The Problem With Russia's Best and Brightest

11 MINS READJun 29, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
The Problem With Russia's Best and Brightest
As Russia has slipped ever deeper into economic recession, the country's doctors, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and teachers are leaving in droves.

For more than a century, Russia has suffered periodic waves of mass emigration. Now it could face yet another one, perhaps leading to the largest brain drain the country has experienced in 20 years. According to Russia's state statistical agency, 350,000 people emigrated from Russia in 2015 — 10 times more than five years ago. The outflow began in earnest in 2012, driven mostly by political friction in the country, but Russia's current economic crisis has accelerated the pace. The Kremlin is attempting to curb the so-called suitcase mood, but other national interests remain a higher priority. As highly skilled Russians emigrate, the future of innovation and private business in the country has been called into question. Meanwhile, migrants from mostly Muslim former Soviet states are entering Russia in search of work, altering the ethnic and religious composition of the population and heightening tension in the process.

In nearly every decade of its history, Russia has watched large portions of its population head for foreign shores. Between 1880 and 1914, 2 million Jews fled the Russian Empire, seeking refuge from pogroms. The Russian Revolution then sent roughly 1.4 million refugees fleeing the country, including some of the empire's brightest minds: Nobel Prize-winning writer Ivan Bunin, author Vladimir Nabokov, helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky and artist Marc Chagall, among others.

It is difficult to get reliable migration statistics for the early Soviet period. All five of the Soviet statistical chiefs between 1926 and 1940 were shot, and under the Soviet government, demographic statistics became more propaganda than science. But generally, emigrants found their way out of the Soviet Union in three major waves over the union's lifetime. 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, leaving the country were 700,000 ethnic Russians, along with 300,000 Soviet Jews — a number that jumped to over 1 million after the bloc's collapse. 

At first, many Soviet emigrants were motivated by ideology, but as the Soviet Union began to crumble, more people left Russia out of a desire to put food on their families' tables. These so-called sausage migrants were willing to settle in a wider array of destinations. Whereas earlier emigrants had favored the United States, Israel and Germany, now other countries began receiving Russian migrants in large numbers. And it was not just Russia's marginalized populations that felt the pull of the West: In the 1990s, it became commonplace for Russian officials, elites and oligarchs to send their families to live, work and attend school abroad.

The End of a Russian Renaissance

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, from 36,774 in 2011 to some 350,000 in 2015. The new wave of migration began in 2011, when parliamentary elections were widely deemed fraudulent and Putin announced 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. In 2012, Russia introduced laws limiting foreign funding to companies or foundations in Russia — the so-called foreign agents laws.

The Kremlin also expanded criminal codes to cover more political activities and created increasingly stringent rules for using the internet. The crackdowns caused a string of political activists, journalists, researchers and business owners (and their businesses) to leave the country. VimpelCom founder Dmitry Zimin, opposition activists Garry Kasparov and Oleg Kashin, and former RFE/RL Director Konstantin Sonin, among others, all left. More companies sought foreign residence permits, too: The founder of VKontakte (Russia's version of Facebook) relocated to the United Arab Emirates, and Russia's seventh-largest internet provider, Game Insight, moved to Lithuania.

In 2014, Russia became embroiled in its tense standoff with the West over Ukraine. Emigration that year spiked during the months that Russian-backed separatists supposedly shot down an airliner over Ukraine and Russia annexed Crimea. Journalist Leonid Bershidsky wrote an op-ed as he left Russia, calling it the "emigration of the disappointed." 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. What's the creative class anyway? For me, a woman who gets up at 5 a.m. to milk a cow is creative because she produces something. Not some guy with a stupid haircut who sits in a cafe all day long writing in his blog."

Today, rising nationalism may be drawing emigration numbers down ever so slightly, anchoring Russians to their homeland. After all, fewer Russians today report a desire to live abroad than they did in 2011-2013. But the number of those wanting to leave still surpasses what it was in the 1990s, and according to Russia's independent pollster, Levada, those who say they want to remain may simply be unable to afford an expensive move.

The Flight of the Intelligentsia

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. Health care reforms in 2014, which resulted in layoffs of 7,000 medical staff in the Moscow area alone, drove even more educated people out of the country in search of work. According to Rosstat, most of today's emigrants are going to the United States, Germany, Canada and Finland.

The loss of highly skilled workers will hamper the Russian economy for years to come. Russia's educational and health care systems will further decline. Innovative companies and projects will largely set up shop outside Russia's borders, and private enterprise in the country will diminish substantially. Russia already lags woefully behind the world in average money directed toward research and development, but losing the people behind such efforts will accelerate the trend. As a result, Russians will continue to depend on state-run industries and energy revenue to stay afloat, making the whole country vulnerable to outside shocks, such as changes in oil prices.

Moscow's Haphazard Response

Nonetheless, the Russian state continues to claim that the brain drain is a myth. Duma First Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Nationalities Valery Rashkin has said "the problem doesn't exist." And Putin's adviser on education and science, Andrei Fursenko, claims the brain drain is a problem "invented" by the West. Some Russian government sources blame the skyrocketing emigration numbers on a change in the data-gathering methods of the state statistical firm, Rosstat. Other political commentators, on the contrary, accuse Rosstat of actually underreporting the numbers. Further complicating matters, some of those who leave Russia never officially register as emigrants. And among destination countries, registration practices are too inconsistent to arrive at a single, reliable number of Russian migrants.

Still, the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that Russia is losing its educated workforce in record numbers. And even as officials adamantly deny it, the Kremlin is making haphazard attempts to stem the flow. For two years, a "mega-grant" program ($428 million a year) has incentivized scientists to stay in Russia — though it is unclear how much the government has actually paid out. The Kremlin has also pressured some of Russia's largest investors in high technology, such as the VTB Group, to shift their investments out of the West and back to Russia.

Russia has also opened the Skolkovo Innovation Center outside Moscow. Intended to be Russia's version of Silicon Valley, complete with sleek glass and steel buildings lined with solar panels, cafes and an ice rink, the huge complex is still under construction. Yet some 100 companies with 15,000 employees are already operating in the center, and eventually the site is expected to host about 850 capital ventures, technology firms and startups. Still, the project is beset with problems. Construction has been delayed — the complex was supposed to have been completed in 2013 — and given the political rift between Russia and the West, some U.S.-based investors have yet to fork over their promised funds.

The Kremlin is looking to slow down capital flight as well. Capital outflows reached $153 billion in 2014, but thanks to a host of harsh new anti-corruption regulations, they dropped to $56 billion in 2015. Russia's anti-offshore bills require Russian citizens and firms to inform tax authorities of all foreign transactions, and government officials are not allowed to maintain foreign bank accounts or own property abroad. Now the Kremlin is considering another restriction: forcing government officials to educate their children in Russia. The effects would doubtless be far-reaching, considering that the Russian state employs 68 percent of the population, but the political elites are unlikely to let that pass without a fight.

Threats to Russian Identity

In a way, the flight of political dissidents from Russia is good news for the Kremlin. With troublemakers out of the country, there are fewer left behind to challenge Putin's authority.

Yet their departure has contributed to demographic changes that bring their own set of problems. The wave of Russian emigrants comes as the ethnic Russian population is already in decline, and the Muslim population (both indigenous and immigrant) is climbing. Russia's current population of 143 million is expected to decrease by 10 percent by 2030, mostly because of the shrinking ethnic Russian population due to a low number of births, poor health care and emigration. At the same time, Russia's Muslim populations have been booming over the past decade. The Chechen population has risen by 5 percent, and the Dagestani population has increased by 13 percent.

Meanwhile, more Muslim immigrants are making their way into Russia, driven by economic downturns in their own countries. Though official state data indicates that approximately 240,000 immigrants enter Russia each year, Russia's Center for Migration Studies puts this number at more than 400,000, factoring in illegal immigration. Most immigrants come from the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, according to Rosstat. Russia already hosts the second-largest number of migrants after the United States, some 11 million or nearly 8 percent of the population. According to an investigation by Russkaya Gazeta, about 30 percent of students in Russia will be children of immigrants or guest workers by 2020. This means that children of immigrants will start moving into more educated jobs than their parents and attempt to assimilate more into Russian society.

These demographic shifts are changing the social landscape in Russia. Slavic and Orthodox nationalism have been the centerpiece of the country's social policies under Putin, and some see Muslim immigrants as a serious threat to that Russian identity. In reality, many immigrants have been swept up by nationalist sentiment and wear their new Russian identity with as much pride as ethnic Slavs. Yet their patriotism has done little to curb the rampant xenophobia that is carving rifts in Russian society.

This tension will only grow in the coming years as Russia's Slavic population declines and its Muslim population continues to swell. Meanwhile, the economy will do little more than limp along, keeping the entire country under severe strain. To revamp its economy and diversify its sources of income, Russia will be sorely in need of skilled workers. But what it will have instead is a dearth of doctors and scientists and a growing supply of low-skilled non-Slavic immigrants.

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