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“Circulating Dead Bodies”– Considering Postsocialist Funerary Rituals and Economy in Contexts of Mobility (REFPoM)

The mobile dead<br />In Russia, the treatment of the bodies of deceased Central Asian migrants is the subject of community mobilisation. REFPoM has analysed the methods used and the issues at stake. <br />An interdisciplinary project<br />The analysis involved ethnographic and statistical methods.<br />The project involved the LESC (Univ. Paris Nanterre/CNRS) and then the LADEC (Univ. Lumière Lyon 2) began in 04-2018 and ended in 02-2023. It was fully funded by the ANR to the tune of €206,000.

Two main areas of research: economic and ritual adjustments and the political dimension related to «death at far«

This project aims to analyse them according to two main areas of study:<br /><br />a. « Re-territorializing one's dead. Symbolic, ritual and economic imperatives«. <br />The aim is to analyse the symbolic, ritual and economic modalities of the re-territorialisation of the «mobile dead«, which in most cases include the repatriation of the deceased's body. Here in Central Asia and there in Russia, institutional, political and economic constraints contribute to the creation by migrants and their families of ritual and economic adjustment practices. The analysis of the deaths of Central Asian migrants in Russia will thus make it possible to understand the issues raised by the symbolic, ritual and economic practices of re-territorialization to which they give rise. More generally, it will contribute to research on these «deterritorialized deaths«.<br /><br />b. «Funeral rituals, memory building and political resistance«<br />This 2nd axis of research focuses on the memory construction and the political dimension of these transnational ritual practices. One of the original features of the REFPoM project lies in the political approach to the phenomenon: it is to approach ritual as the place of a micro-policy that makes it possible to grasp, beyond symbolic and family transformations, the way in which migration and current political processes affect the relationship between populations and their institutions. Here, the notions of «tactics« (Certeau and Giard 2010) and «infra-politics« (Scott 2006) will serve as a theoretical vantage point for analyzing the relationships between social groups (migrants, their families, etc.) and the institutions that govern them.

The REFPoM project proposes to explore a region little invested by French anthropology and to analyse a phenomenon never before studied in the region, the «deaths at far«, with the prism of an interdisciplinary approach that combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies.
The anthropologists, sociologists and economists involved in the project will work together particularly closely on issues related to the formal and informal forms of foresight of the people of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Russia -- in particular on the risks of both health and death. The development of the statistical survey questionnaire to be conducted by the economists will be based on the knowledge already acquired through field surveys conducted by the project's sociologists and anthropologists.

It is therefore a matter of reflecting in depth on the possible complementarities of quantitative and qualitative research, not only in terms of their results, but also in the progressive elaboration of the research questions and the methods adopted to answer them.

The broad outlines of the results are set out in the publication of a thematic issue, directly stemming from the project, in the European Journal of International Migration. These are:

1. The political dimension of dealing with the dead in the context of migration - the tensions between state involvement and community organisations in the management of the bodies of migrants who have died abroad reveal the relationship that states have with their diasporas. Diasporas use the dead as levers for action to politically mobilise civil societies that are otherwise rather silent - because they are 'silenced' - in these authoritarian contexts.

2. Transnational links between migrants' countries of origin (in Central Asia) and arrival (Russia) are created and reinforced by the circulation of the dead. The symbolic centrality of the country of origin remains among the first and second generations of migrants. Repatriation to the homeland is a means of countering the distancing from the village of origin.

3. The practices of pooling resources and mitigating risks may be at the origin of / or strengthen the community base among migrants in Russia. Resource pooling practices are much more frequent and important than we expected. They operate according to a wide variety of procedures, but the annual budget that migrants invest in these funds is relatively significant. Many of them contribute to the development of a sense of community and to a form of reciprocity that is expected and framed by different discourses on identity, ethnicity, religion, etc.

4. Cemeteries, funerary discretion and transnational deathscapes. Our work has shown the need to take a closer look at the new ways of dealing with Central Asian deceased in Russia (in situ burials) and the profusion of images and online discourse that frame and legitimise these new ways of managing the mortuary rites and practices.

Before the war in Ukraine, we were planning to look more closely at the development of the political activity of diaspora communities in Russia, some of whom are clearly in a position to mobilise around particular causes (which the war in Ukraine has also made visible, but we had already observed this during the Burmese army's abuses against the Rohingya). But at the same time, a large number of activists working for migrants' rights in Russia have had to flee the country as a result of the government's widespread crackdown on associations and activists as «agents of foreigners«.

Among the avenues to be pursued, the question of exile 'from the coffers' could be an interesting aspect to explore: are these transnational groups extending their networks? Are we seeing the development of solidarity networks beyond the Russian-Central Asian territories? Especially given the chronic crisis in Russia, networks to Europe and the United States are becoming increasingly important: we need to be able to highlight the expansion of migration networks through that of the coffers of the dead - we know, moreover, that seeking medical treatment in the United States or repatriating a deceased person to Central Asia generate far greater difficulties than in Russia. How are transnational communities adapting to these new migratory contexts?

The war in Ukraine has also led to a reconfiguration of mobility in the region: the involvement of Uzbekistani and Tajikistani migrants in the conquest of Ukraine, and in particular in construction, handling and transport work on the rear front and in the conquered territories. We know that the Russian government is also promising accelerated access to citizenship for foreigners joining the army.

The first repatriations of deceased Central Asians have already taken place, but the lack of access to information and the terrain still makes it difficult to grasp the scale of the phenomenon or its logic. In any case, the impact of the war in Ukraine on the migration plans and ideological mobilisations of these diasporas merits further investigation.

Revues à comité de lecture : 6 publications
Ouvrages ou chapitres d’ouvrage : 1 publication
Communications (conférence) : 5 communications

Revues à comité de lecture : 1 publication
Ouvrages ou chapitres d’ouvrage
Communications (conférence) : 7 communications en conférence (et bien plus en séminaires, ici non recensées)

Articles vulgarisation: 59 publications blog
Tous les articles du blog « Carnets de Refpom » rédigés par les membres du projet et par des rédacteurs invités.
Vulgarisation autre: 2 productions filmiques

En détail:
Cleuziou Juliette (2023), “Editorial: Death and Migration: Perspectives from the Post-Soviet Space”, Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol. 39 - n°1 | -1, 7-26

Cleuziou Juliette et Aksana Ismailbekova (2023), “Transferring Deceased Bodies, Building Transnational Communities. The Case of Kyrgyz and Tajik Migrants in Russia”, Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol. 39 - n°1 | -1, 77-100.

Cleuziou Juliette (2023) « Aider les migrants en Russie : retours d’expérience de deux activistes originaires d’Asie centrale. Entretiens avec Zarnigor Omonillaeva et Karimdzhon Yorov », Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol. 39 - n°1 | -1, 131-151.

Pellet, Sandra et Marine de Talancé (2023). “Labor Migrants at Risk: Formal and Informal Insurance Strategies among Central Asians in Moscow”, Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales, 39(1), 101-129.

Pellet, Sandra et Marine de Talancé (2023) Is there a gender gap among migrants in Russie ? The journal of Development studies, doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2023.2253986

Zevaco Ariane (2023), « Portfolio. En migration du Tadjikistan vers la Russie : intimités et risques en images ». Revue européenne des migrations internationales 39, 2023, 153-159

Cleuziou Juliette, « Au nom des morts ». Gestion des défunts tadjiks en Russie, in Carolina Kobelinsky et Lilyane Rachédi Éds., Traces et mobilités posthumes. Rêver les futurs des défunts en contextes migratoires, Paris, Pétra, 2023.

Juin 2019, Panel « ‘Circulating the dead’. Funerary ritual and economy in migratory context in the post-Soviet space”, ESCAS Conference, Exeter, 2019. Avec les interventions de Cleuziou Juliette et Sandra Pellet.

Juin 2020, Juliette Cleuziou « ‘Au nom des morts’ : les enjeux moraux et politiques de la prise en charge des Tadjiks décédés en Russie », Colloque international « Mort en contexte de migration », C. Kobelinsky, L. Rachédi [en ligne].

De Talancé, M. et Pellet, S., Accès à l'assurance et aux réseaux d'entraide de migrants en Russie, Revue d’Economie du Développement, 2022/2-3 (Vol. 31), 197-202

Tous les articles du blog « Carnets de Refpom » rédigés par les membres du projet et par des rédacteurs invités.

Ariane Zevaco, « Marhamat », court-métrage documentaire, 2022, 9’15’’

Ariane Zevaco, « À l’aéroport de Douchanbé », court-métrage documentaire, 9’30’’

In postsocialist Central Asia, international migrations mostly towards Russia have been increasing since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. These circulations may sometimes end with the death of migrants. This project will expore the issues raised by deaths that occur during this mobility. It will contribute to explore a region that has been left aside by French anthropology (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, and Russia) and to analyse with a multidisciplinary approach the overlooked issues raised by "dying abroad".
Our projet aims at exploring new territoriality of migrants' deaths which, as the ones of the living, tend to intensify in an unprecedented way, in both their modality and their frequence. These new forms of circulation encourage the creation of new ritual and economic practices by societies.

The REFPoM project will analyze these practices following two lines of research:
(a) "Re-territorializing the dead: Symbolic, ritual and economic practices"
It will analyze the symbolic, ritual and economic practices of reterritorialization of these deaths which occured during migrants' mobility. In most case, death is followed by body repatriation. Our aim is to study funerary ideology, transnational ritual practices and family relations, a background on which these practices take place during these tragic times. Examining how people chose where to burry a late relative, how to repatriate him/her, and the financial costs that these decisions imply demand to consider also the variety of populations (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Mongols, etc.) and of religions (islam, buddhism, etc.) coexisting in this wide territory.

(b) "Funerary rituals, construction of memory and political resistance".
Our second research question will focus on the construction of the memory of the dead, and the political dimension of transnational ritual practices. One of the original aspects of our project is based on its political approach: rituals will be taken as sites of micropolitics. Close analysis will highlight how migrations and political processes impact relations between communities, societies, and the institutions ruling them.
Notions such as "tactic" (De Certeau) or "infra-politics" (Scott) will serve as starting points to think how rituals can become "arenas of contestations" (Gardner and Grillo, 2002) in times of political and economic unstability, at a more or less conscious level. This project will thus highlight politcal relations between communities and States, relations that are not reflected in institutions but embedded in specific practices - here, funerary ones - which frequently aim at by-passing them.

Project coordination

Juliette Cleuziou (Laboratoire d'Anthropologie des Enjeux Contemporains)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


LESC Laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative
LADEC Laboratoire d'Anthropologie des Enjeux Contemporains

Help of the ANR 206,269 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: March 2018 - 24 Months

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