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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

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

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


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