Karim Zidan looks at the trend of Central Asian migrants turning to mixed martial arts for a better life in Russia.
Moscow’s Электрозаводская (Elektrozavodskaya) metro station is one of the more spectacularly decorated subways in the world. Located on the Eastern Administrative District in Moscow for over 70 years, the station is now considered a bustling icon of Russia’s rich cultural heritage. The paths are paved in red granite while the walls are carved in Roman art. Mesmerizing lights illuminate the passage from entrance to exit. It also happens to be the closest monument to a fight club used to host unregulated MMA bouts featuring migrant workers from across the Eurasian Steppe.
Upon exiting the station, you are greeted by several large rectangular buildings, one of which is home to a local fast food joint on the bottom floor. Once inside the unusually elongated building, the walls take on a greenish hue. Distant voices can be heard several floors above, none of which appear to be speaking Russian dialects. The voices come from behind a door labeled Айкөл (Aikol) on the sixth floor of the otherwise desolate building, one better equipped for filming Hollywood action sequences than hosting illegal contests. Yet what stands behind the door is unlike any other gym in Moscow.
Hundreds of Kyrgyz nationals stand around the spacious room, hovering primarily in the direction of a circular cage used to host MMA fights. Behind it was a wall emblazoned with the outline of a black eagle below red mountains – the Aikol FC logo, a tribute to the Kyrgyzstan emblem created in 1994. Yet while the official emblem was adopted following the collapse of the Soviet Union is mainly a comforting light blue, the color of generosity, the club’s logo shines bright red, the color of bravery and valour.
The signs of a proud nomadic heritage are undeniable.
On Saturdays, the gym transforms into an MMA showcase of little known Kyrgyz talents. Several rows of chairs are placed around the cage. Most will be occupied by paying customers there to see their fellow compatriots compete for glory. Officials are seated behind the only table visible in the facility, three of whom judge the bouts while a fourth keeps time and rings the bell. Given the limited space, fighters linger by the corner awaiting their turn to compete, and equipped with little more than their fight gear, nervous energy, and dreams of a better life.
On one particular event day, Aizhamal Idiris, a Kyrgyz journalist based in Moscow, ventured to Aikol for a first-hand impression. During his tour of the facility, Aizhamal asked one of the employees why a fighter was accompanied by his young son.
“He brought him not to be involved in the fighting, but to be able to stand up for himself if he is suddenly insulted or called ‘narrow-eyed’. Children of migrants are rarely able to find friends in Moscow.”
In a matter of moments, it became evidently clear that Aizhamal was not only bearing witness to a relatively unknown subsect of Kyrgyz migrant culture, but also to the racial and socio-economic problems that forced migrants into an alternative existence. This article will attempt to analyze the recent trend of Central Asian migrants turning to mixed martial arts, and to determine how much of that is due to their pre-existing societal conditions.
Moscow’s Invisible Migrants
As the largest country in the world with over 143 million residents, Russia is naturally one of the largest havens for labor migrants from across the world. In fact, the Russian Federation is only second behind the United States in terms of immigration rates. Despite an inconsistent Russian economy and political climate, a significant percentage of those migrants arrive from fellow post-Soviet states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, in the hopes of ensuring better lives for their families.
The reasons behind this migrant flow into Russia are simple: the established nation provides higher wages and an improved standard of living, though it comes at a price. While many leave their homes in an attempt to escape from poverty and a meagre existence, they are greeted with a new set of concerns upon their arrival in Russia. From restrictive laws and limited legal rights to blatant racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, a migrant’s life in Russia is a difficult existence.
“There is a lot of discrimination against migrants in the RF — not just Central Asians, but also people from the Caucasus, including those that are from the federation itself,” said Nate Schenkkan, Project Director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House. “At one end of the spectrum is the casual racism about non-Russians in the form of comments or rudeness, while at another are organized nationalist groups that occasionally seek out non-Russians and violently attack them. Migrants also frequently have indeterminate legal status or can be unfamiliar with the Russian system, which leaves them vulnerable to extortion by police or other officials.”
Vulnerability is a significant concern for incoming migrants. The laws regulating workers have become increasingly restrictive, as migrants can be placed on ‘blacklists’ for incomplete or non-existent documentation. This will eventually result in deportation. If they manage to stay in Russia, they have a month to register a place of residence, obtain a licence for their particular skills, complete a medical exam, and pass a Russian language test. After all that, they are still likely to be paid less than a Russian citizen for the exact same work, all while remaining invisible to the majority of Russian citizens.
“Generally speaking, local people have no idea about migrants’ life, because they are very busy,” said Aizhamal Idiris, who wrote about ‘How Kyrgyz migrants spend their leisure time in Moscow’, “If you come to Moscow you will notice that people walk very fast in the streets, as if they are running. They work a lot, study a lot and that’s why they are not very interested in you.”
However, Kyrgyzstan became a full-fledged member of the Eurasian Economic Union in late 2015, which brought added benefits for Kyrgyz workers and improved legal status. Yet that did not significantly improve their livelihoods, as the increasing anti-terrorist and anti-immigrant sentiments also means that migrants can be subject to attacks from nationalist groups or street thugs. This is particularly evident with Muslim migrants, such as those from Kyrgyzstan, where over 85% of the population is Muslim. With approximately 1.5 million Kyrgyz nationals (1/5 of the Kyrgyz population) working in Russia, their presence has heightened xenophobia among those less than thrilled with the influx of migrants.
Despite the aforementioned issues, countless migrants continue to seek out opportunities in Russia. Though a recession has hampered the country’s economy, remittance value for Kyrgyz migrants sending money back to families in their native land is still greater than their earning potential back home. Yet with various barriers to entry limiting their standard of living, Krygz migrants have had to turn to unorthodox alternatives to limit the effects of isolation in a foreign land. One of those options is to join an MMA gym and compete in unsanctioned fights.
“Some of the migrants who joined these fight clubs told me that they dream about doing MMA professionally,” Idiris explained. “For some of them, fighting is a way to spend time after work, to find friends and opportunity to communicate with people who can easily understand them because of cultural features. Their interest in the sport is due to traditions and ancestors whose games and hobbies looked like modern fighting.”
The Aikol FC gym is mainly populated with young men ranging between 20-23 years of age. Many join to learn self-defence and protect themselves from hostile aggressors, while others compete to offer their families a better life in Russia and beyond. Some, however, join solely for the community and sense of belonging, a tool particularly beneficial for those who haven’t returned to Kyrgyzstan in years.
“There was one girl – an actress by day – who was ethnic Kyrgyz but never visit her motherland. She had grown in Russia and never met native Kyrgyz people. She came to the fight club just for communicating and learning her culture and language.
“She was the only girl in the fight club.”
Solace Through Sport
What is it about mixed martial arts that intrigues Kyrgyz migrants in Moscow? According to journalist Aizhamal Idiris, who has visited the aforementioned Aikol FC, 15 such gyms exist throughout the city, all but one of which host unsanctioned fights. Each gym sprouted spontaneously with little connection to the others in existence. Most rent space in near-abandoned buildings for cheaper overhead costs, and offer migrants a sanctuary to hone their craft, and to exercise as part of a community in a safe space.
Given the support and collection of talented fighters under a single roof, Aikol FC eventually took the decision to transform into a promotion. They now offer tickets for special fight events once a month, have established a relationship with the Russian MMA Union, and host 200+ guests to watch a complete fight card of amateur and professional competitors. Aikol FC is even working with the Kyrgyz Embassy in order to support migrants and help them integrate into the local community.
It is a show by Kyrgyz people, for Kyrgyz people.
Prospective applicants to the gym could have selected any sport to build a community around, but MMA seems to provide a multi-pronged opportunity to learn self-defence and develop an entirely new skill set, reconnect with one’s nomadic ancestors and the combat sport culture that comes with it, and even to reclaim dignity eroded through years of second-class residency in a foreign land.
“I can really only speculate about why they might turn to it. I would think for migrants living in difficult conditions and grappling with the humiliations of working menial jobs (as many but not all do), being separated from their families, and living in a place where they are sometimes made to feel unwelcome, training and fighting could provide a way to recapture dignity in their lives,” Schenkkan, Project Director for Nations in Transit at Freedom House, explained. “I’m sure self defense is part of it for some, but training also gives you order and discipline, and a feeling of control. There’s also the fact that wrestling and fighting are a part of Central Asian cultures, so it can be a way to feel rooted in traditions and connected to home even when you’re far away.”
Kyrgyz nationals find their way to these gyms for many different reasons. One, Bakeet, is a pickpocket trying to earn extra money by competing in the cage. Another, Urnud-Bek, works in construction by day while training by night with the ambition to become a UFC fighter. The two contrasting Kyrgyz nationals are typical stories at migrant fight clubs.
“I visited the gym because I wanted to learn how Kyrgyz migrants live in Russia, what they do and how they spend time,” Idris stated. “I thought that it will be like in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel [Fight Club], but I was very happy that they do not just fight, but do it for sports. They know all the rules, they train each other and they dream big careers.”
Given the rise of anti-terrorist sentiment and general xenophobic behaviour towards Central Asian migrants, particularly those of the Islamic faith, these gyms will continue to be a place where dejected migrants can find solace through sports. Given the recent St. Petersburg metro bombing, which is believed to have been committed by a Kyrgyz-born Russian citizen (22-year-old Akbarzhon Jalilov), tension and resentment for Central Asian migrants may be at an all-time high.
The bombing highlights the concerns of isolated migrants turning to Islamic insurgency and fundamentalism as a solution to their problems. Disgruntled migrants working low-status jobs in countries where they live on society’s margins are easy targets for radicalization. The aftermath of the St. Petersburg bombing not only sheds light on the experiences of a Central Asian migrant in Russia, but of Russian law enforcement’s immediate displays of racial profiling – thus completing a vicious cycle of fear, blame, and hate.
“In terms of the consequences for Central Asian migrants, it’s certainly not going to help their situation, and I expect there will be considerable pressure in the short term on migrant communities,” Schenkkan stated when asked about the effect the recent metro bombing will have on Central Asian communities. “Of course, part of that is a legitimate security issue — there are Central Asians going to Syria and Iraq to fight, and many of them have ties back to Russia. Russia has real security issues around violent Islamic extremism, and some migrants may be implicated than that. So there is a legitimate state interest for the state to police these communities.
“Unfortunately, the Russian approach to this kind of policing is very crude, so especially in the short term this may wind up with a dragnet kind of approach.”
Russia undoubtedly has a problem with racism. From their longstanding tension with the Caucasus to slurs against Africans, it is a country plagued with bigotry. However, while official stats bear unfortunate information about changing sentiments, not every foreigner’s experience is a terrible one. Even Idris, a Kyrgyz national who moved to Moscow to work in journalism, quickly realized that people were far friendlier than he had anticipated.
“When I came to Moscow I thought that no one will like me but I was very surprised when people on the streets were helping me to find places which I don’t know. One day I went to coffee shop and I realized that I don’t have enough money to pay for pie. They just gave me it for free and I understood that we also have many stereotypes about Russians.”