A Half-Century of Jewish Emigration from the Former Soviet Union: Demographic Aspects

Wednesday, November 20, 2019 - 4:30pm to 5:45pm
color photo of Mark Tolts

CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Room S354

For many years, Soviet Jews, like all other citizens of the USSR, had no real possibility to emigrate in sizable numbers, but this changed in the 1970s. Based on collected data, it is estimated that almost two million Jews and their relatives have emigrated from the former Soviet Union since 1970. Most of this mass emigration occurred since 1989—about 1.7 million. Hence, the mass migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union has a history of about half a century. The dynamics of this emigration fluctuated, characterized by successive waves. The analysis clearly shows the decisive role of the “push factor” in the migration movements in the last three decades. Data shows pronounced selectivity of Jewish migration by age and sex. This emigration caused the size of the “core” Jewish population remaining in the former Soviet Union to dramatically shrink from 2,168,000 in 1970 to 1,480,000 in 1989, and to 248,000 by the beginning of 2019. At the same time, the emigration led to the resettlement of ex-Soviet Jews primarily in three destination countries—Israel, the United States, and Germany. The largest group went to Israel, and the positive demographic transformation of this group—a sizable increase of fertility and fast decrease of mortality—occurred there. As a result of a half-century's mass migration, Russian-speaking Jews now are a worldwide phenomenon. Today, there are about 1.6 million “core” Jews worldwide who originated from the former Soviet Union.

Mark Tolts is a Senior Research Associate (ret.) in the Division of Jewish Demography and Statistics at the Avraham Harman Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A leading authority on the demography of Jews of the former USSR, Dr. Tolts is also an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London. He has written widely on the demography of the former Soviet Union, and on Soviet and post-Soviet Jewry in particular. Mark was born in Molotov (now Perm, Russia). He had unusual luck for a Jewish child in the Soviet Union to receive some Jewish education from his family: his father was formerly a Polish citizen who had matriculated in a Hebrew gymnasium. Mark graduated from Perm University. For several years, he was a high-ranking official in the Perm Branch of the Russian Statistical Administration. This gave him an excellent background in Soviet statistics. He received his Ph.D. in statistics at the Institute of Statistics, USSR Central Statistical Administration, Moscow. Following his move to Moscow, he was affiliated with the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies of Population, USSR Academy of Sciences. At the time of perestroika, Dr. Tolts was an active contributor on demographic topics to the liberal press (i.e. Ogonek and others) and a member of the USSR government-appointed team of experts for evaluation of the Soviet population losses during World War II. Since 1991, Mark Tolts has been living in Israel. Some of his more recent articles have been devoted to the contribution of Jewish émigré scholars who originated from Russia to Western demography. His treatise on “Population and Migration since World War I” appears in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Maxim D. Shrayer, born and raised in Moscow, is a bilingual author, scholar and translator. A Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College, Shrayer serves as Director of the Project on Russian and Eurasian Jewry at Harvard’s Davis Center. Shrayer authored and edited over fifteen books in English and Russian, among them the internationally acclaimed memoirs Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story and Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the double biography Bunin and Nabokov: A History of Rivalry, the Holocaust study “I SAW IT,” and the travelogue With or without You. Shrayer edited and co-translated four books of fiction by his father, the Jewish-Russian writer David Shrayer-Petrov. Maxim D. Shrayer won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Shrayer’s Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature was published in 2018. His most recent book is A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas.


Mark Tolts (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Moderator: Maxim D. Shrayer (Boston College; Davis Center)

Genesis Philanthropy GroupCosponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. The Project on Russian and Eurasian Jewry has been made possible with the generous support of Genesis Philanthropy Group.

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