International Migration By Ethnic Russians Research Paper

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Throughout most of their history, ethnic Russians have migrated from the Russian heartland to the borderlands, first, of the Russian Empire and, then, of the Soviet Union. More recently, much of their migration has involved ‘repatriation’ to the heartland and emigration to ‘foreign’ countries, i.e., to residences beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. This research paper examines these migration flows.

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1. The Migration Of Ethnic Russians Within The Russian Empire And USSR

1.1 The Russian Empire

The expansion of the Russian Empire and development of its huge territory was accompanied by mass migration from the country’s ethnic Russian heartland to its non-Russian frontiers. This process began in the seventeenth century and continued for several centuries. As the political boundaries of the state expanded, the territory populated by ethnic Russians expanded as well, beginning with the territory between the Black and the Baltic seas, the Volga region, the Urals, Northern Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Far East, and eventually including Transcaucasia, Kazakhstan, the Baltic region, and also—at the beginning of the twentieth century—Central Asia.

More or less reliable estimates of migration can be made starting from 1719, when Russia began conducting regular counts of the adult population. According to these estimates, during the eighteenth century no less than 1.7 million adults, mostly ethnic Russians, moved from the center of the country to its peripheries. In the first half of the nineteenth century, there were 1.5 million such migrants; in the second half—4 million; and between 1897 and 1916—5.3 million. A significant portion of these migrants moved outside of Russia proper into the borderlands of the enormous empire. In 1719, there were about 100,000 such migrants, by the end of the eighteenth century they numbered over 400,000 (Kabuzan 1996).

The main surge of imperial Russian expansion took place around the end of the nineteenth century. By 1897, there was a tenfold increase in the number of ethnic Russians living in the territory of the future Soviet republics—to 4.5 million. By the eve of the Bolshevik revolution, this number had reached 7.5 million, about 10 percent of all ethnic Russians. Almost half of the Russians outside Russia proper (47.3 percent) lived in the Ukraine, with 19.1 in Belarus, 16.7 in Kazakhstan, 5.8 in the Baltic countries, 3.5 in Central Asia, and 1.7 percent in Moldova (Kabuzan 1996).

The migration of ethnic Russians before the Revolution was, generally, of a colonial nature and often followed upon wars of conquest. Migration was the imperial regime’s main method of settling and developing acquired land, of controlling and defending its borders, and of ensuring stability. At the same time, in many border regions, such as the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Russians became emissaries of urban culture and education.

Despite sizable migration, the share of ethnic Russians in the population of the border regions in 1917 was not very large. It was highest (21.7 percent) in the territory of what is now Kazakhstan, especially in its northern areas adjacent to Russia proper. Ethnic Russians constituted 14.5 percent of the population in Belarus, 9.6 in Latvia, 9.3 in Ukraine, 8.4 in Azerbaijan, and 2.1 percent in Uzbekistan.

1.2 The USSR

World War I and the subsequent October revolution and civil war led to a sharp reversal in the migration of Russians from center to periphery. In 1926, 25 percent fewer Russians lived in the non-Russian territories of the former Russian Empire than had lived there in 1917—only 5.8 million. Most of those concerned resettled in Russia proper, although some joined the sizable group of Russians who left the country altogether. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, the historic process of centrifugal migration resumed at a much accelerated pace.

Centrifugal migration in the Soviet period was spurred by the regime’s commitment to rapid industrialization and by its determination to russify sensitive border regions, where native populations were sometimes deported en masse and replaced by ethnic Russians. This process began along the country’s western and southern borders, and accelerated after 1939–40, when the USSR annexed the Baltic States and parts of Poland and Romania (Polyan 1996). As a result, by 1939 almost 11 million ethnic Russians lived in border regions of the USSR—one and a half times more than had lived there in 1916.

During World War II, there was a massive evacuation of population and of industrial production from central Russia to, and beyond, the Ural mountains. This gave another push to ethnic Russian migration, especially to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. After the war, the economic reconstruction in the western part of the USSR was accompanied by further mass migration by ethnic Russians, especially into the Ukraine, while the Sovietization of the reconquered Baltic states gave rise to wholesale ‘ethnic cleansing’ and Russification. And, somewhat later, the campaign to develop the so-called virgin lands of Kazakhstan was accompanied by another large influx of ethnic Russians. As a result, the number of Russians living in the non-Russian republics of the USSR rose from 10.7 to 16.2 million between 1939 and 1959. In the same period, the ethnic Russian population of Russia proper increased by 8.8 percent.

The large-scale migration of ethnic Russians into the non-Russian republics of the USSR continued into the 1960s and was linked closely with rapid urbanization. Most migrants moved to areas where cities were growing fast but the local rural population was not yet ready to live in them. This was the case in the Transcaucasia, Central Asia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova in particular. In the Baltic states, the influx of Russians had less to do with the unpreparedness of the local population for urban and industrial life than with low population growth rates and ethnic cleansing. The migration of Russians to non-Russian territory was also facilitated by the low standard of living in Russia’s villages, which is where most migrants came from.

In the later 1960s, the inflow of ethnic Russians into the non-Russian republics of the USSR began to slow down and stopped altogether by the 1980s, at which time some 24 million ethnic Russians, almost 17 percent of the entire ethnic Russian population, lived outside of Russia proper. In part, this was a reflection of the virtual disappearance of ‘surplus labor’ in Russian rural areas as well as of the improvement of educational and employment opportunities in Russian cities. At the same time, in Central Asia and the Transcaucasia, a demographic explosion and accompanying large increases in native workforce entrants led to an intense competition for urban jobs—jobs that non-Russian natives were now psychologically and educationally ready to perform and ethnically self-conscious and self-assertive enough to demand. The magnitude of the resulting change is indicated by the increase in the percentage of non-Russians in the industrial workforce between 1967 and 1987: from 43 to 61 percent in Uzbekistan, from 26 to 41 percent in Kirghizia, from 35 to 54 percent in Tadjikistan, and from 38 to 59 percent in Turkmenistan. Similar changes took place in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. Such changes were even larger in the case of white-collar workers and professionals.

As the ‘indigenization’ of the workforce in the non Russian republics of the USSR spread and accelerated, and for largely the same reasons, Russian residents of those republics began to migrate (or re-migrate) to Russia. Beginning in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the 1960s, this trend became evident in Central Asia in the 1970s, and affected most of the non Russian republics by the 1980s. The only exceptions were Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the Baltic states, where it began only in the 1990s. Claims that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked an abrupt turning point in Russia’s migratory history are incorrect. This notwithstanding, the collapse did have an enormous and probably enduring impact on Russian migratory behavior.

2. Migration To Russia From The Other Newly Independent States

With the collapse of the USSR, the ‘repatriation’ of ethnic Russians ceased to be a largely voluntary process and assumed a forced character, driven by ethnic discrimination, human rights abuses, and communal violence. Many of the ‘repatriates’ were responding to newly imposed limitations on their civil and political rights, restrictions on use of the Russian language, displacement from administrative jobs and intellectual occupations, and curbs on their private sector activities. In many cases, they were also ‘displaced persons,’ fleeing from armed conflicts.

In the Ukraine and Belarus, where discrimination, coercion, and violence were absent, the overwhelming majority (well over 95 percent) of resident Russians stayed put, and those who migrated to Russia did so solely for economic reasons, as did Ukrainians and Belarussians who migrated with them. In the other newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, however, the outmigration of Russians assumed mass proportions. Thus, between 1990 and 1998 the number of Russians in Armenia and Tajikistan declined by over 50 percent. In Azerbaijan and Georgia the decline was only slightly smaller, while the decline in the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan excluded) and the Baltic states was 25 and 14 percent, respectively. In general, the Russian Diaspora in non-Slavic countries of the former Soviet Union has fallen by 20 percent as a result of repatriation. Furthermore, although there has been some slowdown in the process since 1995, repatriation will almost certainly increase further, especially if and as Russia’s economy recovers and begins to grow.

3. Russian Emigration Beyond The Borders Of The Soviet Union And The Newly Independent States

3.1 Pre-Soviet And Soviet Emigration

Until the end of the nineteenth century, very few ethnic Russians settled beyond the borders of the Russian Empire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, small groups of religious sectarians resettled in Romania (Old Believers) and Canada (Dukhobors), but Poland was the only country with a sizeable Russian diaspora (about 300,000 people in 1900).

Early in the twentieth century, the flow of people migrating from Russia increased substantially. Four million people emigrated to the USA between 1901 and 1920, but the vast majority of them were Jews. According to the US census of 1910, there were 65,600 non-Jews among residents ‘of recent Russian origin.’

The first large wave of ethnic Russian emigration was generated by the Bolshevik revolution and attendant civil war and Red terror. In the first years after the revolution, between 1.5 and 2 million people left the country (Polyakov 1986; Maksudov 1989). This was the so-called ‘White emigration,’ consisting mostly of ethnic Russians. The main stream of White emigration initially went to Poland (one million), Germany (560,000), France (175,000), and Latvia (12,000), and then on to the USA (Kulischer and Kulischer 1948). At the same time, over three million former prisoners of war returned to Russia from Germany and Austria, mostly ethnic Russians (Volkov 1930, Maksudov 1989).

World War II brought about further mass migrations of ethnic Russians. Thus, of the four million people who were sent to German labor camps from the USSR, 1.2 million were ethnic Russians. Russians also comprised the majority of the millions of Soviets in German prisoner of war camps. Of these slave laborers and prisoners, some 31,000 ethnic Russians stayed in the West after the war (Polyan 1996).

Between 1947 and 1957, they were joined in the West (chiefly Canada, the USA, and Australia) by another 128,000 emigrants from the USSR, almost all of whom were Russians or Ukrainians who were allowed to emigrate on grounds of family reunification (Mariansky 1969). Except for these people, however, almost no one was allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union from the second half of the 1920s until the years immediately preceding the disintegration of the union.

3.2 Post-Soviet Emigration

Despite the complete abolition of barriers to emigration following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians have remained largely at (or returned) home. Between 1992 and 1998, 178,500 ethnic Russians left Russia as legal emigrants. This was 29.1 percent of the total number of documented emigrants from Russia, the majority of whom were Jews or Volga Germans. There is probably a higher percentage of ethnic Russians among undocumented emigrants from Russia, but there is no reliable information available either on the number of undocumented emigrants or their ethnic composition. What is clear is that the proportion of highly educated specialists among Russian emigrants is significantly larger than the proportion of such specialists in Russia’s overall population.

Today, around 1.5 million people who consider themselves Russian live outside the borders of the former Soviet Union, including over one million in the USA, 90,000 in Canada, 80,000 in Brazil, 50,000 in Argentina, 40,000 in France, 35,000 in Romania, and 20,000 in Austria (Bruk 1986, Kabuzan 1996). Although the number of such emigrants may grow over time, it is unlikely to grow as rapidly or reach the magnitude that many in both Russia and the West once forecast and (for various reasons) feared. This is both because Russians do not seem particularly interested in emigrating and because their neighbors have created strong barriers to their doing so.


  1. Anderson B, Silver B 1989 Demographic sources of the changing ethnic composition of the Soviet Union. Population and Development Review, Vol. 15, issue 4, pp. 609–56
  2. Bruk S I 1986 Nasyelyeniye mira. [English translation World Population], Nauka Publishers, Moscow, Russia, p. 825
  3. Byerzina M Ya 1971 Formirovaniye etnichyeskovo sostava nasyelenya kanady. [English translation The Formation of Canada’s Ethnic Composition] Nauka Publishers, Moscow, Russia, p. 194
  4. Kabuzan V 1996 Russkiye mirye. [English translation Russians in the World ] Russian Baltic Information Center ‘‘Blitz’’, St. Petersburg, Russia, p. 352
  5. Kulischer A, Kulischer F 1948 Europe on the Mo e: War and Population Changes. Columbia University Press, New York, p. 377
  6. Maksudov S 1989 Potyeri naseleniya USSR. [English translation Population Losses in the USSR] Chalidze Publisher, Vermont, USA, p. 294
  7. Mariansky A 1969 So ryemyenniye migratsii nasyelyeniya. [English translation Contemporary Population Migration] ‘‘Statistika’’, Moscow, Russia, p. 224
  8. Polyakov Yu A 1986 Sovyetskaya strana poslye okonchaniya grazhdanskoi voiny: territoriya i nasleniye. [English translation The Land of the So iets After the Civil War: Territory and Population] Nauka Publishers, Moscow, Russia, p. 272
  9. Polyan P M 1996 Zhertvy dvuk diktatur. [English translation Victims of Two Dictatorships] ‘‘Vash Vybar’’, Moscow, Russia, p. 442
  10. Volkov Ye Z 1930 Dinamika narodonasyelyeniya Rossii za 80 lyet. [English translation The Dynamics of the Population of Russia Over Eighty Years] Moscow–Leningrad State Publishing, Moscow, Russia, p. 272
  11. Wilcox W E 1929 International Migrations. National Bureau of Economic Research, New York, pp. 14, 18, 1086
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