In nearly every decade of its history, Russia has watched large portions of its population head for foreign shores. During World War II, 700,000 to 1 million Russians — mostly anti-Communists, Soviet prisoners of war or those dodging the draft — fled the Soviet Union to settle in the West. Decades later, about 2 million Jews emigrated mainly to Israel and the United States, seeing an opportunity when Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev somewhat relaxed the Kremlin's monitoring of the Soviet Jewish community. Then, with the loosening of border controls in the 1980s, people began to move across Russia's border in both directions. Three million ethnic Russians living in the Soviet and Communist bloc outside of the Russian republic returned to Russia. At the same time, 700,000 ethnic Russians left the country, along with 300,000 Soviet Jews — a number that jumped to more than 1 million after the bloc's collapse.
The rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin brought emigration from Russia to a relative crawl. Between 1999 and the mid-2000s, living standards in Russia quadrupled, the country's economy stabilized, and the overwhelming popularity of Putin's administration put an end to political turmoil. Russia's renaissance had begun. As a result, emigration by ethnic Russians was consistently outpaced by the number of immigrants pouring in, particularly from former Soviet states. After peaking in 2000, the number of Russian emigrants dropped from about 146,000 that year to a mere 32,000 in 2009, even in the middle of an economic crisis.
But that trend appears to have reversed. Since 2012, the number of Russians leaving the country has steadily climbed. The new wave of migration began in 2011, when parliamentary elections were widely deemed fraudulent and Putin announced that he would return for a third term as president. Together these events sparked mass protests, and the Kremlin cracked down on the instability with a series of harsh policies and restrictions. The crackdowns caused a string of political activists, journalists, researchers and business owners (and their businesses) to leave the country. But between 2012 and 2014, authorities paid little attention to the Russians who left. St. Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov summed up the Kremlin's reasoning when he remarked, "Russia won't lose anything if the entire so-called creative class leaves."
Yet as Russia has slipped ever deeper into economic recession, the type of Russian leaving the country has changed. Today's emigrants are neither the poorly educated Russians who left at the fall of the Soviet Union nor the political intellectuals who have been migrating since 2012. Instead, the current wave consists mainly of doctors, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and teachers. The loss of highly skilled workers will hamper the Russian economy for years to come, and Russians will continue to depend on state-run industries and energy revenue to stay afloat, leaving the country vulnerable to outside shocks, such as changes in oil prices.