Svetlana Filonova
December 2015

A Big Migrant Family

The words “displaced persons,” “migrant,” and “migration” fell on us like a meteorite from the sky. Just two years ago, for the majority of people those terms were associated above all with African refugees on rafts. But really we are all migrants. In the best of cases we are the children or grandchildren of migrants; in exceptionally fortunate, but extremely rare cases, we are the descendants of those who might never left the place where they were born, but still lived in a world crippled by never-ending resettlements. After all, the USSR, in which all citizens, without exception, were deprived of the right to free movement, was a country of unprecedented migration. Over the entire 18th century, England, Holland, Spain, and Portugal combined brought approximately as many slaves from Africa (around 4.5 million) as Stalin deported villagers during dekulakization.1

For the construction projects of the first five year plans, 21 million “volunteers” were brought from all over the country. In 1940-1941, 1.2 million Polish citizens were taken from the regions that became part of the USSR, after the establishment of a new border, and were sent to Kazakhstan, Siberia, and the Far East. By 1942 the same had been done to nearly 1.5 million Soviet citizens of German nationality. There were also prewar ethnic deportations, the deportation of entire nations during the war, and postwar deportations of the families of Ukrainian “bandits” and Baltic “contras.” There was also, finally, compensatory migration. The infernal perpetuum mobile of resettlements didn’t stop with Stalin’s death. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras, forced deportations evolved into mass migration under the auspices of so-called orgnabor2 and many other tricks of the passport system. As of 1990, three-quarters of the population of that enormous country said that at the age of thirty they did not live in the same place where they were born. Every year approximately 20 million Soviet citizens changed their place of residence. The “average” Soviet citizen moved six times in their lifetime.


Forced migration, which was legally introduced at the end of the 16th century, was long the most widespread method of criminal punishment and political repression in Russia. Soviet authorities weren’t about to mess with tradition and began to resettle people almost immediately, before they had even had a chance to consolidate power. As early as 1918, the People’s Commissariat for Agriculture issued directive 13, which explained how to properly expel former landowners. From 1918-1921, the Cossacks were expelled individually, as families, and as entire stanitsas.3

On September 29, 1922, the “Philosopher’s Ship” set off on its first voyage. The name has become generalized, coming to mean not a particular vessel, but a repressive initiative, whereby more than 160 scholars, teachers, and writers were sent from Petrograd to Stettin (Szczecin) aboard two German passenger ships, the Oberbürgermeister Haken (September 29-30) and the Preussen (November 16-17). At around the same time, similar...

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