Immigration and Emigration

views updated


To paraphrase the nineteenth-century historian of Russia, Vasily Klyuchevsky, the history of Russia is the history of migration. The Kievan polity itself was founded by Varangian traders in the ninth century, then populated by the steady migration and population growth of Slavic agriculturalists. By the sixteenth century the attempt to control population movement became one of the most important tasks of the Muscovite state. Serfdom (i.e., elimination of the right of peasants to move from one lord to another) was entrenched in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by the tsars of Muscovy in order to ensure that their servitors could feed their horses and buy sufficient weaponry. Serf-dom's logic led to an elaborate system of controls over movement within the country and of course precluded any possibility of legal emigration for the vast majority of the population. The Muscovite polity also developed mechanisms to prevent the departure of its servitors and elites. Peasant flight often to join the Cossacks in border regionswas not a negligible phenomenon, and there were several exceptional mass emigrations. Most notable was the departure of an estimated 400,000 Crimean Tatars, Nogai, and Kalmyks in the late eighteenth century after the annexation of their lands by the Russian Empire, and another mass emigration in the 1850s and 1860s of Adygs, Cherkess, Nogai, and others after the completion of the conquest of the Caucasus. But regular yearly emigration did not occur on a significant scale until the 1860s.

Thus it would be logical to link the first appearance of steady yearly emigration with the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. But this relationship is not so clear. Of the four million emigrants from the Russian Empire from 1861 to 1914, less than 3 percent were Russians. The vast majority were Jews and Germans, neither of which had been under serfdom. It was probably not serfdom so much as the commune, with its systems of collective responsibility and partible inheritance, that kept emigration figures so low for Russians. A massive emigration of Germans began in the 1870s in reaction to the abolition of their exemption from military conscription and continued due to the increasingly serious shortage of fertile lands in the Russian Empire as a result of population growth. Nearly 1.5 million Jews emigrated from 1861 to 1914, both in reaction to ongoing government repression and pogroms and in order to take advantage of civic equality and economic opportunities available in the United States and elsewhere. The sudden and massive increase in emigration also had a great deal to do with the transportation revolution, which brought cheap railroad and steamship tickets, making intercontinental travel possible for those of modest means.

While the tsar selectively recruited and encouraged immigrants from Europe to serve as soldiers, technicians, architects, and engineers on a fairly extensive scale by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the second half of the eighteenth century was the heyday of immigration to the Russian Empire. Inspired by physiocratic notions that the population is the fundamental source of wealth, and eager to populate the vast, fertile, untilled southern steppe that they had conquered, empresses Elizabeth and Catherine created very favorable conditions for immigrants in the mid-eighteenth century. These included free grants of land, permanent exemption from military service, temporary exemption from taxes, and even a degree of religious freedom. The result was a rapid and massive immigration that slowed only in the mid-to late nineteenth century as the amount of free land declined. By the late nineteenth century, as a result of rapid population growth after the emancipation of the serfs, a shortage of land led the regime to reverse its encouragement of immigration and impose some serious restrictions upon it.

Immigration did not take place on a major scale at any period under Soviet rule. While technical experts were recruited from the West in the 1930s, and workers came to the Soviet Union in relatively small numbers in the 1920s, and then again in the 1950s, on the whole, immigration was remarkably small in scale throughout the entire Soviet period.

Likewise, emigration was illegal throughout the Soviet era, and it occurred on a significant scale only on an exceptional basis. During the Civil War, before the Bolsheviks established firm control over the entire territory of the state, a major emigration of political opponents of the regime and others occurred. By some estimates roughly 2 million people left from 1918 to 1922. The next major exodus occurred as a result of World War II, which left millions of Soviet civilians and soldiers as displaced peoples in areas occupied by Russia's allies. Millions were returned after the waroften against their willas a result of allied agreements. But at least a half million were able to emigrate permanently.

The next major wave of emigration came in the 1970s when Soviet Jews were allowed to leave in relatively substantial numbers. While only about 10,000 Soviet Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union from 1954 to 1970, an average of 22,800 emigrated per year from 1971 to 1980. Soviet Jewish emigration was sharply curtailed in the 1980s, but when restrictions were first eased in 1988 and then effectively removed in 1990, a mass emigration of roughly a million Jews occurred. Soviet German emigration followed a similar pattern, though fewer Germans were allowed to emigrate prior to 1988. A mass emigration of nearly 1.5 million Soviet Germans, encouraged by the German policy of automatically granting citizenship (and generous access to welfare and public services), occurred from 1988 to 1996. In the 1990s economic difficulties led to large emigrations of Russians and other groups as well. This wave of emigration began to slow by the end of the 1990s, but it remained important and a matter of concern at the beginning of the twenty-first century, especially considering the continuing high rates of emigration among well-educated and highly trained young people.

See also: demography; german settlers; jews; nationalities policy, soviet; nationalities policy, tsarist


Bartlett, Roger P. (1979). Human Capital: The Settlement of Foreigners in Russia, 17621804. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Eric Lohr

About this article

Immigration and Emigration

Updated About content Print Article


Immigration and Emigration