Emigration from Russia: its recent past, present and future

Mikhail Denisenko,
Vishnevsky Institute of Demography, HSE University,

Over the past 30 years, after the fall of the Iron Curtain during Gorbachev’s rule numerous communities of Russian-speaking immigrants have emerged in the world. Most members of these communities – almost 3 million people at the beginning of 2020 outside the CIS countries – were born in the Russia. Many of them have obtained the citizenship of their new country of residence. However, about 1 million Russian citizens with permanent status of residence in the OECD countries do not have citizenship of their hosting countries. Many of the former residents of Russia have two citizenships: the Russian and the one of the hosting country. The example of Germany is indicative, where in 2016, according to German statistics resided almost 220 thousand Russian citizens, while at the same time 578 thousand permanent residents were listed in the register of the Russian consular. Altogether 2.1 million persons were registered in the consular register of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation in 2016, of whom 1.8 million were permanent residents of other countries, 0.2 million were their temporary residents.

The largest part of the former residents of Russia live in Germany (about 1 million), in the United States – over 420 thousand, in Israel – about 300 thousand. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, almost 95 per cent of migrants from the entire USSR, including Russia, moved to these three attractive countries due to open repatriation programs (Germany and Israel) and the generous support of Soviet immigrants (USA). Over time, the geography of Russian immigration has expanded; new centers of attraction have emerged, including Canada, Spain, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom. This phenomenon was facilitated by economic and political changes both in Russia itself and in the countries of immigration in the 2000s and 2010s.

Pull economic factors started to determine the direction and composition of migration flows. The growth of incomes during the period of high oil prices in Russia expanded the emigration opportunities. Political factors started to play a secondary role. The potential for repatriation of ethnic Germans and Jews has significantly decreased. The outflows were influenced by changes in the immigration policy of the recipient countries regarding the migrants from the former USSR. They have lost most of the preferential conditions (as repatriates, refugees, special professional groups) and became subject to the same migration rules as the migrants from other countries.

Selective migration policy, on one hand, and self-selection of migrants, on the other, have formed the following stimulus for leaving Russia:

(1) young people – to get higher education and/or work in innovative sectors of economy and science;
(2) middle-aged people – educated, high-income individuals procuring real estate abroad, and striving to provide a comfortable living for their families, while often keeping their business in Russia;
(3) Elderly people moving to their children and/or to countries with better medical care and living conditions.

Generally, Russian immigration are relatively young with high levels of education and qualification facilitating their integration into the hosting community.

In the pre-COVID-19 years, the number of long-term migrants from Russia mostly depended on fluctuations in the economic situation and changes in the migration policy of hosting countries, rather than on the internal situation. Therefore, for example, the economic crisis of 2014-2015 did not have a strong impact on migration flows. By our estimates between 2015 and 2019, about 70 to 80 thousand people annually were leaving Russia for the permanent residence in other countries.

The COVID 19 pandemic has slowed down migration from Russia due to the imposed quarantine measures. According to the Russian border service, the departure of Russian citizens to developed countries (excluding the Baltic States) for study and work, as well as for business and private purposes, decreased from 7.2 million in 2019 to 1.6 million in 2020. Statistics of the foreign countries also shows that the inflow of long-term migrants from Russia has decreased significantly. Nevertheless, already in 2021, there were signs of a recovery in this flow.

As by the general rule – migrants move from poor countries to the rich ones – migration outflow from Russia to developed countries will continue. According to economic forecasts, strong economic growth during the coming years in Russia is not expected. The quantitative parameters of Russian emigration will quickly recover to the pre-COVID level following the lifting of restrictions on international travel, but they are unlikely to surpass it. The emigration potential of Russia is shrinking due to demographic aging. However, the degree of its implementation depends on how wide the foreign countries will open their “immigration doors”.

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