge a place of belonging in the two Soviet capitals, and a physical security that ceased to exist in the decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse (2005-11) when Sahadeo and his research assistants conducted these seventy-five oral history interviews (seventy of which he ultimately used). Sahadeo acknowledges that post-Soviet experiences of deadly racial violence, particularly against “individuals of Caucasian nationality,” unchecked discrimination, and the challenges of migrating to and between former Soviet territories powerfully influenced interviewees’ memories of the Soviet past (p. 5). He further notes that migrants’ memories of their youth and their hopes of success also contributed to their nostalgia.

Sahadeo however rightfully cautions us against dismissing these memories simply as the products of nostalgia. He highlights how the consistent themes that migrants raised in their life narratives—many of which he beautifully weaves throughout the book’s seven chapters—provide a window into complex late Soviet realities. Migrants overwhelmingly insisted that the druzhba narodov had a strong emotional impact on their identities, relationships, and everyday experiences, and they remembered with pride visiting tourist sites and cultural attractions, which they conceived of as multiethnic spaces united by the Soviet dream. Although they resented ethnic Russians’ privileged position and the “‘backwater’ clientelism” that characterized their home republican capitals, they insisted that in the modern socialist cities of Moscow and Leningrad, the druzhba narodov allowed anyone with ability, intelligence, and perseverance to succeed regardless of their national origins (p. 78). Even interviewees who self-identified as anti-Soviet, non-Russian nationalists nonetheless expressed appreciation for the promise of a kinder and more humane world that the druzhba narodov encompassed. If we center the experiences of these voices, then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist in 1990 since that is when interviewees contended that equality of opportunity and hope for the future disappeared.

Combining analysis of these rich personal histories with archival and printed primary sources, Sahadeo’s monograph contributes to a growing body of scholarship that yields a more sophisticated understanding of late Soviet socialism and that is exemplified by the work of Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006), and the edited essay collection of Dina Fainberg and Artemy Kalinovsky, Reconsidering Stagnation in the Brezhnev Era: Ideology and Exchange (2016). To be sure, the experiences of southern and eastern Soviet migrants complicate the notion that the late Soviet Union was a stagnant society with little vibrancy, dynamism, or mobility (geographic or social). Complementing Lewis H. Siegelbaum and Leslie Page Moch’s magnificent work on migration in twentieth-century Russia, Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia’s Twentieth Century (2014), Sahadeo demonstrates that the late Soviet Union was a place where people were on the move and where individuals were constantly transformed and transformed others. The Soviet dream of a better life and the pursuit of upward mobility motivated migrants to relocate to the privileged cities of Moscow and Leningrad, often disregarding residence permit restrictions or innovating ways to circumvent them. Central Asian leaders, Sahadeo notes, attempted to obtain greater investment in their republics from Moscow (especially invoking Nikita Khrushchev’s promises of regional equality). However, by the late 1970s the disparities between the center and the periphery grew more pronounced, thus eliciting a larger wave of migration to Moscow and Leningrad, which further altered the landscape and appearance of these cities. To be sure, the declining and aging European populations in the capitals were complemented by a “surplus of labor in the Soviet south” (p. 31). Sahadeo argues that these “young, dynamic migrants charged these aging cities with energy, provided goods and services more effectively than the state, and expressed and spread their loyalty to the Soviet system” (p. 5). Sahadeo’s subjects did not necessarily identify as problematic the growing inequalities between their southern homes and the privileged capital cities but instead claimed that it was natural for the most modern cities to boast the greatest resources, opportunities, and levels of development.

In addition to Soviet scholarship, Sahadeo effectively situates his study in the context of the large stream of postwar migration to Western European metropoles from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, which some British scholars have provocatively described as the “empire striking back” (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain [1982]). Sahadeo calls on scholars of European migration and urban history to integrate Moscow and Leningrad in broader discussions of postwar global cities since the two Soviet capitals attracted migrants not only from all corners of the USSR but also from the emergent Global South—the latter of which has received important attention from scholars like Maxim Matusevich, Julie Hessler, Constantin Katsakioris, and Adriana N. Helbig.[1] However, unlike their counterparts in Western European cities, Sahadeo observes, migrants to the Soviet metropoles from the Soviet south and east were not subjected to residential segregation, they did not face the backlash that accompanied anti-immigration debates and electoral politics, and they never experienced the episodes of racial violence that rocked places like Nottingham and London. Many non-Russian migrants themselves insisted that unlike in the West, Soviet citizenship, laws, education, and institutions like the Komsomol facilitated their inclusion into the two capital cities. Sahadeo’s interviewees consistently recalled with great fondness the student and worker dormitories where non-Russian migrants often lived with ethnic Russian migrants. They conceived of these dormitory spaces as microcosms of the friendship of peoples that facilitated their transformation from rural to urban Soviet citizens and made possible their physical and cultural integration into the life of Moscow and Leningrad.

Yet despite these claims of internationalism and inclusion, which mirrored official Soviet condemnation of racism as a feature of the capitalist West, migrants with darker skin pigmentation or darker features faced a barrage of vicious racial slurs, slights, and animosities that Sahadeo attributes partly to some ethnic Russians’ increasing anxieties about losing their position of dominance. At the same time, Sahadeo posits, the fact that physical assaults were rare enabled interviewees to emphasize their inclusion over their exclusion and to focus on their support systems and random acts of kindness rather than on Soviet prejudice. Indeed, most migrants identified the forms of everyday racism that they experienced as random not systemic, and therefore as not impeding the achievement of their professional and personal goals. The fact that ethnic Russian migrants from rural areas also faced discrimination and hostility from “native” Muscovites and Leningraders, Sahadeo contends, further complicates any effort to simplify the animosities that non-Russian migrants encountered. Moreover, despite these prejudices, Sahadeo emphasizes that migrants from the Soviet south and east nonetheless believed that they had a rightful claim to live, work, and study in “Europe” (which they generally defined as a progressive, modern, multiethnic space), and like their Slavic counterparts resented the privileges that African students as “outsiders” enjoyed in the capitals.

Sahadeo identifies Voices from the Soviet Edge as the culmination of a long-standing desire to access the multiethnic everyday of late Soviet society, which was absent from archival documents and Soviet publications. Similar to Adrienne L. Edgar’s research on the children of Soviet interethnic marriages, Sahadeo’s findings suggest that a sizable number of citizens from the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Asian Russia invested in the Soviet dream of internationalism and conceived of themselves as embodying the Soviet values of friendship, hope for the future, hard work, and equality to a degree that communist leaders tragically failed to recognize or appreciate.[2]


[1]. Adriana N. Helbig, Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014); Julie Hessler, “Death of an African Student in Moscow: Race, Politics, and the Cold War,” Cahiers du Monde russe 47, nos. 1-2 (January-June 2006): 33-64; Constantin Katsakioris, “Burden or Allies? Third World Students and Internationalist Duty through Soviet Eyes,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18, no. 3 (Summer 2017): 539-67; and Maxim Matusevich, “Expanding the Boundaries of the Black Atlantic: African Students as Soviet Moderns,” Ab Imperio 2 (2012): 325-350.

[2]. Adrienne L. Edgar, “What to Name the Children? Oral Histories of Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Kazakhstan and Tajikistan,” Kritika 20, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 269-90.

Citation: Meredith L. Roman. Review of Sahadeo, Jeff, Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

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