Guest post by Matthew Light, Assistant Professor, Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto

A sign for hallal meat at a Moscow market Photo: Matthew Light
Over the last two decades, Russia has developed into one of the world’s foremost destinations for international migration. In the 1990s, shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia absorbed millions of refugees, including many ethnic Russians who left other Soviet republics because of ethnic conflict or for other political reasons.  More recently, Russia has become the focus of an international labour migration network bringing workers from other post-Soviet republics, mainly from Central Asia—the republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—and the Caucasus—Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.  Some 10 million or more of these guest workers now visit, or reside in, Russia. In future decades, demographers expect this migration network to strengthen further, as Central Asia’s large and relatively youthful population seeks work in Russia, which like other European states, faces the prospect of an ageing and shrinking labour force. As one consequence, Russia, and in particular its capital and metropolis, Moscow, are becoming increasingly multiethnic.

This new migration network centred on Russia has entailed new policies and legislation for all the governments concerned. The establishment of 15 new states out of the former USSR led to the creation of new national citizenships, immigration rules, and methods of governing migration. Over the last 20 years, Russia, in particular has struggled to define its own goals for international migration. From an early policy of facilitating the naturalization of post-Soviet refugees, to a tightening of migration controls in the early 2000s that for a time drove effectively illegalized nearly all labour migration, the government of President Vladimir Putin has recently acknowledged that immigration is essential for Russia’s economic development, and accordingly has liberalized some rules for guest workers. At the same time, Russia still lacks policies to facilitate immigrant integration and create a positive official vision of a more multicultural society.

An advertisement for a corrupt service helping migrants obtain residential 'registration' Photo: Matthew Light
Immigration to Russia presents several distinctive components.  First, there are Russia’s acute demographic problems of high mortality and rapid population shrinkage, extensively analyzed by (among others) Timothy Heleniak. Second, there has been rapid policy change in the post-Soviet period.  Until 1991, Soviet policies severely limited emigration and immigration and strictly managed internal migration. (Pavel Polian is noted for his studies of the most repressive aspects of this history, Stalin’s huge internal exiles of minority ethnic groups.) As a result, Russia’s post-Soviet rulers have had to make up modern immigration legislation almost from scratch. Many Russian scholars, including Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, Galina Vitkovskaya, Mikhail Denisenko, Olga Chudinovskikh, Anatoly Vishnevski, Dmitry Poletaev, and western scholars such as Andrei Korobkov, Oxana Shevel, and Caress Shenk, have all analyzed the growth of immigration in the post-Soviet period, as well as the evolution of Russian immigration policy. In addition, Russian immigration policy is complicated by the country’s vast expanse and federal system. The actual immigration situation varies greatly around the country, and some regional policies have reflected anti-immigrant political agendas. The Russian scholar Vladimir Mukomel and the American Mikhail Alexseev have addressed these issues. Finally, while Russia was always a multicultural society, the current wave of immigration is creating new immigrant enclaves, and challenging traditional understandings of Russian identity. Elena Chebankova and Olga Vendina have analyzed immigrant milieus and the nature of Russian multiculturalism in the contemporary period.

Thus, Russia represents a fascinating new frontier of international migration, in which migration policy, and as a consequence national identities and cultures, are all in ferment. Granted, there are some barriers to scientific study of Russian immigration, such as inadequate statistical data, official suspicion or hostility toward (especially foreign) researchers, and for non-Russians the language barrier. Nonetheless, given the volume of immigration to Russia, and the country’s own importance in the world, western scholars should pay more attention to this major new international migration system.

A Moscow police officer checks people’s documents in a metro underpass Photo: Rulon Obeov
For more on migration in Russia and Matthew's work, please see:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Light M (2013) Russia, Eurasian Immigrant Magnet. Available at: (accessed [date]).