Russian Federation

Background InformationCapital: Moscow
Official language:
17 075 400 km2
Population (2009):
141 903 979 (FSSS1)
Population density:
8.7 inhabitants per km2
Population growth (2008):
-0.07 %
Foreign-born population as percentage of total population (Census 2002):
1.9 % (2 724 327 persons)
Labour force participation rate (2008): 53.4 % (ILO)
Unemployment rate:
7.6 % (2006), 6.6 % (2007), 6.2 % (2008)
Ethnic groups (2002):
79.8 % Russians, 19.2 % other ethnic groups, 1 % ethnic group not stated (Census)

2 in Moscow and the Moscow oblast as compared with only 3.9 inhabitants per km2 in Siberia and the Far East, for example. The European part of the country is home to the largest share of inhabitants. The population is both aging and declining; natural population decline is very high and came to 12.6 million people from 1992 to 2008. Immigration only partly compensates for this population decrease. In the first post-soviet decade Russia had a very high relative index of migration, it occupied the third place 
in the world during the period of 1989-2002, and was the 
second biggest immigration country worldwide in 2003-2006.3
 According to some experts,4 immigration is the key measure for improving the demographic situation in contemporary Russia, possibly counteracting depopulation.

International migration in Russia is composed of the inflow of immigrants from other countries of the former Soviet Union and an outflow of emigrants into economically more developed countries, such as Israel, the USA, Germany and other EU-member states. Russian academic and political discourses have adopted the term ethnic repatriation to refer to the inflow. Irregular labour migration evolved as a central problem during the ten years from 1996 to 2006. The majority of irregular migrants in Russia are labour migrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),5 who came legally to Russia under the visa-free regime, but stayed and worked illegally. Internal migration is very low and has not exceeded 
3 % of the population during the 2000s. The vector of internal migration has changed in the post-Soviet time. Traditionally the main direction was towards the centre and eastward, but in the 
second half of the 1980s migration towards the periphery, the west and south increased.

Russian migration policy was significantly changed two times. First it became more restrictive in 2001 and then liberalized in 2006. Russian migration policy has also undergone conceptual changes. It was mainly reactive during the first 15 post-Soviet years and has become gradually proactive.

Historical and recent trends in migration

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
6 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.78

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)9 on the one hand, and voluntary and involuntary large-scale population movements on the other.10 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)11 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.12severnaya nadbavkaraspredelenie)13 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.14

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.151618

The Post-Soviet Era
After the Soviet system collapsed there were about 25 million ethnic Russians who lived in the former Soviet Union (FSU)19 countries other than the Russian Federation. Over three million ethnic Russians settled in Russia between 1991 and 1998.20 
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).2122 Due to unregistered migration, the official numbers underestimate the real amount of migration.

Inflows from Former Soviet Union countries
24 donors (China, Turkey, and Vietnam) is declining.25 All FSU countries except Belarus26 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 2007.272829

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 1996-1998,30 and their number in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok (the capitals of the border regions to China) was not more than 10 000 persons in 1999.31 Furthermore, Russian citizens were more active than Chinese in the cross-border movement in the second part of 1990s.32

Temporary labour migrants33
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.34 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.35 Half of labour migrants in Russia have no professional training and are only suited for unskilled labour.36

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 residing37 According to Russian official estimates, elements of forced labour can be observed for 10 % to 30 % of migrants.38 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.3940

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.4142 Currently, the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Cyprus are considered to be favoured destinations for highly-skilled Russians seeking employment abroad.43

The majority of emigration to Germany, Israel and Greece has taken place in the course of ethnic repatriation programs. The peak of migration from Russia to Germany was in 1995 (about 80 000).4445 The volume of emigrants to Israel was about 1 200 in 2007.46 The emigration to the USA has gradually decreased from 4 000 in 2004 to 2 000 in 2007 (Figure 2).

Economically motivated circular migration 
(shuttle traders or chelnoks)
47 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.48
Migration out of the Far East and East Siberia to the Central-European part of Russia began on a large scale in 1991.49 As a whole, the Russian Far East lost 14 % of its population between 1990 and 2005.5051
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.52 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 2007.53

Migration policy

Concepts state the general principles of regulations, while laws5455 In order to legalize these labour migrants, an attempt was made to adopt the Concept of the State Migration Policy of the Russian Federation, which was to lay the basis for stabilizing migration processes and conveying positive messages about migrants and their economic contributions to the general population.56 However, this and other attempts to legalize labour migration were ineffective, due to the scale of the shadow economy and informal labour market. In 2000, the FMS was abolished and responsibility for migration matters handed over to the Ministry of Federation and Ethnic Policy, which itself was abolished a year later.

In 2002 the FMS was re-established, not as an independent structure, but as a part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. For the next several years, migration was treated as a security issue, in line with popular public perceptions of migrants as potential criminals. The number of staff at FMS grew rapidly, from 3 000 at the beginning to 18 000 by 2006. There is a lack of transparency with regard to which tasks the additional staff members are primarily deployed. At the same time, its relations with migrant-supporting NGOs deteriorated and cooperation with academic experts was minimal.57 In 2002 the law On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens on the Territory of the Russian Federation was adopted. This law was eagerly anticipated as a tool for legalizing irregular migrants, setting transparent procedures for migration control and granting legal status for different groups of migrants. Instead of meeting these expectations, it established a number of bureaucratic barriers complicating the procedures for registering foreign citizens5859

Other changes in this period included the introduction of a centralized database for the registration of foreign citizens and for border movements. Additionally, Russia began cooperating with the European Union in the field of migration, adopting the EU-Russia Road Map for the Common Space of Freedom, Internal Security and Justice in May 2005. The most visible effects of this cooperation are two EU-Russia agreements concerning visa facilitation and readmission, which were signed in 2006 and came into force in June 2007.

Kaliningrad transit

Russian Policy on Compatriots Abroad60

  1. Prevention of members of the Russian-speaking population of the former Soviet Republics from migrating to Russia.

To further the second objective, measures were introduced in 1994 to provide economic, social and cultural support to those living in the FSU countries.

The first legal definition of Russian compatriots was given only in May 1999 in the Law on the State Policy of the Russian Federation Concerning the Compatriots Abroadvynuzhdenny pereselenetsThe National Programme for Supporting Voluntary Migration of the Compatriots Residing Abroad to the Russian Federation61 In the mid-2000s, experts62 estimated that there were between 2.4 million and 4 million people living in the FSU states who could be eligible to migrate under the program. However, 15 years after the collapse of the USSR, most people who wanted to move to Russia from other regions had already done so. Those who remained abroad have since developed their own adaptive strategies. Furthermore, the unveiled motive for the repatriation of compatriots (i.e. to solve Russian domestic problems, not address issues faced by compatriots abroad) likely alienated potential migrants.

Integration policy and measures against xenophobia

Despite its significant immigrant population, Russia lacks a coherent integration policy. One reason for this is that the majority of immigrants come from the FSU countries. They usually know the Russian language and are familiar with the historical and cultural background of the country. Thus, politicians have assumed that they do not need any support for integration. A limited amount of government assistance has been made available to resettle ethnic Russian immigrants under the Federal Migration Programme. However, the assistance is so limited that many migrants do not bother to apply for it.63 The biggest problems faced by new arrivals are in securing housing and employment.6465The Forming of the Aims of Tolerant Perception and Preventive Measures against Extremism in Russian societyTolerance program). In spite of its title, the program did not contain effective measures for prevention of extremism and xenophobia. It was limited to the declaration of the necessity of tolerance education for the different social groups. A number of federal and regional Tolerance education programmes have been implemented in the meantime, but they are not sufficient to solve the problem of xenophobia in contemporary Russia. For example, the Tolerance Programme66 The roots of it are not only in the activity of radical nationalistic or neo-Nazis organizations; many Russian politicians have used anti-migrant rhetoric in their political programs. The migrant-phobia is also based on the belief that migrants contribute to different social problems, such as the spread of diseases or involvement in criminal activities, two beliefs that are held by nearly half of the inhabitants of large Russian cities.67

Irregular migration

According to a World Bank report, the number of foreigners living irregularly in Russia in 2000 was between 1.3 and 1.5 million.6869 The Federal Migration Service of Russia places the number at about 5 million.70 High numbers of irregular migrants are caused in part by a complicated registration system. The residence permit system (propiskaregistratsia). All Russian citizens have to be registered at the local police departments. There are two kinds of registration for Russian citizens: permanent and temporary. The first one is obligatory for all Russian citizens, and they receive it in their own cities and towns. If Russian citizens leave their place of permanent residence and stay in another Russian city/town/village for more than 14 days, they have to get the temporary registration at the place of sojourn. The procedure of temporary registration is complicated, and Russian citizens prefer to avoid it, making them officially irregular internal migrants.

All foreign citizens have to be registered in regional branches of the FMS during the three working days after their arrival in Russia. The procedure of registration was streamlined in 2007, but it is still complicated for many kinds of migrants. As a result, the majority of labour migrants work in the shadow economy. This way, they lack not only the opportunity to have a legal job (legal status), but also to defend their labour and other rights, including their basic human rights.71 The problem is intensified by the impossibility of seeking help from the official institutions for migrants who work illegally.

Transit migrants from Afghanistan, China, Angola, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ethiopia and other countries who are heading to Western Europe make up another significant group of irregular migrants. Instead of moving on as planned, many end up staying in Russia. An estimated 1.5 million such migrants were staying in the country in 2006.72 Their irregular migration is often related to asylum and refugee issues.

Refuge and asylum

The first major influx of refugees into modern Russia took place in the period 1988 to 1989 as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanians. Other ethnic conflicts (e.g. the Abkhazian conflict 1992-1993, the Ossetin-Ingush conflict 1992, the Chechnya conflict 1994-1996), which took place in the post-Soviet area, increased the number of refugees. In Russia there are also a number of refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and some African countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Angola.

In 1993 Russia signed the UN 1951 Convention on Refugees. As a result, Russia granted asylum to migrants from war-torn African and Asian countries. Many of them later attempted to move on to EU countries. In the same year the laws On Refugees and On Forced Migrants

The policy on refuge and asylum has been under-developed; the Russian authorities have granted asylum and the status of refugees only unwillingly. In 1996, for example, 4 840 persons applied for asylum, but only 78 persons were granted 1951 Convention status.73 The situation has changed gradually over the last several years. According to the FMS, refugee status was granted to 802 people from 2004 till 1 May 2009, and 4 195 people were granted asylum in the same period (see Figure 3). It may well be that the policy on refuge and asylum will improve in the near future, because the Russian Government wants to adopt a new refugee law and is drafting it with the help of the UN Refugee Agency.74


Law on Citizenship of the Russian Federation was adopted in May 2002. It complicated the naturalization procedure for ethnic Russians from FSU countries. The explanation for this more restrictive policy was based on the fact that persons willing to become Russian citizens had been able to do so freely over a transition period of 10 years and, now that the transition time is over, the Russian state has to carefully examine the citizenship claims from the FSU countries. Nevertheless the citizenship acquisition was still much easier for former USSR citizens than for citizens of other states until 1 July, 2009.

Future Challenges

The main challenge for current Russian migration policy is the global economic crisis. The slowdown in economic growth leads to a substantial quota reduction for labour migrants.75 This reduction was caused by the decline in demand for labour and the attempt to create preferences for Russian citizens in the labour market in the crisis situation.

The decline in labour demand will change not only the external, but also the internal migration flows. People tend to leave their place of residence and turn to economically more successful regions. This constitutes a particular problem for the monotowns, which depend on one primary employer. About 10 Russian monotowns are confronted with considerable economic and social difficulties, which may lead to the emergence of new ghost towns in Russia.

The economic crisis has also intensified alarmism in Russian society, with further increases in xenophobia. There is no comprehensive integration policy to counteract such developments.

The second challenge is connected with the non-democratic political regime in Russia. The role of civil society in political decision-making is weakened. The concrete migration policy measures depend mainly on bureaucratic decisions, which fall short of being a political strategy, the tendencies of which vary from liberalizing to restrictive.


  1. According to Federal State Statistic Service (FSSS).
  2. There were 89 subjects of federation from 1992 to 2004. The federal reform, which began in 2000, has led to the gradual decrease of the number of subjects. But importantly, the reform aims to reduce only the number of autonomous okrugs, and not all kinds of subjects.
  3. Mansoor A., Quillin B. (eds.) (2006), p. 1.
  4. Vitkovskaya G, Panarin S. (eds.) (2000), p. 77.
  5. See Heleniak T. (2004).
  6. Ivakhnyuk (2009), p. 5.
  7. Ibid, p. 4.
  8. Resident permit system (propiska
  9. Ibid.
  10. Beginning in 1928, the economy in the USSR was directed by a series of five-year-plans (piatiletkas).
  11. Ivakhnyuk (2009). p. 7.
  12. Distribution of graduates (raspredelene
  13. Cutris G.E. (1996).
  14. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 8.
  15. Ibid, p. 11.
  16. See:
  17. Ibid.
  18. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 92.
  19. See:
  20. Unfortunately, for data published by the Federal Migration Service of Russia, there is no detailed documentation on the collection and aggregation procedure so it is not exactly clear what is covered.
  21. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 94.
  22. Only in 1990 and 1994-1996 did Russia have a positive net migration with Belarus. See: Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 6.
  23. According to dates Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005) and FMS.
  24. 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.
  25. Alekseev M. (2006), p. 47-48.
  26. Ibid. p.99.
  27. Vitkovskaya G, Panarin S. (eds.) 2000, p. 208.
  28. Vitkovskaya G, Panarin S. (eds.) 2000, p. 207.
  29. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 96.
  30. Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 14.
  31. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 95.
  32. Ibid. p. 99-100.
  33. Doklad (2006), p. 50.
  34. Tyuryukanova E (2005), p. 74.
  35. Tyuryukanova E (2005), p. 86.
  36. Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 6.
  37. Ibid, p. 12.
  38. Ibid. p. 16.
  39. Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 10.
  40. According to FMS.
  41. According to FMS.
  42. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 17.
  43. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 23-24.
  44. Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 39.
  45. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 24.
  46. Romanov I.A. (2006), p. 53.
  47. Ibid, p. 23.
  48. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 80.
  49. Ivakhnyuk (2009), p. 30.
  50. Ibid, p. 32.
  51. Ibid, p. 35.
  52. Ibid, p. 38.
  53. All foreign citizens who came to Russia for more than three days have to register with the authorities.
  54. Ivakhnyuk (2009), p.57.
  55. For more information see: Nozhenko M. (2006).
  56. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 93.
  57. Mukomel V. (2004), Rybakovsky L., Rayzantsev S. (2005), p. 9.
  58. Flynn, M. (2003).
  59. De Tinguy, A. (2003).
  60. For example, the Russian chess player Sergey Nikolaev, who was Yakut by birth, was killed by neo-Nazis in Moscow in 2007. The killers were found guilty of racist crime and sentenced to three to ten years imprisonment only because of the activity of Russian and international human rights organizations.
  61. See: The National Human Development Report (2008), p. 102.
  62. Ibid. p. 104.
  63. Mansoor A., Quillin B. (eds.) (2006), p. 104.
  64. Rayzantsev S. (2008), p. 73.
  65. Fadeicheva M.A. (2008), p. 169.
  66. Tyuryukanova E (2005), p. 86.
  67. Ivakhnyuk I. (2009), p. 22.
  68. According to UNHCR:
  69. According to UNHCR:
  70. Ivakhnyuk (2009), p. 71.

About the author:
Dr. Maria Nozhenko is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Sociology and research fellow at the Centre for European Studies at the European University at St. Petersburg (Russia).


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