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Live Long There and Prosper

How Internal Migration from Small Towns Works


More than half of school graduates in medium-sized Russian cities will change their place of residence either forever or at least for a long time. According a report on internal migration presented by HSE demographers at the XX April International Academic Conference, these people are lost to their cities.

Migration outline

More than a third (38%) of the 11th-grade students in medium-sized cities who were surveyed are ready to leave their birthplace forever. A fifth of the respondents plan to leave home for a period longer than they plan to study. As a result, about 57% of school graduates can be considered ‘lost’ for their cities, say Nikita Mkrtchyan and Yulia Florinskaya.

The survey of school students was part of a study of migration from medium-sized Russian cities (population 50,000 – 100,000 people) that followed an earlier project on migration in small towns. In the latter, everything is even more dramatic: three-quarters of school graduates were planning to leave their hometowns when the survey was conducted. According to other sources, young people are leaving many regions.

The 2018 project was conducted by the Institute for Social Analysis and Prediction of RANEPA in four medium-sized cities: Buzuluk, Orenburg region; Velikie Luki, Pskov region; Michurinsk, Tambov region; and Chistopol in Tatarstan. The researchers studied households and surveyed internal labour migrants from these cities. School graduates were regarded as potential migrants in that many planned to study in other cities.

In search of good luck

Data from the project show that the absolute majority of surveyed school students — from 92% to 96% in different cities — plan to obtain a higher education. The situation in small towns is the same. However, these figures are still insufficient for defining educational migration. The data cover those who will go to universities immediately after school, as well as those who choose a hybrid trajectory (school-college/college-university). But in both universities and institutions of secondary vocational education one can study in both one’s hometown and in another city. The issue is one of priorities and ambitions, which favour migration.

Judging by salary ambitions, graduates tend to move to more prosperous cities where incomes are higher and options for lucrative employment are better. Respondents expect to earn twice as much as the average monthly Russian salary (more than 40,000 roubles in 2018) and four times more than the average salary in the studied cities.

Young people are therefore unlikely to massively enter local labour markets after school. Only 12% of graduates said they would stay in their hometown, another 21% haven’t decided yet, and 67% admit that they intend to move.

Where and why

 The destinations of anticipated educational migration vary from regional capitals (the highest migration rates — from Chistopol to Kazan — 46%) to capitals of neighbouring regions (for example, from Michurinsk to Voronezh — 13%; from Buzuluk to Samara — 28%) to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the best-performing students gather.

 Student preferences for future career paths are also changing. Economic and legal careers have become less popular, with more students wanting to become engineers and physicians. The situation in small towns is similar: medicine and IT areas are becoming more popular.

 38% of respondents clearly see themselves living in other cities, and almost 20% plan to leave for a long time, which can also mean changing one’s place of residence.

However, such migration may by reversible, especially if a city's economy is growing and there are good jobs. Other surveys have shown that low salary (49% of respondents) and employment problems (31% of respondents) are the main reasons for moving from the regions.

Looking for a niche

Labour migration is less common in medium-sized towns than in small ones. The share of households with mobile workers in medium-sized towns is 12% but reaches 20% in small ones. The larger the settlement, the less frequently people migrate. Migration directions are often intra-regional, for example, moving to local centres.

 Young, able-bodied men prevail among migrant workers.

 Many migrants are engaged in heavy physical labour, for example, in extractive industries. Some work in areas that are unattractive to residents of the host regions, such as trade, manufacturing, etc.

 A chart showing popular professions would appear as follows: a quarter engaged in construction; one out of five workers in mining, 14% in transport and communication, and 10% in security.

 Jobs often require average qualification. Almost a third of migrants with higher education work where this education is not required.

Benefits of status

18% of the respondents are qualified managers or specialists, 24% are qualified workers in industry and construction, and another 21% are machine operators and mechanics.

Salaries of migrant workers are much higher than in the studied medium cities, but they are often lower than in the host regions. That said, the authors emphasize that this mobile cohort is able to provide for their households’ consumption, and working in host regions for a long time can eventually help them to improve housing conditions.

Two thirds of migrants' earnings are spent where their families live. In fact, this represents a significant influx of money into economies of medium-sized cities. However, host cities are undoubtedly in a winning situation since they are solving the problem of worker shortages.

Drift control

Good infrastructure is key when it comes to keeping promising workers in small towns. ‘Bringing it as close as possible to the level of large settlements will help to bring back young people who received an education in large cities but failed to immediately integrate successfully into the labour markets of those cities,’ the researchers believe.

Developing remote employment opportunities might also help keep young people from leaving, if the quality of the environment, as well as a lack of noise and bustle are more important for them than the infrastructure advantages of large cities.

Maintaining colleges, technical schools and universities in medium-sized cities is also important. Doing so not only keeps students in school, but also helps young people to pursue successful careers locally, even during their studies, given their close integration into urban labour markets.’



Nikita Mkrtchyan, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Demographical Studies of the Institute of Demography 
Yulia Florinskaya, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Demographical Studies of the Institute of Demography
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 25, 2019