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Peter Carl Faberge

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Of Russian origin: Limitchik

Vladimir Kremlev for RT Vladimir Kremlev for RT

Limitchik was a derogatory name for Soviet workers from various areas of the country who were hired by enterprises in big cities (mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg) according to a quota system. The term came into use at the end of the 1930s when big cities were experiencing a shortage of workers ready to do “non-prestigious” jobs at construction sites, in public transport, in communal services, etc. The first limitchiks were the thousands of workers who were brought into Moscow to build huge pavilions and other facilities for the National Industrial Exhibition – intended as a showcase of the achievements of Soviet industry and agriculture. 

The Soviet government was very particular about the control of migration. The quota system was its main instrument of control. Residence permits (in Russian – propiska or registracia) were issued with a stamp in your passport that “tied” you to the place where you lived – you could only get a job in the area where you were registered. People could request to move to another area of the country if they had a spouse or relatives there, or if they were to work or study in that area.

In some areas the rules of residence were especially strict, especially in the so-called “regime cities”: Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), all the capitals of Soviet republics (Kiev, Baku, Tashkent, etc.), industrial centers and ports. Authorities hoped that such “tight control” would reduce the influx of great masses of people, including criminals and people from poor areas to prevent “regime cities” from becoming overcrowded, thus making them look more attractive to people from other countries. According to local legislation in Moscow in the middle of the 1950s, those who did not respect the numerous propiska rules could easily be punished – the person could be expelled from the city in a matter of minutes. 

At the same time – in spite of all the legislation that restricted freedom of movement – during the years after World War II, Moscow, St.Petersburg and other big cities were badly lacking the workforce necessary to restore the cities’ damaged infrastructure. This created opportunities for provincial workers to “escape” to one of the “regime cities.”

Soviet workers Soviet workers

The “gurus of planned economy” in the government made calculations about the numbers of people needed for this purpose on a regular basis. Some enterprises and services had access to the system of “propiska quotas” and were allowed to invite a certain number of workers per year. This limit had to be carefully observed - no organization could bring to Moscow drivers, construction workers, or even street cleaners and janitors if their numbers exceeded the quotas. 

In most cases, residents of the capital were reluctant to take jobs offered to limitchiks - especially the ones that posed a health threat. In fact, people from other cities were considered “20th century serfs.” A popular joke regarding limitchiks went like this: A group of people touring a Moscow plant could not put up with the smell of acid in the chemical department. When they asked the “tour guide” if there were any Muscovites working in that section, they received the reply: “Yes, there is one. He is the manager of the department.”

 It would be wrong to say that big income was the driving force bringing limitchiks to the “regime cities.” Most were also attracted by the easy access to various kinds of consumer goods. In many small towns the supply system for everyday needs of the people left much to be desired.  For some families, moving to Moscow was also a chance to give their kids a better education – the residents of the capital had better opportunities to enter the best institutes and universities. 

Upon arrival in Moscow a limitchik was automatically assigned a place in a dormitory provided by the enterprise that hired him. Living conditions were quite poor. On every floor of the building there were up to 30 rooms. Each of them could host from two to four people, depending on whether the person was single or married. There was only one big toilet room, one shower room and one kitchen with one or two stoves to be shared by all the people that lived on the same floor.

Why did limitchiks put up with all these hardships as well as the contempt of many of the local residents? After five or six years of work at the same enterprise they were given a chance to get their own apartment. It’s not surprising that most quit their hard jobs as soon as this happened, only be replaced by “another limitchik generation,” making the influx of people to big cities permanent.

In another consequence of the quota system, enterprise executives were so carried away by the necessity of “filling the quotas,” that most forgot all about the quality of their products and employee performance. Even if a limithcik worked poorly or violated the rules he could not be sacked – in this event the management of the enterprise would have to provide thousands of explanations to higher authorities as to why they were violating their employment quotas. So, some lmitchiks who did not feel like working too hard took to drinking or became criminals, or both. Soon some limitchik dormitories turned into the dens for alcoholics and criminals. 

This explains, in part, why many Muscovites started to hate limitchiks – it was a sort of clash of provincial and the big city cultures. The residents of the capital felt limitchiks did not comply with the big city lifestyle.

On the other hand, many talented professionals in various spheres of life started their successful careers in Moscow as limitchiks. Tough working conditions constantly made them fight for success, prosperity and the things some Muscovites took for granted. One such success story – about a provincial girl who became head of one of the leading Moscow factories – was portrayed in the 1979 Soviet feature film “Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears.” A year later, it was awarded an Oscar as the best foreign language movie.

The boom of limitchiks in big cities lasted until the end of the 1980s – until the planned economy began to experience some difficulties. Some managers tried to get rid of the quotas without lifting registration limits. They didn’t succeed – limitchiks still kept coming.  

The desire of factory directors to invite people to work for a small amount of money and a room in a dormitory led to the growth of many industrial enterprises in the big cities. It caused overpopulation in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Moreover, the system of propiska quotas became the reason for the lack of skilled engineers and other specialists in other regions of the USSR. Students of prestigious institutes and universities in Moscow, St.Petersburg and other “regime cities” did the best they could to remain there – they knew that if, for example, they left Moscow, they might never return to the place with higher living standards ever again. According to legislation at that time, a person who lived six months away from Moscow automatically lost their Moscow residence permit. An exception was made only for those who went to work in the Far North and other areas with tough climatic conditions. By the mid-1980s the lack of professionals in the regions was reaching a critical point.

Пустые прилавки в СССР в 80х Extreme supply shortages, 1980s, USSR

In the 1980s the whole country was plagued by a shortage of goods and items of everyday need. Moscow, in this respect, was better off than some other areas. This aggravated the scornful attitude of local residents towards limitchiks and people from other areas who came to buy goods in the stores of the capital and led to inception of another derogatory word - “limita” (a person who belongs to a group of limitchiks or non-local residents). Some Muscovites were convinced that limita were at the core of all social problems. What many people forgot was that at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s the mortality rate among Moscow residents was much higher than the number of births, causing the population of the capital to plummet. Population growth in Russia’s main city was made possible thanks to people from outside.

After the collapse of the USSR, Moscow experienced another “wave of influx” of people from all over Russia. But the rules of registration in Moscow became more relaxed than under Soviet rule, providing greater opportunities to people who wished to achieve something in a big city, to rely on their strength and wit to succeed. But in spite of all these efforts, many Muscovites - even those who were once guest workers themselves - still point their fingers at limita. The main “hate phrase” among Muscovites to these newcomers is “Ponaehali!” (“Why the hell have you come here?”).

In some cases, local residents are justified – even now a number people from other areas simply don’t know how to behave in big city. When dissatisfaction with life in Moscow sets in they turn to drinking which sometimes leads to aggressive behaviour and even crime. On the other hand, more and more smart people from outside have made a quick career in business, banking, e-commerce, media and other areas. And some blame Muscovites for being “too lazy” because their basic necessities are already provided for – for example, residents of the capital don’t have to fight for better rent rates with landlords, they don’t have to convince the police to prolong their registration permit on a regular basis, they are less afraid of losing their job because they have a place to live anyway. So the “culture clash” between locals and outsiders continues. Yet some researchers of Moscow lifestyle say that it is “one of the main driving forces for the development of the city.” 

Written by Oleg Dmitriev, RT