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The Power Vertical

Emigration Blues: Russia's Sixth Brain Drain

The sixth wave of Russian emigration is underway -- and as in the past it appears to be claiming some of the country's best and brightest.

As noted in yesterday's web roundup, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin has an interesting piece in the latest issue of "Novaya gazeta" looking at earlier emigration waves from Russia and the Soviet Union, and at the reasons why people are leaving the country now.

Sergei Stepashin, head of the Audit Chamber, says approximately 1.25 million Russians have left the country permanently in the last several years.

That figure is less than the two million who left in the two waves in the early 20th century -- immediately after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and following the advent of the Stalin-era terror in the 1930s. It is also slightly more than the estimated one million who fled the USSR in both the World War II era and in the 1970s. (The fifth wave was the mainly economically motivated exodus that immediately followed the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, the so-called "sausage emigration.")

So why are Russians leaving now?

According to an online poll of 7237 readers of "Novaya gazeta" who are considering emigrating (which Paul Goble points out in a post today is not the most representative sample),  2.2 percent cited rising nationalism, one percent said higher taxes, and 28.9 percent identified the possibility of Vladimir Putin returning as president. Most interestingly, a whopping 62.5 percent said they were considering leaving for all of these reasons combined.

The overriding sentiment among the potential emigres, Oreshkin writes, is dashed hopes:

It's basically just those who in the 1990's, because of their youth and innate optimism, believed that freedom would finally come and Russia would become a normal country. The Putin decade sobered them up.  You can't get anything if you father is not a KGB colonel, a member of United Russia, or an employee of Gazprom.

Earlier waves of emigration deprived Russia of some of its best minds, including writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin, aviator Igor Sikorsky, inventor and television technology pioneer Vladimir Zworykin. And as Oreshkin points out, it is also the most educated who are looking to leave now:

The main thing is that just as in all the previous cases, the most independent and qualified people are leaving and for the same fundamental reasons: the model of the state built by Lenin and Stalin and softly being restored by Putin is flawed from the outset.

The reason for this, Oreshkin argues, is that the Putin system works well for the "bosses" and for the "lumpen," who are awed by images of "a bright future and a mighty power." But the independent minded and the "strongest and most gifted people," on the other hand, are deeply alienated by the regime.

But despite the similarities, Oreshkin says there it an important difference in the current emigration wave:

The novelty of the sixth wave is that it is not irreversible. If and when Russia will follow the rule of law instead of the rules of the Chekist corporation and, accordingly, when there will be opportunities for self-realization, these people will return. They still really do not want to leave. Just here have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no hope.

In a recent post I cited an article by political analyst Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies, in which he noted that Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are appealing to two separate and distinct parts of the Russian public.

Putin appeals to a demographic that Makarkin calls "The Folks" (who basically overlap with those Oreshkin describes as the "lumpen"), who " trust the state and the sovereign, they are sincere, patriotic, modest, sometimes outwardly naive, but inwardly wise." Medvedev, on the other hand, appeals to what Makarkin dubs "The Non-Folks" (Oreshkin's "independent" and "strong-minded people"), "who are suspect [and] do too much thinking for themselves."

If Oreshkin's analysis is correct, then it appears that the "Non-Folks" are heading for the exits because their half of the tandem is not doing enough to keep them around. And that's bad news for Russia.

-- Brian Whitmore
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Ivo
February 01, 2011 23:56
Yeah, Oreshkin, you really have to be "young and innate" to believe your country might become free.
In Response

by: Marko from: USA
February 03, 2011 15:54
The Russian economy has improved alot and broadly despite the rougher times since 2008. Have met a few recent Russian immigrants to the US after not having seen many until the last couple of years. Lack of opportunity to flourish and live a truly wealthy individualist lifestyle seemed to mean the main motivation for these ambitious young people (though they don't seem to be finding things necessarily easy over here either in terms of opportunities either if I can generalize). Hard for me to generalize in terms of who these people are-- if they are the next generation of scientists, administrators and true entrepeneurs that is indeed sad for Russia. If they are the next generation of speculators and connivers than Russia is probably better off w/o them. If they are the latter, maybe they can get work in the US as local day traders (fleecing the elderly and naive); getting a job with the big taxpayer bailed-out crooks on Wall Street takes an Ivy League degree and a big trust fund. The more things are different, the more they are the same...

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 02, 2011 14:18
I would be curious to learn which countries these Russians are emigrating to. Can they freely move to EU countries? I know that the U.S. and other western countries have pretty strict immigration quotas. Must Russians gain the permission of their authorities before being allowed to leave?
In Response

by: Jeff from: Wash DC
February 03, 2011 08:11

As the Russian economy has substantially improved since the 1990s, both the EU and the US have eased tourist visa restrictions for Russians and now most people who can demonstrate some financial ties to Russia such as a legitimate job, a business, ownership of property, etc and ability to pay for their trip, are issued visas.

To immigrate to either the EU or the US however, Russians are required to obtain residency and have to pass various tests (married to a EU or US national, work permits, etc).

During soviet times an exit visa was required for all soviet citizens leaving the USSR. However that was abolished by most of the former soviet states including Russia, in the early 1990s. The exception to that is Turkmenistan I believe although I may be wrong.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
February 03, 2011 21:50
Canada, Germany and Britain seem to be getting a lot of Russian immigrants these days. Australia and NZ would be too if it were not for MUCH STRICTER visa restrictions. Legislation passed in Australia in the last few years was designed to keep foreigners out (especially South Asians).
In Response

by: Johann from: USA
February 04, 2011 18:46
They can freely move to Spitsbergen ( See Wikipedia) that is a part of Norway and outside of Schengen, according to international treaties.
There is no boarder control between Norway and Spitsbergen because it is really the same country. In Norway, Russians can move to other EU countries.

by: Anonymous
February 07, 2011 17:36
I emigrated from Moldova to the US in 90-s.

The was a wave of scientists, professors, computer programmers who emigrated from Russia to the US in the 90's. You could say that every major US university has at least one Russian math professor (ours has two).

Russia had and probably have brains/talent but bad system. Google's Sergey Brin moved to the US with his Math professor father, later founded Google. If he stayed in Russia there would be no Google most likely.

After first 90's wave not many Russians moved to the US. "Sausage" wave mostly consisted of immigrants from Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia. Emigration from those republics never stopped and continues. Everybody leaves those republics. So called 'russian' communities mostly consist of Ukrainians, etc.

Percentage wise Russia did not loose that many people. In Moldova at least 1 mln of 4 mln, i.e. 25% emigrated (to EU, Russia, Israel, etc.)

Many people in Russia I talk to want to leave Russia. Main reason is not money. You can make almost Western salary in Moscow. They are middle class. Reasons are lawlessness, crime, corruption, lack of freedom and democracy (surprise). Young people want to start a business, prosper but Russian system kills all startups.

The other trend in Russia - getting second citizenship. Anybody somehow well off wants to have a second citizenship (Canada might be the easiest). With the second citizenship they might still live in Russia but ready to leave if environment changes. Many lost faith in Russian system and are ready to leave for good now.

Judging by what Putin and Medvedev are doing they are both crooks. Many emigrants of any wave would come back if system changed. Unfortunately system is not going to change in Russia. Putin might be thinking he is replicating a Chinese system but he is not. Russia needs law, freedoms and democracy. It got talent but no way to express and develop it.

by: Canadian from: Canada
February 10, 2011 04:57
In the 90-ies there was a huge wave of Russians (ex-Soviets) immigrating to Canada. Think it may go this way again? True, our taxes are higher than in US, but health care is free. Besides, we don't have military dictating anybody what to do... After Britain tightened up student visas, practically anyone can become a permanent resident of Canada thru student visas in a Canadian college or university.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or