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POST-SOVIET GEMs: Global elite migration of musicians and athletes from the former Soviet countries

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The project aims to study global elite migrants (GEMS) such as opera singers and ice hockey players who migrate from the former Soviet republics to Europe and North America. The study examines the lives, education and training of individuals before emigration and post migration to understand why and under what circumstances they decided to migrate to the West. The study also examines how they imagine, plan and make decisions on their relocation, their job search and engagement with local communities and, specifically, how they sustain or dismantle their ‘global elite’ status in emigration and how their elite networks support or obstruct them in their career development. The study will also develop a typology of GEMs based on their agency in integration and networking.

  1. What are the most essential features of global elite migration as illuminated by transnational musicians and athletes from the Communist bloc?
  2. What do the life stories and careers of elite migrants tell us about global migrations and realities of migration and settlement?
  3. What are the barriers to, and enablers of, their career development and integration?

This research looks at the under-studied “migrant” case of the artistic or athletic global elite – a social group that forms a niche in high-skill migration. Global elite migrants (GEMs) are transnationally mobile people who shape mass cultures and tastes on the global scale. Their stream includes artists, actors, film-makers, writers, athletes and musicians. In particular, the world of opera and ice hockey has become highly globalized. Most athletes and artists rotate all over the world and work in a variety of theaters and athletic clubs. GEMs are professionally well-trained and richly networked, having established reputations and comfortable salaries. They seemingly appear as unproblematic, global cosmopolitans. There is, however, very limited knowledge about their daily realities in migration. In particular, it is not understood how GEMs make their decisions and to what extent they may be dependent upon their networks, brokers and intermediaries – all the influential stakeholders who invariably control the global sport or music industry.

The study is based on qualitative in-depth interviews with artists and athletes, as well as on structured interviews with their agents/brokers. This research will shed light on nuances of their migrant agency and migrant networking. It will show to what extent migrant vulnerability and precarity of global work may take place across various migratory sectors and groups. It will also illuminate strategies that migrants use to overcome their precarity, especially in relation to achieving and sustaining their global elite status.

The project consists of two strands of research. The first part, which involves research on opera singers, has been completed (2015-2020). The findings from this strand are based on in-depth interviews with 60 opera singers from former Soviet states who now live and work in Europe. This research has been presented at academic conferences and in academic publications, including the following outputs.

Conference presentations

Isaakyan, I. (2024). ‘The banality of trauma’, conference presentation, ASEEES Annual Convention, November 2024, Boston, USA.

Isaakyan, I. (2024). ‘Brokers of Global Elite Migration: The Case of Migrating Opera Singers’, conference presentation, American Sociological Conference, August 2024, Montreal, Canada.

Isaakyan, I. (2024). ‘Foreign athletes in North America: A exploratory study of integration’, conference presentation, IMISCOE Annual Conference, July 2024, Lisbon, Portugal.

Isaakyan, (2024). ‘Dynamics of elite migrant networks: the role of gender and sexuality’, conference presentation. Canadian Sociological Association Annual Conference, June 2024, Montreal, Canada.

Isaakyan, I. (2022). ‘Brokers of global elite migrants: Before and After the Pandemics’, conference presentation, October 2022, CERC Migration, TMU, Canada.

Isaakyan, I. (2022). “The re-transnationalized past of global elite migrants’, conference presentation, IMISCOE Annual Conference, July 2022, Oslo, Norway. Online presentation.

Isaakyan, I. (2020). “Social remittances of global elite migrants’, conference presentation, IMISCOE Online Annual Conference, July 2020.

Isaakyan, I. (2018). ‘Career aspirations and agency of migrating opera singers’, conference presentation, IMISCOE Spring Conference, March 2018, Warsaw, Poland

Isaakyan, I (2019). ‘Transnational impact of global elite migrants’, conference presentation, IMISCOE Annual Conference, July 2019, Göteburg, Sweden

Articles and book chapters

Isaakyan, I. (2024, November/Forthcoming). ‘Integration of foreign athletes in North America’, to be submitted to the CERC Working Paper Series.

Isaakyan, I. (2024, July). ‘Publishing Migration Research: Tips on Publishing a Journal Article’, in R. Zapato-Barrero and D. Vintila (Eds.) How to Do Migration Research, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Isaakyan, I. (2024). ‘Global elite migrations’, in L. Oso (Ed). Elgar Encyclopedia of Migration. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Isaakyan, I. (2023). ‘Elite migrations’, in A. Triandafyllidou (Ed.) Routledge Handbook of Immigration and Refugee Studies (2nd Edition). London & New York: Routledge. Pp. 116-125. (external link) 

Isaakyan, I. (2022). ‘Temporariness management by elite migrant-artists’, Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies 48(16): 3860-3878. (external link) 



Isaakyan, I. (2024/July). Agency and Networks of Migrant-Artists. IMISCOE-Springer.


Isaakyan, I. (2024, October/Forthcoming). Athletic citizenship.

Isaakyan, I. (2024, November/Forthcoming). Athletes’ integration: Critical Issues.

Isaakyan, I. (2021). ‘Getting a foothold in global opera’, Open Democracy Blog 17/11/2021. (external link) 

Isaakyan, I. (2020). ‘Opera singers: The elite migrants trapped in Italy’, Open Democracy Blogs 05/13/2020. (external link) 

The in-depth biographic interviews with migrant artists have inspired the forthcoming book ‘GEMs of Post-Communism’ (2024/Forthcoming), which is now work-in-progress to be finished by the end of 2021. The book specifically looks into the work of migrant-artists’ agency. It explores how they make decisions to migrate, join and progress in transnational artistic networks, and eventually either establish themselves or drop from the global operatic industry.

The themes of agency and network in reference to global elite migrations will be further developed during the second phase of the project. The second part of this research studies migration of ice-hockey and basketball players from Russia to North America and their transnational career development. Aiming at 20 in-depth biographic interviews with the global migrant-athletes and their sports agents, this research phase develops in Canada and the USA in 2022-2024.

November 2024

European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Global Governance Programme (Florence, Italy)  (2015-2020, post-Soviet opera singers in Italy and Germany)

CERC Migration (2022-2024, post-Soviet ice-hockey and basketball players in Canada and the USA)

agency, artistic migration, athletic migration, global elite migration, globalization of sport, globalization of opera, gender, high-skill migration, integration, network, post-Communist studies