20 years under Putin: a timeline

In the first part of this special research project on Russian emigration, we talked about the extent to which emigration is occurring, and media coverage, expert opinions, and the nature of statistics pertaining to this topic. In the second part of the research, journalist Ksenia Semenova analyzes the results of a survey conducted among those who left Russia in the period from 2012 to 2014. Many of these people still do not call themselves emigrants.


Sociologists agree that it’s primarily educated and successful professionals that have been leaving Russia over the last few years. Photo: A still from The Emigrants, the 1971 Swedish movie, directed by Jan Troell.


As we mentioned in the first part of this research, according to the latest data provided by the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) the number of Russian emigrants likely reached a 15-year high in 2014. But although these statistics provoked a heated discussion in the media, experts point out that these numbers do not necessarily reflect the real situation. Since sociologists agree that today’s emigrants are more educated and professionally established than they have been in the past, in this second part of the research, we will address those who left in order to understand the specific nature of the latest emigration wave.

We were interested in examining the following issues: 

  • Professional characteristics
  • Motives for leaving
  • Destination
  • The process of cultural and professional integration in the new country
  • Conditions for returning to Russia (if they exist)

A major Facebook survey was conducted in December 2014. The survey also addressed several public figures who had left Russia in the past two years. The emigration time frame (the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term in 2012 through the end of 2014) served as the key selection criterion. As a result, 30 people with different professional backgrounds who had chosen different emigration pathways participated in a focus group. In some cases we were asked to display only the first letter of the last name of the respondent.


Professional Background

Survey results revealed that all participants were educated people and that most of them were well-paid professionals with extensive experience in their field. These people included, among others, software specialists, journalists, scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, consultants, realtors, musicians, managers, and marketing experts. The focus group also included two homemakers who, although they are currently forced to stay at home in their new country, had had successful careers in the banking sphere and marketing before they left Russia to follow their husbands abroad.


Motivation for Emigration

Since discussions about a new wave of emigration have increased in frequency since the beginning of Putin’s third presidential term, the survey took into account the answers of only those respondents who had left Russia since 2012. It was in the period from 2012 to 2014 that about one-third of those polled considered emigration for the first time and consequently left Russia. Some noted that they had been thinking about leaving for the prior five years but decided to do so only after the events of 2011. For many, the "castling," when then—Prime Minister Putin and then-President Medvedev cynically decided to swap jobs, and the farcical parliamentary elections that followed it, were the final straw. Furthermore, between 2012 and 2014, criminal cases were initiated against some respondents. However, the political situation in the country did not serve as a reason for leaving in all cases. Some of those polled were offered professional opportunities in other countries.

Respondents gave the following reasons for leaving Russia (not in order of priority):

  • Lack of opportunities for self-fulfillment (the feeling of being professionally unwanted in their native country)
  • Economic problems
  • Aggressive and malicious attitudes in society
  • A lack of certainty about the future
  • Lawlessness and a lack of personal security guarantees
  • Weariness in fighting for rights
  • Loss of hope for any improvement of the current situation
  • Criminal prosecution
  • Poor environmental situation
  • Concern about the future and education of respondent’s children 

Anya Levitova (entrepreneur, 41 years old, living in the United States since September 2012) said that she remembered the day when she decided to move to the United States: "September 24, 2011, when Putin declared that he was not going to observe the basic rules of decency and would become president [for the third time], was a very sad day. After that, we participated in rallies, we had stupid hopes, enthusiasm. . . . I was an observer during the presidential elections, but it was clear since the very beginning that it was all pointless: at 7 a.m. on Election Day, we got a call from someone we knew in the prosecutor’s office who told us the final result [correct to] two decimal places and said: ‘Anya should not go to observe, it is just stupid.’ And even before the vote count began in our polling place, Putin had already announced his victory. . . . This was very humiliating and actually stupid."

Dmitri V. (leadership consultant, 34 years old, living in the United States since August 2014) said that he had been concerned about the economic and political situation in Russia for some time before the events of recent years prompted him to leave (to study in an American business school). "Before 2005, I was essentially a ‘pochvennik’: I used to categorically reject the possibility of leaving," he said. "I first thought about it when I began preparing my Ph.D. thesis on economic development in post-Soviet countries. ‘Numbers do not lie.’ The Russian crises—both the economic and the political one—have systemic roots. The economy is not developing; the level of investment in capital stock is lower than in the majority of developing countries. In 20 years, Russia has learned neither how to provide itself with food, clothing, and shoes, nor how to produce high-technology goods, and has not been investing any money in either. I began keeping an eye on the figures, and as time passed, the figures got worse." In Dmitri’s case, a combination of several factors constituted the straw that broke the camel’s back: the fact that economist Sergei Guriev was driven out of the country, the "Bolotnaya prisoners," the attack on Russia’s last decent media outlets, and the annexation of Crimea. "It has all just become too much," Dmitri said. "It became clear that a crisis was coming."

Many of those polled emphasized that they were not real emigrants but left the country to "sit it out," "think," "wait it out," "make it through the winter," or just for a "long business trip."

Since the departure of Sergei Guriev (professor of economics and former rector of the New Economic School in Moscow, 43 years old, living in France since May 2013) provoked wide discussion in both Russian and Western media, we decided to address the same question to him. According to Guriev, he was forced to leave Russia quickly and under pressure: "I was a witness in the Yukos case. I had reason to believe that I could lose my freedom." It is worth noting that Guriev was one of the six experts who in 2011 provided expertise for the presidential Human Rights Council report on the legality of the second case brought against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev and maintained that their persecution was illegal.

Darya Oreshkina (cartographer and infographics editor, 35 years old, living in the United States since December 2013) and writer and journalist Masha Gessen left Russia because of the deterioration of the situation for LGBT people, and especially the adoption of legislation permitting anti-gay propaganda. "Talking about Americans adopting Russian children in an interview to Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, [deputy Vitali] Milonov called our family ‘perverted,’" Oreshkina said, "after which State Duma deputies started talking about taking children away from homosexual parents. As lesbian parents with three children, one of whom was adopted, we decided not to wait until the State Duma began discussing the adoption of such legislation."

Marat Gelman (gallerist, curator, and former director of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, 54 years old, living in Montenegro since December 2014) left Russia as a result of a conflict with the authorities. In June 2013, after a scandal provoked by a satirical art exhibit by Krasnoyarsk artist Vasily Slonov entitled "Welcome Sochi 2014," Gelman not only was fired from the museum, but began encountering obstacles when trying to organize private art shows: "The presidential administration gave my partner and investor a slap on the wrist and made it clear that he should not have anything to do with Gelman," he said. "And I understood that they would make it so I would not be able to work in Russia. Our government decided that if you criticize Putin you cannot be a museum director, not to mention oversee private projects." Gelman also noted that he is witnessing a mass exodus of creative professionals from Russia and identified three main reasons for this trend: "Some seek a life of comfort: in Russia, we are called to perform heroic acts, to tighten our belts, and to live like we are at war. Some seek self-fulfillment: in Russia, there is a vertical power structure, and it demands executors, not creative people. Some want to escape politics: restrictive laws, the return to the Soviet Union. And thus, it is not that important where you go, but where from."

According to Anna K. (music teacher, 33 years old, living in Holland since October 2013), the decision to leave Russia was made when "an opportunity to change something in life, leave for nowhere in particular, and start afresh presented itself. And I ventured upon this step because my life consisted of work only, which brought me pleasure without bringing any money, and consequently, I had to spend my time free from work . . . on working. As does any teacher."

However, there are people who think that Moscow offers enough business and career opportunities for self-fulfillment, but the problem lies elsewhere. As Dmitri N. (software specialist, 31 years old, living in Germany since September 2014) noted, "this is not the self-fulfillment I want to achieve. I want to work at something that will benefit humanity or the community I live in. This is why I prefer [working] in a more developed society that has better-developed and more effectively functioning public institutions. Besides, in my profession, the majority of technologies are being developed in the West."

As a result of deteriorating working conditions for Russian media outlets, the former Lenta.ru team, headed by Galina Timchenko, started their Meduza project in Latvia instead of Russia. According to Ivan Kolpakov (editor and one of Meduza’s founders, 31 years old, living in Latvia since September 2014), it is impossible to create a new media outlet in Russia: "Today, Russia is living out its own Groundhog Day. One should wait until it ends to go back home. As for me, I think that for the next few years I will be living between two countries—if I’m not put on some blacklist."


Former rector of the New Economic School, economist Sergei Guriev was forced to leave Russia due to political pressure. He is currently professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po). Photo: Kommersant.


In 2014, another professional consultant, who wished to remain anonymous, moved to London because of the general political and economic crisis in Russia and the country’s aggression against Ukraine. "In Russia, in 2004, a relatively liberal regime turned into one characterized by increasingly frequent selective repressions and the dismantling of democracy, and in 2014, the regime turned to aggression against a brotherly country and to rampant propaganda of hatred," the respondent noted. "In the context of deteriorating external economic conditions, this could not but result in a deep economic and foreign policy crisis. The regime has not make any concessions and has not changed its direction. If the dynamics remain the same, the question of your loved ones ending up in this slaughter machine is just a matter of time. It is simply stupid to ignore this."

Many respondents mentioned Russian society’s growing aggression and hatred as another reason for leaving. For Sergei Kucher (marketing specialist, 34 years old, living in Australia since May 2013), "blind and unfounded aggression" was the last straw. Respondents also mentioned a wish to have children and be able to secure the future of the next generation within a more positive communication environment with a better environmental situation.



Russian emigrants had a wide array of destinations. The United States, as the majority of software specialists’ favorite emigration country, was naturally at the top of the list. Finland and Israel were popular destinations as well. Russian emigrants also found attractive such countries as Great Britain, Spain, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, Latvia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Sweden, France, Canada, Hungary, and Australia. Asian countries were the least popular destinations among emigrants.

According to our survey, the top five emigration destinations were as follows:

  1. The United States (10 people)
  2. France (4 people)
  3. Israel (3 people)
  4. Great Britain, Germany, and Slovenia (2 people each)
  5. Spain, Holland, Montenegro, Australia, Latvia, Sweden, Portugal, and other countries (1 person each)

For example, Anton Korzh (system architect, 33 years old, living in the United States since October 2014) moved to the United States to "change the world." According to him, such an opportunity is available to those who work at the "top of the computer industry." Tatiana Khrylova (editor, 32 years old, living in Spain since February 2012) chose her emigration country for its climate and its people’s friendliness: "I like it when the sun is shining and oranges grow in the streets. I like hearing mothers call their children cariño (‘darling’)—not ‘hit the road.’ It’s embarrassing to admit, but I like it when stores sell green broccoli—not gray." One respondent said that Slovenia attracted him by its rather inexpensive but high living standards.

Latvia turned out to be a good place to establish a Russian-language media outlet such as the aforementioned Meduza project. Ivan Kolpakov listed the advantages of this country as "the Russian-speaking environment, one-hour time difference with Moscow, a very simple business registration process, transparent migration conditions, and low rental rates. All in all, an attractive location for a media business."



The majority of those polled believed that it is too early to talk about cultural integration. Before leaving Russia, respondents tried to create as many contacts as they could in the country they were contemplating as their emigration destination, studying the country’s history and its language.

Respondents reported that integration into the everyday life of their destination county had gone smoothly. Many respondents mentioned some initial difficulties but added that their unfamiliarity with certain details of local customs did not cause them much trouble, since colleagues and neighbors were always happy to help or offer advice. The majority of respondents claimed that they already felt at home in their new country.

Professional integration went more smoothly for those who had a job in the new country from the very beginning. According to Sergei Guriev, "from the professional point of view, there were no problems. Professor of economics is an absolutely international profession. From the cultural point of view, life in France is much better for those who speak French. Although my French is still bad, my knowledge of it is enough for everyday life."

Some noted that they would probably never be able to achieve full cultural integration but did not have a problem with that because with the Internet and many fellow countrymen living nearby, everyone could find an opportunity to experience his or her native cultural environment.

Although the political situation in Russia served as a decisive impetus for emigration, it was the general negative atmosphere—aggression in society, disappointed hopes in any change for the better, poor environmental situation—that prompted many people to leave.

Some found it hard to go through the process of cultural integration. "In your native country you can always choose a few people you feel close to out of a very big number of your fellow countrymen," Dmitri V. said. "In a foreign country, there are fewer people to choose from, which makes it very hard to make new friends. People [in Russia and abroad] grow up watching different cartoons. Ninety percent of my cultural analogies, metaphors, and quotes are unfamiliar to this society." Anna Belskaya (advertising specialist, 31 years old, living in Israel since October 2013) shared Dmitri’s opinion: "Maybe it’s the way of thinking or even books on which we all grew up. We will always remain the generation of immigrants. We are already strangers there, but we do not entirely belong here either. I find it amusing; it neither upsets me nor makes me sad."

Some respondents were concerned that their children might lose their cultural ties to Russia and consequently to their parents. Others tried to maintain "Russian" customs that they used to have at home, such as trips to the dacha (summer cottage), making fruit and berry preserves, and reading fairy tales while at the same time expressing happiness that their children had wider opportunities for development. "Our five-year-old daughter goes to a small private school where children are taught in Chinese," Anna Levitova said. "She can already speak [Chinese] rather fluently: she knows around 500 hieroglyphs. In Moscow this would be impossible. On November 1, 2014, our second daughter was born, and no one called me ‘old trout’ and told me that everything was wrong with me, whereas in Moscow five years ago when I was pregnant with our first daughter, [doctors used to] roll their eyes and tell me I was not young anymore. One could write an entire book about the quality of medical care and [patients’] relations with doctors [in Russia]."

However, some people who left Russia felt torn away from their homes and friends, and fell into depression. According to Svetlana Glazkova (former public relations specialist and currently a homemaker, 33 years old, living in the United States since August 2012), her newly adopted healthy lifestyle, which is very popular in Los Angeles, where she and her husband live, was the only thing that helped her overcome depression.


Conditions for Return

This issue proved to be the toughest one for the respondents. Summing up their answers, we came up with a list of conditions that would encourage emigrants to return to Russia (not in order of priority):

  • Improvement of the government’s attitude toward people and people’s attitudes toward each other
  • Change of regime
  • Effectively functioning state legal mechanisms
  • A decrease in nationalist tendencies in society
  • Decent wages and pensions
  • Debureaucratization
  • Improvement of the environmental situation
  • Dual citizenship

Some of those who left dreamed of going back. They hoped to gain new experience abroad and then use it in Russia. Marat Gelman was one of those people: "If we were continuing to build a democratic society in Russia, I would be definitely back in two years," he said. "When I was working on the Cultural Alliance project, we did not take [into account] cities with a population of less than 500,000 people. And in Montenegro, most towns are small. On the one hand, it is a challenge, but on the other hand, if something comes out of it I will learn how to work with smaller cities in Russia. To tell the truth, I do not yet consider myself an emigrant, and I did not leave Russia itself—I left Putin. I left because of the horror that he creates for the whole country and for me in particular. As soon as there is a way forward for the country, I will be actively involved in that." 

Many of those polled emphasized that they were not real emigrants but left the country to "sit it out," "think," "wait it out," "make it through the winter," or just for a "long business trip." However, after the events of 2014 (the annexation of Crimea, military aggression in Ukraine, rampant propaganda on state television, health care reform, the law regarding dual citizenship, etc.), they decided not to return right away but to live as "half-emigrants" for a little longer. Those who had no problems crossing borders in both directions now preferred staying abroad. Thus, long business trips turned into "emigration for good." 

Some respondents were pessimistic about Russia’s future and did not plan to return. According to Oksana Smirnova (curator, 29 years old, living in Great Britain since September 2014), "for the next 20 years, there will be no changes, and since I am not prepared to spend this time waiting for something to happen, I’m not sure that I will ever return." Vadim Semenov (microprocessor engineer, 36 years old, living in the United States since October 2013) shared this opinion and added that "85 percent [of those who support Putin] cannot be changed. Or at the very least, this will demand a stunning blow of some kind. To tell the truth, I don’t care anymore. I’m tired of thinking about the ‘fate of my motherland.’" Andrei Glazkov (lawyer and entrepreneur, 37 years old, living in the United States since August 2012) had no illusions about Russia. "I only believe that I can change something about myself and my life," he said. "We are in the United States now, [and] we are planning to move again—not back to Russia, but to Germany. This is what I can change. I do not believe that anything can change in Russia."

For Nikolai Klimenyuk (journalist, 44 years old, living in Germany since February 2014), Russia ceased being attractive after the annexation of Crimea: "I am native-born Crimean," he said. "Such people as I were called Russians before. My native language is indeed Russian. My great-grandfather had a Russian last name. What Russia did to my motherland—Crimea—and to Ukraine in general, and especially the reaction of ‘our circle,’ brought the matter of Russia to a close for me, I think, for good. I have no wish whatsoever to go back there and live in that society, and my attitude will likely never change. I used to have this foolish idea of moving to Sebastopol in my old age, but this fantasy has entirely dissipated."

There was one respondent, however, who claimed that he liked absolutely everything about Russia and would not change anything except its climate. Nobody could help him with that, though.



The analysis of the respondents’ answers shows that, for many, although the political situation in Russia served as a decisive impetus for emigration, it was the general negative atmosphere—aggression in society, disappointed hopes in any change for the better, poor environmental situation—that prompted them to leave. Responses often included such statements and phrases as "it has just become uncomfortable," "this train does not come my way," "uncivilized and sometimes even savage population," and "we are sick all the time."

Those who left expressed no trust in either Russian society or their fellow countrymen. The majority of respondents believed that instead of pointlessly trying to change something, one should find a better place where one could achieve self-fulfillment and enjoy life at a lower cost. Whereas in Soviet times, people left mostly in search of better material conditions or for the sake of their children’s future, today, most people leave in search of higher living standards and professional prospects to achieve self-fulfillment.

IT specialists emigrated after receiving attractive job offers. They did not rule out the possibility of going back to Russia one day but specified that they would only do so if they were offered high-paying jobs and could have dual citizenship. They stated that the second passport would make them feel safer. Successful entrepreneurs wanted to escape the economic crisis and the fear of ending up in a "slaughter machine" as the political situation in Russia gives rise to more and more questions and concerns. People who were building a business were not prepared to take risks. At the same time, they kept their ties to Russia and were willing to go back—but only for short periods of time.

Scientists left because it is normal for people in this field, especially for those who are actively involved in the global scientific sphere, to move between countries and participate in joint projects. However, many of them did not see a return to Russia, where a scientist’s fixed salary on the wage scale can amount to 4,500 rubles (and where a real salary that is usually three to five times higher is still way below international standards), as their best option.

Journalists seemed to be less affected by the emigration experience, since today’s communication technologies, such as the Internet, make it possible for them to continue working for Russian-speaking media outlets.

Experts whom we talked to in the first part of our research believed that despite the existing social signals, it is too early to talk about "brain drain." More accurate figures will help evaluate the situation. Sociologists agree that the majority of today’s emigrants are indeed "more educated and successful" people than previous generations of emigrants; notably, Russia is already suffering from a deficit of such individuals. These are the people who could contribute to the country’s modernization and economic diversification.

The number of talented people who are able to generate ideas, boost the country’s development, and be involved in this process but instead choose emigration is a reliable barometer of the public mood and a key indicator of Russia’s economic potential. This evaluation of the current trends and data analysis confirm that Russia’s potential is decreasing.