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LONDON — In a recent opinion poll in Russia carried out by the Yury Levada Analytical Center, 58 percent of the respondents said they believe that “non-Russian nationalities are to blame for many of Russia’s misfortunes”; 52 percent said they thought the government should restrict immigration.

So how many immigrants are there to worry about, where are they from and what damage are they doing to Russia? Simple questions, but almost impossible to answer.

A lot of the attitude of the people surveyed by the pollsters is simply prejudice stimulated by the government, some commentators claim. Of the people sampled in the poll, less than 20 percent said they could think of a way in which their own interests had been negatively affected by immigrants.

You can get very confused trying to come up with a reliable number of immigrants. In August the speaker of the state Duma (the lower house of Russia’s Parliament) said his experts estimate that 5 million to 15 million illegal immigrants are in Russia, and that one in 10 of all workers in Russia is illegal.

On the other hand, someone else that you would think should know, the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, said this month that more that 20 million migrants enter Russia every year — 10 million of them illegally.

Remember that the total population of Russia is estimated to be around 140 million, including the legal migrants. This gives some perspective to the numbers the officials are tossing around.

You might also look at numbers for Moscow. The official population for Russia’s capital in 2005 was 10.4 million and the official estimate of the total number of migrants moving into the city that year was 55,000. However, the official estimate is also that about 2.5 million illegal immigrants are there already, making a total of around 13 million. Statisticians I spoke to on a recent visit to Russia laughed when I asked for a confirmation of this; the minimum was 20 million, they said.

How come nobody knows how many people are in Moscow, or Russia? Well, the first census in Russia only took place in 2002, and lots of people had a strong interest in not officially existing. Inexperienced census officers could easily be avoided, or bribed.

Most of the migrants are thought to be citizens of the former republics of the Soviet Union that did not join the Russian Federation after the Soviet Union collapsed — mainly Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Others, however, are from Africa, some are from China.

How many from China? This is almost as difficult a question as how many Russians there are. Earlier this year, Romodanovsky said the “situation is extremely dangerous,” referring to Chinese immigration into Russia’s Far East (RFE). He was planning to set up policies to “counter the trend” — to slow down the Chinese migration. But how many Chinese are there in the RFE already?

A 2006 report by Hong Kong brokerage CLSA Asia Pacific Markets puts the number of illegal Chinese migrants in the RFE at just over 50,000 in 2006, with legal migrants bringing the number of Chinese there up to about 100,000, according to the authors of the report, Andy Rothman and Lo Bobo. You wonder where they got the figure.

The FMS puts the number of illegal Chinese migrants in the RFE alone at between 500,000 and 700,000. Many local sources in the RFE estimate that millions of Chinese are there already — the Power and Internet News Report is typical, putting it at “several million.”

When I visited Khaborosk, capital of Khaborovskii province, earlier this year, official statisticians told me there were about 10,000 Chinese migrants in the province as a whole and that the number was declining as the authorities clamped down on illegal immigrants. When I spoke to one of the leaders of the Chinese community in the city, she told me that more than 100,000 Chinese were in the city of Khaborosk alone and that the number was rising.

Ah well, let’s just say a lot of migrants are in Russia, many of them Chinese, and many of them are there illegally.

Should the Russians be worried? As noted already, they are, blaming migrants for many of their misfortunes. The Chinese alone make the situation “extremely dangerous,” according to Romodanovsky of the FMS. His main concern is that they take money out of Russia and do not pay taxes.

All the migrants, not just the Chinese, he said (it is not clear whether he means all of the more that 20 million he claims come to Russia every year, or just the 10 million who move in illegally), do a “huge amount of damage to (Russia).” They do this by not paying taxes in Russia and by sending home some of their earnings to their families in their home countries. He estimates tax evasion alone at $8 billion a year, just about the amount spent by the Russian government on education and health care.

The figure he gave for the outflow in remittances the migrants make to their families in their home countries was $10 billion. The flow going to Tajikistan, he said, is more than twice that country’s state budget. Remittances sent to Georgia were more than 20 percent of GDP and those sent to Moldova accounted for 30 percent of its GDP.

He did not point out that to be able to make these payments, the migrants must be doing work in Russia that the Russians paying for it were really pleased about — pleased enough to pay such large sums of money. These payments (and unpaid taxes) are clearly not attributable to the 20 million migrants said to be held “in slavery” by their Russian employers (I wonder if they pay taxes).

Romodanovsky did not compare data either on tax evasion and avoidance by legally resident ethnic Russians, or on moves by rich Russians to send their wealth abroad (some of which, possibly a lot, derived from hiring illegal immigrants). Indications are that both sums are far in excess of the tax evasion and income (not capital) transfers by the legal and illegal foreign workers in Russia.

Allowing for the migrants already in Russia, Romodanovsky said, and for the continued inflow of 20 million a year, there will be more migrants than Russians in Russia in about five years, all causing considerable damage to the economy.

It’s nice to see that the Russian talent for telling short stories has not been lost.

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