Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “The collapse of the Soviet Union and the achievement of independence by its republics created an unprecedented situation. For the first time in its history Russia had a “diaspora,” which numbered about 25 million people. Now a recipient of immigrants, the Russian Federation took in more than eight million former Soviet citizens between 1990 and 2003, mainly “ethnic” Russians from other former Soviet republics. Central Asia was the primary provider of these migrants: of these eight million individuals, half came from the five Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—which were home to more than one third of this Russian “diaspora.” [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2006]

Migration Patterns in the Soviet Union

For most of the postwar period, the state tightly controlled migration into and emigration from the Soviet Union and movement within the nation. Nevertheless, in each year of the 1980s, about 15 million citizens changed their place of residence within the Soviet Union, and large numbers of some ethnic groups, most notably Jews, Germans, and Armenians, were successful in emigrating. An estimated 2 million Jews left the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991 (see Other Religions, ch. 4). Overall, external migration played a relatively minor role in the structure of the Russian Republic's population. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

With the introduction of the policies of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, migration policy began to change. In 1985 just 2,943 persons received official permission to emigrate. By 1990 the figure had risen to more than 100,000. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, legislative and administrative changes brought about new policies with respect to migration. First, the traditional internal passport (propiska ) that conferred permission to work and live in a specific place was nominally abolished, enhancing freedom of movement within Russia. Second, the general right to emigrate was written into law in the 1993 constitution. *

Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, major historical internal migration paths were from the western parts of Russia and the Soviet Union to the northern and eastern regions. In contrast to the American experience, Russia has had difficulty in stabilizing the population in newly settled eastern and northern areas of the federation, where the climate and living conditions are harsh. Despite pay and benefit incentives, turnover has continued to hamper the operations of the giant territorial production complexes, especially in the key energy sector. *

View of Foreigners in the Soviet Union

During the Cold War era, Eastern European were taught to be suspicious of strangers, especially ones from the West. Visits and packages from foreigners aroused suspicion. Even casual conversations with foreigners were discouraged. The U.S. was also worried about spies and honey traps. In the 1990s, the U.S. embassy banmed on "intimate or romantic relations" with Russians.

Laws forbade citizens from inviting Western journalists into their houses without special permission from the state. Inviting a foreigner into one's home or accepting foreign currencies were crimes that could land you in prison. In the 1960s one Russian student was so afraid of taking a cigarette from an American he asked the American to first give the cigarette to a friend, who in turn gave it to him.¤

A Russian who went to school in the 1940s told the New York Times, "The Americans were our enemies. No on had ever seen them, of course. This made them even more terrifying for the simple reason because, who knows, they might be anywhere, disguised as Soviet citizens in regular clothes. They would reveal all our mysteries, steal the secrets of our might and, God forbid, become just a strong and unconquerable as we were...Above all, it was strictly, strictly forbidden to let anyone know what went on in gym classes. The enemy could not be allowed to find out who many sit up and pushups Soviet children could do in a row, who fast we could climb up a rope and whether or not they could do handstands."

Russians were very paranoid are picture taking by Western journalist. Taking a picture of horse-drawn sleigh and a rural ox cart was considered an attempt to portray their country as primitive or substandard. They preferred for journalist to take pictures of their industrial achievements. Journalists were given tours with KGB agents as guides. They were shown only model collective farms and model factories. There were banquets and police escorts and often lots of vodka to drink. For journalists to gain access to certain areas in Russia, they often paid a fee. In the 1980s, foreigners were brought in for questioning for carrying a copy of the Economist and cleaning the windows of the trains.

Migration Patterns In the Post-Soviet Era

During Russia's problematic economic transition period, the movement of comparatively large numbers of migrants has created substantial social friction, especially over the distribution of scarce urban housing. Nationalist extremist political groups have inflamed local resentment toward refugees of all types. Friction is exacerbated by the state's meager efforts to support migrant populations. Skilled immigrants show particular resentment against a state that fails to provide opportunities and even enough resources to survive, and these people often have drifted into progressively more serious types of criminal activity. Local populations uniformly resent resources provided to migrants in their midst, and they attribute their own economic difficulties to the "strangers" among them, especially if those people are not of the same nationality. Particular tension has been evident in North Ossetia, whose 17 percent immigration statistic is by far the highest in the Russian Federation, in Stavropol' and Krasnodar territories, and in Orenburg, Kaluga, Voronezh, and Saratov oblasts, all of which have numbers of migrants exceeding 1 percent of their populations. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By 1992 the International Red Cross had estimated that about 150,000 ethnic Russians had migrated from CIS states, and at the end of 1993 the head of the FMS estimated that 2 million Russians and non-Russians had arrived from the near abroad in the first two post-Soviet years. As many as 300,000 of the 375,000 Russians in Tajikistan left that country in the first years of the civil war that began in 1992, and in 1994 more than half the Russian arrivals came from Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Tajikistan. However, the structure of this group changes according to security and political conditions in the CIS states; by the end of 1994, almost 60 percent of Russian arrivals came from Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, driven not by armed conflict but by local discrimination, and the share of arrivals from the conflict states had declined to one-third. The official FMS estimate for 1995 was 963,000 people arriving in Russia from other CIS states, slightly lower than the 1994 total. The number offorced migrants rose by 300,000 in 1995, however. The states of origin showing the largest increases in 1995 were Kazakstan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, and the Central Asian republics continued to account for more than half the total CIS migrants. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Refugees and migrants from outside the federation have settled in most of the territory of Russia except for parts of the Far North and ethnic republics such as Sakha, Chechnya, and Adygea. The largest numbers of settlers are in the North Caucasus, the southern part of the chernozem agricultural zone of European Russia, the Volga region, and the industrial cities of the adjacent Ural Mountains. Forced migrants show a decided preference for cities. In the north and the east, almost 100 percent of all migrants settle in urban regions, but more than half of migrants to south-central European Russia, the North Caucasus, and the Urals settle in rural areas. Because there has been no state program for distributing forced migrants, they have chosen destinations according to accessibility from their starting point and the location of relatives. Russian refugees seldom settle in an ethnic republic or a region with a high proportion of non-Russians, such as Orenburg Oblast; for that reason, their share of total refugees in the republics is less than 10 percent. Armenian refugees, mainly from the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave of Azerbaijan, are concentrated in the North Caucasus and Saratov Oblast, as well as the large cities and Kaliningrad Oblast on the Baltic Sea. Islamic refugees, mainly Tatar, Bashkir, Tajik, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz, prefer the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and adjacent regions with large numbers of Tatars. National groups also have varying long-term intentions. Russians and Tatars tend to remain permanently in their new locations; Chechens mostly plan to return to their homeland once conditions improve; and Armenians and Germans are predominantly transit migrants en route to another country. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the Soviet period, immigration was not a problem because the Soviet Union was not a destination of preference for any class of refugee. For that reason, in the early 1990s Russia was not equipped with agencies or laws for dealing with a large-scale influx of asylum seekers and returning Russians. In light of new demographic movements in the 1990s, however, respected academician Dmitriy Likhachev has warned that in the next decade immigration may become a national concern of the same magnitude as national defense. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Immigrants to Russia

Minorities from the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and other countries who have sought asylum in Russia have mostly ended up in Moscow. Some people have no country to call their own. live, They have been kicked out of the former Soviet republics and have been denied living permits in Moscow even though they were born there. Krasnodar in southern Russia is home to hundreds of thousands on non-Russians. Many are from former Soviet republics. There are many Muslims. The largest group is Christian Armenians.

Hundreds maybe thousands of Americans quite the United States in the 1930s during the Great Depression and moved to Stalin’s Soviet Union, attracted by stories that it was a worker’s paradise. The children of some of these are still in Russia. Some made their living teaching English. Other worked on dams and ended up in gulags. Many went to the United States the first opportunity.

Illegal immigrants have virtually no rights. They can not drive or work or get medical help from a hospital. If they marry a Russian citizen the state does not recognize the marriage. The nationalist government in Krasnodar in southern Russia near the Caucasus has called for illegal immigrants there to be deported. Paramilitary groups, including many Cossacks, have been employed to identify and fine illegal immigrants. The Putin government has done did little to stop it.

See 1) Blacks under ROMA (GYPSIES) AND BLACKS IN RUSSIA; and 2) Chinese and North Koreans Under PEOPLE OF THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST.

Emigrants from the Former Soviet Union

About 1 million residents of Russia are citizens of other countries. In 2006 the estimated rate of net migration was 1.03 persons per 1,000 population, compared with a rate of 0.9 in 2004. Between 2002 and 2004, the rate had decreased by 55 percent. In 2005 net migration was 107,000, an increase of 7.5 percent over 2004. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Many citizens of the Soviet Union migrated to different places for various reasons in the Gorbachev years and after the Soviet Union’s break up. The immigration wave reached its peak in the mid-1990s. Source of immigrants in the United States (1992): 1) Mexico (22 percent); 2) Vietnam (8 percent); 3) Philippines (6.3 percent); 4) former Soviet Union (4.5 percent); 5) Dominican Republic (4.3 percent); 6) China (4 percent); 7) India (3.8 percent); 8) El Salvador (2.7 percent); 9) Poland (2.6 percent); 10) United Kingdom (2.2 percent).

Many Russian emigrants to the United States move to Brighton Beach, a suburb of New York City. So many Russians live in Kew Gardens, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, the ATM machines speak Russian.

In western Turkey in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were scores of Russians buses cruising up and down the highways. Most of the food the passengers ate had been brought from Russia. Since they no money for lodging they often slept on the buses.

Russians in the Former Soviet Union

About 20 million Russians live outside of Russia in the former Soviet republics. The greatest number are in 1) the Ukraine (11.4 million); 2) Kazakhstan (6.2 million); 3) Uzbekistan (1.7 million); and 4) Belarus (1.3 million).

Russians once made up more than 20 percent of the population in smaller republic such as Estonia, Latvia and Kyrgyzstan. The percentage in these places is much lower now as many Russians have resettled to escape discrimination and anti-Russian sentiment.

By 1995, about 2.5 million Russians had moved back to Russia. The Russian government worried that Russia would be flooded with Russian returnees and was not forthcoming with the documentation necessary to live in Russia. Russians that had high-prestige jobs in the former Soviet republics were replaced by locals and were found they were not welcome in Russia. They were unable to get residence permits and were forced to work as illegal immigrants.

The increased numbers of Russians arriving from other CIS nations create both logistical and political problems. As in the case of non-Russian refugees, statistical estimates of intra-CIS migration vary widely, partly because Russia has not differentiated that category clearly from the refugee category and partly because actual numbers are assumed to be much higher than official registrations indicate. Many newly arrived Russians (like non-Russians) simply settle with friends or relatives without official registration. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russian Jewish Emigration

Some 265,000 Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union between the mid-1960s and the early 80s. More came after the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. At that time most Jews in Russia that hadn’t emigrated already planned to do so as soon as the get the opportunity.

The West put pressure on Russia to allow Jews emigrate freely. Russian authorities responded first by rounding up all the Jewish criminals they could find and shipped them to the United States and Israel. More than 40,000 Russian Jews settled in Brighton Beach, a suburb of New York City. So many Soviet Jews settled there after 1970s, when they were first allowed to emigrate, it became known as "Little Odessa." Cyrillic signs still dots the streets, kiosks offer Russian-language books and newspapers and shops sell Russian vodka sausages, smoked fish and pickles.

In the early 1980s, the Kremlin's refusal to allow Jewish emigration was a major issue of contention in Soviet-American relations. In 1974 the United States Congress had passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which offered the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status in return for permission for Soviet Jews to emigrate. The Soviet Union responded by relaxing its restrictions, and in the years that followed there was a steady flow of Jewish emigrants from the Soviet Union to Israel. But the intensification of the Cold War in the years after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan brought new restrictions that were not lifted fully until 1989, when a new surge of emigration began. Between 1992 and 1995, the emigration of Jews from Russia averaged about 65,000 per year, after reaching a peak of 188,000 in 1990. In 1996 the Russian government began curtailing the activity of the Jewish Agency, an internationally funded organization that has sponsored Jewish emigration since the 1940s.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Some Jewish parents emigrated with their children and grandchildren. Pessimism among Jews was especially high after the nationalist and anti-Semitic Liberal Democratic Party received 24 percent of he popular vote in elections in December 1993.

Russian Immigrants in Israel

There were 1.3 million Jewish immigrants from Russia and the the former Soviet Union in Israel in 2006. More than 1 million of them arrived after 1989. They went from making up about 1 percent of the population to making up 15 percent of it. If the United States were to absorb a proportional number of people it would take in all the citizens of Canada and Australia and still have room for more.

The term Russian immigrants is used to describe Israeli Jews that have come from all over the former Soviet Union. They began arriving in large numbers in late 1980s after Gorbachev launched perestroika and started arriving in larger numbers after the collapse of the Soviet Union in1989. As many as 30 percent of the Russian immigrants were not born Jewish. They tend to have a stronger bond to culture and literature than other Jews who are mostly closely linked to the Bible.

Despite Israel's problems former-Soviet Jews came in droves. They came to escape anti-Semitism and political instability in Russia—not necessarily to be in a country where Jews were free. One émigré told National Geographic: "The mess in Russia is much bigger than the mess in Israel." [Source: Tad Szulc, National Geographic, February 1992 ☼]

Make Up of Russian Immigrants in Israel

Some of the Russian immigrants to Israel had little or no connection to Judaism. Some were not Jews but spouses of Jews. Others were Protestants with a Jewish grandparents. Some came to Israel because it was as close as they could get to Europe or the United States. According to one survey in the mid 1990s, 29 percent of the Russian immigrants described themselves as non-Jews on their applications.

The tide of Russian immigrants included prostitutes, gangsters, common thieves, alcoholics, sick and aged who came to Israel for its opportunities and its perks such as health insurance, a place to live and a pension. Asked why he came to Israel, one Russian alcoholic pickpocket told the Wall Street Journal, “I’m sick and I’m a Jew.” In some extreme cases immigrants arrived by plane and were taken directly to the hospital and had three major operations in their first six months So many Russians in poor health arrived doctors were given special training courses on how to deal with them.

Life of Russian Immigrants in Israel

When the Russian immigrants arrived they knew virtually nothing about surviving in a modern society. "They don't know the language," one aid worker told National Geographic. "They don't know how to get health insurance, they don't know the banking system, they never wrote a check in their lives. They never had a credit card. They never used so many appliances, they never bought so many goods."☼

The Russians stuck out like sore thumbs: women in frumpy dresses and the men in 50s-style suits. Tad Szulc wrote in National Geographic: The Russian olim "tend to walk more slowly and formally than the established Israelis, always in a hurry. The veteran geniculate with wide sweeps of the arms, in an expansive Mediterranean way; the olim use small controlled chops of the hand."☼

Many of the new arrivals in the West Bank settlements in the 1990s were Russian emigrants. One man paid US$22.00 a month for a small apartment there, only a fraction of what he'd have to pay for an equivalent apartment in Tel Aviv or Haifa. The Palestinians didn't like the Russian emigrants because they took all the jobs once reserved for them. ☼

Russian Artists and Professional in Israel

Many of Russian Jews who emigrated to Israel were artists, scientists and professionals. They were given an allowance at first but many supplemented this by doing menial jobs. Surgeons worked as security guards. Mathematics teachers sang opera on the streets for spare change and professional pianists worked as hospital orderlies.

As of the early 1990s, around 15,000 of new arrivals identified themselves as artists. Between 1989 and 1996, the Israeli government spent $25 million on special programs to help Russian immigrant artists. For a while the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv was Israel’s largest employer of Russians.

Many talented musicians arrived from the Soviet Union. They helped transform small city orchestras like the Rehovot Camerata into the world-class Israel Camerata Jerusalem, regarded as one of the world’s best chamber orchestras. They also helped raise the quality of music nationwide by entering other orchestras—35 percent of the musicians in world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra are Russian immigrants—and taught young Israelis. They quality of street performers has also vastly improved.

Refugees in Russia

In 1993 Russia signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, which reclassified it as a "country of first resort" for foreigners fleeing countries outside the CIS. Under the 1951 United Nations convention, this status entails an international obligation to care for such individuals. At the same time, the decline in border security since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has made illegal immigration easier in many areas. In the early 1990s, the number of official refugees swelled when students from Third World nations, particularly Afghanistan, refused to leave Russia when their studies were completed. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 28,000 foreign refugees were living illegally in Moscow in 1994; figures for other parts of Russia are not available. The UNHCR's Moscow total was divided among 20,000 Afghans, 6,000 Iraqis, 2,000 Somalis, and smaller numbers of Angolans, Ethiopians, and Zairians. A 1995 Moscow press report, however, estimated that 100,000 illegal immigrants were living in Moscow, including 50,000 Chinese and 15,000 Afghans.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The first major influx of refugees into the Russian Republic occurred in 1988 and 1989, when Azerbaijanis and Armenians (mainly the latter) fled the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between their respective countries, and when Meskhetian Turks fled Uzbekistan following a massacre in that republic in 1989. However, only in 1992 did the Russian government establish its first agency for dealing with such conditions, the Federal Migration Service (FMS). That service monitors refugees and other migrants from both outside and within the CIS, but it is underfunded and understaffed. In 1994 UNHCR transit camps in Moscow had a capacity of 1,000, leaving a large number of Moscow's refugee population to live in primitive conditions. Given the FMS's limited resources, several international social and charitable organizations are active in aiding refugees and migrants, although their work has not been well coordinated with the FMS or among themselves. An additional complication in the early 1990s was the influx of tens of thousands of Russian military personnel withdrawn from former Warsaw Pact member nations and from other CIS nations. *

In response to Russia's new status as a country of first resort, a series of laws on refugees and forced migrants were passed in 1993 and 1994. The laws define various categories of migrants, particularly refugees and forced migrants, according to the conditions and motivations that prompted their movement as well as the responsibilities of the state to care for them. *

Local branches of the FMS conduct registration of refugees and forced migrants and are responsible for providing material support until they are classified. Individuals in both categories theoretically have some input in their new place of residence; the FMS provides a list of permissible urban destinations, or relatives may accept them elsewhere. Legally, the FMS is obliged to help find suitable employment, schools, and social security and to aid in compensation for lost property. FMS activities receive funding from the Russian state budget, other countries and international organizations according to bilateral agreements, and private donations. Russian citizenship is granted automatically to individuals who were permanent residents of the federation before the Law on Citizenship was passed in February 1992; migrants from elsewhere in the CIS (particularly the 25 million Russians in other former Soviet republics) also have a guarantee of Russian citizenship upon arrival, provided they are not already citizens of another state. A 1993 refinement of FMS regulations added compulsory annual reregistration and stricter requirements for proof of forced migrant status. It also modified the temporary housing guarantee. *

Immigration Laws and Procedures in Russia

As of mid-1996, however, little of the system for carrying out the laws' guarantees had been worked out. Transportation aid is available only in extreme cases, and financial support at the time of settlement is offered only to individuals and families below the poverty line. The FMS reported that, to comply with all aspects of the refugee law, each individual should receive about US$10,000, a sum far beyond the resources of the agency. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Most illegal immigrants enter the country on tourist visas; some take advantage of leaky borders and vague visa requirements. Most claim to be in transit to another country, usually in the West. Profitable businesses have sprung up smuggling refugees through Russia and then to the West. In 1994 Russian authorities announced plans for a central data bank to monitor all immigration and emigration and a new refugee agency, but no such system was in place in mid-1996. Meanwhile, the prospects of moving large numbers of immigrants to Western countries diminished with new immigration restrictions imposed there; at the same time, the United Nations convention substantially limits Russia's options by forbidding deportation of immigrants to "countries of persecution." The FMS has optimistically planned to deal with 400,000 refugees per year, but some estimates projected that as many as 2 million would immigrate in 1996 alone. *

The proportion of non-Russian immigrants declined noticeably after 1992. In 1995 the estimated share of Russians was 63 percent of refugees and 75 percent of forced migrants, followed by overall immigration shares of 7 to 9 percent each for Armenians, Ossetians, and Tatars, 3 percent for Ukrainians, and 1 percent each for Georgians and Tajiks. Non-Slavic immigrants have encountered hostile attitudes from most Russian authorities. For example, beginning in 1993 Moscow authorities mounted "cleansing" campaigns to rid the city of individuals lacking residence permits; because immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia are easily distinguishable from Slavs, such campaigns have detained and deported disproportionately large numbers from those ethnic groups. International human rights organizations have criticized Moscow for such practices. *

The Soviet-era internal passport system, which required documentary proof of an individual's place of residence for that person to receive housing, was simplified theoretically in October 1993 to allow an individual to take residence in any area without proof of registration in that location. However, local authorities have ignored this change, especially in cities such as Moscow that are chief targets of migration. In continuing the Soviet registration system, local authorities can restrict housing, education, and social security benefits to migrants, whatever their origin. In the mid-1990s, strict, "temporary" local restrictions on initial admittance of migrants spread rapidly to most of the oblast capitals, often with conditions in clear violation of the human rights provisions of the 1993 constitution, with the official backing of the FMS. Continued local limitations have had the effect of discouraging housing construction and employment, hence exacerbating the situation of nonresidents. *

Such a discrimination policy has not stemmed the tide of migration into Russia's cities from other CIS states or from within the federation. Because the Soviet system usually allowed migrants to eventually register, find work, and settle at their destination, continuation of that system also has continued the expectations and the demographic movement that it promoted. As a result, the number of homeless people in Russia's cities has increased dramatically. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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