Research Article
Research Article
Migration of the USSR population in the pre-war years (1939-1940)
expand article infoVladimir A. Isupov, Natalia V. Chernysheva§
‡ A. Pushkin Leningrad State University, Saint Petersburg, Russia
§ Institute of Demographic Research, Branch of the Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia
Open Access


The article is devoted to the study of migration of the USSR population in the pre-war years (1939-1940). Along with the analysis of the number of migrants and direction of migration flows, the authors also demonstrate the increasing control functions of the state in the field of population movement in the USSR. Based on the analysis of a wide range of historical sources, many of which are being introduced into scientific circulation for the first time ever, the authors have developed an original classification of the pre-war migration.

The article is devoted to the USSR population in the pre-war years, determines its components with population migration being one of them. The article concludes that the socio-economic causes of migration are interrelated with the political (mainly foreign policy) ones. The pre-war migration is also characterized by a latent nature, a combination of planned and spontaneous movements with the desire of the state to take the latter under control. The practice of forced displacement of the population, including from the annexed territories continued during the period under study.

An important part of the USSR migration were military mobilizations, forced deportations of large groups of population, recruitment of labour, and agricultural resettlement. At the same time, spontaneous relocations outside the state control played a significant role in forming migration flows.


military mobilization, population of the USSR, organized recruitment of labour, planned population movement, forced migration, spontaneous migration

JEL codes: N94, O15, R23


In the pre-war years, there was a very peculiar situation in the USSR, characterized by the desire of the state (if we are talking about migration) to make population movements within the country strictly planned. This shows reflection of the authorities on spontaneous population movements that got out of control during the years of collectivization and famine of the early 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of peasants, driven by hunger and collectivization, moved chaotically around the country in search for better life (Nove 1969; Naseleniye Rossii v XX veke 2000; Golotik, Minaev 2004; Migratsii naseleniya Aziatskoy … 2001). It was during these years that the idea was consolidated in the USSR that under socialism development of population in general and migration in particular should be exclusively regulated and planned. By the end of the 1930s and beginning of the 1940s, through joint efforts of all state institutions, migration control, if not total, became a significant phenomenon of the Soviet reality to say the least.

In the pre-war years, the Soviet Union was guided by the Marxist theory of population, according to which there are no uniform and eternal laws of population. Each individual historical epoch has its own population law (Typewritten Copies… 1939: 10). The socialist law of population postulates that under socialism the so-called «mechanical movement of population» could be exclusively planned and organized in nature. (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.180, ll.59-60). Since the early 1930s, the term «population migration» has actually been used neither in scientific papers nor registration of population mobility. It was replaced by the term «territorial redistribution of population» (Moiseenko 2004: 79).

The authors consider population migration as a complex social phenomenon affecting almost all aspects of human life. Migration should be considered as entire process of population displacement, not just its results (Perevedentsev 1985: 51). In addition, the authors stick to the classical definition of migration, that is « movement of people across borders of certain territories with a permanent or temporal (long or short period of time) change in residency « (Demographic Encyclopedic… 1985: 251). This point of view is also shared by a Russian researcher L.L. Rybakovsky (Rybakovsky 2017: 47).

Until the end of the 1980s, studies on demographic history of the Soviet period were limited because population data were restricted. It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the situation started to change, making it possible to use more complete population statistics. This study uses a set of sources that can be divided by type into normative legal acts of the supreme party and state authorities and management (legislative acts of the Soviet state and by-laws), office documentation (organizational and administrative documents, protocols, current correspondence, planned reporting, etc.), statistical documents (information of the 1939All-Union Population Census, materials of the current population registration, departmental statistics), and periodicals (newspapers: Pravda, Trud, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda).

Due to specifics of the article, the authors will focus in more detail on the analysis of statistical documents, some of which remain unpublished and being stored in funds of the Russian State Archive of Economics (Central Statistical Office under the Council of Ministers of the USSR (F ‑1562) and Institution for Managing Population Transfer in the USSR (F-5675)). Population registration and statistics in the USSR in the 1930s were organizational, procedural, and ideological in nature (Isupov 2020: 172-192). Working with statistical sources the authors kept in mind this specificity. The researchers used data from the 1939 All-Union Population Census on the USSR population size and individual Union republics (with due regard to overestimates) (1939 All-Union… 1992; 1939 All-Union… 1999; Naseleniye Rossii v XX veke, 2000: 356-361), as well as calculated data on the population size at the beginning of the year. It should be noted here that programme of the 1939 All-Union Population Census did not include migration due to the planned nature of all movements, therefore, practical significance of this information is missing.

The majority of statistical documents is represented by current registration data, making it possible to determine data on arrivals and departures, geography of migration, gender and age composition of the migrants. Registration of population movement based on registration at place of residence – issuance of passports introduced in the first half of the 1930s had a number of drawbacks: unclear instructions, high percentage of under-registration of those leaving their place of residence, and finally, practical use by planning authorities (Weitzblit 1936: 24).

Registration of the moving population was carried out in territories where the passport system was introduced. These mainly included cities (mostly large ones) and border areas. No passports were issued to peasants. Therefore, a significant share of the population was not subject to passport registration. So, in 1937, about 40% of the USSR population held passports. Since August 1937, the address arrival sheet has been introduced as the main registration, population bookkeeping, and reference document filled in when the entire population was re-registered or for each citizen arriving in a locality. Effective as of January 1, 1939, a new form of the address sheet was introduced, providing for temporary registration noted in address sheets without tear-off coupons in some situations (tourists, summer residents, etc.) (Popov 1995: 12). In 1940, resolution of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars No. 1667 as of September 10, introduced a new provision on passports and new instruction on its use by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union (NKVD) (Resolution of the Council… 1940). The new provision expanded the territory where passports were used adding district centers and settlements where machine and tractor stations (MTS) were located.

The main forms of current migration registration included Form 1 «Information on population movement by place of departure and place of arrival « and Form 2 «Information on population movement by gender and age». Form 1 was filled in by a Union Republic, Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), territory and region, with a breakdown on urban settlements and cities and contained information about migration of the urban population and rural population of the settings subject to passports’ use with the number of arrivals and departures and population growth by migration (from /to city(ies), from/to rural locality(ies), unknown, total). Form 2 contained information about arrivals and departures by region, territory, and autonomous republic with a breakdown on gender and age (under 24 years and 5-year age groups from 25 to 59 years (featuring working-age population), people over 60 years and people of unknown age). The form also indicated place of arrival: «from / cities (y)», «from / to rural area (s)», «unknown», «total». In 1940 the Central Administration of Economic Accounting (CAEA)) of the USSR State Planning Committee (Gosplan) approved «Map of population movement « and Form A (regional and republican) «Information on population movement registered in urban and other places where passports were used», systematizing on-site data collection (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.314, ll.18-18ob). Guided by the above-mentioned, the authors note that despite a high percentage of the coverage with registration of urban settlements and their residing population (97.0% and 99.7% in 1939, respectively), the data in the forms of current migration registration contain incomplete information about population movement (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.32).

The article also used statistical data on migration contained in the reports of departmental institutions (for example, the Commission on Organized Recruitment of Labour, Resettlement Administration under the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) of the USSR).

Today, when many ideological taboos have been removed, researchers pay great attention to studying forced deportations (Bugai 1995, Zemskov 2005, Polian 2001). This is quite understandable – forced transfers, remaining not only under-investigated for a long period of time, and rather totally banned, became widespread in the Stalinist USSR. They played a huge role in the economic, socio-cultural and demographic development of the country and its individual regions. Historians’ fascination with the deportation topic resulted in a noticeable topic bias in the modern historiography. Thus, a simplified judgment has evolved and got widely spread that the main type of migration in the Soviet Union in the pre-war years was forced territorial transfers of large groups of population (Isupov 2009: 66-92). The situation has hardly changed ever since. This impoverishes modern ideas about such a difficult phenomenon of the Soviet demographic history as migration. At the same time, all other types of migration turned out to be understudied.

In light of this, it is extremely important to raise the question of types of migrations typical of the pre-war years. In one of our articles published in 2016 (Isupov 2016) the authors, relying on the research conducted by a Polish scientist A. Mariansky (1969), presented a detailed classification of migration. Therefore, there is no need to resume this issue again, especially since our position has not changed.

So, the authors divide migration into the following two large groups: political and economic.

The authors refer to political migration as follows:

  • Voluntary-forced migration. Territorial military mobilization is one of its subtypes.
  • Forced migration, which is understood as an actual forced deportation of social and ethnic groups. Transfer of prisoners is the same type of migration.

Economic migration includes as follows:

  • Spontaneous labour transfer, mainly from rural areas to cities. A vice-versa population movement from cities to rural areas was less intensive. It should be noted here that spontaneous labour transfer has encouraged forced urbanization in the USSR.
  • Planned population movement: agricultural resettlement; movement of populations to empty territories after ethnic cleansing; return of some ethnic groups to their motherland (Isupov 2016: 13). It should be also noted here that economic migration, like all other types of migration, carried a powerful political charge.

Therefore, it is extremely important to identify relationship between different types of migrations. This is actually one of the main goals of the article.

The USSR population in 1939-1940 and its components

During the period under study, the USSR population number was subject to various fluctuations. This research topic is covered in detail in the article by V.B. Zhiromskaya, V.A. Isupov, G.E. Kornilov, summarizing and analyzing the available information of the leading experts in demography and historical demography (Zhiromskaya et al. 2019: 3-17).

From January 1939 to June 1941, the USSR population increased by 14.8–15.0% (with due regard to death toll in armed conflicts), i.e. by 29-30 million people (Naseleniye Rossii v XX veke 2002: 13). According to the 1939 census, the USSR population equaled to 170.5 million people. (All-Union Population Census, 1939, 1992: 20). According to calculations of the CAEA of Gosplan of the USSR as of January 1, 1940, the USSR population added up to 186.2 million people (including western regions) and 173.4 thousand people (without western regions), while as of January 1, 1941, the USSR population equaled to 198.6 million people (RGAE, f.1562, op.329, d.391, ll.27-28; Ibid., op.20, d.195, ll.6-7). Population of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (BSSR) and Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine (Ukrainian SSR) increased by more than a third due to the annexed territories.

Administrative-territorial transformations contributed to changes in the USSR population both due to the annexed territories and internal transformations. In 1939-1940, the USSR included Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, Western Ukraine, Western Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, as well as territories ceded to the Soviet Union after the Soviet-Finnish war. Population estimates of the territories that became part of the USSR in 1939-1940 and up to 1959 were determined by calculations of statistical offices. These calculations were conditional, since there was no census in these areas in the years close to 1939. Without going into a detailed consideration of this issue, the authors would like to mention that researchers tend to estimate population of these territories in the range of 20-22 million people (Kozhurin 1991: 21-26; Andreev et al. 1993: 51-52; Naseleniye Rossii v XX veke 2002: 8). The period of 1930-1939 accounts for the first phase of the second Soviet reform of administrative-territorial division with division into smaller units being its characteristic feature (Tarkhov 2019: 19). By 1939, division of all large regions and territories formed in 1925-1929 has been completed.

As a result, the territory of the USSR within the new borders equaled to 22.0 million square kilometers and included 16 Union republics (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.187, l.2). The annexed territories were subject to transition to the Soviet system of administrative-territorial division. From March 1939 to June 1941, the following changes took place in the administrative grid of the lowest level (Table 2).

Proceeding from the stated above it is extremely difficult to estimate actual USSR migration in 1939-1940. Furthermore, population movements were diverse, some of them were of a hidden nature, rural migration was hardly taken into account by statisticians. According to the Gosplan CAEA data, the balance of migration to cities and urban settlements of other types was +2637 thousand people in 1939, and +1629 thousand people in 1940 (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.176, ll.2-2ob; Ibid., d.230, ll.2-3ob).

In general, in 1939, increase in migration to urban settlements throughout the Soviet Union was registered, with exception of a number of regions of the North-West of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the Mordovian ASSR and the city of Leningrad, as well as to a number of regions of the USSR and Kazakh Soviet Social Republic (KSSR). Due to foreign policy reasons, in 1939 an outflow of population was recorded in Leningrad -127.3 thousand people (according to tear-off coupons of the address sheets -100.1 thousand people) (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.14; Ibid., d.175, l.1). In 1940, a negative balance of migration was recorded in the so-called “new” socialist republics of the Union: the Karelo-Finnish SSR, Moldavian SSR, Latvian SSR, Lithuanian SSR, and Estonian SSR. The population of the RSFSR, the Ukrainian SSR, Kazakh SSR and BSSR was mainly replenished by migrants (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.230, ll.2-3ob).

The main centers of attraction for migrants in the pre-war years were Moscow and Moscow Oblast (Central District of the RSFSR), Stalino and Voroshilovgrad regions (Ukrainian SSR), Molotov, Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk Oblast (Ural district of the RSFSR), East Kazakh, Karaganda, and Akmola regions (Kazakh SSR), Samarkand, Tashkent and Ferghana regions (Uzbek SSR) (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.13).

The migration interaction of the regions of the USSR can be represented in the form of some concentric circles: migration within the region, migration within the neighboring territories surrounding this region, and migration to the rest of the regions of the Union (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.16). The data in Table 3 suggest that the inflow of population to urban areas was mainly due to migration within one region (50-70%). The exception was the largest cities of the country (cities of Moscow, Leningrad), the Moscow and Leningrad regions, where 41.3% of migration was between the region (city) and the rest of the regions of the Union. Due to two approximately equal flows (within one region and between the region and the rest of the Union regions), cities and other urban settlements of Donbass were filled with people (39%). Consequently, the more industrial the economy of a particular area, the greater the share of migration to the most remote areas. The cultural state of the rural settlements, availability of educational institutions and administrative bodies had an impact on migration (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.18). Population of urban settlements in areas with the prevalence of rural population was replenished mainly by rural population due and to some extent by the neighboring regions. For example, the Ukrainian SSR without the Donetsk coal basin replenished the urban population by 90% due to its regions (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.18).

The main sources of population replenishment of the RSFSR industrial areas included rural population of the Central Russia and Volga regions (Kursk, Ryazan, Tambov, Oryol, Penza regions, Mordovian ASSR, etc.), the Donetsk coal basin – mainly in the South of the RSFSR (Ordzhonikidze and Krasnodar Krai, Rostov Oblast), as well as the Union Republics of Transcaucasia, the Ukrainian SSR – Poltava, Chernihiv, Sumy, Zhytomyr regions, etc. (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.13).

Among migrants in the pre-war years, people of working age prevailed (83-84% among arrivals and 88% among departures), mainly aged 18 - 35. Children under 15 years accounted for 12-13% of arrivals and 7-8% of departures, the elderly – from 1 to 3% (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.178, ll.2-3ob; Ibid., d.235, ll.2-3ob). Male prevalence among migrants remained, both among arrivals and departures, and ranged from 56 to 61% (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.178, ll.2-3ob; Ibid., d.235, ll.2-3ob.).

Table 1.

Population of the Union Republics in 1939-1940. (data at the beginning of the year), million people

Union Republics 1939. 1940.
Azerbaijan SSR 3.2 3.2
Armenian SSR 1.2 1.3
Byelorussian SSR 6.6 9.0
Georgian SSR 3.6 3.6
Kazakh SSR 6.1 6.0
Kyrgyz SSR 1.4 1.5
RSFSR 109.4 110.0
Tajik SSR 1.4 1.5
Turkmen SSR 1.2 1.3
Ukrainian SSR 31.0 41.3
Uzbek SSR 6.2 6.6
Table 2.

Main changes in the administrative-territorial division of the USSR

Ter. Un. As of March 1, 1939 As of January 1, 1940 As of June 1, 1941
Districts 3507 3897 4038
Cities 922 1068 1255
Workers’ settlements and urban-type settlements 1383 1580 1767
Village councils 62849 62007 70076
Table 3.

Distribution of migrating population depending on territorial location by most significant industrial areas of the USSR in 1939 (percentage)

Districts Within the area Between the region (city) and surrounding neighboring regions Between the region (city) and other regions of the Union
1. Moscow and Leningrad regions, Moscow and Leningrad 23.5 35.2 41.3
2. Donetsk basin (Stalino and Voroshilovgrad regions) 39.1 21.3 39.6
3. Ural district (Perm, Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk regions) 53.8 19.8 26.4
4. Central Chernozem district (Voronezh, Kursk, Oryol, Ryazan and Tambov regions) 62.9 15.2 21.9
5. Ukrainian SSR* 73.0 12.2 14.8
6. Byelorussian SSR 76.0 8.0 16.0

Political migration

By the end of the 1930s, the demographic situation in the USSR was a consequence of the wars and revolutions of the 1920s and 1930s, the policy of the Bolsheviks in the countryside, repression, and other reasons. The world conflict, which was gradually gaining momentum, had a direct impact, depleting the country’s human resources. As M.I. Meltyukhov notes: «The fragmentary nature of documentation makes it impossible to completely track dynamics in the number of the Red Army in 1939-1940» (Meltyukhov 2008: 273). In September 1939, a partial mobilization of the reserve, disguised as Big military training (BMT), was deployed in 7 military districts. According to researchers A.Yu. Bezugolny (2019) and M.I. Meltyukhov (2008), 2.6 million people were mobilized in the pre-war years. In addition, according to the law «On Universal Military Duty» dated September 1, 1939, the service of all 1937 conscripts was extended by 1 year. As a result, from January 1938 to June 22, 1941, due to increase in the contingent (during a certain period of its reduction) the list number of the Red Army tripled. Its increase was due to mobilization of males of working age. Therefore, during the military mobilization, several million people were displaced across the territory of the USSR.

Labour of the forcibly displaced people was actively used in the pre-war years. Since the issue of deportation, as mentioned earlier, has been well-investigated, our task in this regard is simplified and the authors can confine themselves to a brief overview of this type of migration. , In the pre-war years, hundreds of thousands of the Soviet citizens and special contingents were resettled in the eastern regions of the USSR from territories that turned out to be a zone of the USSR influence and became part of it. P. Polian writes in detail about scale and geography of the forced migration in 1939-1940. He also cites the figure of 380-390 thousand deportees from the annexed western regions of the USSR (Polian 2001: 102). According to V.N. Zemskov [2005], as of January 1, 1940, there were 997.5 thousand labour settlers in the USSR.

In 1939-1940, population of the former territory of the Eastern Poland (February-June 1940) was transferred and «citizens of foreign nationalities» were deported from Murmansk and Murmansk Oblast (July 1940). Captured officers and soldiers, residents of the borderland from Vilna to Lviv, foresters, railway workers, officials, merchants and others were subject to deportation. Those people were grouped into the following three categories of special settlers: special settlers - «osadniki» (Polish settlers), administratively evicted and special refugee settlers. The majority of the deportees were moved to the Novosibirsk, Sverdlovsk and Perm regions. The deportees were also sent to the Krasnoyarsk Territory and the Chelyabinsk Region (Zemskov 2005: 40-41). Thus, together with the prisoners, the deportees represented a noticeable migration flow.

Let us point out that in the pre-war years, for the first time ever, a transition from the social deportation (in the early 1930s, dispossessed peasants prevailed among the settlers) to the ethnic one was made. Poles, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and representatives of other nationalities were transferred to the eastern regions of the country (Zemskov 2005: 82-84). Subsequently, this principle was only intensified and began to dominate.

Economic migration

According to the 1939 All–Union Population Census, there were 106.6 million economically active people (62.5%) in the USSR, including 94.2 million people of working age or 55.2%. In the RSFSR, the share of economically active population and working-age population per 109.4 million population was lower: 60.5% (66.2 million people) and 53.1% (58.0 million people), respectively (1939 All-Union…).

According to the Soviet statisticians, the USSR urban population increased by 2.4% or by 1329.5 thousand people due to migration in 1939, maintaining a general downward trend (by 1812 thousand people in 1937 and by 1334 thousand people in 1938) (RGAE, f.1562, op.20, d.171, l.9).

The city population was replenished both due to spontaneous migration and planned movements. During the period under study, the desire of the authorities to take the territorial population movement under direct control became apparent. The Soviet government was resolutely fighting against spontaneous migration, considering it as an antagonist to the planned economy. The legal and social basis for overcoming spontaneous migration have been laid in the Soviet Union long before the war. Setting both economic and political priorities to providing industrial enterprises with labour, J.V. Stalin, in his speech at a meeting of business managers on June 23, 1931, set the task «to recruit labour in an organized manner in accordance with contracts with collective farms» (Stalin 1951: 55). Thus, an attempt was made to establish direct control over recruitment of labour. The logical continuation of this principle was establishing control over the territorial population movement. Fulfilling the task set by J.V. Stalin, the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union (CEC) and the Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) of the Soviet Union adopted a resolution «On establishing a unified passport system in the USSR and mandatory registration of passports» on December 27, 1932 (Compendium of laws… 1932: 821-822). Since that time, the authorities had been persistently restraining the right of the citizens to freely choose their place of residence and work. Since peasants were not given passports, they were particularly severe infringed on the right to individual migration.

In order to provide industry with labour in an organized way and limit the flow of starving peasants to cities, the CEC and CPC guided by the decree «On the order of departure from collective farms» dated March 17, 1933, allowed collective farmers to leave for cities only on the basis of the agreement with the collective farm executive board, registered with the farm authorities, as a so-called «organizational recruitment» (Izvestia 1933: 1). From now on, villagers willing to escape from the clutches of collectivization had to go to places directed by the state authorities. Undoubtedly, de facto these decisions were violated everywhere. The predominant form of the labour recruitment for enterprises remained “let it slide” approach. In conditions of an acute shortage of workers, personnel managers found dozens of ways to hire peasants who did not have passports and residence permits. This is evidenced by the fact that population of those cities where registration was especially strictly limited grew faster than others. Decisions of 1932-1933 became a kind of stage of accumulation of administrative experience and laid foundation for mobilization strategy, receiving hypertrophied development.

In 1940, the scope of free employment of labour was significantly narrowed. The main legal reference point for personnel officers was the decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR dated June 26, 1940. «On transition to an eight-hour working day, seven-day working week and prohibition of unauthorized departure of workers and employees from enterprises and institutions» (Decisions of the Party… 1967: 757-758). From now on, no one had the right to quit their job without special permission from the administration. Use of this «permissive» principle in practice resulted in binding workers and employees to enterprises. Individual wishes and interests of citizens were hardly taken into account by the monopolistic employer – the state. Soon the «permissive» principle was extended to the agricultural sector of the economy: on July 17, 1940, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued the decree «On prohibition of unauthorized leaving the place of work by tractor drivers and combine harvester operators of machine and tractor stations» (Vedomosti of the Supreme…1940: 1).

The decree «On State Labour Reserves» (Decisions of the Party… 1967: 774-775) of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR dated October 2, 1940 played an important role in establishing direct state control over population movement. This decree consolidated mobilization approach to recruiting urban and rural youth for training in vocational and railway schools and factory and plant training schools. All graduates of colleges and factory and plant schools were required to work for 4 years in the same field as they were studying in places where they were directed. (Izvestia 9 Oct. 1940: 1). On the same day, the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR adopted a resolution «On enrolling urban and rural youth into vocational schools, railway schools and factory and plant schools» (Somov 2001: 28). The decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR as of October 19, 1940 «On procedure for mandatory transfer of engineers, technicians, craftsmen, and employees from one enterprise and institution to another» finalized a series of legislative acts of a mobilization nature. (Decisions of the Party… 1967: 777-779). By this decree, the state secured its right to transfer employees, without their consent, from one enterprise or institution to another. Those who refused were considered to have left enterprises or institutions without permission and were put on trial.

A significant contribution to depriving the Soviet people of any freedom of moving within the country (outside the framework of the planned industrial, agricultural relocations and deportations), and therefore choosing a place of residence, was made by the resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR as of September 10, 1940 «On approving Regulation on passports», attaching citizens to places of residence, and collective farmers to collective farms (Compendium of resolutions… 1940). The resolution significantly tightened the passport regime. From now on, violation of the rules of registration, especially in cities declared “closed” ones, had become a criminal offense under Article 192 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR.

Here the authors present analysis of the planned transfers of population, including those not registered by the USSR CAEA in the forms of statistical registration, providing for a more complete presentation of trends, scales, forms and directions of migration in the USSR in the pre-war years.

The main objective of planning was determined by the need to identify «labour reserves and ensure their most rational distribution and use,» including through territorial redistribution (Korobkov 1939: 79).

The third five-year plan for developing the USSR national economy initially provided for a 21% increase in the number of workers and employees in all sectors of the national economy. In first years of its implementation, the annual recruitment of labour equaled to about 800-850 thousand people, in subsequent years the annual recruitment envisaged for 1.5–2 million people. Workers were mainly recruited from the Central Russia (Kursk, Orel, Voronezh, Tambov regions and others) and the South-Eastern region (Penza Oblast, Tatar ASSR and others) (Trubnikov 1939: 152). The areas that received workers (deficit balance of labour) can be conditionally divided into the following two groups: «old» large industrial areas (Moscow, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk regions) and sparsely populated areas of the North-West (Arkhangelsk Region and Karelian ASSR), as well as Eastern Siberia and the Far East.

The planned procedure for recruiting workers by the People’s Commissariats was to be carried out in accordance with the territorial zoning, which included 4 zones of districts (Table 4).

The People’s Commissariats retained control over the designated areas of resettlement, but transfer of workers from those areas was possible only to the territory of the zone to which this resettlement area was attached as one for arrival, thereby geographically limiting migration.

There are certain difficulties in identifying statistical data on recruitment of workers (disorganized departure persisted; recruitment was carried out by the People’s Commissariats). These circumstances make it difficult to assess the scale of labour recruitment in the territorial context (Aristov 1939: 92).

2315 thousand workers were hired in the USSR by the organizational recruitment in 1939, 2383 thousand workers in 1940, the RSFSR accounted for 67% and 74% of them, respectively (Platunov 1976: 148). However, the recruitment plans were not fully implemented due to a number of reasons: delay in issuing work orders, unwillingness to let go their labour (primarily by district executive committees and authorities of collective farms), insufficient organization of outreach work (especially when recruiting seasonal workers), as well as due to spontaneous migration. There were also counter-transportation of labour, long-distance transportation, which were considered as irrational use of labour (Aristov 1939: 96).

As an example, the authors will present data on the Gorky Oblast. The 1939 interregional recruitment equaled to 10 thousand workers, within one region – 147.3 thousand. 93.1 thousand people arrived for work. Workers were sent to industry, construction, and performed loading and unloading operations, etc. (Table 5).

In addition, orders of the Commission for organized recruitment provided labour force and horse transport (about 13 thousand workers) to the Gorky and Kazan railways (snow removal, repair of railway tracks), work was carried out on navigable rivers (dredging, prospecting and others) – 1,0 thousand people and other labour-intensive types of work significant for the locality (grain loading, development of stone quarries, etc.) (Note of the Gorky Commission… 1968: 446).

However, as before, in some sectors of the USSR national economy, the share of seasonal workers remained significant (construction, logging, peat processing, and others) (Aristov 1939: 89). For example, in the winter season of 1940-1941 alone, over 1 million people worked in logging (Sonin 1941: 68).

Replacement of seasonal workers with permanent qualified personnel was planned, among other things, through training young workers within the system of state labour reserves, the creation of which was mentioned above. Young people aged 14-15 were admitted to vocational and railway schools and studied for 2-3 years (training of metallurgists, chemists, miners, track foremen, machinists and others). Factory and plant schools recruited minors aged 16-17 to train workers in mass professions (Kotlyar 1975: 14). It was planned to annually enroll from 800 thousand to 1 million urban and rural youth. As part of labour mobilization, chairmen of collective farms had to send 2 males aged 14-15 years to vocational and railway schools on an annual basis and 2 males aged 16-27 to factory and plant schools per 100 members of collective farms. In urban settlements, the Soviets carried out recruitment in accordance with the annual plan approved by the CEC of the USSR. Campaign on recruiting young people to state labour reserves institutions enjoyed a full coverage by the central press (Izvestia 10 Nov 1940: 1; Izvestia 16 Nov 1940: 3; Komsomolskaya Pravda 11 Oct 1940: 1; Komsomolskaya Pravda 6 Oct 1940: 1; Pravda 15 Nov 1940: 1; Trud 8 Oct 1940: 1; Trud 16 Nov 1940: 1; Trud 4 Oct 1940: 1; Trud 24 Nov 1940: 1; Trud 26 Nov 1940: 1; Trud 29 Nov 1940: 1; Trud 4 Dec. 1940: 2).

As part of the first recruitment (the period from November 10 to November 25, 1940), it was planned to enroll 350 thousand people to vocational and railway schools and 250 thousand people to factory and plant schools (Trubnikov 1940: 140). Since February 1, 1941, 604 thousand people have been studying in 1562 institutions of the labour reserve system, including more than 300 thousand rural youth sent for training and further employment in cities and other urban settlements (Kotlyar 1975: 15).

1940 was the year of the largest in the history of the Soviet Union resettlement, both in the pre-war and post-war years (Piskunov 2017: 169; RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.6). The number of relocated families increased, as well as the number of areas of departure and arrival. In the pre-war years, the following types of the planned agricultural resettlement were used in the USSR: inter-regional and within one region. People were also transferred to meet labour need in construction of hydroconstructions; transition of nomadic households into the settled ones; exploration, design and development of new lands in the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) districts; andother special orders of the government.

In 1939 it was planned to relocate 9900 households, while 4500 households of the Red Army servants were not resettled (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.1, l.1). In total, 9666 households were relocated. The majority of households and 4770 heads of families (total 54551 people) were relocated to the Omsk Oblast (2517 households), Krasnoyarsk Krai (1560 households), Irkutsk Oblast (1904 households), and Khabarovsk Krai (1716 households) (RGAE, f.5675, op.1, d.240, l.5; Platunov 1976: 230).

In 1940, the initial resettlement plan included 49120 households: 35.4 thousand for interregional transfer, 13.7 thousand for replacement within one region and 0.7 thousand for transition into settled households (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.3). Decisions of the CEC of the USSR and the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks (VKPB (b)) dated April 21, 1940 «On resettlement to the eastern regions of the USSR» and «On resettlement to new areas of the Karelo-Finnish SSR» dated May 28, 1940, as well special orders of the government, significantly enlarged the resettlement plan to relocate 176825 households. As a result, 148,705 households (84.1%) were resettled, including 116265 households for inter–regional resettlement, 18796 households for replacement within one region, 7511 households relocated from flood zones, 366 households in connection with the transition from nomadic to settled households, and 5767 households were resettled in the Izmail Oblast (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.3). On average, the displaced family consisted of 5 people, including 2-3 people of working age (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.16). In addition, according to a special order of the government, 1871 households were relocated to the western regions of the BSSR, 11853 households of the Ukrainian SSR, 1731 households from the Murmansk Oblast (relocated mainly to the Karelo-Finnish SSR), thereby using agricultural resettlement as a way to develop the annexed territories.

In contrast to 1939, when resettlement was carried out from 11 regions of the RSFSR and 8 regions of the Ukrainian SSR, in 1940, people to be transferred were selected from 43 departure regions, mainly in the RSFSR, as well as the Ukrainian SSR and BSSR (RGAE, f.5675, op.1, d.240, l.5; Ibid., op.3, d.9, ll.14-15). The main arrival areas included the Eastern Siberia and Far East – 83.1%, Karelo-Finnish SSR – 14%, and other areas – 2.9% (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.5).

In the eastern regions of the country, the displaced people were moved mainly to those settlements with a more favourable housing situation. In the Karelo-Finnish SSR, the situation was different due to the need to develop the annexed territory. Here the settlement was more compact: about 2 thousand households were located in one area (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.34).

From the number of 116265 households (interregional resettlement) by the beginning of 1941, 92007 families (79.1%) were settled at the place of settlement, 20.9% or 24258 families left (of which 11361 households returned to their former place of residence) (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.4). Those migrants who remained in the area of settlement, but left the collective farms, were employed at state farms, enterprises, factories (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.9, l.52).

In 1941, the plot was to continue planned resettlement to the eastern regions of the country. Resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR No. 34 «On planned agricultural resettlement» dated January 6, 1941, figures 206427 households for resettlement, including 170 thousand for inter-regional resettlement and sending 50 thousand family heads to make preparations in 1942 (RGAE, f.5675, op.1, d.354, l.32). A peculiar feature of the 1941 resettlement campaign was mass construction of new houses for the displaced persons (Platunov 1976: 242-243). The outbreak of the war failed the existing resettlement plans. On June 25, 1941 the Resettlement Department under the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR suspended further selection of collective farmers for resettlement until a special order (RGAE, f.5675, op.3, d.12, l.11).

Figure 1.

Dynamics in the number of the Red Army in 1938-1941, million people. Sources: (Bezugolny 2019: 262, Meltyukhov 2008: 272-276).

Table 4.

Zonal consolidation of districts for recruiting workers

Zone Arrival areas Departure area Branches of the national economy
I zone Ural, Siberia, Far East (Primorsky, Khabarovsk, Krasnoyarsk Territories, Chita, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, Molotov, Chelyabinsk regions, Buryat-Mongolian and Yakut ASSR, Central Asian Republics) a) Kirov, Kuibyshev, Penza regions, Mordovian, Chuvash, Bashkir and Tatar Autonomous Republics No restriction by industry
b) Kursk, Tambov regions Construction (Primorsky, Khabarovsk Territory, Chita Oblast)
c) Krasnodar Krai, Stalingrad and Saratov regions Recruitment to fishing industry
II zone North and North-West (Leningrad, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk regions, Karelian ASSR) a) Vologda, Kalinin, Oryol, Smolensk regions, Byelorussian SSR No restriction by industry
b) Voronezh, Tambov, Ryazan, Kursk regions, Mordovian ASSR Recruitment to peat industry
III zone South (Ukrainian SSR, Transcaucasian Republics, Crimean ASSR, Rostov Oblast. a) Kursk, Voronezh, Poltava, Sumy, Chernihiv regions, Byelorussian SSR No restriction by industry
b) Tatar ASSR Recruitment to peat industry
IV zone Centre (city of Moscow, Moscow Oblast, Tula Oblast) a) Tambov, Ryazan, Penza, Oryol, Smolensk, Kursk, Voronezh regions No restriction by industry
b) Mordovian ASSR Recruitment to peat industry
Table 5.

Distribution of workers by type of work performed

Type of work Recruitment of workers
thousand people % of the plan fulfilment
Construction 12.0 46.1
Jobs in industry 4.8 51.9
Loading and unloading 1.6 55.7
Peat industry 9.0 76.5
Logging and timber rafting 65.4 68.0
Other types 0.3 20.0


Migration of the USSR population in the pre-war years (1939-1940) was of a diverse nature. Population movement was one of the components of the USSR population, which was subject to significant fluctuations in 1939-1940. Large industrial areas of the USSR (Moscow Oblast, Moscow, Leningrad Oblast, Leningrad, Sverdlovsk Oblast, Donetsk coal basin), as well as Siberia and the Far East were centers of attraction for migrants from all over the country and the neighboring regions. In other regions, migration within one region was of primary importance.

Developed by the 1930s mobilization principle of labour recruitment and the system of control over population movement within the country complied with objectives of the socio-economic development of the state under the planned economy. Organized migration (agricultural resettlement, organized recruitment of labour, training and further employment of students of the system of state labour reserves) made it possible to solve long-term objectives within the framework of the planned economy. However, spontaneous migration continued, being one of the sources of personnel replenishment in certain sectors of the USSR national economy (construction, road works, logging, and others).

The situation was complicated by the world conflict that was gaining momentum. Some of replacements within the framework of the military mobilization were of a hidden nature, the practice of forced migration persisted. The desire of the state to take control over migration was dictated by foreign policy reasons as well. These circumstances reinforced interrelation between all types of migration in the pre-war years.


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Information about the authors

Vladimir Anatolyevich Isupov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor, A. Pushkin Leningrad State University (SAEI HE LO A.S. Pushkin LSU). E-mail:

Natalia Viktorovna Chernysheva, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Associate Professor, Head Researcher, Institute of Demographic Research – Branch of the Federal Center of Theoretical and Applied Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. E-mail:

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