Fakhriddin, a 43-year-old labor migrant from Uzbekistan, was serving a five-year prison term in Russia. His family had heard nothing from him since November 2022 and found out he was killed in Ukraine in January; the news surfaced more publicly only recently. He had reportedly been sent to Ukraine for construction work, and a shell hit the site he was working at.
Fakhriddin went to Russia in 2019 to work but was imprisoned after he was involved in a conflict with other migrants. He reportedly informed only his sister about his departure to Ukraine, mentioning he would work for a couple of months and that he hoped to go back to Uzbekistan in March. It is unclear if he volunteered to go to Ukraine or was coerced into doing so, for example by a promise of an early release.
His body was brought to his family in Karakalpakstan on January 30.
Reports about Uzbek labor migrants joining the Russian army appeared soon after news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In a video shared on a local Telegram channel on February 24, 2022, a middle-aged Uzbek man claiming to be from Fergana explained he was recruited because of his experience in Afghanistan. “There are many our Uzbeks who came to the war,” he says in the video. “Many from Tajikistan. We came on a contract.” RFE/RL confirmed that the man in the video went to Lugansk in a Russian military truck as a driver based on a three-month contract for a monthly salary of $590.
Millions of Central Asians travel to Russia to work – some for a seasonal job while some stay there for years. As of August 2022, 1.8 million Uzbeks worked in Russia. Moscow has been trying to draft labor migrants into the army with “trickery, bribery, and intimidation,” as one article put it.
Migrants are also sent by Russian firms to occupied territories for other jobs too, such as collecting dead bodies and digging trenches, but mostly for construction work. They are promised fast-track Russian citizenship as well as high salaries, up to $3,300 per month. To compare, a typical labor migrant makes $600-$1,200 a month. Obtaining Russian citizenship is a dream for thousands as it rids them of the bureaucratic hurdles to working in Russia. It also promises a higher pension than what they can get in Uzbekistan.
Fakhriddin is not the first Uzbekistani labor-migrant to die in the Russia-Ukraine war. Earlier, on January 19, 2023, the bodies of two Uzbeks were brought to Samarkand with a death certificate stating “died in the war in Ukraine.” Shakhriyor Djalolov, 23, and Bobur Abdumuminov, 26, were both labor migrants imprisoned in Russia. An Uzbek lawyer who defends migrant rights in Russia alleged that “the bodies of Uzbek prisoners are collected in the Rostov region of Russia and then sent to Uzbekistan.”
In an interview with BBC this February, an Uzbek inmate in Rostov prison spoke about the possibility of prisoners being forced to go to war. “If they tell me to go and I refuse, then they can declare that I am against Russia,” he said to BBC.
Although Russian law allows foreigners to sign up for the army and even take part in combat, Tashkent prohibits its citizens from doing so. Article 154 of the Criminal Code of Uzbekistan outlines 3 to 5 years imprisonment for those who join a foreign nation’s army or participate in foreign conflicts. Because of this, many Uzbeks might be concealing their recruitment. However, their names keep appearing in reports – Daryo.uz, for example, reported six Uzbek prisoners who were serving sentences for drug related crimes in Russia being recruited by the Wagner group, a private Russian military company. On January 1, 2023, among others three Uzbek prisoners were reported to have run away from a Wagner training center in Lugansk.
Tashkent called on citizens of Uzbekistan not to join any army or participate in any military activities, reminding them of the consequences in September last year. By then, a video of two Uzbeks captured by Ukrainian forces had been circulated on social media. The detainees say in the video that they were recruited by Moscow. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, most likely upon request of Tashkent, also warned citizens against getting trapped by calls for jihad, holy war, in Russia-Ukraine and stated that a Muslim can fight only to protect their motherland.
Although everyone interviewed by Daryo.uz wished the war to be over soon, opinions among Uzbeks are divided. “Russia is right [in this war],” said one citizen wearing a “RUSSIA” hoodie. “Russia is not doing injustice anywhere. We also went and worked in Russia.” Many believe in Moscow’s power and feel closer to Russia than the West and Ukraine. This is partly due to Russian media propaganda, and partly because millions are dependent on remittances sent by labor migrants in Russia.
But that does not mean everyone is on Russia’s side. Last year, supporters of Ukraine collected aid in Uzbekistan and sent it together with aid from the Uzbek government, at least twice. “As a nation who was once occupied by Russia, I have a negative opinion about the war. Ukrainians, unlike what is shown on Russian TVs, are not a fascist nation,” said another who had been to Ukraine.