History In Focus logo and homepage link

History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Poster by the Refugee Welfare of the League of German Border Area Protection Associations

Poster by the Refugee Welfare of the League of German Border Area Protection Associations

Crossing borders: migration in Russia and Eastern Europe during the twentieth century

Peter Gatrell, University of Manchester

The two world wars and later convulsions, notably the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, profoundly altered political boundaries in eastern, central and south-eastern Europe. In 1900 the region was dominated by four empires; Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman, all of which vanished in the aftermath of the Great War. By 1950, following the defeat of the Nazi attempt to impose a 'new order' across Europe, Soviet power extended beyond its Russian core into neighbouring states many of which (Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) only came into being as a result of boundary changes following the First World War. By the end of the century the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics no longer existed. Its fragmentation led to the re-establishment of the three independent Baltic States and the creation of new political entities: Russia itself, along with Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. These changes had immense consequences not only for political rivalries and affiliations but also for the displacement of people across frontiers. To be sure, territorial changes did not always entail physical relocation; many people continued to live in their own homes. But belonging to a new state meant that they too were 'displaced'. (1)

Mass violence contributed directly to the displacement of people, most obviously in respect of the huge armies conscripted by belligerent powers. Conscription exposed soldiers to the risk of capture, injury and death; this much is familiar. However, warfare in Eastern Europe multiplied these dangers. Some two million Soviet prisoners of war who were repatriated to the USSR at the end of the Second World War quickly found that their enforced incarceration in a non-Communist environment rendered them suspicious in the eyes of the Stalinist state. Many of them were promptly despatched to 'special settlements' in remote regions of the Soviet Union. This was an extraordinary double misfortune that expressed itself in involuntary migration and enormous suffering. (2)

Civilians too were caught up in the two major continental conflicts. In the Russian empire hundreds of thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Jews and others fled to the Russian interior when German and Austrian troops advanced deep into Russian territory in 1915. Population displacement in Russia was invested with profound fears about economic chaos and the collapse of social order – although revolutionaries and not refugees overturned Tsarism. (3) Nor was the movement all one way: the Russian occupation of Galicia in 1914-1915 prompted civilians to flee to the relative safety of Vienna and its environs. The war also inspired the German army to devise plans for the settlement of soldier-farmers in the occupied Baltic region (the infamous Land Ober Ost), anticipating Nazi colonization projects. (4)

Massive population movements followed in the wake of the peace treaties and the new borders drawn up by the peacemakers. For example, Hungary's greatly curtailed territory meant both the loss of population to the successor states and the in-migration of some 200,000 ethnic Hungarians from Romania, Slovakia and Yugoslavia. (5) Meanwhile, Russia's withdrawal from the world war following the Bolshevik revolution was the prelude to a bitter Civil War, followed by war between Poland and Soviet Russia. These prolonged conflicts produced further displacements of population within Russia and throughout its borderlands. (6)

Migration in Eastern Europe during the Second World War found one of its chroniclers in the Polish-born writer Aleksander Wat. Taken captive when Soviet troops occupied Lwów (in Ukrainian, L'viv) in 1939 and imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD (secret police) in the provincial town of Saratov, Wat wrote of the war as

...a migration of nations... All of Russia was on the move, everyone, peasants, collective farmers, and especially people whose passports had been taken from them and who had only identification cards. (7)

This 'migration of nations' was not just the result of civilian flight as a consequence of the rapid Nazi advance in late 1941. Wat's memoir also drew attention to the fact that the preceding Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and the Baltic States (under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed on 23 August 1939) led directly to the deportation to Siberia and Central Asia of intellectuals, civil servants, army officers, landowners and other social groups. (8)

Population displacement took other forms, included targeting 'enemy aliens'. This is sometimes thought to be a practice that began in Stalinist Russia, when 400,000 Volga Germans were summarily despatched to Central Asia, along with other national minorities – Crimean Tatars, Ingushetians and Chechens – whom Stalin regarded as collectively treasonous. But the practice originated in the First World War, with the expropriation and forced removal of German farmers who had been encouraged to settle in Russia's western borderlands and in Crimea during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The First World War also led to wholesale and deliberate attacks on Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire as the Turkish authorities sought to mobilise the nation. Those Armenians who survived the massacres were scattered to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Syria), France, Russia and elsewhere. (9)

But war was not the only mainspring of population displacement. At the beginning of the twentieth century Eastern Europe suffered from widespread poverty. Typically, peasants supported themselves on small family plots, supplementing their modest income from subsistence farming by side earnings from non-agricultural activity, often involving short and sometimes long-distance migration to factories and towns. Other family members worked part-time as agricultural labourers on large estates. Programmes for transforming traditional agriculture, such as the Stolypin land reform in Russia before the First World War, included promoting migration of peasants from the poor provinces of central European Russia to western Siberia and Central Asia. But revolution overturned these plans: in 1917-1918 the peasantry seized and redistributed privately owned estates. One consequence was the emigration of their owners, who swelled the number of post-war refugees in the West. (10)

Throughout Eastern Europe rural over-population regularly attracted the attention of economists during the first half of the twentieth century. One solution was land reform, another was industrialisation. Soviet Russia adopted an extreme version of both. Rapid industrialisation and forced collectivisation led to a mass exodus of peasants from the countryside. (Collectivisation was also accompanied by the forced removal of kulaks to remote parts of the Soviet Union.) Those who resisted or were thought disloyal were sent to the Gulag, which served not only as a punitive regime but also as a comprehensive device for the exploitation of remote regions rich in mineral resources and timber. (11)

When the Second World War came to an end, new governments in Eastern Europe acknowledged the need not only for social and economic reconstruction to recover from the ravages of war, but also for rapid industrial development and investment in infrastructure. As in the Soviet Union, the result was to encourage the migration of peasants from the village to the city. (12) This programme was also linked to population transfers. Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and Poland where they had lived for generations. In Poland their properties were taken over by Poles who were themselves forced out of western Ukraine, now assigned to the Soviet Union. Simultaneously Ukrainians were unceremoniously shipped from Poland to Ukraine, in an attempt to create ethnically more homogeneous states. (13)

The end of the Second World War exposed a widespread 'DP problem'. Hundreds of thousands of forced labourers had been drafted from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States to work in the Nazi war economy, while others enlisted in the German army and the Waffen-SS. In 1945 there were nearly six million Displaced Persons in the American and British zones of occupation. Many opted for repatriation, but others resisted being returned to their countries of origin. The Baltic States, for example, were now under Soviet rule and the Communist authorities held Baltic DPs to be Soviet citizens. Confined to improvised DP camps, many of them were eventually admitted to the USA, the UK and Sweden, or to Commonwealth countries which needed skilled and unskilled labour. The so-called 'hard core', those with disabilities or 'moral' shortcomings (such as single mothers) were forced to remain behind. DP camps and settlements did not close until the late 1950s. (14)

One important aspect of migration was the formation of diasporas, Armenian, Jewish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and others. They originated in transatlantic labour migration in the later nineteenth century. Diasporas raised money and promoted awareness of the plight of displaced persons during and after both world wars. For example, after 1945 the government of Soviet Armenia promoted the 'repatriation' or 'in-gathering' of Armenians from France and the Middle East, even though many of them had neither been born nor ever lived in Armenia. It was enough that Armenians in the diaspora espoused the cause of rebuilding the 'homeland' (Hayastan). Whereas Soviet-backed campaigns among Baltic refugees in DP camps often stood no chance of success – such was the popular hostility to the Soviet occupation – Armenians on the other hand regarded Soviet power as a fundamental counterweight to the Turkish threat. (15)

The collapse of the USSR prompted further involuntary movements of population. The Soviet project to promote economic development in 'backward' areas entailed massive migration of Russians to Central Asia. Newly independent states such as Kazakhstan encouraged the Russians to leave, even though many of them were neither been born in nor ever lived in Russia. Russians, in short, became refugees. (16) Descendants of the deported nationalities hoped that the Russian Federation would make amends for Stalin's repressive policies. Crimean Tatars began to return to their ancestral homeland and demanded that the restoration of the property that had been taken from them during the Second World War. (7) In the North Caucasus, longstanding local grievances against Russian domination were fuelled by memories of Stalin-era deportations in 1944, affecting around 650,000 Chechens and others. The Soviet collapse also provoked conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, resulting in a widespread refugee crisis. (18)

One other momentous development deserves mention. In 1914 the Russian empire was home to around 5.3 million Jews, most of them confined to Poland and the Pale of Settlement, an institution that embodied their subordinate status in Russian society. Other Jews had already left Russia in search of a better life in the west. After the First World War the Soviet state together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sponsored Jewish colonies in Ukraine, and thus the migration of Jews from shtetl to farm. A notable Stalinist experiment, the creation of a Jewish territory in Birobidzhan, had mixed results. (19) By the time the Soviet state collapsed fewer than 1.5 million Jews lived in the USSR; just a few thousand remained in Poland. The Second World War decimated their numbers and, although a demographic recovery took place, mass emigration (notably to Israel) depleted Russia's Jewish population still further.

We now know a good deal about official policies and practices of displacement. We know something too of the often harsh language used to describe displaced people. Observers of refugee movements in Tsarist Russia during the First World War spoke of refugees as 'locusts', a term that General George Patton reportedly uttered when encountering Baltic DPs after the Second World War. (20) What is needed now is further research on the experiences of those who survived these dramatic displacements. What tactics did they adopt and why? What language did they use to counter the harsh terminology of officials, soldiers and others? It is clear that some displaced persons believed that their personal survival was bound up with the survival of the 'nation', a notion that the ethnically exclusive character of many DP camps helped to foster. Baltic DPs often rejected the term 'Displaced Persons', preferring instead to characterize themselves as political exiles.

Of course the history of migration in Eastern Europe was not confined to forced population displacement. Many other kinds of migration took place. Some examples have been mentioned already. New work on the promotion of mass travel in the USSR shows how internal tourism was linked to the acquisition of knowledge about the country and its resources. (21) We have also seen that migration was bound up with ideas of 'development'. Yet this does not alter the fact that wars and their aftermath played the crucial part in mass population movements.

  1. An invaluable overview is provided by Paul R. Magocsi, Historical Atlas of Central Europe (2nd ed, Seattle, 2002). Back to (1)
  2. Pavel Polian, 'The internment of returning Soviet prisoners of war after 1945', in Prisoners of War, Prisoners of Peace: Captivity, Homecoming and Memory in World War II, ed. Bob Moore and Barbara Hately-Broad (Oxford, 2005). Back to (2)
  3. Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War 1 (paperback ed., Bloomington, 2005). Back to (3)
  4. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War 1 (Cambridge, 2000); Elizabeth Harvey, Women and the Nazi East: Agents and Witnesses of Germanization (New Haven, 2003). Back to (4)
  5. Ivan Mocsy, The Effects of World War I. The Uprooted: Hungarian Refugees and Their Impact on Hungary's Domestic Politics, 1918-1921 (New York, 1983); Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge, 1996). Back to (5)
  6. Homelands: War, Population and Statehood in Eastern Europe and Russia, 1918-1924, ed. Nick Baron and Peter Gatrell (London, 2004). Back to (6)
  7. Aleksander Wat, My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual (New York, 2003), p. 307. Wat, the nom-de-plume of Aleksander Chwat (1900-1967), was later reunited with his wife and child who had been exiled to Kazakhstan. In 1948 they were allowed to return to Poland before finally settling in France. The reference to passports is to the Soviet internal passport which was introduced for most categories of the population (although not for peasants) in 1933, as a means of controlling internal migration which had spiralled out of control during collectivisation. See Gijs Kessler, 'The passport system and state control over population flows in the Soviet Union, 1932-1940', Cahiers du Monde Russe 42, 2-4 (2001). Back to (7)
  8. Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (2nd ed, Princeton, 2002). The numbers are hotly disputed. Back to (8)
  9. Norman Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass., 2001); Alfred J. Rieber, 'Repressive population transfers in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe', Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 16, 1-2 (2000); Eric Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War 1 (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), pp. 121-65. Back to (9)
  10. The classic work is Sir John Hope Simpson, The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey (Oxford, 1939); see also Claudene Skran, Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime (Oxford, 1995). Back to (10)
  11. The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, ed. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford, 2003). Back to (11)
  12. Ivan T. Berend, Central and Eastern Europe, 1944-1993: Detour from the Periphery to the Periphery (Cambridge, 1996). Back to (12)
  13. Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, ed. Philippe Ther and Ana Siljak (Oxford, 2001); Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (New Haven, 2003). Back to (13)
  14. Mark Wyman, DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 (2nd edn, Ithaca, 1998); Linda McDowell, Hard Labour: The Hidden Voices of Latvian Migrant 'Volunteer' Workers (London, 2005); Robert Kee, Refugee World (London, 1961). Back to (14)
  15. Maud Mandel, In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth-Century France (Durham, North Carolina, 2003), pp. 179-97. Back to (15)
  16. Hilary Pilkington, Migration, Displacement and Identity in Post-Soviet Russia (London, 1998). Back to (16)
  17. Uehling, Greta Lynn, Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars' Deportation and Return (New York, 2004). Back to (17)
  18. Armenia had the largest number of refugees in the world per head of population in 2004. UNHCR, The State of the World's Refugees (Oxford, 2006), p. 224. Back to (18)
  19. Salo Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets (2nd ed, New York, 1976); Robert Weinberg, Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland, An Illustrated History, 1928-1996 (Berkeley, 1998); Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Farming the Red Land: Jewish Agricultural Colonization and Local Soviet Power, 1924-1941 (New Haven, 2005). Back to (19)
  20. Modris Eksteins, Walking since Daybreak: A Story of Eastern Europe, World War 2 and the Heart of our Century (New York, 1999), p. 114; Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking, p. 200. Back to (20)
  21. Anne E. Gorsuch and Diane Koenker eds., Turizm: The Russian And East European Tourist Under Capitalism And Socialism (Ithaca, 2006). Back to (21)

Articles index | Back to top