Russian Diaspora Demographics

Assessing the Russian Diaspora from 1917-1922

The following article was first written in 1994.  Please add your comments and complementary articles to update this and keep it current with the latest available information!

Exact numbers for the diaspora are difficult to establish due to the chaos in organization at that time and imprecise record-keeping. This is not an unusual problem in emergency situations when the immediate demands of relief supersede orderly accounting. Moreover, between 1920-1922, émigrés and POWs from WWI who had not yet been repatriated were not distinguished from each other. This appears to be the major reason for the apparent numerical discrepancies. By utilizing a chronological approach, therefore, many of the number conflicts can be resolved.

On November 1, 1920, the American Red Cross (ARC) estimated that it was assisting 1,963,500 Russians who composed 80% of the total number of Russians in Europe. This figure did not include the bulk of Wrangel’s army and their followers who were still at sea, nor did it include the Russians in Bulgaria, Rumania, or the Far East. From this accounting, the sociologist H. von Rimscha extrapolated the following estimate:

Category

Number

American Red Cross statistics (1,963,500) as 80%

2,455,000

The Wrangel emigration

130,000

China (the Far East)

300,000

Other States

   50,000

Total:

2,935,000

Fig. 1.

While this count is one of the larger estimations of the numbers involved in Russia’s emigration, it appears almost small if the Russian prisoners of war (POWs) are taken into consideration.

By 1917, Germany alone had over 2 million Russian POWs interned in camps and at the end of the Russo-Polish War in 1920 numbered 50,000 although more than half were members of the White Army and would not return.1 The repatriation of POWs and deaths resulting from typhus and the influenza epidemic appear to have reduced the number of Russians abroad by 1 to 11/2 million or more. This is verified by the figures given by the Countess Bobrinsky who headed the Russian information and relief office in Constantinople which do not include POWs or non-Russian ethnicities.2

In 1922, despite the new influx of refugees fleeing the Volga famine of 1921, Dr. Nansen of the League of Nations estimated 1.5 million and B. Nikitine, 2 million Russian emigrants.3

1936, Dr. Izjumov conducted a survey of the Russian émigré archive in Prague for Sir John Hope Simpson’s Refugee Survey. His results for 1922 found less than 1 million Russians in Europe thus casting grave doubts upon the earlier established figures.

Country

American   Red Cross on 1 Nov 1920

Countess   Bobrinsky 1 Jan 1921

Dr.   Izjumov for 1 Jan 1922

Poland

1,000,000

400,000

150,000-180,000

Germany

560,000

300,000

230,000-250,000

France

175,000

65,000

60,000- 68,000

Austria

50,000

5,000

3,000- 4,000

Turkey

50,000

65,000

30,000- 35,000

Finland

25,000

25,000

31,000- 32,500

Italy

20,000

15,000

8,000- 10,000

Yugoslavia

20,000

50,000

33,500

Estonia

17,000

20,000

14,000- 16,000

Bulgaria

12,000

12,000

30,000- 32,000

U.K.

15,000

15,000

8,000- 10,000

Hungary

5,000

5.000

3,000- 4,000

Egypt

4,000

1,000- 1,500

Lemnos

3,500

Greece

2,500

4,000

3,000- 3,200

Cyprus

1,500

600- 700

Czechoslovakia

1,000

5,000

5,000- 6,000

Sweden

1,000

{1,000- 1,500

Norway

1,000

{1,000- 1,500

Latvia

—-

15,000

16,000- 17,000

Rumania

—-

8,000

35,000- 40,000

Switzerland

—-

4,000

2,000- 3,000

Tunis

—-

7,000

5,000- 5,500

Corsica

—-

—-

1,800

Total:

1,963,500

Fig 2.

At first glance, Dr. Izjumov’s figures seem to dispute the legitimacy of the von Rimscha, Nansen, and Nikitine estimates.

These disparities may be explained by the course of events and approaches used. The American Red Cross figures given in Fig. 2. still omit the 20% free of assistance, those included in the Wrangel exodus, and émigrés in the Far East and other countries which had led H. von Rimscha to estimate a figure close to 3 million Russians abroad. Concentrating only on Europe, for the moment, this still leaves a figure of approximately 2.5 million at the end of 1920.

When viewing the figures of Countess Bobrinsky at the Central Office in Constantinople in 1921, which are essentially concurrent with the ARC statistics, we see the effect of POWs and naturalized Russian ethnicities in the newly created Baltic and Polish states. While the ARC did not distinguish between these groups, the Countess Bobrinsky based her estimates solely upon émigré Russians who had contact with her organization. Assuming a POW and non-Russian ethnic population of approximately 1 million, the Countess Bobrinsky can then be correlated to the ARC accounts. Regarding H. von Rimscha’s additional million people (which is reflected partially in the Nansen figures and wholly in the Nikitine estimate) these may be explained by the inclusion of the Far East, other countries, and the lack of communication so prevalent at this time.

Moreover, by 1922 the effects of the Volga famine had emerged into the refugee picture as thousands slipped across the border of the R.S.F.S.R. to avoid starvation. With Poland accounting for some 4,000 Russians per day during 1921,4 the Nansen and Nikitine figures of January 1922 appear much more reasonable.

Finally we must address the figures for January, 1922 as presented by Dr. Izjumov. With no critique intended, these figures appear to be the most accurate assessment of the total, final accounting of the Russian diaspora. They are corroborated by the 1924 assessment of the Young Mens Christian Association’s (YMCA) Russian division which estimated the total number of Russian émigrés in Europe to be 800,000.5

However, in 1922, it is highly unlikely that Russians in Europe numbered so few. Considering the impact of the famine and the continuing fluidity of movement on the borders of the R.S.F.S.R., a figure of between 1.5-1.7 million Russian refugees (double the amount stated by Dr. Izjumov) is not unreasonable for this period.

In order to explain the discrepancy we must turn to Dr. Izjumov’s sources which remain the Prague archive. Begun in 1919 with the intention of maintaining Russian culture abroad and collecting the fruits of Russian intellectual endeavors throughout all the lands of exile, the Prague archive remained reliant upon the meticulousness of the émigrés. For the earlier emigration this was admirably fulfilled: the intellectuals, aristocrats, and skilled workers who escaped the Bolshevik regime between 1918-1920 were usually quite prompt about sending their stories, magazines, and messages to the Prague archive.6 However, regarding the largely peasant, indigenous, population who escaped the famine and who comprise, for the most part, this missing million, such details bowed before the immediate necessities of one’s next meal. As the majority of the famine victims either died or returned to the R.S.F.S.R., it is not surprising that their stories do not appear in the annals of the Prague archive. Their number is not a statistical dispute, but a testimony to the impact and magnitude of one of Russia’s greatest tragedies. Nansen and Nikitine, thus, accounted to varying degrees for an uncountable multitude which remains a brief, mysterious interlude in the history of the twentieth century.

Regarding the numbers of the emigration, the last issue is that of the Far East. Although H. von Rimscha may have exaggerated the 300,000 in China and the Far East in his survey, these numbers cannot be criticized in view of the continuous fluidity of borders in that area of the R.S.F.S.R. The Siberian opposition to the Bolsheviks was the most obdurate and difficult to quell, being extinguished only at the end of 1922. The last American YMCA centre in Russia, the Vladivostok Association, stood its ground until 1923. Thus, the Far East remained largely uncountable. What is known statistically applies to the years 1924 and henceforth: 50,000 Russian émigrés established a community in Kharbin and some 70,000 remained throughout the other countries in this area.

To sum up the statistical issue, it appears that by 1924 the emigration had essentially established itself with some seven to eight hundred thousand Russians in Europe, 130,000 in the Far East and a few thousand in North and South America. Thus the final total of the Russian diaspora appears to be just less than one million persons.


Figure 1. H. von Rimscha, Der russiche Bürgerkrieg und die russische Emigration, 1917-21. (Jena: s.n., 1924) 50-51.

Figure 2.  Simpson, Sir John Hope.  The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939,  82.

  1. Ethan T Colton Forty Years with Russians 4.
  2. Simpson, The Refugee Problem 82.
  3.  Simpson, The Refugee Problem 80, B. Nikitine, Revue des science politiques (Paris) 1922 II p. 191. The 2 million estimate is corroborated by Soviet Statisticians in P.P Jourid and N.A. Kovalevsky, Ekonomischeskaia Geografyia S.S.S.R., Vol. I (1934): 73, 78.
  4. Simpson, The Refugee Problem 76.
  5. Paul B. Anderson, “Report on the Russian Emigration,” 1 September 1924, Paul B. Anderson Papers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Box 6.
  6. For problems relating to even this group of émigrés please see Marc Raeff,  Russia Abroad: A Cultural History of the Russian Emigration, 1919-1939.New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. 13, 200.

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