As the economy becomes addicted to cheap, unregistered migrant labour, the Putin regime has absent-mindedly reconfigured Russian demography. Rising ethnic politics risks turning into a disaster for the Kremlin.

It sometimes seems that Russia’s authorities, no longer able to export governments abroad, have imported a whole new stratum of subject peoples to labour on their building sites, wait their tables and sweep their streets. Moscow would collapse without its migrants: the platoons of Kyrgyz who sweep away the snow at night, the barracks of Uzbeks who empty onto the scaffolding every morning and the tens of thousands of Tajiks who drive unregistered night taxis.

Historians will judge uncontrolled mass migration to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most profound legacy. His regime has absent-mindedly reconfigured Russia’s demographic composition. The country is now the world’s most popular destination for migrants after the United States. In 2000 it was already home to at least 12 million immigrants, mostly ethnic Russians who have since acquired citizenship. Russia has since acquired a gigantic shadow economy of over 11m labour migrants and seasonal workers.

Migration has been a stroke of luck for Russia. It has lessened the impact of a terrible demographic crisis. Population collapse from 149m in 1992 to 142m today would have been drastically worse without this influx of workers. The first migrant wave was easy to absorb, as it comprised Russian speakers from ex-Soviet republics ‘returning’ to the motherland. But the sources of migration have changed over the past decade. In the early 1990s, 90% of those acquiring citizenship were returning ethnic Russians. Today, their share of the total is less than 30%.

The true extent of Russian migration is even greater than these statistics would suggest. Official immigration figures only account for those who acquired Russian citizenship, and exclude temporary and unregistered workers. Russia’s Federal Migration Service estimates that there are 11m foreigners in the country, only 1.5m of whom are working legally. This is because both employers and migrants themselves have every incentive to remain in the shadows. Even officials admit that they have no idea how high the true figure could be.

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Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin (London: Yale University Press, 2013).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2013–January 2014

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