“Ты куда?”: Where has Russia’s Brain Gone? (Borscht Report #6)

 

The утечка мозгов/brain drain has been a concern for Russia since the 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR and the resulting political and economic chaos pushed those with sufficient means and desire to escape to do just that. All told, about 2.5 million Russians of various ethnic and economic backgrounds left the country between 1989 and 1999, heading predominantly for the US, Israel, and the EU, especially Germany. Despite the massive gains which the Russian economy saw in the first decade of the 21st century, a further 1.6-2 million people have fled the country since 2000. It would be easy to posit that this is mostly the result of economic issues in the country brought about by Western sanctions and the fall in hydrocarbon prices, or a lack of high paying jobs for skilled people. And these are issues, but a more interesting, and telling, one is at play when we parse the data before and after 2012. 

In 2012, Vladimir Putin was re-elected president for a third time. Compared to 2000-2012, the emigration trend sped up. (It’s difficult to say for certain how much it sped up, because of how Russia tracks emigration data; they lump everyone who leaves the country, including workers on a temporary visa returning home and Russian citizens leaving to take up permanent residence abroad, together). If Putin has already been in power so long, why the sudden upturn? 

In a 2019 study, the Atlantic Council interviewed 400 Russians living in London, Berlin, San Francisco, and New York. In a 100 point questionnaire, and intensive focus groups, participants were asked about their reasons for emigration, the lives they led before leaving Russia, and their remaining ties to the country. Splitting the post-2012 cohort from its counterparts, and comparing it to data gathered both from this study and with others from consulting firms and the Russian state, the study’s authors found that the post-2012 group was overwhelmingly people that could make a good living in Russia. Only 19% did not have a college degree when they left the country, and 10% remained that way by the time of their participation. Upwards of 35% held a master’s or a Ph.D., and they represented a diverse range of fields, from academic and the performing arts to the sciences and IT.

What unites these people is an almost uniform loathing for Putin and the culture that he has helped to foster in Russia. Participants in that study, and others, cited political repression, a lack of protected human rights, and persecution as among their primary reasons for escape. With Russia’s economic downturn, and the damage that Western sanctions have done to the economy, Putin has encouraged his citizens to accept these realities in the name of patriotism. Everyday Russians must shoulder the burden so that Russia can go on fighting wars in Crimea and the Donbass, intervening in Syria, and working towards reclaiming its great power status. 

Meanwhile, a lot of young, creative, educated, and entrepreneurial Russians want to see their country make internal improvements. As one participant said, “every- thing is well-developed…full of interesting jobs, while in Russia everything is in Moscow.” Rather than fighting its neighbors, they think, Russia should be working to eradicate the crony capitalism which has pushed so many of them to start their businesses abroad, securing political freedoms which will protect its citizens and make foreigners more eager to do business, and working on the societal problems (domestic violence, alcoholism, etc) which threaten family structure and social cohesion. Putin taking a third term made that seem an even more distant prospect.

Russians abroad aren’t the only ones who long to escape, at least until Russia boots Putin and makes strides towards pursuing a more modern, liberal democratic model. VTsIOM, the government’s pollster, found that 10% of all Russians want to move abroad permanently. The findings of the Boston Consulting Group, working with HeadHunter, a Russian agency, were no rosier: 57% of people under thirty and 46% of professionals of all age groups desire a permanent move outside of the country. Unlike the old Soviet days, the regime isn’t doing much to stop them. It wants all doubters in the faith of Putin gone, or silenced. Even Putin’s cronies, and the corruption-ridden establishment that has built up around him, prefer to keep their money and their families abroad, often in the West. 

The downsides of this for Russia are obvious. Fewer entrepreneurs mean less business growth and less foreign capital investment, more articulate young Russians around the world condemning the government does little to help its image, and society as a whole begins to suffer from a lack of top tier professionals in a variety of fields. These populations present an opportunity for the US and its foreign policy. Of course, we benefit from an influx of creative and hard-working immigrants eager to grow their lives here no matter what. But, unlike earlier immigrants, these ones maintain close ties to Russia. Family and friends seeing them succeed in the US, and the West more generally, is a boon to the popularity and credibility of the American model in Russia, a lived counterpoint to Putin’s propaganda. Likewise, American diplomats and policymakers can work with these immigrants on strategies to appeal to everyday Russians, amplify dissident messages, and plan for a post-Putin Russian Federation. 

Russia’s drain can be America’s gain.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    If I were a Russian intellectual considering moving, I would now avoid the US.  No individual liberty left here, seeing who Americans just elected to rule over them-Putin Lite.

    I see Russia as an entire country suffering from clinical depression-exogenous depression, not endogenous that can be helped with medication.  I feel for the Russian people, who have been more or less beleaguered for much of their history.  Both my grandfathers were born in Russia.

    • #1
  2. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    KW,

    Fine, enlightening article, the kind I’d like to see more of on Ricochet.

    • #2
  3. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    KW,

    Fine, enlightening article, the kind I’d like to see more of on Ricochet.

    Thank you very much. I’m glad that you enjoyed it.

    • #3
  4. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    If I were a Russian intellectual considering moving, I would now avoid the US. No individual liberty left here, seeing who Americans just elected to rule over them-Putin Lite.

    I see Russia as an entire country suffering from clinical depression-exogenous depression, not endogenous that can be helped with medication. I feel for the Russian people, who have been more or less beleaguered for much of their history. Both my grandfathers were born in Russia.

    Compared to the reality of Russia, I think the US, even in its present form, is a paradise for Russian intellectuals. At least we lack many of the formalized speech codes that one would see somewhere like the UK. 

    It’s a millenia old question, in some ways, what’s got Russia down. They can’t seem to hold onto political freedom for any length of time, and I think it contributes to the general misery. As well as the eternal pull between East and West. 

    • #4
  5. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Excellent and informative post.  Thank you for the insights.

    • #5
  6. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    So, KW, given that the Russian people (basically poor peasants) are so used to being ruled that liberty is unknown to them, what might be the best way forward for them, absent Putin?  Is there a way to gradually increase their freedom of movement so they get a taste of not having to look over their shoulder all day?  Can they be brought to the light, so they are not doomed to be downtrodden forever?  I just hate to see an entire people so miserable.  Especially when I am essentially one of them, on both sides of my Jewish family.

    • #6
  7. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    So, KW, given that the Russian people (basically poor peasants) are so used to being ruled that liberty is unknown to them, what might be the best way forward for them, absent Putin? Is there a way to gradually increase their freedom of movement so they get a taste of not having to look over their shoulder all day? Can they be brought to the light, so they are not doomed to be downtrodden forever? I just hate to see an entire people so miserable. Especially when I am essentially one of them, on both sides of my Jewish family.

    Russians aren’t all poor peasants.  This is a (probably) first world country with a modern economy etc.  The only retrograde part of it is the oligarchs and the corruption.  These people almost got to the Moon and present a real and present danger to us.  We cannot dismiss the population as peasants.

    • #7
  8. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Clavius (View Comment):

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    So, KW, given that the Russian people (basically poor peasants) are so used to being ruled that liberty is unknown to them, what might be the best way forward for them, absent Putin? Is there a way to gradually increase their freedom of movement so they get a taste of not having to look over their shoulder all day? Can they be brought to the light, so they are not doomed to be downtrodden forever? I just hate to see an entire people so miserable. Especially when I am essentially one of them, on both sides of my Jewish family.

    Russians aren’t all poor peasants. This is a (probably) first world country with a modern economy etc. The only retrograde part of it is the oligarchs and the corruption. These people almost got to the Moon and present a real and present danger to us. We cannot dismiss the population as peasants.

    Sorry, they are Not all poor peasants, but as a people, they display the poor peasant mentality.  They have spent most of their history under one jackboot or another.  When the Soviet Union fell, many people mourned its demise, because even if they had few choices, they were taken care of by the all-encompassing State.  There is something known as “national character”.  The end of the Cold War exposed Russia as a “Potemkin State”, a veneer of advancement on top of a rotten interior.  Very dangerous, but vulnerable underneath.  That may have changed.

    • #8
  9. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    It’s a millenia old question, in some ways, what’s got Russia down.

    The Eastern Border guy likes a quote, he’s attributed it different ways before so I don’t know who originally said it (much less have the exact text), but

    If I fell asleep for a hundred years and you woke me and asked “What is happening in Russia?” I would answer immediately “People are getting drunk and stealing [things].”

    • #9
  10. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    I very much would like to visit Russia someday. I could see myself moving there, but not under it’s current ruler, and we’ll see how much worse it gets under the next oligarchy. .

    Which is the flip side of the brain drain. Let’s say that, against all precedent, Putin’s death leads to an actual republic there with actual freedoms. Your entrepreneurial minded Cossack is going to see that there’s a vast field open where many of his competitors have left and hence he can make a killing. Doctors I expect have different motivations, but if Russia suddenly became a very free place to live expect people to come flooding back.

    I’d also like to make a mild criticism of the notion of brain drain. It’s not a problem that the best people are leaving, it’s a problem that everyone’s leaving who can manage it. People themselves are valuable. We made a continent out of huddled masses (as the poet tells us), no reason that Russia couldn’t do that too, except that they also need Liberty.

    • #10
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    So, KW, given that the Russian people (basically poor peasants) are so used to being ruled that liberty is unknown to them, what might be the best way forward for them, absent Putin? Is there a way to gradually increase their freedom of movement so they get a taste of not having to look over their shoulder all day? Can they be brought to the light, so they are not doomed to be downtrodden forever? 

    Russians aren’t all poor peasants. This is a (probably) first world country with a modern economy etc. The only retrograde part of it is the oligarchs and the corruption. These people almost got to the Moon and present a real and present danger to us. We cannot dismiss the population as peasants.

    Sorry, they are Not all poor peasants, but as a people, they display the poor peasant mentality. They have spent most of their history under one jackboot or another. When the Soviet Union fell, many people mourned its demise, because even if they had few choices, they were taken care of by the all-encompassing State. There is something known as “national character”. The end of the Cold War exposed Russia as a “Potemkin State”, a veneer of advancement on top of a rotten interior. Very dangerous, but vulnerable underneath. That may have changed.

    I couldn’t tell you the whole solution to Russia’s cultural-political issue, that’s something that liberal (in the classical sense) Russians, American policy makers, and quite a few groups in between have tried to solve without success. Realistically, Russia was also a Potemkin State for most of its time under the Tsars, so that was nothing new when the Soviets came in. 

    I think that Clavius is right to an extent; all Russian people aren’t peasants, but there’s a huge, definite divide between the elite and the rest of the population, and only a relatively small handful of people can figure out how to sort of bridge it to become middle class. (Criticisms of the “gopota” class would be a good place to start in seeing how striated Russian society is). 

    The closest comparison I can draw is China between 1900 and 1949, what Frank Dikotter calls the “age of openness.” That was a majority illiterate peasant society, but the introduction of new freedoms, despite a lot of corruption, helped to usher in a flourishing civil society. Russians, post-Soviet days, have already gotten a taste of greater freedoms, but they have to see a reason to fight to hold onto them and advance towards more. Seeing the success of immigrants in the US can help, so too can post-Soviet countries that have flourishing democracies and economies, but there also needs to be a fundamental cultural change, and I’m not sure anyone knows how to do that.

    • #11
  12. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    I recall reading a book by Richard Pipes “Property and Freedom” a couple decades ago in which he made the case that the historical lack of strong property rights in Russia is the major cause of post-Communist Russia’s problems with achieving a liberal (classical) polity. He made a pretty convincing case from my point of view.

    • #12
  13. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    tigerlily (View Comment):

    I recall reading a book by Richard Pipes “Property and Freedom” a couple decades ago in which he made the case that the historical lack of strong property rights in Russia is the major cause of post-Communist Russia’s problems with achieving a liberal (classical) polity. He made a pretty convincing case from my point of view.

    Pipes, along with Leonard Schapiro at the LSE (whose student Dominic Lieven is now a world renowned Russia scholar) and Robert Conquest, the Russia/Soviet specialist post-1955. I think that sounds like a very convincing thesis, and, like Bernard Lewis in the Middle East, he’s one of the grandfathers of the discipline that’s almost always spot on.

    • #13
  14. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    tigerlily (View Comment):

    I recall reading a book by Richard Pipes “Property and Freedom” a couple decades ago in which he made the case that the historical lack of strong property rights in Russia is the major cause of post-Communist Russia’s problems with achieving a liberal (classical) polity. He made a pretty convincing case from my point of view.

    Pipes, along with Leonard Schapiro at the LSE (whose student Dominic Lieven is now a world renowned Russia scholar) and Robert Conquest, the Russia/Soviet specialist post-1955. I think that sounds like a very convincing thesis, and, like Bernard Lewis in the Middle East, he’s one of the grandfathers of the discipline that’s almost always spot on.

    I’ve never bought Pipes argument since 19th and early 20th century Tsarist Russia, there certainly was private property and private property rights at least in practice. While it is true property could be confiscated for political reasons of those acting politically against the government, it was very rare. And Russia was industrializing rapidly in pre-Revolutionary early 20th century Russia. It would not have occurred without property rights.

    The problem with re-establishing private property rights post-Soviet Union is that the Soviet mafia/ex-KGB could move and muscle in on everything and they did.

    • #14
  15. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    The closest comparison I can draw is China between 1900 and 1949, what Frank Dikotter calls the “age of openness.” That was a majority illiterate peasant society, but the introduction of new freedoms, despite a lot of corruption, helped to usher in a flourishing civil society. Russians, post-Soviet days, have already gotten a taste of greater freedoms, but they have to see a reason to fight to hold onto them and advance towards more. Seeing the success of immigrants in the US can help, so too can post-Soviet countries that have flourishing democracies and economies, but there also needs to be a fundamental cultural change, and I’m not sure anyone knows how to do that.

    It’s also that Russians see/have experienced numerous financial crises since the post-communist period where the value of savings is wiped out especially wrt foreign countries. Plus then there are sanctions on top of that. So I’m sure a lot of Russians look at it and say, “What’s the point?” Sort of like Weimar Germany with sanctions added.

    • #15
  16. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Hang On (View Comment):
    The problem with re-establishing private property rights post-Soviet Union is that the Soviet mafia/ex-KGB could move and muscle in on everything and they did.

    The thing about the right to own property is that it needs to be secured against thieves as well as communists. A man whose property can be stolen is no more secure in it than a man whose property belongs to the state. Freedom isn’t just from the depredations of governments but also includes a certain amount of respect from society, whether on the basis of law (Thou shalt not steal) or on a shared culture of virtue. 

    I’m thinking here about Twitter bannings et al. 

    • #16
  17. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):
    The thing about the right to own property is that it needs to be secured against thieves as well as communists.

    There’s a difference?

    • #17
  18. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

     

      •  
    • Hang On

      KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

      tigerlily (View Comment):

      I recall reading a book by Richard Pipes “Property and Freedom” a couple decades ago in which he made the case that the historical lack of strong property rights in Russia is the major cause of post-Communist Russia’s problems with achieving a liberal (classical) polity. He made a pretty convincing case from my point of view.

      Pipes, along with Leonard Schapiro at the LSE (whose student Dominic Lieven is now a world renowned Russia scholar) and Robert Conquest, the Russia/Soviet specialist post-1955. I think that sounds like a very convincing thesis, and, like Bernard Lewis in the Middle East, he’s one of the grandfathers of the discipline that’s almost always spot on.

      I’ve never bought Pipes argument since 19th and early 20th century Tsarist Russia, there certainly was private property and private property rights at least in practice. While it is true property could be confiscated for political reasons of those acting politically against the government, it was very rare. And Russia was industrializing rapidly in pre-Revolutionary early 20th century Russia. It would not have occurred without property rights.

      The problem with re-establishing private property rights post-Soviet Union is that the Soviet mafia/ex-KGB could move and muscle in on everything and they did.

       

    I haven’t read that particular book, but I think that the issue with property rights in Tsarist Russia was that they functionally only existed for elite, with those who became the kulaks at the whim of local authority. They really have to be for everyone in order to be culturally effective, and to have buy-in. Plus, Russia didn’t abolish serfdom until 1861, and even then the terms were quite unfavorable in many ways to peasants.

     

    • #18
  19. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Hang On (View Comment):
    There’s a difference?

    One of them comes to your door in a snappy uniform.

    • #19
  20. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Hang On (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):
    The thing about the right to own property is that it needs to be secured against thieves as well as communists.

    There’s a difference?

    When it’s communists, you don’t call the authorities?

     

    • #20
  21. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    Mark Camp

    Hang On (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):
    The thing about the right to own property is that it needs to be secured against thieves as well as communists.

    There’s a difference?

    When it’s communists, you don’t call the authorities?

    Generally they are the authority, until one of them decides that they’re actually ‘running dog revisionary rightists.’ And then by Thursday half of ’em are in a gulag.

    • #21
  22. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    I haven’t read that particular book, but I think that the issue with property rights in Tsarist Russia was that they functionally only existed for elite, with those who became the kulaks at the whim of local authority. They really have to be for everyone in order to be culturally effective, and to have buy-in. Plus, Russia didn’t abolish serfdom until 1861, and even then the terms were quite unfavorable in many ways to peasants.

    From memory, so take that from what it’s worth. From 1861 to 1905 (or at least shortly after the 1905 Revolution), the property of serfs was communally owned and there were loans to pay off for the land. How that was administered varied greatly by location (which peasant family gets how much land and the location of the land. The land was not consolidated and broken up into strips that would be widely dispersed). Conditions varied both by individual commune and also by oblast and the zemstvo that were operating. Schools, health, and many other social services were administered as well (or not) through the zemstvo.

    You’re right about buy-in. But then there was post-1905 revolution. After 1905 and until 1914, there was individual ownership of land by the peasantry. True, it was a very short period. And then there was a war.

    The “myth of the kulak” and how rich they were depended on how large the extended family was and the ratio of males to females and the age distribution of the family. And being a kulak meant owning a cow and a bull versus only owning a cow. It was overpopulation and poverty generally. Industrialization was a boon in that there was an outlet to factories and work. But then the conditions there were dreadful as well, but things were still better generally than in the countryside. Peasants would generally want to be in metal working industries as wages were higher and they could send more money back home to the countryside.

    Edit: There’s one important point about the 1861-1905 period of land ownership in the countryside. The land was subject to redistribution in the commune meeting. How often that happened varied greatly. But no peasant was assured of receiving the same land the next year, so any improvements a peasant made to his individual allocated plot may have been gone the next year.

    • #22
  23. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Hang On (View Comment):

    I’ve never bought Pipes argument since 19th and early 20th century Tsarist Russia, there certainly was private property and private property rights at least in practice. While it is true property could be confiscated for political reasons of those acting politically against the government, it was very rare. And Russia was industrializing rapidly in pre-Revolutionary early 20th century Russia. It would not have occurred without property rights.

    The problem with re-establishing private property rights post-Soviet Union is that the Soviet mafia/ex-KGB could move and muscle in on everything and they did.

    But at that time the peasant class was huge.  And they were serfs, tied to the land.  Huge disparity between the city classes and the mass of the peasants.

    • #23
  24. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Hang On (View Comment):

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):
    The thing about the right to own property is that it needs to be secured against thieves as well as communists.

    There’s a difference?

    Well said.

    • #24
  25. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    A colleague of mine came here from the Soviet Union.  He is Lithuanian, but that didn’t matter as he was a citizen of the USSR.

    He has spoken of now he ran a plant that had as a main input, pure alcohol.  Think Everclear, as concentrated as you can make it without being expensive.  It was used in their manufacturing process.

    He had to be careful to have enough supply because when a barrel of it was opened, the workers somehow got drunk.  He even had wives arranging to get paychecks since the husband would drink it before he came home.

    He is happy to be a US citizen.

    • #25
  26. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    In the book Ignition the author, a rocket propulsion engineer for the navy, mentioned once being supplied with pure alcohol for his experiments. He never noticed anything different about it except for an increased propensity to evaporate in the presence of sailors.

    • #26
  27. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    This is the Russian New Year.  They celebrate by drinking. Imagine that.  I drink in sympathy and with my Lithuanian colleague.

    • #27
  28. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):
    Sorry, they are Not all poor peasants, but as a people, they display the poor peasant mentality.

    There are a lot of different mentalities on display in Russia. I would never say, “as a people.”  I might refer to a majority of people, but not “a people” as a collective whole.

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Hang On (View Comment):
    Edit: There’s one important point about the 1861-1905 period of land ownership in the countryside. The land was subject to redistribution in the commune meeting. How often that happened varied greatly. But no peasant was assured of receiving the same land the next year, so any improvements a peasant made to his individual allocated plot may have been gone the next year.

    There was another problem with freeing the serfs. It happened so late that farming individual small plots was very quickly no longer a way to sustain life. The program was really less about freeing the serfs than freeing the large landowners to farm on an increasingly industrial scale.  In western Europe the same thing was going on, but serfdom was abolished early enough that the family-owned farm was a viable thing for a generation or two. 

    • #29
  30. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I actually recommend that you don’t watch this video, but if you’re interested in what Russian entrepreneurs in the U.S. say about possibilities for entrepreneurship in Russia, you’ll get some of it mostly toward the end.

    One of Дудь’s line of questioning on a lot of topics in this and other videos is, “Why can’t we do this in Russia?” or “What would it take for this to happen in Russia?” You’ll hear a lot of replies, some of which seem more credible to me than others, but all of which are informative.

    The reason I don’t recommend that you watch the video is that if 70,000,000 Trump supporters all cut their YouTube consumption in half, it would send a message that we don’t approve of YouTube censorship. I’ve cut my viewing by at least 90 percent over the past week.

    • #30