Skip to main content

Immigration, Emigration, and Empire: Population Politics in Imperial and Revolutionary Russia

Current "discussions of migration and citizenship policies in the Russian Federation tend to stress the importance of history and claim that autarky and tightly controlled borders are Russian traditions. This is not true," said Eric Lohr, Assistant Professor, Department of History, American University, and Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute at a 24 October 2005 lecture. "The period of 1860 to 1914 was a period of intense immigration, emigration, and interaction. It very much coincided with Russia's apogee as a great power, and it took a world war and Leninist/Stalinist interventions to push Russia towards autarky."

The year 1861 was a watershed year in Russian history, best known for the emancipation of the Russian serfs. It was also, Lohr contended, a major breakpoint for migration into and out of the Russian empire, and for Russia's openness to the outside world. From the 1850s to the 1860s, according to Lohr, immigration into Russia increased by a factor of five. There was a net immigration of 4.5 million people into Russia between 1860 and 1917. Up to 500,000 guest workers were entering and leaving the country each year by the end of the imperial period. Foreign managers and investors played a huge role in the economy. This period of openness came to an end in 1914, Lohr said, with the outbreak of WWI, the 1917 Civil War, and finally with Stalin's "Socialism in One Country" policy of autarkic industrial development.

Russia's population policy was an important contributing factor to this earlier dynamic period, according to Lohr. "One of the most underrated means at the disposal of all states to shape and transform its population is its control over the ‘citizenship boundary'; that is, who can enter and leave the country, who can become a citizen, and who cannot."

Lohr described how, by the late 19th century, Russia had emerged as a "filtering state." It was formulating policies designed to prevent the entry of certain populations and restrict legal emigration to more undesirable populations. Prior to that, Russia's population policy was comprised of two elements—attracting as many people as possible into the Russian empire, and keeping them there. In the 18th century, the Russian empire had conquered the southern steppes, but did not have the people to populate and secure it. To accomplish this, Lohr said, the Russian state pursued a policy of offering separate deals—such as land grants, tax breaks, and exemption from military service—to different groups from Europe. "This is not citizenship in a modern sense; this is attracting groups by giving privileges," Lohr emphasized. A similar practice was followed for foreign businesses under the "concession" model of incorporation in Russia. Businesses signed separate contracts with the tsar, rather than function under a uniform code for foreign business.

This system of preferences gave foreigners no incentive to become naturalized citizens. Russia was distinct from most other nations in that it had multiple generations of foreign residents that never became citizens. It was also tremendously successful in achieving the state's goal of colonizing newly acquired territory. The state further demonstrated great flexibility in accommodating conquered local elites and adapting their cultures and norms into the empire. The end result was a lack of uniformity in Russian citizenship.

By the 1880s, in the wake of the emancipation of the serfs and increased population mobility, the Russian state began giving land only to its own citizens. Immigration was limited, and the state made it difficult for non-citizens to deed their land to their children, among other restrictions. Lohr described how tensions emerged between the desire for cheap migrant labor and issues of security in population policy, especially for the border regions. A key example of this was in the Russian Far East, where railroad construction relied on cheap Asian labor yet also sparked concerns over the presence of foreign populations. Lohr noted that the general trend was for economic development priorities to prevail, until WWI. The regime began interning certain foreign populations and expropriating their property. As foreigners contributed over one-half of economic investment between 1890-1914, this was not a small operation, Lohr remarked.

Following WWI and the Civil War, the Soviet "filtering state" changed the emphasis from ethnicity and religion to class background. The official policy was to welcome workers from around the world; in practice, Soviet officials feared adding to unemployment problems and had a secret policy of turning away workers. Instead, the Soviets welcomed and recruited technicians and managers that could help develop the industrial economy until Stalin launched his forced industrialization.

Lohr concluded by noting that when population policies emphasizing security and separation won out over economic development, it contributed to the collapse of the old regime and to many of the troubles of the new regime. "This is hardly a strong set of arguments to allow population policies to gain ascendancy over economics in citizenship and migration policy debates today."


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more