Migration of the Russian Diaspora after the Breakup of the Soviet Union

By Heleniak, Timothy | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Migration of the Russian Diaspora after the Breakup of the Soviet Union

Heleniak, Timothy, Journal of International Affairs

When the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991, 25.2 million Russians became part of a large diaspora population "without moving an inch or leaving their homes." (1) They went from being members of a privileged majority who arguably saw their homeland as the entire Soviet Union to minority members of 14 newly independent nation states. Some of these states were experiencing sovereignty for the first time in decades and others for the first time in history. All sought to elevate the status of the titular group to some degree, and many were quite hostile to the existence of a Russian minority that ranged from two to 38 percent of their populations. When confronted with their new status, these new Russian diaspora populations could choose from several possible reactions. These included remaining in the non-Russian states and forming political opposition groups in order to protect their minority rights, irredentism in cases where a geographically concentrated number of Russians lived in a region contiguous with Russia, or "voting with their feet" and leaving the non-Russian states.

In the newly independent states, there were 43.4 million members of the titular nationalities of these states living outside their homelands, and numerous others at the sub-national level. (2) At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, there were 53 ethnic homelands, 15 of which became the successor states to the Soviet Union. (3) Many thought that the reconcentration of ethnic groups in their homelands would dominate migration patterns in the post-Soviet period. (4) While diaspora migration has been a major factor in post-Soviet migration patterns, it is not the sole cause. For that reason, migration patterns of the Russian diaspora must be viewed broadly against overall migration streams into and out of Russia during the post-Soviet period. The attitude of Russia towards its diaspora population changed during the 1990s with differing migration patterns and demographic realities. The reaction of the Russian diaspora groups, whether assimilation or migration, has important implications for nation and state building in the non-Russian states and Russia, and for the diaspora population itself.

There have been a number of recent works examining the Russian diaspora. (5) While all of these allude to migration as a strategy of adaptation, and some include data on Russian migration, none provide a comprehensive treatment of post-Soviet migration patterns of the Russian diaspora population. In this paper, the levels, shares, sources, destinations, socio-economic characteristics, and causes of the Russian diaspora's return to Russia will be examined. In many cases, data from the last Soviet population census conducted in January 1989 will be used as a benchmark to describe the Russian and Russian-speaking populations in the non-Russian FSU (former Soviet Union) states. This is done with the realization that those who declared their nationality to be "Russian" on the census may not have "Russian" on the passports they present to the Ministry of Internal Affairs upon entry to or exit from the country. (6)


Russians have been flowing outward from their central core of settlement around Moscow to the periphery since the overthrow of the Tatars in 1552, the year many regard as the beginning of the modern Russian state. (7) This outward expansion has been described as an imperial project that lasted for the next 350 years and beyond, into the Soviet era. While Russian out-migration to the non-Russian periphery did take place during the creation and expansion of the Russian Empire, it greatly accelerated, with more systematic state sponsorship, after the creation of the Soviet Union. A brief review of the history of the Russian diaspora is a useful backdrop for analysis of this group's movement following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The territorial expansion of the Russian Empire can be divided into three geographic phases.

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