Russia’s Brain Drain

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Russia’s Brain Drain

Vladimir Putin may have won the Presidential election, but hardly to the ecstatic reception he might have expected even a few years ago. Back in 2000 and 2004, the new President’s great strength was his popularity. Girl pop groups used to shower him with compliments with lyrics like ‘I want a strong man like Putin`. Today they are more likely to jeer him.

All is not well in Russia. With his support much shallower than in the past, some leading commentators believe Putin may not even last the new extended term – six years. Mounting and vocal opposition has been attributed to the growth of the affluent middle classes who are less than content with a controlled political process – or ‘managed democracy’ as Putin calls it – along with state corruption and the persistence in power of a small Kremlin elite.

In fact, the opposition movement is much more broadly based than is widely assumed. According to a poll of those joining the anti-Putin rally last December, they came from all walks of life: the majority were white-collar workers, but only a small minority were managers; 8 per cent were blue-collar workers and 12 per cent were full-time students. They were not particularly affluent and were spread across all age groups. Three-quarters said they were fed up with the way things worked in the country.

One sign of growing discontent is the rising number of Russians who have been voting with their feet. Moreover, today’s leavers are a very different bunch than those who fled in the aftermath of Putin’s first election victory. Then Putin’s triumphant entry to the Kremlin precipitated a remarkable series of exits. Scores of Russia’s richest citizens – from the media magnate, Vladimir Gusinsky; to Putin’s former ally, Boris Berezovsky – who were either forced out or opted to leave. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in November 2003, twenty of Yukos’s top brass fled to London, most of them smuggled in by British security experts via Cyprus and Malta.

By the end of Putin’s second term, hundreds of Russian billionaires and multi-millionaires had settled in the UK, and had brought their money with them. It was this money that helped fuel the London boom of the post-millennium years. Money smuggled out of Russia via offshore tax havens fed soaring property (and business) prices, turning a number of British property agents and security entrepreneurs into multi-millionaires. In 2005, the American business magazine Forbes, dubbed London the ‘billionaire capital of the world’.

The more recent pattern – which embraces a much wider cross-section of society - takes a very different form. Some see it is the biggest exodus since 1917 - approximately 1.25 million Russians have left the country in the last 10 years, Sergei Stepashin, head of the national Audit Chamber, told the radio station Moscow Echo at the end of last year. The chamber tracks migration through tax revenues. The exodus is so large, it’s comparable in numbers to the outrush in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. ‘About as many have left as in 1917’, he said.

Then, the majority of those leaving settled in France, and especially Paris. In the last decade, it has been the UK, especially London, where the migrants have mostly settled. According to some estimates, there are close to 100,000 Russian children being educated in the UK – from nurseries to universities.

This level of exodus is certainly bad news for Russia’s demographic balance and its economy. Some are staying in Russia but sending their children to be educated abroad, especially to British public schools and universities. Many trying to exit are well-educated with stable jobs. Most are younger, key workers – from labourers to scientists – leaving Russia increasingly to an older generation of workers especially in areas like scientific research, engineering and law. According to, ‘The country is hemorrhaging intellectual potential. According to the site, ‘The most active, the cleverest and the most mobile are leaving’.

Those leaving typically include the country’s best graduates and well-established professionals – computer scientists, architects, academics. According to one Russian survey, as many as 40 per cent of Russia’s recent graduates would like to work abroad. A Radio Free Europe post by Brian Whitmore calls it Russia’s ‘brain drain’. Something Russia can ill afford.

Unlike their predecessors of the Soviet 1970s and 1980s, most are not necessarily leaving for good. Many of them don’t sell their apartments and dachas and in some cases, even their cars. As one commentator put it: ‘They simply lock the door, go to the airport and quietly leave’.

One sure sign of what is happening can be seen in the elite region of Rublyovka, a residential area of 300 square kilometers, which not long ago held the crown as the centre of Moscow’s rich and famous. Today more and more homes in this district are lying empty. ‘If you walk through the village then, of the people who settled here 10 years ago, less than half remain’, said one longstanding resident. ‘The others, one way or another, have simply stopped living here’. Some have moved to central Moscow, others much further afield.

Many factors are driving this trend. Some are economic migrants, merely looking for better opportunities abroad. Inflation is on the rise and the country's GDP is rising at less than half the rate before the global economic crisis. Many skilled jobs pay much more in the west.

But, unlike previous waves of emigration, this one is also being driven by the lack of political reform. People are giving up on the prospect of a proper functioning democracy with opposition parties and real political choice. And one person is blamed for that – the new President. According to Dmitry Muratov, editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, ‘In the 1970s there was Jewish emigration out of the Soviet Union, and then lots of people left at the beginning of the 1990s. That was emigration for sausages and blue jeans. Now, go anywhere in Moscow – there are sausages and blue jeans everywhere – you can find anything you want, but there’s still gigantic emigration because people are leaving for a breath of fresh air. They’re leaving over values’, he said.

You have to be in certain niches to do well, says Mark Urnov, dean of the politics faculty at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, and if you feel yourself out of this privileged sphere then you want to get out.

None of this is good news for Russia. According to Urnov, the sector of society which is packing its suitcases is the very same which would most likely take forward the processes of modernisation and reform. One thing is sure. The protests will continue and the outward tide is likely to accelerate. Putin may of course act out of character and bend to the demands for political reform in a way which will stem the outflow. Few would bet on it.

Text by Stewart Lansley

Stewart Lansley is the author of The Cost of Inequality, Gibson Square, 2012.