Matthew Light Special Book Launch and Lecture on April 21, 2016. (Event details and registration)

While in Moscow as a Yale political science graduate student, Matthew Light – now Associate Professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at University of Toronto – noted the tension of the increasingly multicultural Russian capital. He began to research the evolution of post-Soviet Russia’s migration policies at a time when President Putin was starting to address the Soviet-era system that prevented people – Russians and immigrants alike – from moving freely through the country.

His new book, Fragile Migration Rights: Freedom of Movement in Post-Soviet Russia is a study of four specific regions of Russia with disparate approaches to migrants, as well as the federal political system that contributes to these disparities. The four regions are wealthy, urban Moscow whose municipal leaders have often been hostile to immigration; labour-starved Belgorod, which welcomed a stream of former Soviet citizens but shunned migration from Central Asia; and finally Stavropol and Krasnodar – regions that are similar in demographics, geography and problems of insecurity relating to nearby Chechnya’s political violence, and yet strikingly dissimilar in their official attitude toward migration.

“What I sensed was that regions of Russia have a kind of power over immigration that is unusual in the perspective of liberal, capitalist states, and this creates a kind of patchwork of citizenship and immigration policies, said Light. “Ultimately these inconsistencies in the rights of migrants among regions both devalue the meaning of national citizenship, and constrain the ability of the federal government to manage migration, including immigration.”

Light spoke to the Global Migration Research Institute about his book, about international migration studies more generally, and about what North American scholars can learn from studying mobility (or lack thereof) throughout post-Soviet Russia.


Can you tell me a little bit about your book and the genesis of it?

The book is an attempt to understand the evolution of mobility rights and freedom of movement of Soviet and former-Soviet citizens from the late Soviet period to the present.

The Soviet Union had very comprehensive rules about people’s movement, whether around the country, or into and out of the country, in ways that were somewhat unusual in comparison with those of liberal capitalist states like Canada or the United States or Western Europe. So for example there was very little migration into the Soviet Union; that was not really welcomed. Emigration was also severely restricted. Soviet citizens had to request permission to move around the country and that permission was normally tied to holding down a particular job. Since the government largely controlled the economy, it also controlled the allocation of labour resources through the regulation of internal migration.

In the year since I did my fieldwork, which was in the mid-2000s, I was somewhat surprised to see that the federal government of Russia began taking much greater interest in these issues. There were starting to be significant efforts of reform. One such reform was the attempt to make it easier for migrant workers from other post-Soviet countries to work legally in Russia.

When does this shift (from strict post-Soviet policies to more openness) begin?

I would say it begins around 2005 to 2006, with the more significant federal efforts to reform migration policy involving – as far as we can tell – President Putin himself. He’s been closely involved in these issues and he’s attended conferences with scholarly speakers and has paid attention to the opinions of academics.

And this is to limit anti-immigration sentiment?

Well, to govern immigration more effectively, in order to make sure that Russia could have the foreign labour it needs and to regularize or standardize the rights of people within Russia to move around, including both Russians and foreigners. So, on the one hand we can say these are – in some ways – very progressive moves. The United States has a huge wall on its border with Mexico (and) Donald Trump is talking about keeping Mexicans out, building a higher wall. Nobody is really saying: “Look, the U.S. just needs to permit Mexicans and Central Americans to work in the United States without restriction.” That’s barely on the agenda.

I wouldn’t say that what Russia contributes to our understanding of international migration is that it’s highly repressive and everyone else is liberal. That would be very naïve and self-congratulatory. What I think is distinctive about Russia and why it’s interesting for people who study migration theory is that in some ways the problems of Russian immigration and international migration policy are not structural, so to speak. They’re what we might call “infrastructural.” That is, they relate to underlying features of the political system including relations between elected leaders and civil servants, and between federal and regional politicians.

You mention that research in this area is seen as irrelevant. A lot of attention is paid to migration from the global south to the global north. Why do you think there’s been less attention (to Russia)?

I think it’s definitely changed in the last ten years. There could be a number of explanations. I think one is the international migration field developed largely out of the study of North America and Western Europe, and the post-Soviet region was not really on the radar. Also, the people who study that part of the world at least in North American universities are typically like me, political scientists, and immigration policy was not really an important subfield within political science.

Another issue is that the international migration field is very policy-oriented. So if you live in Canada you’re really interested in helping develop Canadian government policy, which of course makes sense. But as a result, it’s a little hard to convince people that the post-Soviet region is something that is directly relevant to local policy issues.

Is part of the difficulty of this Russia’s sheer size and the number of regional governments it has? Does that make it difficult (to study and enforce policy)?

Yes and no. The way I see it is that the national policy has to be dysfunctional in order for regional policies to proliferate in the way that they did in Russia. Canad is also a huge country with very powerful provinces and a very decentralized confederation, yet these issues are not as salient here. Why? I think we have to ask that question. I think it’s because the infrastructure for freedom of movement within Canada exists and is maintained by a lot of things that we take for granted. Whether it’s the vigorous enforcement of the law by the federal government, public services that are adequately funded, or federal-regional transfer payments that cushion differences and standard of living across the country.

So I’m not saying that it’s bad for provinces or regions to be brought into immigration. I just think their involvement has to be very carefully regulated.

Do you see interest in migration changing now, especially in the last few years with what’s happening in Europe and the migrant crisis there?

Yes. In both Russia and other parts of Europe it’s become apparent that this is not just a narrow specialty for people with specific scholarly interests; it’s not just a subject of idle curiosity or just theoretical concern. It’s actually very politically explosive. In Europe the issues are more about the admission of non-EU residents as refugees or guest workers and how different EU countries are going to coordinate their policies. In Russia the issues are a bit different—they concern mainly post-Soviet guest workers, and to some extent Russian citizens themselves. But in all these cases we’ve seen various forms of chauvinism become much more politically salient and acceptable. I think Putin himself is afraid of the power of anti-immigrant populism as a threat to his regime, and indeed migration policies, and related issues of ethnicity and nationality, have become really quite central to Russian politics today.

You had mentioned earlier as well that in Moscow, for example, part of the reason for the restrictions was to limit access to social services. To what extent are migration policies driven by economic concerns?

That’s a really good question. When I did this research, in the early- and mid- 2000s I thought the answer was these concerns matter a lot for the questions I was studying, and that’s because at the time, Russia was emerging from a complete economic collapse which had also involved a fiscal crisis, in turn leading to the defunding of all kinds of public services and infrastructure. And so it was logical to infer that a lot of the resistance of Russian regions to new residents, whether Russian citizens or guest workers, stemmed from the desire to horde scarce resources and not be responsible for providing new people with things that they needed.

The interesting thing is that the economy provided me with kind of a natural experiment over the next ten years. That is, from the early 2000s, the Russian economy grew a lot, the standard of living really improved, the fiscal health of the government got a lot better—and yet we don’t really see regional restrictions on migration to or within Russia going away.

As a result, I’ve had to revise my opinions about that issue, and as a result – in the book as compared to the dissertation that it grew out of – I now focus more on issues of informal rule in Russia as being the underlying cause of these migration policy problems rather than fiscal crisis. I don’t rule out that the sort of fiscal crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s stimulated these problems; it clearly did. But given that solving the fiscal crisis didn’t solve the problem, something else is clearly going on.

It sounds like it would be a very long process of restructuring.

On the positive side, something that’s interesting about Russia is that in recent years the Putin government has been very receptive to the views of migration scholars, who have mainly argued for liberalization of all kinds. So, for example, the very recent move to abolish quotas on immigrant labour from post-Soviet countries is really a very progressive step. It’s just a recognition that this labour migration is a natural process and it should be governed rather than repressed. The fact that Putin has endorsed it doesn’t change that, although as I note in the book, in some ways it’s quite striking that an authoritarian regime would be so open to major immigration policy innovations that have eluded those in more liberal political systems. As a result,I think a future democratic Russia might actually be very successful in creating a decently governed, international migration system.

What response are you hoping to get from this book? What would you like the result of your research to be?

There are a lot of scholars working in this area migration issues in post-Soviet Russia now, and I’d like this body of research to be more integrated into migration theory than it has been. In particular, I also hope more scholarly attention will be paid to the regional-political dynamics of migration, both as parts of the political process, and within migration studies. Finally, speaking as a political scientist, there should be more recognition for the importance of migration governance as an aspect of high-level politics. I’d say those are my three hopes for this book.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.