After The USSR

On Christmas Day of 1991, at 7:32pm, the Soviet Flag was lowered for the last time. Without moving an inch, 25 million people became part of a large Russian diaspora. Where did they go?

Built with by Yaniv Goldobin
Last Published: 9/30/2019
At the time of its dissolution, the Soviet Union gave rise to 15 successor states. Everywhere but Russia, members of the diaspora had lost their status as a privileged majority and had to decide whether to leave or assimilate.
Simultaneously, the gates to emigration finally opened. The entire former Soviet population now had the option to leave. To restart somewhere new entirely.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, getting explicit permission from the government to travel abroad was highly unlikely. Attempting to travel without it was punishable by time in prison and in some cases even death.
Two flows characterized Post-Soviet migration between 1989 and 2002. We’ll look at:
1. Russians in the former Soviet Republics returning to Russia
2. The primary streams of international migration originating from the Former Soviet Union
In 1989, half of the Soviet Union's total population lived in Russia.
Ukraine and Kazakhstan held the majority of the Russian diaspora. The territory of Ukraine has had a strong Russian presence within its borders since the 18th century. Kazakhstan had received many Russian citizens in the first half of the 20th century as the Soviet Union moved its industries south - away from the western threat and closer to the coal, gas, and oil deposits of Central Asia.
But despite Ukraine's size, Kazakhstan contributed the vast majority of Russian immigrants returning to their homeland.
When looking at the net percentage of Russians that left per country, we see that in all but 2 nations, more Russians decided to stay than go to back Russia. Between 1989 and 2002, only about 12% of the entire Russian diaspora decided to return.
Russia Population
Despite net diaspora movement into Russia, however, its population has been declining by 0.5% annually after peaking in 1992. Two factors contributed most to this.
First, Russia's birth rates plummeted just as its mortality rates spiked. When the Soviet government fell, the Russian mafia, which had struggled to survive during the height of communism, stepped in to fill the power void. Crime and corruption increased in the Russian government just as public infrastructure failed.
Second, as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, it triggered mass immigration to the west from all FSU countries.
Net migration to the far abroad between 1995 and 2002 consisted of 3 groups: Germans, Russians, and Jews traveling to Germany, Israel, and the United States.
In Germany, migration consisted of of Soviet Germans attracted by the strong German economy and a generous resettlement package. Article 116 of Germany's Basic Law, provided individuals of German heritage with the right of return to Germany.
The Aussiedler (cultural Germans) were welcomed enthusiastically as fellow German compatriots who would be a benefit to the economy. Between 1989 and 2002 Germany received over two million German immigrants.
At the same time, Israel was welcoming Soviet Jewish migrants with open arms. Jews were persecuted as a matter of policy by the soviet regime. When the Iron Curtain came down, The 1990s Post-Soviet aliyah began en mass.
Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews moved to Israel, protected under the “Law of Return” which stated that every Jew has the right to come to the country as an immigrant. Today, roughly 18 percent of Israel's population is Russian speaking.
Previous to 1989 the United States was receiving almost as many Soviet immigrants as Israel was. The United States had a policy of treating Soviet Jewish Immigrants as refugees under the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Jewish citizens seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union first obtained Israeli visas, and then apply would to the United States Embassy for refugee status and seek American citizenship
However, in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev lifted restrictions on emigration for Jews, and the United States stopped treating Soviet Jews as refugees. The United States sought to limit the influx of emigrants by imposing a ceiling of 50 thousand for the coming years. Numbers of Soviet Jews going to the USA started dropping as more went to Israel.
Still, The United States, with its large Jewish community, was an important location for Soviet Immigrants and received over roughly half a million Soviet immigrants.
In summary, far more of the Russian diaspora population decided to assimilate than felt the need to return to Russia. As conditions worsened after the collapse, masses of Soviet Immigrants fled the the country and sought safety and economic stability abroad.
That said, the emigration boom from the former Soviet Union was not actually as large as many experts had feared (up to 50 million). The reason was that few countries welcomed immigrants from former Soviet states. The ones that did, Germany, Israel, and the USA, did so primarily on ethnic basis.
The Soviet migration to these countries had varied levels of impact. All three countries welcomed the highly skilled labor that the immigrants had to offer. Most Russian Americans and Russian Germans have assimilated and integrated well into society, though many still consider themselves Russian. In Israel, it is hard to understate the impact of the Soviet Jewish migration, where it reshaped the country's demographics and politics.
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