CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The last decade has witnessed the proliferation of research articles and projects about death in a migratory context — the focus being alternatively on the body of migrants or on the creation of community through the management of death among migrants (see the thoughtful review by Lestage, 2019). This thematic issue proposes to capture a specific moment — that of death occurring abroad, within a particular space, namely the post-Soviet space — in order to understand not only how migratory flows are perpetuated and anchored in the arrival territories, but also how management of the deceased can contribute to perpetuating and shaping transnational groups over time, on both sides of the borders they cross. A two-fold approach is at the heart of this publication project: on the one hand, questioning of the administrative, financial, logistical and ethical logic — still poorly known within this very large space — which governs management of the dead and their burial on the spot or repatriation, and, on the other hand, questioning of the effects of death (its daily proximity, its representations, its impact on the perception of danger and on migratory projects, etc.) on preventive practices and adaptation to risk, both in relation to the administrative and financial situations of immigrants and the socio-political and media contexts surrounding migration. This dimension includes the collective pooling of resources or care practices towards the deceased and their relatives.

2 The geographical and political framing of the post-Soviet space is not a rigid one (this volume contains, for example, an article about Russian speakers in Finland) but seeks to raise questions on the meaning and the effects — notably in terms of migratory regimes — of the recent shared history of the countries involved in the Soviet Union or neighbors of the Eastern Bloc. These commonalities begin with the way people refer to circulating corpses up to this day, still using the Russian term “Cargo 200” [Gruz 200], a legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war in which the zinc coffins carrying dead Soviet soldiers were qualified only by their freight code. [1]

3 The post-Soviet context is also marked by recent history. Following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, most of the ex-Soviet republics turned towards Russia, the former centre, as a resource for employment. Although this mobility trend started before 1991, and at first concerned mostly ethnic Russians living in the rest of the USSR, it then affected the general population and dramatically increased in the 1990s (Rahmonova-Schwarz, 2010). Most of the former Soviet Republics [2] integrated the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and signed the Bishkek agreement on Free Movement of Citizens of CIS States (1992), which allowed the citizens of these countries to cross borders freely inside the community. Regarding migration, the Federation of Russia ranks in fourth place of the world immigration countries (when looking at the number of immigrants) and most of the influxes come from former Soviet republics. However, this “near abroad” [3] is connected differently to Russia. In South Caucasus, namely Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all have numerous and visible diasporas living in Russia — although Georgia withdrew from the CIS following the Russia-Georgian war of 2008, leading to a reorientation of migratory fluxes notably towards Greece or the United States. Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Central Asian Republics such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan still rely immensely on the money transfers sent home by migrants from Russia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has dramatically affected the relations between the two countries and, it can be presumed that it will profoundly transform migratory flows, as well as their nature (Ukrainian workers used to travel to Russia in large numbers since 1991). In neighboring countries, such as Finland or the Baltic states, now part of the European Union, the population may be connected to Russia by belonging or family ties. This is the case of the Russian speaking population and/or descendants of formerly Soviet nationalities [4] who returned to their “homeland” (one of the papers in this volume focuses on formerly Soviet people of Finnish descent who migrated to Finland).

4 In other words, many of the former links of mutual dependency have been maintained despite the dissolution of the USSR. Migrants provide highly needed economic resources and liquid assets to their home countries as well as a cheap labour force contributing to the Russian economy. [5] Interestingly enough, Russia is a country of migration but does not actually perceive itself as such. Its frequently changing migration policies and anti-migrant narratives reactivated during any sort of hardship (the COVID-19 pandemic being one of them) attest to that (Zakharov, 2015).

5 We shall question the specificities of the post-Soviet region on how death affects migratory processes and how migration affects people’s relationship with death, including death abroad. Exploring the links between death and migration renews our understanding of transnationalism and translocalism by examining the material conditions for the circulation of bodies, the transnational division of ritual labour, the circulation of emotions and the transnational provision of care. It also provides new perspectives on the religious and ritual bricolage among migrant groups. It raises questions not only about the formation of civic and political mobilisation in countries of migration, but also regarding conceptions of nation-states, nationals and foreigners, and of border management. It offers concrete practices for a nuanced understanding of the articulations of identity, territoriality and belonging.

6 This publication was born from a collective research project that started in 2018 and called “Circulating Dead Bodies. Considering Postsocialist Funerary Rituals and Economy in Contexts of Mobility.” [6] However, the results we present today go beyond the topics and fieldworks covered by members of the project, and we hope will appear as a stimulating sample for our colleagues. [7]

Dealing with Migrant Death – a Political Issue

7 Despite the intense migration flows between the former Soviet republics and the former centre, Russia, most deaths in the migration context do not occur during the journey but once people are located in the country of migration. However, the lack of statistics on foreign deaths on Russian soil contributes to the relative indifference regarding this issue. It is likely that the absence of a visa regime for most migrants travelling to Russia (or to other countries of the CIS [8]) makes border crossings less dangerous [9] — in contrast to, for example, the European Union or the United States, where border security is increasingly stepped up, and therefore treacherous as people try to cross them anyway. Moreover, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) now comprising Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan also facilitates the circulation of their respective citizens on their territory, sparing them in particular the costly monthly work permits in Russia. [10] But migrants do die abroad, in Russia, Kazakhstan, Finland and elsewhere. In the vast majority of cases, these deaths can be described as “violent” because they occur outside the statistical framework. In CIS countries, life expectancy at birth ranges from 68.2 (Russia) to 74 (Azerbaijan) years for men, and from 75.1 (Moldova) to 78.2 (Russia) years for women [11] (Zbarskaya, 2021). In contrast, we assume that death in a migratory context mostly concerns people of working age, as they represent the largest proportion of the overall migrant population in the post-Soviet space. Migrants usually die from car accidents, accidents at work, rapid deterioration of health due to poor living/working conditions and lack of adequate care, or from homicides including xenophobic attacks.

8 Yet the way in which the deceased are moved between their place of death and their place of burial remains a neglected issue. In her pioneer work, Verdery (1999) highlighted the connections between national narratives, religious beliefs and claims of identity and territoriality through the circulation of the dead, which she describes as the “politics of dead bodies.” These deaths abroad are occasions where people or governments can point to the accountability and culpability of each party, i.e. that of the Russian state, for example, which pursues harsh migration policies forcing migrants to remain in informal and less protected sectors where they remain vulnerable to fraud and violence. Anti-migrant rhetoric is encouraged and the perpetrators of violence against migrants are rarely prosecuted (Reeves, 2015; Schenk, 2018). And migrants may well blame their states of origin, often corrupted and unable to create a sustainable economic environment (despite the steady demographic expansion in Central Asia and Azerbaijan), thus forcing people to live and work abroad. In the light of these multiple accusations and incapacities pointed out by migrants and their families, self-organisation often appears to be a solution without any consistent alternative.

9 Grenet’s work (2023) on 17th and 18thcentury Europe shows that death abroad was used for both national, if not nationalistic, assertiveness and diplomatic purposes by the emerging modern states in Europe. To this end, and in connection with increased mobility and trade relationships, “the roles of consuls then started to include the identification of the bodies of deceased nationals, the drawing up of after-death inventories and the maintenance of ‘national cemeteries’” (Grenet, 2023, my translation). Yet, the post-Soviet space somehow shows different developments. While the States where the migrants originate only occasionally claim to protect the dignity of their dead abroad as a political leverage to both diplomatic and domestic purposes, Russia itself seems quite indifferent to the way its own “contemporary” dead are buried on its territory. [12]

10 Firstly, the role of the various relevant states in dealing with their citizens’ death remains anecdotal. The lack of a standardised procedure for treating the bodies of the foreign dead can be seen as a reflection of the negligence or indifference of the states (Kobelinsky and Furri, 2020). Depending on citizenship, some embassies are more helpful than others following the death of a fellow citizen. Regarding Tajikistan, for example, the role of the consulate, the embassy or the Ministry of Labour representation in Moscow seems to be minimal and limited to occasional assistance through networking. However, the state-owned Tajik Air repatriates the coffins to Tajikistan free of charge — even if the coffins had to be stored in the cargo area waiting for the next flight out. As the company is on the verge of bankruptcy, it remains uncertain whether the private airline, Somon Air (owned by President Rahmon’s brother-in-law), will assume this duty. [13] In 2008, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s government radically reversed his predecessor’s policy towards migrants, which had either ignored them or viewed them as traitors, by creating a fund dedicated to helping migrants abroad which would be allocated the sum of 26 million dollars. [14] In many ways, the fund is a presidential response to a hot debate launched online by migrant bloggers, who showed corpses stranded in Russia or Kazakhstan and denied posthumous return for financial reasons. [15] The fund now covers the repatriation of the deceased to Uzbekistan provided that they hold a valid work permit (see interview with Zarnigor Omonillaeva and Karimzdzhon Yorov in this volume). Kyrgyzstan has very recently allowed families of a person who died in Russia to apply for social assistance in the form of a financial allowance, if they live in Kyrgyzstan.

11 Moreover, and not surprisingly given the lack of involvement of individual states in dealing with the dead, Russia has become a rear base for a number of political, religious and related movements, which are often involved in helping migrants, among whom they can rally support and fuel more activists. Looking at the issue of dead repatriation, one may end up with individuals who are more or less politically committed and connected. The absence of rigid regulation lends room for some people to take charge of this process. Therefore, state management and/or funding of the repatriation of the bodies of migrants who have died in Russia, if effective, could be in direct competition with the influence of activists in Russia whose reputation and prestige are maintained through the concrete help they provide to migrants. However, Russia has also entered a phase of particular aggressiveness towards all political and human rights activists, and many organisations, whether working on migration issues or not, are being dismantled. [16] The future of migrant-specific activism [17] is now very much uncertain as the Russian authorities repeatedly attack any critical movements — and with them, migrant self-organisation, including areas such as body repatriation.

12 The use of the dead as political leverage by community leaders to mobilise around them or by states to negotiate political deals reminds us that despite the intense mobility that characterises our transnational world, states retain and readily apply their ability to control the mobility of people — the living as well as the dead — whenever it seems necessary. The worldwide closure of borders in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated this. The once mobile living and the dead were all trapped in one territory and forbidden to return “home”. The pandemic also shed light on the rather invisible role of migrant organisations that were no longer able to repatriate bodies. The scale of the pandemic, however, has led to the repositioning of some migrant-sending states, which have felt the need to provide an unprecedented response to the issue of the circulation of corpses. Thus despite the very rare exchanges between Central Asia and Russia during the first lockdown in 2020, special convoys were organised to bring the coffins of deceased migrants home to their families (Ivaschenko, 2020; Orlova, 2020). Also since the pandemic, certain political measures aimed at reducing the disturbingly long line of bodies have facilitated the burial of foreign dead on Russian soil. For example, the city of Saint Petersburg decided in July 2021 to allocate funeral concessions free of charge in the city’s cemeteries, as the crematoria could not cope with the queue of bodies to be processed (Petlyanova, 2021). In this case, the pandemic has paradoxically reduced the differential treatment between nationals and foreigners in death. Bodies that cannot be buried within a reasonable time frame, whether they are nationals or foreigners, disturb the lives of the living anyway. When they are abnormally numerous, the agency of the dead goes beyond individual religious, ethnic or national identification. In certain cases, ‘surplus deaths’ or unwanted visible ones lead to a formerly unimagined State response (Willis et al., 2021: 9).

Caring for the Dead: Sociality and Transnational Rituals

13 Most migrants, and sometimes their families too, want to return home for their last journey. This “eschatology of return” (Grenet, 2017) is present everywhere, even if it does not necessarily concern everyone. This particular relationship to homeland, where one should return at the time of death is not unique to post-Soviet migrants. It exists in most migrant communities around the world (Sayad, 1999; Gardner and Grillo, 2002; Petit, 2005; Lestage, 2012; Hunter and Soom Ammann, 2016). Gardner has captured this aspect well when she speaks of the “sacred capital” (2002: 5) that Bangladesh represents in the eyes of Bengali migrants living in the UK. When post-mortem repatriation is considered the best option, ensuring a “good death” requires the organisation of transnational funerals (Chaïb, 2000; Gardner, 2002; Gardner and Grillo, 2002; Petit, 2005; Olwig, 2009; Masinda, 2014; Moreras and Arraràs, 2019; Saramo, 2019).

14 This volume shows no exception and highlights the recurrent desire of post-Soviet migrants to be buried in their country of origin — especially if the family lives there. This is why migrants’ bodies are often repatriated and taken care of in the country of origin. In this context, migrants send the body while funerary rituals are generally entrusted to relatives and friends in the country of origin. Transnational rituals are part of a routine procedure that seeks to make transnational death “familiar” (Ibid.) and, in so doing, socialised despite an unsuitable environment and post-mortem mobility. This raises questions of belonging and identity, but also of “last moment” migration (when a person has expressed a wish to be buried “at home” after a life spent abroad) (see also Berthod, 2018). Death and commemoration connect and affect both spaces at the same time. They work in tandem, dividing ritual work along territorial, gender and generation lines, but to various degrees. It involves moments of sociality that closely link the place of migration to the place of origin.

15 Transnational death thus affects family and kin work: caring for the dead, like any other form of care, contributes to the reproduction of transnational families and their anchoring in different territories over time (Reeves, 2011; Baldassar and Merla, 2014; Cleuziou, 2023a). The transnationalisation of dead care has been increasingly visible with the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent rise in online funerals — as evidenced, for example, by the article by Gurchiani and Darchiashvili (in this volume). Yet while in some situations, the project of repatriation reactivates neglected transnational links, it may, on the contrary, reveal the absence of links that have been broken for too long. Care also implies some form of constraint and control over how care is provided and how it should be organised (Baldassar and Merla, 2014). Controlling how the dead are treated can be a source of power, but the other side of the coin is that it creates a mutual obligation between the living and the dead. Indeed, taking care of one’s dead means paying attention to them, feeling responsible for them and ensuring the means to care for them are developed. To these three moral dimensions of care (attentiveness, responsibility and competence) identified by Tronto (1993: 127 sq.), she adds a fourth: that of responsiveness, that is, the possibility left to the (vulnerable) recipient of the care to respond to it, to react to it. What kind of reciprocity of care can there be in relationships with the deceased?

16 Whether they are referred to as ancestors, spirits, moral entities, etc., the dead can indeed exercise authority and, to some extent, agency over the living and force them to act in certain ways. This feeling of obligation towards them can be all the more compelling in a migratory context, and requires adjustment and adaptation. For example, while in Georgian funerary practices, the house of the deceased is the central piece for the rituals (such as the wake, mourning and other ritual gatherings), the Georgian migrant community in Russia delegated this role to the Georgian Church, particularly in Saint Petersburg, where the events take place in the Church building.

17 Differences in how death is managed may also emerge depending on the cause of death — be it “expected” following aging or serious illness, or more sudden following an accident and tragic event. In fact, “doing death” (Matyska, 2019) uncovers different practices, ranging from caring for the elderly and sick, using hospices, to identifying responsibilities and even claiming rights in more violent situations, as well as honouring the dead with proper funerals and commemorations. Moreover, caring for the dead may be managed to varying degree depending on who and where the migrants are, and the extent of their inclusion into wider societal groups. When taking care of the dead becomes a community-based practice abroad, the deceased are identified as part of the community, albeit at different levels: national, ethnic, religious, village, etc.

18 Such translocal community-based practices in a funerary context create transnational intimacy for mourning shared by scattered people and which connects the place of migration and the place of origin (Stierl, 2016; Cleuziou, 2023b) — the paper by Juliette Cleuziou and Aksana Ismailbekova shows the role of transnational intimacy in stabilising Kyrgyz and Tajik transnational hometown organisations. Shared mourning intimacy can indeed serve collective identification despite a distant homeland. This themed issue also attempts to understand how the living wish their dead to define them in a context where links between ancestry and territoriality are being profoundly redefined. This questioning invariably arises in the case of burials in situ, without repatriation.

The Pooling of Resources and Risk-Mitigation Practices

19 In terms of community-based practices, this volume focuses on the pooling of resources — a central dimension reminding people that the politics of death and mortuary economics are closely intertwined. Although this is not specific to post-Soviet migrants, the pooling of resources is one of the many informal practices allowing migrants to navigate in uncertain environments (Reeves, 2015; Henig and Makovicky, 2017; Turaeva and Urinboyev, 2021). The pooling of resource is not unknown to Central Asians, and even less when rituals are concerned: most people from the Caucasus and Central Asia have experienced the contribution to informal funds of solidarity, especially in times of mourning, as it used to exist even during the Soviet regime despite the official stigma addressed to religious rituals (see for example, Dudoignon and Qalandar, 2014; Ohayon, 2020). Moreover, in most Muslim countries of the world, including former Soviet ones, commercial funeral homes do not exist. Death requires the performance of a collective duty on behalf of the community.

20 In Russia, most migrants make every effort to bypass the local market of death, which in Russia is highly liberalised, sometimes making the charitable and benevolent treatment of the deceased a pillar of their distinction from local society. The pooling of resources also generates and reinforces the identification with and care of the dead and the ethical and religious values this conveys, thus contributing to building a sense of common belonging and why not, a delineated community (Petit, 2005; Lacroix, 2016 and 2021).

21 The pooling of resources dedicated to bury the dead “here” or “there” is considered a charity and ethical act, entrenched in religious beliefs (see Cleuziou and Ismailbekova, in this volume). In the post-Soviet space, the pooling of resources in the form of a “fund” refers to a specific history, as criminal groups have made it a trademark. The “obshak” of the mafia were fed by racketeering or/and “voluntary” contributions from those seeking protection, or from the income generated by illegal businesses in which these groups were involved. The money was used to support members in prison, to pay for hospitalisations or funerals and to cover bribes or legal fees. However, this type of pooling of resources is not unique to criminal groups. A number of migrant groups, varying in terms of size and structure, also use common funds based on voluntary contributions. While some funds are raised after a tragic event, such as the death of a compatriot, others are organised to prevent a difficult situation. While in the first case, calls for contributions circulate widely on social networks and among different migrant groups, in the second case, they are based on a more clearly delineated community, in which members often have a common origin and closer contacts, and which relies on regular contributions. Religious rhetoric often plays a central role in calls for contribution, yet the “scale” of identification may vary according to the situation — is the deceased a “Muslim brother” or a Christian, a fellow regional or villager, a friend or a colleague? Who is the deceased and in what capacity is he or she a dead to “us”?

22 Binding members together into a community implies to discriminate among the deceased, as well as among the living, i.e. identify who should be helped and who should not. In fact, we observe that the care provided to the deceased is not unconditional: it has its limits, some of which are identified in the articles presented in this themed issue. Moreover, not all of the living are allowed to contribute or indeed actually contribute to these funds. In the cases analysed by Sandra Pellet and Marine de Talancé (in this volume), fund participants and non-participants are distinguished by their migration experiences and administrative status in particular. Not everyone therefore has the means or the will to “appropriate” the dead, or to ensure their own dignity in death. In addition, Juliette Cleuziou and Aksana Ismailbekova’s article (in this volume) shows that, where they exist, Kyrgyz and Tajik funds are mainly a “male affair”. The men take care of the bodies of deceased women, but the latter do not contribute when they are alive. In this context, community building is a highly gender-based process in which taking care of the dead supports the reproduction of hierarchies and gender division in terms of decision-making practices.

23 The increasing visibility of death among migrant groups has the corollary effect of highlighting the risk of death for those who decide to work abroad, in their own eyes and in those of their families. Exploring the perception of risk raises both methodological and ethical problems. Risk perception is always multifaceted because it is a subjective approach to a situation, which changes over time and space. According to Boholm, risk is a framing device that translates uncertainty into a “bounded set of possible [negative] consequences”, and it is always associated with mitigation strategies. Risk is thus always situated, and “risk perception is influenced by communication via the media, power relations, institutions and by societal dimensions of marginality, gender and ethnicity” (2015: 17). Thus, although death may be considered a very high risk by informants and researchers, sometimes the immediate need to earn a living or repay debts takes precedence and risks that could derail the migration project (such as administrative or political restrictions) need to be managed more immediately than the risk of death. In the face of these methodological difficulties, our volume shows a variety of approaches to the risk of death: through qualitative and quantitative study, through the exploration of narratives and practices, through written texts and images (see Zevaco, in this volume).

24 Another way to look at the pooling of resources is to understand it as an insurance scheme in the event of death (Pellet and de Talancé, in this volume; see also Urinboyev, 2021: 105). In a recent, edited volume on security-scapes in Kyrgyzstan (von Boemcken et al., 2020), the authors chose to focus on the mundane practices that take place in micro-spaces and through which people seek to secure or avoid risks, depending on how they recognise, experience and imagine them, both individually and collectively. Our volume shows that migrants who regularly contribute to (sometimes preventive) funds for the dead expect that, should something happen to them, the fund will take care of their body and help their family (financially) to organise appropriate rituals. Preventive funds organised for the dead are one of many other risk-mitigation practices that migrants and former (now settled) migrants develop in order to make uncertain environments secure. But what is the risk we are talking about here? The articles in our volume that deal with this question show that the funds are not intended to mitigate the risk of death itself (and indeed, how could they?) but the risk of leaving a body uncared for, un-socialised, untended. “Being dead for no one is precisely the risk for the dead: the void” (Despret, 2015: 80, my translation). Indeed, for each contributor, it is a question of ensuring that his or her body, or that of a fellow countryman, does not become a mirror of the lack of dignity of the living person he or she was. Regardless of the life one has led, it is about ensuring dignity in death. Let’s remark here that dissensions can arise when the actors conceive posthumous dignity differently: while most families consider that a dignified death ends with a burial in the village of origin, near his or her relatives, some activists will value burial at the place of death, based on both religious and practical considerations. In all cases, the dignity of death intertwine with the capacity of the living to act in favour of the dead: in the first case, dignity is based on the possibility of being able to provide the last care for the body (mourning, ritual washing, choosing a suitable coffin, etc.) and, later, to visit the grave; in the second case, it is a question of avoiding posthumous mobility of the bodies, which is sometimes risky, often costly and without any ritual obligation. The dignity of the dead thus owes much to the possibility for the living to pay tribute to them — a dimension that Olga Davydova-Minguet and Pirjo Pöllänen also address in this volume, when they discuss the complex relationship between two funeral administrations (Russian and Finnish), in a context where the collective of “migrants” (in this case, Russian-speakers) does not offer much of a solution. Instead, people are forced to find resources in rather loose interpersonal relationships.

25 While Olga Davydova-Minguet and Pirjo Pöllänen’ article analyses how the failure of transnational bureaucracy has led to the commercialisation and individualisation of mortuary practices among Russian speakers in Finland, other articles focus on the collective funeral action among migrants (Pellet and de Talancé; Cleuziou and Ismailbekova; Gurchiani and Darchiashvili, in this volume).

26 Some of the preventive funds eventually turn into development funds, which aim to send money home whenever needed for a collective purpose (building a school or a religious building, restoring a road or a house, etc.), acting, more generally, as a centralised diasporic resource. Preventive funds demand more institutionalised organisations, relying on trust, reciprocity and control. In this context, community leaders may emerge whose charisma should impose respect through authority and their availability “on the ground” should anyone need them, when dealing with the administration or the police (Cleuziou and Ismailbekova, in this volume).

27 At the same time, these organised solidarity practices contribute to the more visible delineation of community boundaries abroad and the recreation of behavioural expectations and social norms from which individuals may have wished to move away by migrating. This brings us back to the political question — the dead may serve political goals when migrants decide to organise community-based “funds for the dead”. Interestingly, preventive contribution practices, although not exercised only by Muslims, can also be linked to the Muslim ideal of dying without leaving any debts behind. In fact, the ja’noza (funeral prayer) recited in front of the corpse asks whether the deceased left any debts and, if so, who would be willing to take them on (in theory, the children if he or she has any). In this context, men and women are expected to store their own shroud and all the materials needed for their funeral bath in a chest, so as not to be “indebted” to their relatives who would, otherwise, have to buy everything. The insurance-like fund for the dead reflects the Muslim ideal of debt-free death where the living do not want to become the “burdening dead” for their family, be it logistically, financially or emotionally.

Cemeteries, Funerary Discretion and Diasporic Deathscapes

28 Historians who have focused on death “far away” have shown that this issue became increasingly relevant as the world began to globalise and states had to deal with the death of their citizens abroad. The work of Lopez (2017) on the French Royal Company of Africa, which operated between 1741 and 1793, reminds us that Catholic merchants and seamen would cast a dead body into the sea or bury it at night rather than ostentatiously perform religious rituals in a foreign land. Despite their beliefs, they would not take the risk of being seen as provocateurs by their Muslim trade partners (Ibid.: 67). The management of death then remained very context-dependent, and was subsumed under more important (here: commercial) interests.

29 How does this echo the contemporary situation of migrants in the post-Soviet space?

30 One recent anecdote may be a starting point. The informal Muslim cemetery discovered in July 2020 by the authorities of Yakutia province, in Russia, is one example of how migrants try to mitigate external constraints (unavailability of a formal burial place, imposed funeral discretion, lack of administrative control over cemetery) by informal practices (a handwritten sign nailed to a nearby tree stating “Muslim cemetery”), in tune with their personal beliefs. [18] Five people were buried there: two graves had tombstones (indicating the Tajik and Kyrgyz origin of the deceased), the other three were marked only by an earth bank. This shows that, if necessary, the ritual conditions of the dead (discretion if not invisibility or anonymity) depends to a considerable extent on the situation of the living who implement them and who must, for one reason or another, keep a low profile. Funerary rituals are realised, often adapted and compressed according to material constraints within spatial and temporal interstices. Ismaili Tajikistanis in Moscow often pray at the (hospital) morgue before the body departs for Tajikistan. Some Georgians in Saint Petersburg also organise a meal at either the morgue or the church when the body cannot be transferred to Georgia.

31 The conditions of a certain “funerary visibility” are in fact examined by the authors in this volume, in direct connection with hospitality conditions (Brightman and Grotti, 2019), but also as a coping strategy. Anthropological and philosophical literature on hospitality has highlighted its ambivalence, its inner logics of “taming” and “risk-mitigation”, which may tend towards assimilation and dependence but which are nonetheless framed by moral values and ethics when relating to the Other (Pitt-Rivers, 1983; Candea and Da Col, 2012; Herzfeld, 2012). Derrida coined this ambivalence when he forged the word “hostipitality” referring to both hostile hospitality and hospitable hostility (Derrida and Dufourmantelle, 1997). How does this particular form of hospitality, namely “funerary hospitality” (Grenet, 2017), reflect such ambivalence? How does it contribute to shaping “host” and “guest” relationships over time?

32 Ketevan Gurchiani and Mariam Darchiashvili show that Georgian migrants see Russia as a land where traditions are being lost and where the dead face a severe lack of care: the repatriation of bodies is a matter of “securing” the dignity of the body, a dimension that echoes the conflicting relations between Georgia and Russia. Olga Davydova-Minguet and Pirjo Pöllänen’s article points out that funeral procedures can function as a process of “otherisation” of Russian-speaking citizens of Finland, whose situation towards Russia is also very ambiguous. These people are caught between two funeral administrations that are unable to relate to each other, and which place the burden of transnational management of their dead on individuals. The papers by Juliette Cleuziou and Aksana Ismailbekova and by Sandra Pellet and Marine de Talancé focus on informal migrant organisations that formed precisely to guarantee a sort of funeral hospitality to deceased migrants in the context of a rather hostile Russian political opinion towards migration. Together, these four articles show that the opposition between migrants and nationals is not always relevant for understanding “funeral tensions”, since a large number of these so-called “migrants” are, at the very least, settled “immigrants”, and often holders of the citizenship of the country of residence (Finnish or Russian in this case). In other words, as Lestage (2019) has already suggested, funeral practices abroad tend to redefine the limits of the community, but also to reshape the imposed, negotiated or even claimed opposition between an “us” and “others”, between nationals and foreigners.

33 At the same time, we see that in the above-mentioned anecdote, the laxity of the State to some extent allows migrants to create the conditions of funerary hospitality for themselves provided that they remain discreet if not invisible (see Ansari, 2007; Alaoui, 2012; Zagaria, 2019; Kobelinsky and Rachédi, 2023, among others). In this volume, the authors examine the conditions under which “funerary visibility” can or cannot be exercised, and through which funerary hospitality is feasible in the post-Soviet space.

34 Funerary visibility also stems from funerary materiality. Graves, for example, are place-makers and identity markers which can contribute to the development of “diasporic deathscapes”, understood as a collection of emotional, symbolic and material practices related to death (Hunter, 2016; see also Maddrell, 2020). Funerary material anchorages have often been seen as a marker of the migrants’ integration in the host society, providing them with a sense of continuity despite the disjuncture caused by death and distance. Surely, informal or often inconspicuous practices, whether they take place in the Russian taiga (digging graves at night) or within households, through memorial meals or prayers, may reflect certain socio-political positioning of migrant groups. [19] But diasporic deathscapes are also constructed elsewhere, for example online through social networks where death announcements or money collections are circulated, or in ideals of ritual self-sufficiency in a migratory context. In this matter, most Muslim diasporas from South Caucasus or Central Asia call their “own” religious officiants (mullahs) to perform funeral rites (Oparin, 2020). Interestingly, they may also call for a mullah of another diaspora, rather than a Muslim Russian one (such as a Tatar for example). Ritual proximity in a migratory context is also shaped by post-colonial relations, and develops at the intersection of religious, regional, national and ethnic affiliations.

35 Diasporic deathscapes are the dynamic product of local political configurations and transnational arrangements of funerary rituals. In the Russian context, migrant (death) invisibility is intrinsically linked with a dysfunctional funerary system, inherited from the Soviet regime. The Soviet state monopoly on funeral activities was characterised by notorious inefficiency, which led people not only to do everything themselves, but also to resort to informal services (Mokhov and Sokolova, 2020). To date, the mortuary sector has remained nationalised to a certain extent but has visible flaws such as the lack of centralised data collection on the number of cemeteries and graves, or the number of funeral companies operating in the country. Registered or informal companies providing basic services such as mortuary storage and embalming, transport of bodies, production of coffins or preparation of graves, have proliferated to compensate for the shortage of public services (Luxmoore, 2019). The de facto privatisation of the sector has also contributed to creating a breeding ground for mistrust and fear of frauds. [20]

36 As previously mentioned, the laxity of Russian regulations also allows the creation of unregistered cemeteries — as local municipalities are keen to turn a blind eye to entities and facilities for which they would have to take responsibility without an additional budget — a practice described by Mokhov and Sokolova as a “silent self-elimination policy” on the part of the municipalities per se (2020: 242). While some degree of informality may benefit the family or community-based management of deceased persons, it also implies that state or private agents operating in the sector (in the administration, at the mortuary or the crematorium, etc.) may take full advantage of their position, for example asking for bribes to hand in bodies at the mortuary. [21]

37 This lack of control interestingly shows that, as elsewhere, some dead are definitely more wanted and valuable (e.g. political leaders, soldiers of the Great Patriotic War) than others (e.g. political opponents, migrants) (Merridale, 2003). Yet the peculiarity of Russia possibly lies in the fact that even the majority of the deceased are not mobilised by the state as valuable assets for the nation or the nation-building process [22] — unlike the scenario in France or Great Britain, for example (Esquerre and Truc, 2011). At least, the question of administrative control of these deaths is not raised on a daily basis. However, we can see that in times of crisis, particularly in times of conflict (the Soviet-Afghan war, the war in Chechnya and, today, the war in Ukraine), but also in times of pandemic, the visible accumulation of dead bodies, which seems to reflect a flaw in administrative control, can create a (too visible) breach in the support for political power. The urgent task for a state is therefore to make these bodies invisible again, in order to silence what they seem to testify to, and the doubt that they cast on political competence in the control and protection of its population.

38 Transnational funerals, local burials or the expansion of diasporic deathscapes all contribute to the fabrication of mourning and death for lives that are now considered valuable enough to merit attention. In this way, they address the vulnerability of the dead who “are not immune to deficits of existence”, as Despret put it (2015: 72). [23] Conversely, the dehumanising void that might arise from their absence invites questions about the invisibility of the living. What Butler describes as “grievability” (Butler, 2003) is the conditions that make a life deserving enough to be grieved when it is lost. According to her, precarious lives are precisely those whose disappearance remains invisible and which even statistics fail to make visible. Indeed, making mourning and good death possible, especially abroad, contributes to the recognition of the dignity of these lost lives. Some of the dead epitomise a call for justice, a demand from the living to fix unsatisfactory or intolerable situations. In the post-Soviet/postcolonial context where relations between Russian society and its former compatriots are often tainted with hostility despite their shared past and the current intense migratory fluxes that connect them, (re)taking control over one’s dead is a form of empowerment of one’s condition.

39 As Delaplace (2023) put it, the dead may become “curious diplomats”, whose main agency is to make the living act, maybe in their name, but mostly for the living’s own present and future. They offer the opportunity to ask existential questions to the living in the name of their dignity (Fassin, 2018), for they too deserve treatment that reflects the value of a life — not life in its biological sense but in its most ambitious and socially desirable meaning.

The Papers

40 In their paper on Georgian migrants, Ketevan Gurchiani and Mariam Darchiashvili show that the materiality of the deceased’s house in funeral rituals bears particular significance, which is almost impossible to replace in the migration context. Although the Georgian church in Russia may take over the organisation of mortuary events, its support cannot fully compensate for the absence of relatives and neighbours; the latter cannot provide mourning assistance and thus, fail to maintain the deceased’s soul within the community. Dying away from home demands the creation of forms of continuity, sometimes embodied by such a frail thing as a white thread supposed to guide the soul back home. Ancestry and territoriality are intimately connected because the soul should not separate from the body’s place of burial. Yet, the different layers of liminality that characterise migrants’ conditions (as a migrant, as a deceased person abroad, as a victim of imposed immobility in a pandemic context) challenge the likelihood of the community to recover from the death of one of its members, and demands creative practices.

41 Conversely, Olga Davydova-Minguet and Pirjo Pöllänen’s article on Russian-speaking migrants in Finland highlights the gap between a long-established “Russian world” and the reality of community relations, which rarely entail community-based management of death rituals. If relatives in Finland are asked to cope with an elderly and/or dying individual, people often find themselves quite lost and alone after the death of a relative, when faced with often dematerialised administrative procedures. Mourning takes place as part of a prolonged administrative procedure required by both Finnish and Russian legal systems — a process that reversely reinforces the hardship of getting these (overly) “long farewells” done. The lack of accessibility entails differentiation between “real” nationals on either side of the borders, in which long-established migrants have trouble positioning themselves. In this perspective, multiple belonging and transnational practices it entails may pose obstacles to a quick burial and mourning. Repatriation, the legal management of any remaining properties, social benefits and bank assets, etc. are material constraints to any attempt to promote continuity.

42 The paper by Juliette Cleuziou and Aksana Ismailbekova examines the role of death abroad in the creation of translocal practices, hometown organisations and transnational circulations. Starting from the operational chain of death and the mobility of the bodies of deceased migrants, it shows how preventive measures in the face of the risk of death are organised at a collective level among Kyrgyz and Tajik migrants in Russia, through key figures such as community leaders. In this perspective, the creation of transnational intimacy through shared funeral procedures between migrant collectives and their families contributes to stabilising and strengthening transnational communities. The latter in turn guarantee and frame the possibility of further mobility of the living. In other words, circulating the dead becomes a condition for improving the transnational practices of the living.

43 The article by Sandra Pellet and Marine de Talancé adopts a more economic and quantitative approach to the pooling of resources as operated by Tajikistani and Uzbekistani migrants in Russia. Their study of money collections for the dead provides excellent insight into what encourages individuals to contribute to such funds. They show that these donations are not anecdotal as they represent about one-tenth of the average monthly salary of interviewees and are made in addition to other charitable donations. They also show that these informal funds are in some ways complementary to — but no substitute for — formal insurance schemes. Those individuals contributing to the former are also more likely to have taken out insurance, both of which are correlated with a degree of institutional integration. They are also linked to a higher degree of risk perception surrounding living and working in Russia, and can be understood as a form of risk-mitigating practice.

44 In a cross interview conducted by Juliette Cleuziou, two activists from Central Asia, Zarnigor Omonillaeva and Karimdzhon Yorov, reflect on their experiences as both migrants and human rights activists specialising in supporting migrants in Russia [24]. They describe the living, working, dying and repatriation conditions of Central Asian migrants, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are made difficult by the opacity of Russian migration institutions and policies, the hostility of the population fostered at the state level, against which the low investment of the countries of origin offers little protection. In response to this, the sphere of aid to migrants has been structured for over two decades. It is now made up of a large number of actors (state institutions in Russia and in the countries of origin, human rights associations, informal ethnic or village organisations, specialised lawyers, etc.) who know and sometimes even train each other. Yet, these networks have become more vulnerable lately due to the Russian government’s campaign against human-rights organisations in recent years.

45 The portfolio by Ariane Zevaco focuses on the relations between risk and migration, through the intimate experience of her Tajik interviewees. The combination of text and images reflects on methodological issues regarding the representation of the risk that she perceived in her interviewees’ words when they speak about their migratory experience. The author indicates that the risk of death often recurs in their language, but in an indirect manner: they tell of their anxiety when, in Russia, they wonder if they will ever see their loved ones again. This intimate expression of the risk of disappearance punctuates the comments, which also emphasise the stakes involved in emigrating: that of succeeding, of achieving a breakthrough, of being able to change their status or provide their families with the means to improve their living conditions and, finally, to return with their heads held high. Central here is the author’s reflection on the evocative power of images: those that represent stereotypes of migration found in the Russian and Central Asian media, but also those that migrants appropriate (by making photomontages, for example), as well as those that, as researchers, we wish to show.

I wish to warmly thank Olivier Ferrando, Carolina Kobelinsky, Françoise Lestage and Julien Thorez for their thoughtful comments on this introduction. All remaining inaccuracies are mine.


  • [1]
    See also the book by Svetlana Alexievich, Цинковые мальчики [Boys in Zinc], 1990.
  • [2]
    With the exception of the Baltic States. Since the creation of the CIS in 1991, Turkmenistan withdrew in 2007, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2018.
  • [3]
    The “Near abroad” [blizhe zarubjezhe] is a notion developed by Russia to shape its foreign policy towards the former Soviet republics which became independent states after the collapse of the USSR.
  • [4]
    The word “nationality” refers, in Russian, to national/ethnic affiliation. “Nationality” is distinct from citizenship, which refers to a civic and administrative identity. Among the nationalities listed by the Soviet regime were Russians, Kyrgyzs, Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, etc.
  • [5]
    The budget of Moscow alone, which hosts about half of the migrants in Russia, received more than 263 million euros (18.3 billion rubles) in 2019 from the payment of work permits (“patents”) needed by migrants. Almost 90% of these work permits were taken out by Uzbekistanis (about 50%) and Tajikistanis (38%). See:
  • [6]
    The project was funded by the French National Agency for Research. See also:
  • [7]
    The publication project started before the 2022 war in Ukraine, and does not deal with war-related migratory flows.
  • [8]
    Except for citizens of Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Georgia who need a visa to enter Russia, as well as citizens of the Baltic States, which are part of the EU.
  • [9]
    Recent events at the border of Belarus and Poland created new solidarities with the victims of border management:
  • [10]
    In 2022, the work permit for the Moscow region increased from 5,490 to 5,900 rubles (sixty to sixty-seven euros) per month:
  • [11]
    Data from 2019.
  • [12]
    Although the Russian Government is extremely worried about the commemoration of death (and of the dead) who died under (or because of) the Soviet rule. See for example the recent affair concerning the organisation “Memorial”. See also
  • [13]
    RFE/RL’s Tajik Service (2021) Who’s Behind The Downfall Of Tajikistan’s National Airline?, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 21/09, [online]. URL:
  • [14]
    Called “Fund for support and protection of the rights and interests of citizens engaged in work abroad.” See the governmental page:
  • [15]
    In addition, in January 2018, the death of fifty-two Uzbekistani nationals in a bus accident while travelling to Kazakhstan for work helped to bring the conditions of migration, let alone the repatriation of fellow citizens who died abroad, into public debate. At the time, President Mirziyoyev took responsibility for the tragedy as a result of his country’s difficulties in creating jobs locally. The “Migrant Workers’ Support Fund” was then set up on 1 September 2018 and provides, among other things, for the repatriation of the bodies of migrants who have died abroad. See also
  • [16]
    On this topic, see the Russian documentary “People from the list. Ten years of the law on ‘Foreign Agents’”, produced by NO.Media from Russia (НО.Медиа из России), available on
  • [17]
    Among others, let us point to the deportation of Karomat Sharipov and Izzat Amon (originating from Tajikistan) or Valentina Chupik (originating from Uzbekistan), all involved in activism supporting migrants.
  • [18]
    Следственное управление (2020) По факту обнаружения несанкционированного кладбища СКР по Якутии проводится доследственная проверка [The Investigative Committee of Yakutia carries out an investigation following the discovery of an authorised cemetery],, 06/07, [online]. URL:
  • [19]
    Which also appears through the absence of statistics on the number of migrant deaths in Russia. On this topic see also Kobelinsky (2016).
  • [20]
    According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the Institute of Public Opinion Anketolog, 91% of the people interviewed think that the funeral sector is corrupted — a result that corroborates the many stories of people who have transported a deceased relative in their car at least once, or the rumours of scams by ill-intentioned fake undertakers (Похоронный бизнес в России. Всё плохо [Burial business in Russia. Everything is bad]: The private survey company Anketolog, reports that the survey was conducted online among 1,650 persons, whose profiles represented the sociodemographic characteristics of the general Russian population.
  • [21]
    Гроб, кладбище, сотни миллиардов рублей Как чиновники, силовики и бандиты делят похоронный рынок — и при чем тут Тесак [Coffin, cemetery, hundreds of billions of roubles. How officials, security forces and gangsters divide the funeral market — and what Tesak has to do with it] (
  • [22]
    Another issue is that of the memory work of political repression, and in particular the role that the exhumation of the bodies of people murdered under the Soviet regime may play, as shown by the recent closure of the organisation Memorial.
  • [23]
    In French: “Les morts ne sont pas immunisés contre ces déficits d’existence”.
  • [24]
    The interview is offered here in French. A version in English will be published in the next edition of the journal.
  • migration
  • death
  • post-Soviet space
  • risk
  • funeral care
  • deathscapes
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Juliette Cleuziou
Anthropologist, Associate professor (MCF), University Lumière Lyon 2/LADEC, 5 avenue Mendès France, 69500 Bron, France;;
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