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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trials and Tribulations of Uzbek Gastarbeiter

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We've got to do something about our front door," my wife Maria declared the other day. "Look at it. The leatherette's at least 40 years old and it's completely worn out. Do something about it!"

She was right. The door was a mess. I picked up a copy of the newspaper Tsentr-Plyus and found about a dozen ads for companies that reupholster doors. I started calling to find out how much it would cost to have the work done.

At one place I was quoted a price of 900 rubles for one side of a door. Another was asking 1,250 rubles for the same job. After much dialing I finally found a company offering a more reasonable price.

"Our man will be round tomorrow morning," said the secretary.

The next day, the upholsterer arrived right on time. He was a young man of about 30 with high cheekbones and strong, calloused hands.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Erik," he said, then set to work, carefully laying out his tools on a stool. Two hours later, one side of the door was done. It was lunchtime, so we invited Erik to join us.

"How did you get an unusual name like Erik?" I asked.

"That's just to make it easier for clients to say," he replied. "My real name is Erkin, which means 'free' in Uzbek." Over lunch we got to talking. Erkin told us that as a gastarbeiter in Moscow he was constantly hounded by the city government.

"I have a wife and son back in Tashkent," he said. "I'm 34 years old, and I served in the Navy from 1989 to 1992. Since then I haven't been able to figure out which way is up. There's no work in Uzbekistan, and in Moscow I have to bribe officials just to get a residency permit. Where am I supposed to get the money? To top it all off, the cops are constantly busting my chops. If they catch you working without a permit, you'd better start greasing some palms, otherwise they ship you home and ban you from returning to Moscow for five years."

Maria and I were impressed by Erkin's flawless Russian and by the fact that he, a simple workman, frequented Internet cafes and corresponded with the folks back in Tashkent by e-mail.

"I spent a long time looking for work in Tashkent, but without success," Erkin said. "I thought about joining the French Foreign Legion, but couldn't afford the ticket to France. I didn't want to join the Russian Army as a contract soldier. Who wants to bite the dust in Chechnya? I thought about joining the Navy on contract, but I'm too old now. And as far as the Russian government is concerned, I'm a foreigner."

After lunch Erkin got back to work, and soon the door was as good as new, much to Maria's delight.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a pensioner living in Moscow.