Immigration of non-Estonians to the Estonian SSR

​By the late 1980s more than one third of the population of Estonia was not ethnically Estonian, while in 1945 the proportion was around 5 per cent. In the late 1980s, 26 percent of the population was born outside the republic. Approximately two thirds of those immigrants were ethnic Russians, and Russian became the language of communication for most of the others who thus joined the Russian-speaking community. The peak of immigration was the second half of the 1940s with 20,000 net arrivals annually equalling to 2 percent of the population. In later times, immigration would be between 0.2 and 1 percent annually.

Immigrants arrived from all over the Soviet Union, but the majority came from neighbouring Russian oblasts. The reasons for the decision to resettle to Estonia were manifold: a higher standard of living, employment, better housing and provision with goods, fleeing from poverty and hunger especially after the war, organized recruitment, or staying on after retirement or demobilization in the location of military service. A few intellectuals arrived too, because of fewer ideological restrictions. Obviously economic incentives played a major role, and it seems that most of the immigration was not managed by the state. Quite the contrary – the Soviet government in fact imposed different restrictions on internal migration. On the other hand, Soviet economic policy, such as the further development of oil shale mining, attracted immigrants. The larger towns and northeast Estonia drew most of the immigration.

Many immigrants were of course specialists in their field, but the majority consisted of people with comparatively low qualifications. In addition, the opportunity to obtain a higher education in Russian was limited in Soviet Estonia. Thus immigrants were over-represented in occupations such as industrial labour and underrepresented in more qualified professions. Even today, the Russian-spekaing minority has not managed to form its own broad and influential political-cultural elite, although various world-famous Russian intellectuals have lived and worked here; e.g. the semioticist Juri Lotman, the writer Sergei Dovlatov and others. The long-time head of the Russian Orthodox Churrch, Alexius II, also came from Estonia.

Due to linguistic and cultural barriers, inter-ethnic tension and some prejudice many immigrants remained relatively isolated from Estonian society. In addition, the vast majority stayed only temporarily and left the republic after a couple of years. For them it did not seem necessary to integrate. The existence of a Russian-language school system helped to keep or to build up a Russian identity, but the teaching of Estonian was not sufficient and thus education supported the evolvement of a kind of parallel society.

Immigration helped recovery from the war and the permanent population losses of the 1940s. It was necessary for the development of the economy under conditions of extensive growth, but the issue was also a factor increasing the Estonians’ fear of being Russified and losing their national identity.

Details about this article