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Soviet Signoras

Personal and Collective Transformations in Eastern European Migration

Soviet Signoras

Personal and Collective Transformations in Eastern European Migration

Across the Western world, the air is filled with talk of immigration. The changes brought by immigration have triggered a renewed fervor for isolationism able to shutter political traditions and party systems. So often absent from these conversations on migration are however the actual stories and experiences of the migrants themselves. In fact, migration does not simply transport people. It also changes them deeply. Enter Martina Cvajner’s Soviet Signoras, a far-reaching ethnographic study of two decades in the lives of women who migrated to northern Italy from several former Soviet republics.

Cvajner details the personal and collective changes brought about by the experience of migration for these women: from the first hours arriving in a new country with no friends, relatives, or existing support networks, to later remaking themselves for their new environment. In response to their traumatic displacement, the women of Soviet Signoras—nearly all of whom found work in their new Western homes as elder care givers—refashioned themselves in highly sexualized, materialistic, and intentionally conspicuous ways. Cvajner’s focus on overt sexuality and materialism is far from sensationalist, though. By zeroing in on these elements of personal identity, she reveals previously unexplored sides of the social psychology of migration, coloring our contemporary discussion with complex shades of humanity.


“Cvajner’s excellent book, Soviet Signoras, investigates the human wreckage of geopolitical upheavals such as the end of 20th-century state socialism in 1991. . . . Through a series of beautifully crafted ethnographic chapters, Cvajner explains how these women forge a local ethnic community and transform themselves from middle-aged babushkas into sexy Slavic signore. . . . Soviet Signoras provides a poignant case study of how the collapse of state socialism precipitated a stark reduction in life opportunities for east European women. It also celebrates the tenacity and creativity of the human spirit in its ability to survive social catastrophe, a message we would all do well to remember.”

Times Higher Education

"Martina Cvajner’s book offers a deep insight into the complex individual and collective lives of Eastern European caregivers (badanti) in Northern Italy and is based on more than a decade of ethnographic fieldwork. . . . Cvajner’s analysis illustrates how vulnerable and stigmatised women have been transformed by their migratory odysseys into resilient characters set upon attaining the desired status of respectability. The book is recommended reading for scholars interested in developments inmigration scholarship. The author’s use of ethnographic methods is exemplary. Overall, the book is a powerful and original account of the micro-society of ex-Soviet live-in carers in northern Italy."

Europe-Asia Studies

“Émile Durkheim meets Federico Fellini in an eye-opening, eye-level account of women who met the exigencies of post-Soviet-era poverty by emigrating to northern Italy in search of a new livelihood. Soviet Signoras is a gripping ethnographic portrait of bravery, insecurity, and personal transformation, replete with pathbreaking insights into the experiences of migrants confronting new cultural ways while endeavoring to keep faith with families left behind out of necessity. This book is bound to become an enduring part of the growing body of literature of migration studies.”

Elijah Anderson, author of The Cosmopolitan Canopy

“Cvajner has written an exquisite microsociology of the immigrant experience. Deeply sensitive to the inner lives of her post-Soviet subjects, she deftly portrays the interactional pressures they face and the opportunities they make the best of, tracing how they made new selves and became new women, sometimes in shockingly provocative ways. An extraordinary sociological study.”

Jeffrey Alexander, author of What Makes a Social Crisis?

Table of Contents



1 A Room of One’s Own: Managing Spaces, Lives, and Laws in Residential Care Work
2 Practicing Abundance: Immigrant Women and the Challenge of Consumption
3 Strong Mothers, Great Lovers: Sexuality in Emigration
4 Getting Serious: Courtship, Love, and (Maybe) Marriage in Emigration
5 Proper, Respectable Places: The Arduous Construction of Community Institutions

Conclusion: From the Detritus of the Soviet Union into a New Social World
Appendix: How I Conducted My Study


ISA Sociology of Migration Research Committee: Best Book Award

Council for European Studies at Columbia University: Council for European Studies Book Award

International Sociological Association Research Committee 31 Sociology of Migration: RC31 Best Book Award

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