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Historical and recent trends in migration | Russian Federation |

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Historical and recent trends in migration

Maria Nozhenko

/ 12 Minuten zu lesen

Major migration trends in contemporary Russia have deep historical roots. Population movement during the time of the Tsars (1547-1917) and Soviet (1917-1991) period provided the preconditions for the post-Soviet migration, including both internal and international migration processes. The majority of contemporary migration flows involve the movement of people considered to belong to a particular ethnic group (e.g. Russians, Germans, Finns) in response to settlement policies, shifting borders and, more recently, repatriation policies.

17th to 19th Century

The territorial expansion of the Russian Empire can be divided into three historical phases. The first phase took place in the 17th century and was connected with the exploration of Siberia and the Far East. Russian speakers had become a demographic majority in these regions by 1678. The second expansion started in the beginning of the 18th century, and Russian territory increased with the acquisition of Belarus, the Baltics, parts of Poland and parts of the Ottoman Empire (including Bessarabia – contemporary Moldova). The inclusion of North Caucasus, Armenia, Georgia and Central Asia took place in the 19th century, during the third phase (the last expansion). One of the consequences of the territorial expansion was the penetration of Russian speakers into new geographic areas. Furthermore the state authorities encouraged the peasants to move from the European to the Asian part of the country in the second half of the 19th century.

Russia was probably the first country in the world to establish a specialized State Migration Management Department (in 1763). The main goal of this institution was to promote migration from Western Europe to Russia. As a result of this policy thousands of immigrants – most of whom were skilled (e.g., scientists, professors, military men, engineers, architects and businessmen) – settled in Russia. The most significant share of migrants was ethnic Germans. According to historical data, there were about 1.8 million Germans in the Russian Empire by the end of 19th century.

The Soviet Era

In the Soviet period there were two contradictory factors affecting migration: restriction of the freedom of movement provided by the residence permit system (propiska) on the one hand, and voluntary and involuntary large-scale population movements on the other. The idea of total state control of migration by means of the propiska system had its foundation in many respects in the experience of failure by the authorities to manage the spontaneous and uncontrolled movements of the population during the 1917 Revolution and the 1917-1923 Civil War. The voluntary but strictly state-regulated migration in the Soviet time was driven by industrialization.

A special labour recruitment system was established during the first five-year-plans (piatiletkas) with the aim of industrial development in different regions of country. As a result of this policy, about 28.7 million people were re-settled across the USSR during the 1930s. Moreover, the special mechanism – so-called "northern wage increments" (severnaya nadbavka) – designed to attract the population to move to Northern Russia, Siberia and the Russian Far East was introduced in 1933. In the late Soviet period the system of "distribution of graduates" (raspredelenie) was commonly used in the USSR. Under this policy, university graduates were assigned to work in other parts of the country for 3 or 4 years. Some people came back after the end of the obligatory working period, but many people stayed in their assigned destinations. Graduates could also be required to move to other Soviet republics; a graduate from a Russian university could have been redistributed to work in Ukraine or Estonia, for example. In the late Soviet time, migration was mainly voluntary but strictly controlled by the authorities. In the 1980s, about 15 million citizens changed their place of residence within the USSR each year.

Compulsory resettlement was a part of Soviet totalitarian policy, an instrument of political repression. The first victims of compulsory resettlement were wealthy farmers (kulaks), who were deported to underdeveloped northern areas. In the years from 1940 to 1959 the Soviet authorities used compulsory resettlement as a way to punish people who were officially declared "suspect elements". Many people from the Baltic States, West Ukraine and Moldova were the victims of such punishment. In that time not only individuals, but also entire ethnic groups were considered "suspect" such as Germans (after the beginning the war with Germany in 1941), Crimean Tatars, Chechens, or Ingushs. As a result of that policy, many people had to live very far from their places of birth, such as in Siberia or Central Asia.

International migration in the USSR was very limited. Especially during the times of the Cold War, mobility between countries of the 'Soviet block' and countries of Western Europe and North America was nearly impossible. Soviet citizens had to get an exit visa to go abroad. There were only a few, strictly controlled channels for coming to the country, such as working in politically significant projects or to study. Irregular migration was effectively stopped by highly developed security and border controls.

As a result of imperial and Soviet policies, the composition of the population in the various parts of the country was not homogeneous. Ethnic Russians lived in all Soviet republics and their number varied from 2.5% (in Armenia) to 38% in Kazakhstan. They resided mainly in the capitals and other urban centres, where they had access to culture and education in their mother tongue and good job opportunities. As Russians were the dominant ethnic group in the Soviet Union (often referred to as "elder brothers") and Russian was the lingua franca, ethnic Russians were encouraged to feel "at home" in the whole territory of the USSR. The popular song of the era of "stagnation" in the 1970s illustrates the attitudes of ethnic Russians very well: "Not some house, not some street – my address is the Soviet Union". At the same time many non-Russian ethnic groups from republics other than Russia lived in Russian regions. According to the last Soviet population census, conducted in 1989, ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians were the second and the third largest groups after Russians in the dominant part of Russian regions. Ethnic Moldovans lived mainly in the central regions. Ethnic Estonians, Letts and Lithuanians lived in the North-Western regions and Siberia. Ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians resided predominantly in the big cities like Moscow and Leningrad, and in the South regions. Ethnic Kazakhs lived in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) – Kazakhstan border regions like Kurgan, Astrakhan or Orenburg oblast'.

The Post-Soviet Era

After the Soviet system collapsed there were about 25 million ethnic Russians who lived in the former Soviet Union (FSU)

International Migration to and from the Russian Federation (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

countries other than the Russian Federation. Over three million ethnic Russians settled in Russia between 1991 and 1998. In general, 2/3 of immigrants in 1998-2007 were ethnic Russians and about 12% were representatives of other ethnic groups originating from Russia (dominated by Tatars). The repatriation of ethnic Russians and the difficulties of economic transition in most of the FSU countries determined the nature of migration trends.

There was a migration inflow in half of the subjects of Russian Federation in 2008. According to the data of the Institute of Demography SU-HSE, the largest migration inflow was in Moscow oblast – about 75.000 people, among them about 55.000 in Moscow. Sankt-Petersburg and Krasnodar krai were also important regions receiving migrants. Due to unregistered migration, the official numbers underestimate the real amount of migration.

Inflows from Former Soviet Union countries

Russia accepts migrants from more than 100 countries worldwide. However the flow from "near abroad" is dominant and growing, while the share of main "far-abroad" donors (China, Turkey, and Vietnam) is declining. All FSU countries except Belarus are migration donors for Russia. Kazakhstan is the most significant country of origin of new immigrants with about 1.9 million people during 1989-2007. A comparable number of people arrived from other countries of Central Asia (Kirgizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) in the same period. The Transcaucasian countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) were the third most significant source region, with about 1.1 million people migrating to Russia between 1989 and 2007.

In the 1990s, the issue of Chinese migrants moving across the border into Russia´s Far East received a great deal of attention in the Russian media. Nationalist activists warned that millions of Chinese would "occupy" Siberia and the Russian Far East in the wake of improved Russian-Chinese political relations and improved opportunities for economic gain by Chinese traders. The inflow of Chinese migrants combined with the significant outflow of Russians from Siberia and the Far East lead to fears that Russia would "lose" the Far East to its neighbour. According to one public opinion poll of the inhabitants of Primorsky krai, (a border region to China) in 1998, almost 50% of respondents were sure that Chinese migration posed a threat to Russian sovereignty in the East. Another poll showed that Russian citizens believed the number of Chinese migrants entering Russia to be about 885 times higher than it actually was.

In reality the number of Chinese citizens in Chinese-Russian border regions has been relatively small. For example, Chinese comprised a maximum 1.1% of the population of Primorsky krai (a border region to China) in 1996-1998, and their number in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok (the capitals of the border regions to China) was not more than 10.000 persons in 1999. Furthermore, Russian citizens were more active than Chinese in the cross-border movement in the second part of 1990s. Nowadays the fear of Chinese´ expansion is not so intense, but some alarmism still lives in public perception and is still to be found in political rhetoric.

Temporary labour migrants

Temporary labour migrants became a commonplace in the 2000s. According to official data, 40% of construction workers are immigrants, 19% of workers in the trade sector, and 7% both in agriculture and production. Moreover, migrants from specific countries of origin work predominantly in specific occupations. For example, the majority of labour migrants in the construction sector are citizens of Ukraine and Turkey. Among migrants from Moldova, drivers and construction workers predominate. Half of labour migrants in Russia have no professional training and are only suited for unskilled labour.

A specific feature of the Russian economic system is a significant informal and shadow economy, which demands cheap and legally unprotected labour. According to official data, 53% of legally residing labour migrants worked in the shadow economy in 2007. Rights violation by employers, such as the confiscation of a migrant´s passport in order to increase control over employees, incomplete wage payment, limitation of freedom of movement, absence of social guarantees and involuntary work occur among both legal and irregular migrants. According to Russian official estimates, elements of forced labour can be observed for 10% to 30% of migrants. The studies indicate that only 9% of labour migrants in Russia were never confronted with any form of coercion like debt bondage, involuntary work, limited freedom of movement, and so on. The experts note that almost all victims of forced labour do not believe in the authorities' ability to assist them and show little interest in bringing their exploiters to justice.


Emigration from Russia to the FSU countries decreased from 690.000 people in 1989 to 40.000 in 2004. Experts have pointed at two major reasons for the decrease: the exhaustion of the ethnic repatriation potential and economic and political changes in the FSU countries.

Large numbers of highly-skilled Russian emigrants moved to the USA, Norway and Germany following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993, every fifth emigrant from Russia had post-secondary education. This "brain drain" has continued. In 2005, an estimated 30.000 Russian scientists were working abroad. Currently, the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Cyprus are considered to be favoured destinations for highly-skilled Russians seeking employment abroad.

The majority of emigration to Germany, Israel and Greece has taken place in the course of ethnic repatriation programs. The

Main Countries of Emigration from Russia (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/2.0/de

peak of migration from Russia to Germany was in 1995 (about 80.000). Relative exhaustion of the migration potential as well as increasing restrictions in Germany´s policy have reduced these flows drastically in recent years. Ethnically-based emigration to Israel has varied in response to socio-economic and political conditions in both countries. Following the financial crises in Russia in 1998, the number of emigrants to Israel doubled; with tensions increasing between Palestine and Israel in recent years, it has declined by 75%. The volume of emigrants to Israel was about 1.200 in 2007. The emigration to the USA has gradually decreased from 4.000 in 2004 to 2.000 in 2007 (Figure above).

Economically motivated circular migration (shuttle traders or chelnoks)

This kind of migration was typical for Russia in the 1990s. The collapse of the planned economy resulted in unemployment and the loss of professional status for many Russian citizens. People who had previously worked in, for example, the military industry or Soviet research institutions had to seek new jobs, but the transition to a market economy did not provide them with many opportunities. As a result, a large number of Russian citizens were involved in a very specific business-commercial trips to other countries (primarily Poland, Turkey, and China) in order to buy and import small batches of consumer goods to sell back home. These entrepreneurs, called "shuttle traders", contributed substantially to the development of small and medium businesses in Russia. This kind of migration was typical in the first part of the 1990s and had become outdated by the 2000s.

Internal migration

During the Soviet era, significant numbers of people moved from the Central-European part of Russia to the northern regions, Siberia and the Russian Far East. But the vector of migration changed in the second half of the 1980s, with more people moving westward and southward. In the post-Soviet era, movement from the eastern and north-eastern regions to western regions has intensified. Migration out of the Far East and East Siberia to the Central-European part of Russia began on a large scale in 1991. As a whole, the Russian Far East lost 14% of its population between 1990 and 2005. The main reason for these movements was the change in the economic situation. The Soviet planned economy together with state-regulated migration had created and maintained large populations in these regions. The residents of these regions enjoyed some special privileges, such as the so-called "northern wage increments" – extra-money for working in the remote regions with a harsh climate. The state also provided special support for migration, paying for the costs of travel, transportation of belongings, accommodation, etc. Many people took advantage of these incentives to work in these regions temporarily to earn money. The population of the North, Siberia and the Far East was not constant, as migrants generally engaged in circular migration instead of settling permanently. Once these incentives disappeared, so did the supply of new migrants.

In the wake of the planned economy, several "ghost towns" have emerged in outlying regions. These are generally former "monotowns" – towns with one factory providing employment to the majority of the inhabitants– which could not sustain their populations once the major employer went bankrupt.

According to official statistics, internal migration in contemporary Russia is currently low. Only 1.4 % of the population changed their places of residence in 2007, and fewer than half of these people moved across the borders of their respective regions. The key receiving region in Russian migration is Moscow. According to the Moscow government, there were almost 1.3 million Russian citizens from other parts of the country temporarily registered in the Russian capital in 2007.



  1. See Heleniak T. (2004).

  2. Ivakhnyuk (2009), p. 5.

  3. Ibid, p. 4.

  4. Resident permit system (propiska) was introduced in 1932 and "certified by a stamp in a person's passport made by a territorial department of the Ministry of Interior. Every person was registered at particular address, and in accordance with registered residency he/she got access to employment, primary and secondary education, healthcare, and other social benefits": Ivakhnyuk (2009), p. 2.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Beginning in 1928, the economy in the USSR was directed by a series of five-year-plans (piatiletkas).

  7. Ivakhnyuk (2009). p. 7.

  8. Distribution of graduates (raspredelene) - "an administrative mechanism of the migration policy used in the USSR (...) and aimed at providing economic projects and remote areas with required number of specialists (engineers, technicians, architects, teachers, doctors etc)": Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 3.

  9. Cutris G.E. (1996).

  10. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 8.

  11. Ibid, p. 11.

  12. The residence of Estonians, Letts and Lithuanians in Siberia was the consequence of the forced deportation of Baltic countries´ native populations after the Soviet annexation in 1940.

  13. See: Externer Link:

  14. FSU (Former Soviet Union) countries – all 15 former Soviet Republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan).

  15. Ibid.

  16. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 92.

  17. See: Externer Link: .

  18. There is a differentiation between "near abroad" and "far abroad" in Russia. The first definition means the FSU countries, the second one refers to all other states.

  19. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 94.

  20. Only in 1990 and 1994-1996 did Russia have a positive net migration with Belarus. See: Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 6.

  21. According to dates Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005) and FMS.

  22. For instance, 150 articles about the threat of Chinese expansion were published in Russian mass media in 1993-1995. See: Alekseev M. (2000), p. 97.

  23. Alekseev M. (2006), p. 47-48.

  24. Ibid. p.99.

  25. Vitkovskaya G, Panarin S. (eds.) 2000, p. 208.

  26. Vitkovskaya G, Panarin S. (eds.) 2000, p. 207.

  27. "Labour migrants" is the official term for the guest workers in Russian Federation. But it is common in Russia to use the German word "gastarbeiter", not only in ordinary language and the mass media, but also in public speeches delivered by officials.

  28. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 96.

  29. Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 14.

  30. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 95.

  31. Ibid. p. 99-100.

  32. Doklad (2006), p. 50.

  33. Tyuryukanova E (2005), p. 74.

  34. Tyuryukanova E (2005), p. 86.

  35. Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 6.

  36. Ibid, p. 12.

  37. Ibid. p. 16.

  38. Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 10.

  39. According to FMS.

  40. According to FMS.

  41. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 17.

  42. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 23-24.

  43. Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 39.

  44. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 24.

  45. Romanov I.A. (2006), p. 53.

  46. Ibid, p. 23.

  47. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 80.

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