20 years under Putin: a timeline

Over the last few months, the beginning of a new wave of Russian emigration has sparked debates in the Russian and Western media. But are we really witnessing a surge in emigration? In the first part of a special research project for the Institute of Modern Russia, journalist Ksenia Semenova analyzes the nature and extent of this trend, as well as expert opinions and the matter of registering emigrants.


According to Lev Gudkov, head of Levada Center, a new wave of Russian emigration is different from the previous ones: it’s the most secure social groups, people [who have] achieved success in Russia and who understand that they will not be able to live under the growing authoritarianism, that are leaving the country. Photo: RFE/RL


The Extent of the Problem

In late 2014, the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) published Russian population migration data covering the period from January to August 2014. The report at once attracted the attention of journalists: it showed that in the first eight months of 2014, 203.6 thousand people left Russia, compared to the 186.4 thousand who left over the course of 2013. When the final numbers are tallied, the number of Russians who emigrated in 2014 will likely surpass the record high of 1999, when the country officially “lost” around 215 thousand people.

While most experts urge caution in jumping to conclusions, the world media has nonetheless announced the start of a new wave of Russian emigration. According to experts, far more time is needed to accurately evaluate such a phenomenon; however, they agree that today’s contingent of Russian emigrants contrasts starkly to those of previous post-Soviet emigration waves.


Where Do the People Go?

According to Rosstat, the main destination for the flow of Russian emigration is the United States. (In Russia, the net migration rate, i.e., the difference between the number of persons entering and leaving a country per 1,000 inhabitants, is −644; in Germany it’s −588, in Canada it’s −347, and in Finland it’s −283).

Sergei Kuznetsov, an emigration consultant and founder of the Facebook project “Chemodan, Vokzal, Kuda?” (Suitcase, Train Station, Where To?), says that collectively, his clients do not favor particular countries. Rather, they look for conditions that suit their needs: “People want a country with guarantees in the spheres of education and medical care, a culturally close and relatively safe country with different opportunities for themselves and their children,” Kuznetsov says. “Small business owners choose inexpensive countries that already have Russian-speaking communities where they could easily start their own business. Those who look for a payroll job opt for richer countries. Most people consider it important to keep their ties with Russia even after leaving.”

According to Kuznetsov, the majority of emigrants he encounters today are representatives of the middle and upper-middle class. “Many people I talked to said, ‘We had a very good life in Russia.’ They consider themselves patriots and would love to stay and keep their business, but they do not see any opportunities for that in Russia. Business, culture, science, and medical care are the most affected areas. For some people, [emigration] represents a story of failure: not their personal failure, but that of their social group.”


Discussion in the Media

When commenting on Rosstat’s report, the Dozhd TV channel noted that “a record high emigration wave has been registered in Russia.” The channel cites Gleb Lebedev, research director for Russia’s largest job search engine HeadHunter, as saying, “There is a noticeable outflow in several directions at the same time: researchers and entrepreneurs are leaving, for example.”

Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper also covered the topic of this emigration wave and emphasized its political character. The newspaper reported that a Human Corpus organization had been created in Finland to assist political refugees, and cited its report:

“Since summer 2012, political emigration from Russia has become systemic, and over the last two years, the situation acquired a large-scale character. For instance, it is known that in the period from spring/summer 2012 to mid-2013, several people were forced to leave Russia due to persecution under the ‘Bolotnaya case.’ This was the first mass wave of political emigration since the first decade of the 2000s. The adoption of a number of legislative acts contributed to the deterioration of the situation. Such pieces of legislation include the law on foreign agents, the toughening of a number of articles of the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offenses pertaining directly or indirectly to political activity, and laws regulating the activity of the media, non-commercial organizations, and bloggers. The situation for LGBT people in Russia has considerably deteriorated as well: Anti-gay-propaganda legislation has gone into effect, and acts of physical violence [against LGBT persons] have become more frequent. The problem of drug addiction and HIV has gotten much worse, and organizations that monitor and provide assistance to this category of people were badly affected as well. The range of people leaving Russia has widened considerably to include groups of different social status, age, and ideological preferences.”

Meanwhile, according to Kommersant newspaper, the stir around statistics “proved to be exaggerated: the surge is mainly due to the use of new recording methods, according to which migrants who had been officially residing in Russia and then returned to their native countries are registered as emigrants.” However, the newspaper also notes that “Rosstat’s statistics show that over the last two years, the number of those leaving the country, including to non-CIS countries, has been increasing by 60 percent a year. In the second half of the 2000s, the number of those seeking permanent residency in non-CIS countries fluctuated from 12 to 14 thousand people; in 2012, it increased twofold and reached 27.2 thousand people, and in 2013, 38.5 thousand. The figure from the first eight months of 2014 (31.2 thousand people) is 40 percent higher than that from the same period of 2013 (22.4 thousand).”

Western media have also covered the topic of Russian emigration. As the Russian bureau of the BBC wrote in July 2012, following the Bolotnaya case, “Leader of the For Human Rights movement Lev Ponomarev, and a number of opposition members living abroad, announced the creation of the International Protection Foundation, which would provide financial and legal assistance to Russian political émigrés.” The article also said that, according to the Levada Center (as of 2012), “Around 50 thousand people leave the country every year, and the number of those with a college degree is three times higher than the national average.”

When we talk about the qualitative character of today’s emigration, the number of people leaving the country fades into insignificance. Today, it is highly educated and entrepreneurially inclined people who are leaving Russia.

In spring 2013, World Policy Journal, the flagship publication of the World Policy Institute, published an analysis of the emigration of established professionals—entrepreneurs, writers, and scientists—from Russia. Herein lies the main difference between today’s emigration and the emigration wave of the late 1980s to early 1990s, when those leaving Russia were mostly young, poor, and less skilled. According to the article’s author, “faced with the criminal chaos and staggering poverty of the 1990s, Russians left their new democracy by the hundreds of thousands. But in the first eight years of the new millennium... economic growth, fueled by oil revenue, has raised salaries and living standards. The outflow slowed; some even began to return. Along with the returning émigrés, capital began flowing back into the country. But the mood shifted again... in 2011 after a wave of protests set off by widespread allegations of rigging in that year’s parliamentary elections. According to the Central Bank, in 2011, capital outflows reached a record high [at the time] of $80 billion.”

In October 2014, Bloomberg Business wrote that many Russian emigrants of this latest wave are the country’s “brightest minds in finance and technology,” who are forced to leave because of sanctions that limit access to capital markets abroad, and the government tightening controls at home. Thus, Game Insight LLC, ranked by Forbes magazine as the nation’s seventh-largest Internet company, shifted its headquarters from Moscow to Lithuania; Toonbox animation studio moved its staff from Moscow to Cyprus; and Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte, left the country after refusing to comply with government demands to turn over the personal data of Ukrainian users. Yet the article notes that, according to Putin adviser Andrei Fursenko, who is on the U.S. and European Union sanctions lists, this alleged “brain drain” “is an invented problem, as there is movement [of people] in both directions.”

The Business Insider, a popular American business and technology news website, notes in an article on the Russian brain drain that the country “is seeing some dramatic demographic changes that could greatly influence its economic and political future.” According to the article, the majority of those emigrating from the country are representatives of the creative class, a segment of the population the Russian government seems uninterested in. In fact, in May 2013, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev declared that nobody was going to force people to stay: “Godspeed to those who leave! I do not mean to say you are not needed, but if that’s the path you see for yourselves, why should we hold on to you?”

According to the Polish national daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, today’s emigration from Russia is driven by politics, not economics: “People are scared of the uncertain situation in their own country and the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin’s totalitarian regime.” Ukrainian newspaper Segodnya shares this opinion: “Russians are afraid of a further crackdown in their country.” The author of this article cites analyst Stanislav Belkovsky as saying “The active part of society demonstrates ‘suitcase’ attitudes. Hundreds of thousands of representatives of the best part of our society are willing to leave. Their hopes that had been brought by the 2011 mass protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square have been completely disappointed after the takeover of Crimea.”

Last summer, the Guardian came to the rather pessimistic conclusion that “as opinion polls suggest that President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings among Russians are higher than ever, there is a sense among the urban liberal community that their battle for a different kind of Russia is lost.”


What the Experts Have to Say

Sociologists and demographic analysts maintain that it is still too early to speak of a new emigration wave; however, they also note that “suitcase attitudes” among the educated class are indeed becoming stronger.

In 2011, the Levada Center recorded a considerable surge in pro-emigration tendencies (although later, they became less pronounced again): “Whereas before, pro-emigration tendencies had affected 9 to 11 percent [of the population], in spring 2011, this figure reached 22 to 23 percent, and if one talks about the middle class, almost half of those polled expressed their willingness to leave,” the Levada Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, told the Institute of Modern Russia. “In 2012 and 2013, pro-emigration tendencies had not been increasing, but when it became clear that the crisis [in Ukraine] will be prolonged, these sentiments started rising again, first of all among representatives of the more educated urban middle class.”

According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center in June 2014, “ordinary Russians” had no plans to leave the country, whereas nearly every fourth survey participant with a college degree was contemplating different emigration options. Gudkov considers this emigration wave to be different from previous ones in both its nature and its status: “These are the most secure social groups, people [who have] achieved success, recognition, and wealth in Russia and who understand that they will not be able to live under the growing authoritarianism.”

Gudkov can identify three Russian emigration waves over the last thirty years and explains the differences between them: “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the migration legislation became more liberal, the country witnessed the beginning of an ethnic emigration. Jews, Germans, Greeks, and Turks were leaving. This wave lasted till the mid-1990s. Then, motives for emigration changed. The economic and social crisis in the country deepened considerably. Virtually the entire military—industrial complex, which employed a highly skilled labor force, collapsed. Engineers, project designers, scientists, and other employees of scientific research institutes lost their jobs, were thrown into poverty, and began looking for a way to survive.”

Between 2002 and 2004, the situation in the country began stabilizing, and pro-migration tendencies began decreasing. A new wave of pro-migration tendencies rose in spring 2011 when it became clear that Vladimir Putin was heading for a third presidential term. “People who are leaving today are more liberally oriented, more intelligent, better educated, and consequently, we are left with a rather inert, passive mass with opportunistic attitudes,” Gudkov says. And this undoubtedly suits the current regime just fine.

According to Vladimir Mukomel, head of the department for studying migratory and integration processes at the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, today’s emigrants indeed have a high level of education, but it is impossible to tell with certainty exactly who is leaving, because “Everybody is leaving.” As the demographic analyst points out, over the last few years, tensions and frustrations over the state of Russian social conditions have been mounting among Russians. In August 2014, it became obvious that the country was facing serious economic challenges. “Many people who have work or education opportunities in the West want to spend the next two or three years in better conditions,” Mukomel notes.


The Problem with Statistics

Despite Rosstat’s statistics and heated debates around pro-emigration tendencies in the media, nobody knows the exact number of people leaving Russia. IMR’s discussions with experts have demonstrated that it is impossible to calculate even an approximate number.


The first problem consists in a lack of accuracy in the methods used. The sudden surge in the number of emigrants recorded by Rosstat was caused by the fact that in 2011, the Federal Migration Service introduced changes to the methodology it uses to count migrants and has since been also counting foreigners who register for a stay of nine months or more (before, foreign citizens were considered migrants if they spent more than twelve months in the country). According to the online newspaper Meduza, the “higher overall number influenced the data on those leaving the country—the Federal Migration Service considers any foreigners whose registration has expired as ‘persons who left the Russian Federation.’ This is why Rosstat [statistics] that use data provided by the Federal Migration Service registered an incredible increase in emigration from 37 thousand to 123 thousand people a year.”


 Source: Rosstat


Mukomel believes that the media have once again rushed to conclusions: “Unfortunately, we do not have accurate statistics. If we are guided by Russian statistics, we get one figure, and if we use the data from countries where people go to, we get an entirely different figure.... Yes, according to Rosstat, the number of people leaving Russia has increased by 25 percent. But what are these 25 percent? An increase of 12 thousand people falls within the margin of error.”

The second issue consists in the fact that statistics do not reflect the entire problem, but only the tip of the iceberg. Today, people can emigrate without any statistics services or other state registration bodies knowing. Unlike during previous emigration waves, when people left for good after annulling their residence registration and surrendering papers, today, people can obtain long-stay visas and split their time between several countries. Many people remain connected to Russia by renting out their apartment, owning a business in Russia, or just working for a Russian company through the Internet. Such people are not included in Rosstat’s statistics. Nor are those who study abroad, have dual citizenship, receive grants and decide to stay and work abroad, or spend most of their time abroad. There are many such people who, after spending six months in Europe (Russians are permitted a maximum stay of 180 days a year in European countries), go to the United States, Latin America, or Asia. Such travelers only come “home” a couple of times a year. This type of emigration resembles a series of long business trips. And many of them still hope to return one day to their native country.

The third issue consists in the fact that statistics do not become available right away. Sometimes, one has to wait several years to be able to evaluate the scale of emigration flows. The United Nations regularly collects and publishes overall figures, and these statistics include information on which countries are lead destinations for immigrants and which are lead suppliers of emigrants to foreign countries. It is very hard to find detailed information on exactly how many people leave a given country and where they are headed. In 2012, Mikhail Denisenko, deputy director of the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics, was compiling such data pertaining to Russia. The most recent figures he used date from 2010. According to Denisenko, “such research requires state or Russian scientific foundations’ support, since Russian emigration, due to its social, economic, and demographic consequences, is more of a Russian problem than the problem of countries admitting Russian migrants.” It seems that the Russian state does not consider emigration a pressing issue, though: “The current regime is rather cynical about today’s emigration and would rather release steam from the boiler than let it burst,” Lev Gudkov notes.

When we talk about the qualitative character of today’s emigration, the number of people leaving the country fades into insignificance. Today, it is highly educated and entrepreneurially inclined people who are leaving Russia: i.e., those who stand to give Russia’s economy a boost, wean it off the “oil needle,” reduce its dependency on imports, and essentially raise the country to a higher level. This sad fact proves yet again that the current regime is not interested in the country’s long-term development. By allowing emigration to facilitate a “release of steam,” it not only prevents an intellectual revolt but also “purges” its audience of undesirables, leaving behind those who are more likely to be successfully brainwashed and whose critical faculty atrophies a bit more every time they watch Russian state TV. Controlling such a mass is an easy job.