Immigrant Russia – a crisis of demography or ethnicity?

One of the gravest challenges to Russia is thought to be the country’s demographic crisis. But once migrants are taken into account the numbers don’t look quite as bad. However this could have the result of turning a demographic crisis into an ethnic one. 

Hamid drives a clapped-out Soviet bus in a Russian mining colony beyond the Arctic Circle, where temperatures regularly plunge below minus forty. Yet this native of the Uzbek deserts has few regrets about his decision to migrate to Putin’s empire.

“In my country there more men than jobs – In Russia there are more jobs than men.” He expresses himself in the faultless Russian of a Soviet education. “It’s easy for us to come and work here. The borders are not hard to cross, we speak the language and there are lots of people who can make you the permits.”

Russia is now an immigrant society. In Moscow and other major cities, migrants from the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe do the work that natives turn down. Tajiks sweep the streets, Moldovans wait tables and Uzbeks work on construction sites. The metro flutters with flyers stuck inside carriages hawking the mobile numbers of professional forgers -“We Make Your Moscow Permit.”

Russia has become the second most popular destination for migrants in the world after the USA. In St. Petersburg hour long queues snake round the migration bureau where hundreds of migrants nervously swap cigarettes for job tips as they wait to register. Magadan on the Pacific has several Georgian restaurants and even on the dirt tracks of northern Siberia, Uzbek cafeterias are not uncommon.

Visa-free regimes between Russia and most of her former colonies, along with the endemic corruption of her Gogolian officialdom, mean few bother with the hassle of formal immigration. Nor have many much intention of returning to their weak and mostly impoverished states for more than a holiday.

In 2009 the Russian Migration Service claims over 10 million migrants entered the country. They add that as many as 5 million illegals“are living in the shadows.” Many experts agree that the migrant population is over 8.5 million, although off the record, some diplomats suggest the real figure may be over 15 million. That would be roughly 8 million more workers that the 6.7 million drop that Russia has recorded since 1991.

Ethnic or demographic crisis?

The danger of demographic collapse is frequently cited as the Achilles heel of Russia, with the original BRIC report noting that it posed a danger to the country’s growth. In fact Russia does not have an economic demographic crisis – instead she has a demographic crisis in terms of ethnic Russians and fully fledged citizens as a proportion of the population.

Ethnic Russians were officially 79% of the population in the suspect 2002 census which did not include migrants, and was widely accused of exaggerating the number of Russians while masking Chechen demography. Taken at face value the census suggests the country is as Russian as Israel is ethnically Jewish or the United States racially ‘white.’ However, if you include migrant workers, ethnic Russians may make up as little as 73% of those living in Russia.

This multi-ethnic composition echoes back to imperial past of both Tsarist Russia and the USSR. Slavic Soviet elites voiced concerns throughout the 1970s and 80s about what they called “the yellowing” of their country, and the fact that ethnic Russians made up just 50% of the population by 1990 played a part in President Yeltsin precipitating the break-up of the USSR.

The news that Russia’s notoriously low birth-rates have picked up in recent years is of some comfort to the Kremlin. Levels today are comparable to other European countries, and higher than some – for instance Italy or Hungary. This contrasts with 1999 when post-Soviet fertility rates hit rock bottom at just 1.16, at a time when 40% of Russia’s population earned less than the official poverty rate. By 2009, when the numbers in official poverty dropped to around 10%, the fertility rate rose to 1.54. The Health Ministry says that in September 2009 births outnumbered deaths for the first time since 1994.

It is Russia’s male death rates – not birth-rates – that mark her out from the rest of the developed world. Male life expectancy is only 59 – compared to 73 for Palestinian men. However, male life expectancy did rise by four years between 2005 and 2009.

This slight improvement is partly due to the steady emergence of a private healthcare industry with access to western drugs. Russians were poorly nourished in the shortage economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s when adverse demographic trends set in. Now supermarkets and the availability of imported food are playing their part in these incremental improvements.

Russia’s demographics are still bad, but the country is not ‘dying out’ just yet thanks to these positive signs that the population is at least starting to recover. And, as well as a likely reliance on migrants for decades to come, it is striking that the highest birth rates in the Federation are in the non-ethnic Russian republics of the North Caucasus and outer Siberia. The Russian military is concerned that by 2015 an estimated third of its conscripts may be of Muslim origin, many from the war-torn Caucasian regions they are expected to serve in. The decline in the Russia population in both the Far East and republics such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan will make it far harder for the Kremlin to dictate their future.

Will mass-migration modernise Russia?

What insider Gleb Pavlovsky has called “a sociologically obsessed Kremlin” is trying to discreetly fashion a more multi-cultural society. In April, Putin himself bluntly declared that “the door will always be open” for those that wanted to tie their future to Russia. In September the head of the Federal Migration Service said migrants were the key to improving the country’s demographic situation. This echoed another statement by Putin in April that Russia was aiming to make foreign workers “feel more at home in Russia”, as he further liberalised labour laws with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Last year the Kremlin claimed that the number of Russian citizens increased for the first time in 15 years – albeit it by a rather measly 25,000 – thanks to 330,000 new citizenships being awarded (mostly to migrants).

But benefiting from migration involves more than just letting people in. Most migrants live in penury and often suffer harassment by skinheads. Transient and largely unprotected by labour laws, their presence in turn risks driving down the wages of other workers and prolonging the lives of otherwise defunct and uncompetitive Soviet factories.

Mass migration has also politicised elements of Russia’s working class. The ‘Movement Against Illegal Immigration’, the myriad skin-head gangs and neo-Nazi brotherhoods have mobilised the energies of the losers of Putinism – a de-industrialised underclass who desperately need economic modernisation, an enabling welfare state and a crackdown on corruption. Ethnic struggles have eclipsed class struggle on the streets.

Migrants may yet save the Russian economy from a demographic crunch. Yet if Putin’s plans do not include strengthening the rule of law, they could lead to other challenges to the Russian state, holding back the modernisation of the country’s creaking industry and emptying what it means to be a ‘Russian citizen.’

A shorter version of this article appeared in the November 2010 edition of Prospect.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Policy Fellow

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