Hardworking Chinese Harvest the Steppe

APFarmer Ilya Rusnachenko, left, looking on as his Chinese workers till a field near the village of Yerzovka in the Volgograd region.
YERZOVKA, Southern Russia -- As the midday sun glared down fiercely on the Russian steppe, a dozen farm workers put down their hoes and picked up their chopsticks to enjoy a taste of home: beef and string bean stir-fry with traditional Chinese steamed bread.

Such scenes are becoming more common in the Russian heartland as farmers cope with the reluctance of their countrymen to do farm labor. Chinese men and women -- willing to work from dawn until nightfall and to sleep in cramped, makeshift barracks -- have eagerly stepped in.

For years, China's ever-growing population has been spilling over the border into Russia, giving rise to fears that Moscow could lose its Pacific regions. There are no exact numbers on the Chinese in the country, but estimates range from 200,000 to 5 million.

Most of the Chinese remain in the Russian Far East, but some have begun venturing deeper into the country. Across Siberia and European Russia, they arrive with legitimate work visas to do seasonal work on the country's low-tech, labor-intensive farms.

The stream of Chinese workers into Russia has coincided with a strengthening of ties between the two nations, which were bitter rivals in the Soviet era. However, the force bringing Chinese workers over the border is not politics, but capitalism -- something both countries now embrace.

In the Volgograd region, about 900 kilometers southeast of Moscow, 232 Chinese are working on several farms this year cultivating vegetables, including the fragrant and juicy tomatoes the region is known for.

For seven months, they sleep in metal trailers, plastic tents or, if they're lucky, mud huts. The huts, which the Chinese build themselves, have the advantage of staying cool under the scorching midsummer sun and retaining a stove's heat during the freezing temperatures of the early spring and late fall. The workers toil from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week, bending over to gather heads of cabbage and wielding hoes to rip weeds from rows of peppers.

"The hardest part is that we don't understand the language," 50-year-old Wang Congjing said through an interpreter as she and other workers snacked on fresh bread after rinsing their hands in an irrigation ditch.

The workers, mostly peasants from China's northern Jilin province, rarely leave the fields or mingle with Russians. Each group of a dozen or so -- known as a brigade -- has a cook and an interpreter for communicating with their employer and with the produce dealers who drive their trucks into the fields to buy the harvest. The farmers offer no guaranteed wage but simply split their profits with the workers.

Workers said they hope to bring home $800 to $1,000 each at the end of the season. They are paid in rubles, but change the money into dollars.

"Everything is growing well. We have good cabbage and tomatoes, but who knows whether the price will be good?" said Shi Xiaomei, the interpreter for a brigade of 13 workers. For Shi, a 25-year-old who taught Russian in the city of Changchun, the hardest part of the job is not being able to leave the farm. Her fiance is working in the neighboring region of Kalmykia, but since no one else in her brigade speaks Russian, she can't take time to visit him.

Another difficulty is the heat. The Volgograd region sees little rain, and summer temperatures are consistently above 30 degrees Celsius. At home in Jilin province, the climate is cooler and damper, the workers say.

Ilya Rusnachenko, the first local farmer to hire Chinese workers four years ago, admires their ability to adapt to the harsh conditions. "They are an enterprising people. Put them in any situation, and they'll find a way out. But send a Russian to China, and he would be lost," Rusnachenko said.

After noting the success of Rusnachenko's farm, regional officials asked him to help bring in Chinese workers for other farms this year in addition to the 58 he hired to work his 160 hectares.

Residents of the fairly prosperous Volgograd region don't seem bothered by the presence of Chinese workers, but they rarely see them. The work leaves the Chinese little time to venture out and few speak enough Russian to do so.

In Moscow and other cities, Chinese are occasionally a target of racist attacks. And from time to time, Russian news media stoke tensions with stories about a "Chinese invasion" of the Russian Far East.

Rusnachenko said a lack of Russians willing to do farm work forced him to look elsewhere for workers on his farm in Yerzovka, on the banks of the Volga River. Before the Chinese, he relied on migrants from Tajikistan, but that ended when train service between that country and Russian cities was halted over concerns about drug trafficking.

Finding enough hands to bring in the harvest has long been a problem in Russia, with its high levels of education and urbanization and declining population. In the Soviet era, students, soldiers and even scientists were sent for several weeks a year to toil on collective farms.

"Today, nobody's going to give you free labor," Rusnachenko said.

Farmers have compelling reasons for choosing Chinese labor, said Vilya Gelbras, a Moscow-based expert on Chinese migration to Russia. For one thing, the Chinese are less likely to drink heavily than rural Russians. In addition, their agricultural know-how is well suited to the small farms of today's Russia.

In contrast, Russian peasants lost much of their farming skills during decades of Soviet collectivization that turned them into specialized workers on huge factory-like farms, Gelbras said.

"The Chinese peasant has remained a peasant," he said.

Most workers on Rusnachenko's farm said they had no intention of remaining in Russia and wanted only to earn some money to improve their lives in China. But the foreman, Cai Wengrui, who has 10 years of experience in Russia and command of the language, said he could envision a life in Russia -- if only he could find a legal way to bring his family. "Home is home," he said with a shrug, "but you have to make a living."