Migration and Violent Crime: Lessons from the Russian Experience


The relationship between migration, both internal and international, and crime is not a matter of merely academic interest.  Many laws and public policies directly and profoundly affect migration within and across national borders.  At a time when international migration is attracting increasing attention of policy makers, courts, and legislators, there is a real need to better understand and predict the public-order consequences of laws affecting population movements.  This article exploits the Russian experience to further that aim.

The relationship between population movements and crime has been the subject of a growing social science literature. That literature yields but one clear conclusion: that the relationship defies generalization.  In some contexts, a concentration of newcomers (whether native or foreign) in communities correlate with higher, and in other contexts, with lower, violent crime rates across space.  Some population movements appear to improve, and others to erode, the social capacity for informal control over crime.  In this article, I marshal evidence for one promising explanation for the disparate consequences of different population movements, emphasizing the role of social ties and networks. That explanation suggests that where migrations destroy social networks among the migrants or in receiving communities, the social capacity for informal control over violent behaviors is undermined, and public order is liable to suffer. By contrast, where social networks drive migrations and are preserved or reconstituted in areas of settlement, no comparable disruptive effects ensue. Russia’s experience under Soviet rule furnishes a singularly fitting example of population movements that definitively disrupted preexisting social structures and obstructed formation of new ones.  I make use of statistical analysis to demonstrate that the Russian post-communist geography of homicide was shaped profoundly by communist-era migration and settlement patterns.  In this way, it offers evidence for the proposition that network-disrupting migrations are strongly associated with higher violent crime rates, and that state laws and policies that produce these sorts of movements come at a high social cost.  The idiosyncratic character of Russia’s migration history makes it an empirically convenient case – the proverbial “natural experiment” – to explore the full effects of specifically network-disrupting population movements.  Its idiosyncrasy notwithstanding, the Russian experience yields generalizable implications for our understanding of the migration-crime relationship, and our ability to identify those policies that are most likely to disrupt the social processes of informal control and contribute to violent crime.