(June 2001) Over the past decade in Russia, the rising mortality rate among middle-age males and the plunging fertility rate have been cited as contributors to the decline in population. Between those two trend lines, migration has been obscured. But counting the incoming and the outgoing, as well as the transfers within the country, shows that migration, too, is having a considerable effect.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the transition toward a market economy set off two migration streams in Russia. One stream was of Russians and Russian-speakers heading from the non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) back to Russia; these people had become members of a diaspora minority without moving an inch. The other stream, an internal one, was of people from the frozen north toward warmer, more hospitable climates.

Between 1992 and 2000, net migration to Russia from all countries was just over 3 million people. The excess of deaths over births for that period, however, was 5.9 million, causing the population to decline 2.8 million from its peak of 148.7 million in 1992 to 145.9 million in 2000.

The exodus of 770,000 people from Russia to the West has not been as large as many had predicted. Because of the selective nature of migration, however, it constitutes something of a brain drain, with the most educated, skilled, and entrepreneurial people leaving in the largest numbers.

The migration exchange between Russia and the non-Russian FSU states from 1992 to 1999 consisted of 5.9 million people coming to Russia and 2 million leaving. Migration to Russia reached a peak in 1994, but much of the migration momentum has exhausted itself. By 1999, net migration to Russia was only one-fifth of its 1994 peak of 810,000.

Since the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, there has been a return migration of about 12 percent of the 25.2 million Russians who lived in the non-Russian states. But the percentages of returnees varied widely by state (Figure 1) and by region. Less than 3 percent of ethnic Russians in the other two Slavic states, Ukraine and Belarus, have migrated back to Russia, and just 9 percent have left Moldova. Despite laws in the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — that excluded many Russians who were born in the Baltics from being able to obtain citizenship, only about 11 percent of the Russians there have left, and most of these left in the early period of independence. About 17 percent of Russians have left Kazakhstan, which is bifurcated into a Russian-majority north and a Kazakh-majority south, and 25 percent have left three other Central Asian countries: Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The largest exodus of Russians — 45 percent or more — has been from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Tajikistan, countries where some of the worst episodes of post-Soviet ethnic violence have occurred. It is not just Russians and Russian-speakers who are migrating to Russia. Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, and Tajiks have been migrating to Russia in especially large numbers due to the collapse of their economies following ethnic clashes.

Migration of Ethnic Russians to Russia, 1989–1998

Source: Goskomstat.

With the system of subsidies and regional wage differentials that existed in the Soviet Union, central planners could direct workers to priority sectors and regions. An area that received priority was the far north, which contained large portions of crucial resources such as gold, oil, gas, and diamonds. As a result, Russia’s arctic periphery was much more densely populated than comparable northern regions elsewhere. Northern Russia is 2.5 times as densely populated as Alaska and 50 times as densely populated as northern Canada and Greenland. Of the 11 cities in the northern regions of the world with populations of 200,000 or more, 10 are located in northern Russia. (The 11th is Anchorage, Alaska.)

The response to the dismantling of subsidies and the liberalization of prices has been a rapid depopulation of Russia’s northern and far eastern periphery. All together, about 12 percent of the population in northern Russia has migrated to what is called the “mainland” in western Russia. Half of the regions classified as the extreme north have lost more than a quarter of their populations during the post-Soviet period. And the two regions in the far northeast corner of Russia — Magadan, across the Bering Sea from Alaska, and Chukotka — have respectively had 42 percent and 58 percent of their populations leave because of deteriorating economic and social conditions. While this massive out-migration might be viewed as a logical adjustment to new economic conditions, it has not been uniform across age or economic groups. The able-bodied and those with the means to do so have fled, leaving many elderly, disabled, and unemployed people without the money to migrate.

The effects of the post-Soviet migration in Russia will continue to be felt well into the future. Even following the mass exodus from the north during the 1990s, the region remains much more populated than other northern peripheries, and populated with many unemployed people. President Vladimir Putin has recently called for the return migration of the remaining Russian diaspora to compensate for Russia’s demographic decline. However, with the considerable decline in return migration since its peak in the mid-1990s, it appears that all those who intend to return to Russia already have, and that Putin will have to explore other remedies to halt Russia’s population decline.

Timothy Heleniak is a human development economist with the World Bank and an adjunct professor of demography at Georgetown University, Washington, DC.