20 years under Putin: a timeline

As Russia’s authoritarian system grows more repressive, the result is not only more political prisoners, but also more political émigrés. As in Soviet times, it is some of the best and the brightest who are leaving the country. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza discusses the significance of the new wave of political emigration for the Putin regime—and for Russia.



News of the apparent emigration of Sergei Guriev, one of Russia’s leading economists, has come as no surprise to those who follow current events. Nor, indeed, has a slate of recent news stories about prominent journalists, bloggers, politicians, and public figures, as well as those accused in politically motivated criminal cases—such as the “Bolotnaya case”—who have left Russia. And these are just the individuals whose names are well known. The actual number of those who have decided that leaving Russia was the best way to escape the staleness and villainy of the present regime is now in the thousands. If asked, most members of Russia’s urban middle class that rebelled against the system in 2011 and 2012 could confirm this trend, citing examples from among their own friends and acquaintances.

It was always a question of when, not if, the small stream of political émigrés that began with Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power would turn into a large river. It is little wonder that this is happening now, when Russia’s everyday reality no longer encompasses just fraudulent elections and media censorship, but also 1930s-style interrogations, political show trials, and state-driven paranoia about “foreign agents.”

For a political émigré, leaving one’s country is merely a confirmation of a loss that has already occurred.

Political emigration is, at its essence, involuntary, and the most tragic of all forms of emigration. It is one thing to strike out in search of “a better life,” and quite another when one is compelled to leave one’s country to escape a regime that is incompatible with one’s concept of social and political development or just plain decency. Not to mention the cases in which an individual’s continued presence in the country would mean arrest or physical destruction.

For a political émigré—as opposed to a regular emigrant—leaving one’s country is merely a confirmation of a loss that has already occurred. “I felt homesick when I sat in my apartment in Moscow and did not see my Motherland around me,” Alexander Kizevetter wrote from Prague. “Here, I do not feel homesick, because I am able to live with Russian people … and, through my lectures, to help Russian youth preserve its Russian soul for a better time.” In the autumn of 1922, after five years (and three arrests) in Bolshevik Russia, Kizevetter, a prominent historian, co-founder of the Constitutional Democratic Party, and former member of the State Duma, was exiled onboard one of the “philosophers’ ships.” On these ships, the elite of Russia’s educated society, including Berdyaev, Lossky, Trubetskoy, Ilyin, Father Sergii Bulgakov, and many others, were forever cast out of Russia on the orders of the communist authorities.


In the autumn of 1922, the German steamer Oberbürgermeister Haken carried dozens of leading Russian intellectuals into forced exile.


Often, political emigration is involuntary not only in spirit, but also in implementation. Decades after the “philosophers’ ships,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Bukovsky would be evicted from the country in much the same way, in handcuffs. “I did not want to leave,” Bukovsky recalled in his seminal book To Build A Castle. “Jews went to Israel, Germans went to Germany… But where could we, Russians, go? There is no other Russia. And why, after all, should we leave? Let Brezhnev and company emigrate.”

The horrendous negative selection to which the Bolsheviks and the KGB subjected Russia in the 20th century will continue to affect the country for years to come.

Alas, it is never the Brezhnevs of this world who leave dictatorial regimes for political reasons. It is, instead, those who are “the salt of the earth”: those who care; those who have a conscience; those who are civically responsible; those who are talented, active, and educated. The horrendous negative selection to which the Bolsheviks and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB subjected Russia in the 20th century (mostly not through emigration, but through mass annihilation) will continue to affect the country for years to come. Executions and exile targeted the most educated and capable citizens: the intelligentsia; the clergy; the nobility; the military, business, and agricultural elites; all those who could think and work for themselves and were not asking favors of the powers that be. Evidently, without such people, it is much easier for the regime to compel the nation to obey. It was by this logic that Yuri Andropov did not especially mind the “third wave” of emigration from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. It is also the reason that Andropov’s former subordinates (and present-day Kremlin leaders) are happy about the outflow of political émigrés. Those who are leaving are the “impetuous,” the opposition supporters, the people willing to protest. Putin only benefits from their absence. The question is whether Russia is able to survive the second such blow in a century, the second wave of depletion of its national elite.

Yet today’s situation is not as hopeless as that of the 1920s or the 1970s. To begin with, as Leonid Bershidsky rightly pointed out, thanks to open borders and modern means of communication, physical absence from Russia no longer constitutes an insurmountable barrier to participating in the country’s life. The very meaning of “emigration,” therefore, is less absolute than before. Secondly—and most importantly—judging by the pace of the Putin regime’s degeneration into repressive insanity, its end cannot be far off. Which means that members of the “Putin wave” of Russian political émigrés will be able to do what their historical predecessors never lived to do—return home and help in the establishment of a new, democratic Russian state.