The Continuing Exodus of Ethnic Russians from the Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 30

Starting in the 16th century and continuing into the 19th century, Russian settlers followed Russia’s armies in the process of annexing the Caucasus. The first Russians in the region came as refugees, fleeing their own oppressors, and settled among the mountaineers, adopting local clothes (e.g. the “cherkesska”), local lifestyles, and living next to the indigenous population in a neighborly fashion [1]. Those later migrants that came in the wake of the imperial army were unwelcome and received an entirely different treatment from the highlanders. The 19th century, the bloodiest and most tragic century in the history of the mountaineers, saw the indigenous peoples forced into the highlands and their lands given to the quasi-military communities of the Russian Cossacks.

The peaks of Russian settlement in the region occurred during the early 19th century (the initial colonization) and the 1940s and 1950s of the 20th century. Following the outbreak of war in 1941, the Soviet government organized a mass resettlement of people from Ukraine and those parts of central Russia that had become occupied by Nazi Germany. Due to ideological reasons, most people moving to the region in the latter Soviet period were the intelligentsia. Unsurprisingly, a population crisis hit as early as the mid-1970s. With locals filling job openings, the Russian intelligentsia had fewer opportunities to work. Starting with the oil specialists, whose numbers were excessive by the late 1970s, many other specialists (including chemists, teachers, professors, party functionaries) also started to leave the region. The events that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union exponentially accelerated these processes and the war in Chechnya finally made the choice of leaving the republics inhabited by the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus an irrevocable one.

In the 1990s, in an attempt to adapt to the new conditions, Russian migrants that had previously lived in the ethnic republics of the North Caucasus moved to the nearby provinces where there was majority Russian population – Stavropol, Krasnodar, and Rostov oblast. What made these areas attractive was the close proximity to the republics that they were leaving; in the central parts of Russia where they had originally come from, they now felt like foreigners. Having lived among the mountaineers for centuries, they had absorbed their psychological outlook and their everyday lifestyle. In their new homes they could never find a common language with the local Cossacks who insisted on calling the newly arrived immigrants “Chechens,” “Dagestanis,” “Circassians,” anything except “Russians.”

Today, having been unable to find a place for themselves in these regions, and having been incapable of integrating into a society that they thought would be more familiar to them, these migrants are moving further north. This exodus is starting to reach frightening levels. According to the migration monitoring service of Stavropol, eight thousand more people left the Krai than arrived there in June of this year. The issue is that this is happening to ethnic Russians living in a province with an overwhelming Russian majority (Regnum, June 20) [2]. Highlanders, on the other hand, are migrating en masse into the areas bordering the ethnic republics of the region – Stavropol, Krasnodar, and the Kalmyk republic. Stavropol is full of Dagestanis, and there are even villages where they outnumber the indigenous Russian population. The Krasnodar and Rostov province are trying to prevent this resettlement by denying registration to Chechens. Yet, in spite of this the number of Chechens continues to grow year after year. For the Russians that have recently resettled to these areas, the question is no longer that of cultural integration or economic opportunity, but that of safety for their own children; now, they are trying to move as far as possible from the Caucasus Mountains.

The problem has reached such high levels that it is even acknowledged by President Vladimir Putin himself. During his visit to the region in 2005 he remarked that “the exodus of the ethnic Russian population is a problem for the entirety of the North Caucasus” during a conversation with Cossack atamans in the Veshenkaia Cossack village of Rostov province (, May 25, 2005).

To be fair, it should be remembered that Russians have left most of the predominantly non-Russian regions of the former Soviet Union. Mere individuals are all that remain in the numerous Russian colonies that were once found in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia (where the process continues to this day, with 50 members of the Dukhobor religious community moving to the Tambov province after the community had lived in Georgia for 150 years), Armenia, and Azerbaijan (Regnum, June 29). This has even been an issue in areas where there was a Russian majority in the population, such as the Baltic states and the republics of the North Caucasus (except Adygeia, where the Russian population has long remained steady due to being a part of Cossack-settled Krasnodar). These relocations by the Russians are troubling to the government, since out-migration has hit Siberia and the Far East, where a population is needed to develop the lands that house the main natural treasures of the Russian Federation [3].

Over the course of the last fifteen years Chechnya and Ingushetia have become mono-ethnic republics, although this can be explained by the bloody wars. But the situation is no better in the other republics of the region – Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Only in Adygeia is the situation less dramatic, though certain symptoms are already evident, and it seems possible to predict a full exodus of Russian speakers from all ethnic republics. They are fleeing in order to escape the previous fate of the Russians who had lived in Chechnya. Nonetheless, an important aspect is also due to the “pro-ethnic” policies that are being implemented in the ethnic republics, which causes the Russians to feel that their rights are being violated [4].

The first decree issued by Ramzan Kadyrov after coming to power as the president of Russian-held Chechnya contains a point regarding the return of those Russians (numbering 250,000 according to the census) that had fled the republic in the 1990s (Vedomisti #125 (1899), July 10). Similar initiatives are also being explored by Ingush president Murad Zyazikov. Given the massive unemployment in the region, the destruction of Grozny, the lack of infrastructure, and a total absence of any guarantees for the future, it seems unlikely that any notable results will be visible soon. The recent events in Ingushetia, when three ethnic Russians were shot and a bomb exploded at a funeral, suggest that the region is still deathly ill and that the true diagnosis gives little hope for the romantic ideas held by Moscow’s puppets in the region (Kommersant #126 (3702), July 19). Dagestan, which still has a small Russian community, has tried to deal with the issue at a governmental level by prohibiting anyone from buying land and houses from Russians, thus making it more difficult for bandits to use threats and blackmail to force ethnic Russians leave.

At the beginning of the military campaigns in Chechnya, any conflict was depicted by the media as an example of anti-Chechen feeling. Today, however, obvious ethnic conflicts are being treated as everyday criminal affairs due to the policy regarding the purported “pacification of Chechnya.” The recent killings of students in Stavropol lead to massive demonstrations calling for the removal of Chechens from the Krai, but were not treated as an actual interethnic confrontation by the national press (Kommersant #102 (3678), June 15) [5].

The exodus of ethnic Russians from the Caucasus region is due to several reasons, the most important of which is the political instability of the region caused by separatist activity. The decline of the economy and the lack of viable employment for numerous specialists, the increasing ethnic pride of the indigenous peoples, and the anti-Russian discrimination used as a tool of personal advancement by ethnic leaders have also contributed to their departure. Given these factors, along with the mass migration of mountaineers into the nearby regions, even Stavropol and Krasnodar must face the prospect of the mass migration of Russians into the central regions of the Russian Federation. Because of this, it is hard to discuss a potential stabilization of the region in the near future. These factors raise new problems for the region and their solution can only be found in a new political policy by the Russian government, as well as through massive financial aid to the region. The intensity of the interethnic conflicts must be lessened. Otherwise, it may end up destroying all of President Putin’s economic achievements during his time in office.


1. Vachagaev, M. Chechnya in the Caucasus War of the 19th century: Events and fate. Kiev, 2003.

2. The number of Russians leaving Stavropol over the course of the last year increased eight times during the past year.

3. As noted by Antatoly Antonov, member of the Council for National Demographic Policy at the office of the President of the Russian Federation, available online at:

4. Muduev, Shakhmardan. The peculiarities of Dagestani migratory processes. The Russian archipelago. 2003.

5. The Duma committee on the Northern Caucasus referred to this as a criminal issue, while the leader of the “Russian National Union” Igor Artemiev believes that this was an interethnic conflict.