The Corner of Communism and Capitalism

The Long History of Migration to Moscow

In less than 100 years, the population of Moscow grew by over 10,000,000 people. Following the outbreak of the First World War, Moscow’s population was 1,800,000, but one century later, the city’s population had surpassed 12,000,000. Extensive rural to urban migration is hardly a uniquely Soviet phenomenon, and scholars have often linked these migration patterns to waves of industrialization. Changes in population size, the creation of new types of employment, and technological developments have fed urbanization around the world since the beginning of Britain’s Industrial Revolution through the present day. Moscow’s initial population surge began in the imperial period as a result of the emancipation of the serfs but skyrocketed during the Soviet period. While urbanization in Moscow and across the Soviet Union for that matter may share a great deal in common with other countries, the realities and intricacies of Soviet socialism shaped the experience of migration to Moscow for most of the twentieth century.

Migration from the Russian countryside to Moscow steadily increased following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Although the serfs technically gained the full rights of citizenship, serfs needed to make redemption payments to the nobility from whom they had been freed. Such payments required cash, and thus, free peasants sought out work in factories and workshops in Moscow and St. Petersburg to buy their land from their former owners. An internal passport system and the social and economic importance of the peasant communes governed migration in the Russian Empire. Since the time of Peter I (Peter the Great), all subjects needed to apply for a permit to travel, even for movement over short distances for a limited period of time. The cost of these documents was prohibitive, curbing large-scale migration. Following emancipation, peasants continued to face restrictions on mobility. Some relocated to Moscow illegally, while others applied for the appropriate temporary documents. The rule of the commune kept even those who moved to the city tied to their communities in the countryside. The commune relied on migrants’ remittances, and networks of fellow villagers functioned social surveillance for those living away from home. Women also moved to the cities both to support their families and find increased freedom away from fathers and husbands. In the early twentieth century, migration to the city became easier. Following the Revolution of 1905, peasants no longer needed to make redemption payments and the Stolypin land reforms made for easier migration.

The First World War brought even more migrants to the cities. As with the other belligerent nations, the need for weapons and artillery created a demand for factory workers in urban centers. The wartime increase in urban populations coupled with the disruption and destruction of the empire’s transportation system resulted in food shortages. Most famously, shortages of bread in the then capital of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) incited a protest led by women tired of waiting in line for bread that habitually failed to materialize. When factory workers from the nearby Putilov Factory joined the women and soldiers refused to fire on the protestors, the February Revolution was born. The October Revolution followed, but the ensuing Civil War and famine depleted the urban populations of Moscow and Petrograd. Starving and in search of food, urban dwellers tried their luck in the countryside. Moscow became little more than a ghost town, and the proletariat, in whose name the Bolshevik Revolution had been waged, had almost entirely disappeared along with the industries that they had manned.

Not even Moscow’s new status as capital of the Soviet Union, enacted in March 1918, helped bolster its population, but by the time of the first all-Union census in 1926, Moscow had surpassed its 1916 population by approximately 200,000 people. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Lenin introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) which made concessions to bourgeois practices. Specialists from the imperial period trained Soviet ones. Peasants worked their own farmland, while petty tradesmen were allowed to conduct business.

Migration both fed and subverted official plans to build socialism in the Soviet Union. Rapid industrialization drew peasants to cities while collectivization and dekulakization were strong incentives for many to leave the countryside. By December 1932, the Politburo was increasingly alarmed by the mammoth scale of these emerging migration patterns and issued a series of orders regarding the implementation of an internal passport system. The Joint State Political Directorate under the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR (OGPU) moved these problematic elements, such as kulaks, to rural “dumping grounds” while leaving more favorable citizens in the cities. The passport then had a repressive legacy, used to police populations and limit human mobility. While this was true during the 1930s, the system was flexible enough to accommodate changing state goals. While the passport system continued to favor the urban, it also adapted as migration patterns evolved and furthermore accommodated changing conceptions of what socialism in the Soviet Union should look like.

The Soviet leadership hoped that collectivization would undermine, if not obliterate, the kulaks and their opposition to Soviet power. The peasantry, however, did not passively accept the official viewpoint, arguing that kulaks were prosperous due to their hard work, while the poor peasants (bedniaks) were poor due to their laziness. These tensions between state actors and peasants led to “excesses” on both sides. Rural commissions argued that peasants slaughtered livestock to prevent collectivization, while peasants claimed that rural commissions confiscated their personal belongings when they could not meet grain production goals. The chaos of collectivization was soon coupled with dry, hot weather and reports surfaced of poor machinery, low quality work, and concealed grain, led to famine. The famine that followed in the winter of 1932 to 1933 killed millions. Frustrated and starving peasants applied to leave the kolkhoz to find work in cities, but many left without the appropriate release forms from their collective farms, forming their own migration repertoires.

Once migrant-peasants arrived in the cities, they faced strained relationships with industrial workers. While some industrial workers had families on collective farms (and therefore, perhaps, some sympathy for arriving peasants), many workers and city dwellers blamed the new arrivals for emerging problems. Urban workers viewed peasants as criminals of various stripes who provided an obstacle to achieving socialism. Such peasants sabotaged the process not only by subverting collectivization but also by overcrowding industrial centers through their unofficial migration repertoires.

While rapid industrialization relied on the arrival of peasants from the countryside to the city, the unorganized character of these migration repertoires threated the stability of urban areas. Anyone entering a city on his or her own initiative became suspect. In response to this crisis, the Politburo instituted an internal passport system in December 1932 and in 1933 urban residency restrictions to regulate who could live in large cities and strategically important regions, creating and regulating new regimes of migration. The police carefully vetted each citizen before issuing or denying them a passport. Passportization began in Moscow, Leningrad, and Khar’kiv and then quickly included the populations living within 100 kilometers of Soviet international borders. The police refused passports to socially harmful elements and removed these individuals from the cities. However, those who believed that they would not be eligible to receive a passport also fled on their own to avoid being sent to work camps and special settlements where Soviet police organs sent the violators of the new passport system.

Later in 1933, the Politburo increased the number of strategically important cities to include all republic level capitals and additional cities that they deemed economically or politically important and issued over 27,000,000 passports. The 100 kilometer area around each regime city acted as a buffer zone, moving questionable elements further away, therefore making a return to the city increasingly difficult. However, non-regime areas had less stringent requirements for receiving a passport. Those ineligible for passports in strategically important areas could apply for and most likely receive a passport elsewhere.

The Politburo further decreed that any individual living within the borders of a regime city apply for a domicile registration. Local soviets used the system of domicile registration to vet any new arrivals after the original passportization campaigns had ended and to curb urban unemployment. Inhabitants of regime cities at the time of the first passportization drives underwent an additional review process to receive a domicile registration. New arrivals needed to present a passport and proof of release from collective farms to be eligible to receive a domicile registration. Additionally, this registration system called for all recipients to prove that they had gainful employment within the city to which they desired to move. The tools through which the state manipulated migration regimes became less restrictive by the end of the 1930s, but Stalinist officials issued draconian labor laws that forbade workers from leaving one place of employment for another without official permission, which restricted the mobility of the labor force.

Despite restrictions on changing one’s place of employment, millions moved to cities following victory in the Great Patriotic War. Demobilized soldiers sometimes headed directly to the cities, but many first returned home to the collective farms. However, policies that restricted the size of personal plots for collective farmers coupled with organized recruitment for postwar reconstruction projects encouraged rural to urban migration. Although collective farmers did not automatically receive a passport, they applied for a temporary one, valid for one year, and an official release from the collective farm. Once in the city, a worker renewed his or her passport at his or her current place of residence if granted a second year of employment there.

While Nikita S. Khrushchev left the passport system largely unchanged, his policies on employment and private plots stimulated new repertoires of migration. He promoted the expansion of private plots of land for collective farmers, which led to an influx of Georgian, Armenian and Azeri petite traders into the cities of the RSFSR since they could more easily cultivate such goods in their subtropical homes. More importantly for the case of temporary labor migration, Khrushchev undid the 1940 labor laws that required official permission to leave one’s place of work, giving industrial workers the right to leave their place of employment simply because they no longer wanted to work there.

By 1971, the passport and domicile registration systems had created a conundrum. In the Soviet command economy, resources, including laborers, were limited and subject to a complex system of distribution. Systems of hierarchy that privileged certain cities, branches of the economy, and even some specific enterprises, guided the State Planning Committee’s (Gosplan) allocation of resources while simultaneously informing would-be migrants’ decisions of where to live and work. Although regime cities were technically closed to in-migration, they also offered more options in terms of employment and educational opportunities, leisure time and consumer goods.

Despite restrictions on migration, regime cities became hyper-developed because of their importance. Gosplan disregarded the restraints placed on mobility and opted to open enterprises in larger cities because it was easier and more efficient. Moreover, this industrial development caused growth in other areas – housing, stores, schools, and the like – that were needed to accommodate the growing workforce. Regime status also went hand in hand with increased access to consumer goods, which further encouraged migration. This and the right to leave one’s place of employment at will clashed with Gosplan’s and the State Committee for Labor of the RSFSR’s desires to rationally allocate labor and reach full employment of the Soviet population. Brezhnev and the Council of Ministers never abolished the passport or domicile registration systems. Economic factors influenced the process of determining the number of migrants whom enterprises could recruit from beyond Moscow’s borders. Gosplan set forth Five Year Plans that contained production goals and the number of workers needed to complete them. Enterprises took stock of their current workforce and determined how many workers short they would be for the upcoming plan. They first tapped pensioners, students, and housewives in Moscow, then recruiting laborers from beyond the city.

The timeline below shows important historical events in Soviet history, the development of the city of Moscow, and the implementation of various migration-related policies. In 1970, the population of Moscow was approximately 6,000,000 people, and planners projected that the population would only reach 7,000,000 by 1990. Instead, the population hit 8,600,000 by 1985, when Gorbachev became the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The timeline demonstrates the connections between population decline, migration policies, and political change, all of which are further discussed on the other pages in this site.