Russia’s Brain Drain Abates, Just As Western Media Starts Hyping It

Everything’s going badly in Russia. Medvedev’s reforms are failing. The economy isn’t growing. It is moving from authoritarianism to totalitarianism (in stark contrast to civilized Western countries), and the motto “We cannot live like this any longer!” once again becomes an article of faith in the land – or well, at least among “the blogs on LiveJournal” and “the sites of the top independent and opposition groups” (who are of course totally representative of Russian public opinion). Citizens are fleeing the country like rats from a sinking ship.

Anyhow, unlike Eugene Ivanov who argues that media coverage of Russia has improved of late, I think the Western punditocracy remains every bit as wrong, idiotic and venal on Russia as it always was, and in this post I’ll use the recent WSJ article “Why Are They Leaving?” by Julian Evans as my foil (it’s illustrated with soc-realist posters of the worker and collective farm girl harkening back to the Soviet era; excusez-moi for crashing the party, but WTF do they have to do with anything in a story about Russian emigration of all things???).

“Russia’s small but educated middle-class is deserting the mother country in search of opportunities and freedoms elsewhere…” Thus from the get go the author makes the strong impression – and one that is decisively reinforced throughout the rest of the article – that Russia has a big emigration problem that is draining it of brains and talent. But let’s consult the statistics (as opposed to anecdotal evidence and online polls at Novaya Gazeta asking Russians whether they want to emigrate; yes, Mr. Evans cites the online readership of a paper written by liberal ideologues in support of his argument). Too bad for Mr. Evans, the statistics reveal his article for the sham it really is.

First off the bat, it is worth pointing out that Russia has a positive net migration rate. Far more people are going in than going out. This I’m sure will come as a shock to mindless consumers of Western media – conditioned as they are to think of Russia as a bleak wasteland full of starving nuclear scientists, hot girls wanting to score with rich British guys, and crooks desperate to park their ill-gotten assets into a Swiss bank account and get a second citizenship – but it is true nonetheless. Now granted this very minor factoid isn’t of direct relevance to the article, which is after all concerned about the disillusionment of Russia’s middle class and its growing flight abroad; nonetheless, failing to mention this inconvenient fact that many people in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Ukraine are willing to go Russia not even once is misleading and hints at an agenda.

But the far more damning evidence is that even as regards those “civilized” countries that Russians have traditionally been emigrating to – the biggest recipient nations of Russians post-1991 were Germany, the US, and Israel – the flow of Russian emigrants had all but dried up by 2008. The overall net numbers of Russian emigrants to the world outside the post-Soviet space has been shrinking steadily from 1999, when it was at -72,000, falling to -26,000 in 2005 and just a few thousands by the late 2000’s. According to the Rosstat figures, from 2000 to 2010, the migration balance improved as follows for the five biggest host countries for Russian emigrants during that decade: Germany from -38,700 to -1,100; the US from -4,300 to -807; Israel from -7,900 to -133; Finland from -1,100 to -339; and Canada from -800 to -387. In the first four months of 2011, the migration balance actually turned positive relative to Germany and Israel (as it has already been for several years with another developed country, Greece). The graph below illustrates these trends.

[Click to enlarge. Stats for 2011 are annualized based on Jan-Apr.]

Julian Evans can cite any number of anecdotes he wants about how Russian businessmen are fleeing to Venezuela because “there are more opportunities to develop there”, or about the “young educated people” (because, of course, youth and education are synonymous with wanting to leave Russia) and “strongest and most gifted people” (quoting liberal ideologue Dmitry Oreshkin at Novaya Gazeta, 62.5% of whose online readership want to leave Russia) who can’t wait to set off for Notting Hill because of the “insecurity of property rights” in Russia. But his elitist fetish with the middle classes (that supposedly hate Putin’s Russia) blinds him and by extension his readers to the larger reality, which is that emigration is very small and continues to decrease into this year. The actual statistics flatly contradict his ramblings, and as such Julian Evans remains about as credible as… well, the same hack who six years ago was expounding on the “green Stalinist light” in Gleb Pavlovsky’s office.

Now you may at this point want to rejoinder… but AK, aren’t you a big fan of opinion polls? Didn’t you just a few days ago try to use them to argue that Russian elections aren’t rigged? And don’t Levada’s opinion polls indicate that quite a lot of Russians really do want to emigrate – 22% of them as of May 2011, up from 13% in 2009 – thus confirming Evans’ and Oreshkin’s arguments? Well, just as there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, there are opinion polls, and then there are opinion polls. Some signify more than others. For instance, in the aftermath of Bush’s election win in 2004, some Americans loudly declared they were fed up with it all and were ready to hop over the border to Canada… but when the time came to walk the walk (as opposed to talk the talk), the migration flows to Canada didn’t change in any perceptible way. That’s because just being fed up with domestic politics – that is what Evans alleges is the main reason for the “educated middle-class deserting the mother country” – is, in most cases, a frivolous reason for making a life-changing decision such as emigration, and while many might think about it in their idle moments very few follow through on it.

If you don’t believe me, let’s return to the opinion polls again. Back in 2006, The Daily Mail reported that 13% of Britons wanted to leave the UK in the near future (as you may know there has NOT been a massive flood of British hordes out of the island since, my own case and that of random drunken revelers in Prague regardless). By 2010 this figure had leaped up to 33% – higher than the percentage of Russians saying they want to leave now, BTW  (and that’s despite those awesome “rule of law” and “civilized values” things that Russian liberals like to harp on about when it comes to any Anglo-Saxon country) – but nonetheless, we still see no mass exodus from Albion. Why the discrepancy? Return to that Levada poll and look at the breakdown of answers more closely. 22% of Russians may be thinking of leaving, but only 1% are actually packing their bags.

And this brings us into what should be the main starting point of any discussion about the future of Russian emigration: why would they want to? All this currently fashionable twaddle about property rights or rule of law being a major driver isn’t convincing; it’s certainly no worse than it was in previous years, and if anything is showing signs of improvement. Why would the middle-class (which is as happy as any other social group with Putin) decide to take a hike right now? Let’s be serious. In previous years, there were only two main groups of emigrants: (1) the vast majority were ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Volga Germans, returning to their national homelands; (2) educated professionals from academia who were earning breadcrumbs from Russian academic institutions with no opportunities for original research. Almost all those who would ever emigrate from the first group have already done so (see the vast decrease in emigration to Israel and Germany). Meanwhile, anybody who has been following the issue will know that the salaries of state workers have been increasing at rapid rates in recent years, including those of academics; true, the increases were from a very low base and absolute salaries remain far lower than in fully developed countries, however if the emigration statistics are anything to go by (and with the help of Russia’s lower relative prices) salaries have now reached a level that allows for a rough balance between immigrants and emigrants. In other words, the situation with Russian academia vis-à-vis the world now largely resembles that those prevailing between developed nations – scientists are free to have scientific exchanges, but with the vast majority of researchers returning to their home countries after a stay of several months or years.

PS. More details here: Гуд бай, Америка: Эмиграция из России в США достигла минимума.

Also see Nikolai Starikov’s Как создаются либеральные мифы for an account of how liberals used misquotes to create the impression that Russia is facing a second emigration wave.


  1. It is normal for there to be a strong desire to emigrate for a less wealthy country. I am certain you would find comparable, if not higher, numbers of people saying they want to leave central and eastern European countries. Many do in fact leave but this is not necessarily a sign of decadence and bad governance.

    • grafomanka says:

      When it comes to number of students wanting to emigrate, it’s 60% for Poland and 70% for Latvia, Lithuania.

      • But Polish emigration seems to have dried up since 2008; the number of Polish workers in the UK have been roughly stable since then. Contrary to Doug M., I don’t think it will ever start up again, at least not on the scale of the mid-2000’s (Poland’s unemployment is down; has weathered the crisis better than almost all of Europe; its state finances are relatively excellent; a shrinking labor pool will now begin to put upward pressure on wages; and it’s converging closer and closer to the EU average).

        • Yalensis says:

          After Poles voted out those idiot Kaczynski brothers, they actually got themselves a decent government. Amazing what a small thing like competence can achieve.

          • grafomanka says:

            … amazing what a small thing like democracy can achieve

            • I was thinking how the plane crash disaster of last year actually showed the strength of Poland’s new system. As is supposed to happen in a smoothly functioning democracy, even with half the gov’t destroyed, things continued to run normally, without public upheaval or chaos. That was an impressive achievement in its own right.

              • Yalensis says:

                It also helped that the ones clambering aboard that plane were the drunken idiocracy of their society; and the ones who stayed behind to govern were the smart ones. Darwinian natural selection at work.

        • grafomanka says:

          Things in Poland are not that great. 50% of young people go to University and there are no decent jobs for them, especially if they studied social sciences or arts. The situation’s quite desperate.

          • Well, Poland’s unemployment rate – which was almost at 20% throughout the mid-2000’s, when most of the emigration happened – is now down to just 9.3% as of May 2011. This is still high by other developed country standards, but not unreasonable so: UK 7.5%; France 9.5%; USA 9.1%. It is now the likes of Latvia, Spain, and Greece that have taken your place in the 15%+ range.

            And students who study social sciences and humanities tend to have worse job prospects in any country! 😉

            • grafomanka says:

              Unemployment rate for graduates is still as high as 20%. The overall 9,3% unemployment figure might be too optimistic- I think it’s claimant count figure which leaves a lot of people out because they don’t bother to register or have an odd job once in a while.
              A lot of Poles are coming back to the UK recently, apparently they are dissatisfied with low wages at home. For sure, there’s work around now, but it’s a low grade work (I hear that more and more Ukrainians flock to Poland). Students are very dissatisfied, if you have little job experience you’re lucky to get any job at all, so no wonder 60% of them want out. That said, I don’t think there will be another great wave of immigration.
              Also Polish women women living in Britain have on average more children than their compatriots back home. Quite telling.

              • Yalensis says:

                @grafomanka: Personally I think it’s admirable that 50% of Polish young people would go to university. That’s a large number of intelligentsia. Even if they can’t find jobs afterwards, it’s still a good thing to have an education, no?
                P.S. Do I detect a personal note in your complaint? Maybe you are worried that you are studying the wrong thing and won’t be able to find a job when you graduate? Not to worry, you should study what interests you and let the future take care of itself. Later, if you can’t find a job in your field, you can always go back to school and learn something practical, like medical technician or computer programmer (=what I did when I couldn’t find a job in linguistics).

  2. Another try, another fail. The title claims that “Russia’s Brain Drain Abates”, but the article itself fails to provide a single specific fact or figure concerning emigration among the better-educated classes. Слабая троечка.

    • among the better-educated classes

      Ha-ha! peter, are you hinting at yourself?

    • Peter, but you failed to get the main gist of my critique. Let me spell it to you in bite-sized chunks. Of course Evans doesn’t give “a single specific fact or figure”! – since if he did, they would be extremely unlikely to support his contention of a growing emigration wave, particularly among the young and educated. Why? Because the actual statistics show emigration to developed countries sinking to a low level by 2007-8 and continuing to decline hence (and even turning positive for Israel and Germany in the first months of this year).

      Now could it be that, say, old and uneducated Russians are returning in ever greater numbers, thus canceling out a growing tsunami of emigration of those glorified young, educated, ambitious, middle class Russians? (Rosstat doesn’t provide migration statistics based on age and socio-economic status, so I suppose that could be the case – on a parallel world defying the laws of common sense). Now back on planet Earth, where we know that older people are (generally) less likely to emigrate; that the main drivers of Russia’s emigration in prior years, ethnic and academic, are much weakened (partly because they’ve played themselves out, partly because of improvements of conditions in Russia); and that the opportunity gap between Russia and most developed countries has shrank (because of a smaller salary gap; the financial crisis, which has produced more unemployment in the West – i.e. what jobs will Russian emigrants do?)

      So what we have here is Evans purposefully creating the strong impression of a big, growing wave of out-migration from Russia by selectively quoting sources (e.g. only those who want to migrate themselves) and citing only the flimsiest evidence in support of it (e.g. an online poll at Novaya Gazeta, as opposed to, say, statistics). This makes his article misleading, a sham that provides its readers with literally negative added value in the sense that layman readers will know and understand less about Russia after perusing it than before. They will believe that many Russians’ desire to leave Russia is weird and unnatural compared to their own countries (it isn’t), and that this expresses itself in a rising wave of talent drain from Russia (there isn’t; it’s now low, and still decreasing). That is my point, spelled out here in excruciating detail, it’s presence a poor reflection on your reading comprehension. Двойка, peter. Незачет!

      PS. You seem to have a better memory of my online commenting activities than myself. I don’t know if I should feel honored, or a bit creeped out. 😉

      • Of course Evans doesn’t give “a single specific fact or figure”!

        Oops, you got me wrong here. I didn’t say anything about Evans — it’s YOUR article, not his, that abjectly fails to provide any relevant specifics. Sorry, I should’ve said “post”, not “article”.

        Двойка, peter. Незачет!

        Ох. You can’t just parrot your opponent’s jokes, you need to come up with your own material.

      • That is even more inane, if anything. The statistics show that net emigration from Russia to developed countries has fallen to very low levels, and continues decreasing; this goes directly against Evans’ article which argues that the exact opposite is occurring. I provided statistics and specifics in support of my point; Evans didn’t (because, to repeat for the nth time, anecdotal evidence does not an argument make).

        You should work harder on your skills at “casting white as black and black as white.”

        • I provided statistics…

          You’ve only provided gross migration statistics, which say even less than Evans’ anecdotes about the current state of brain drain in Russia and whether or not a new wave is brewing. What part of “relevant specifics” do you not understand?

          • Yalensis says:

            Илья муромец подходит к пещере и кричит:
            -Выходи Змей горыныч, драться будем!
            В ответ тишина.
            (ИМ): Выходи, падлюка, на честный бой!
            Опять тишина!
            (ИМ)еще громче в пещеру орет:
            -Выходи, змей, драться!
            Змей Горыныч:
            -Ну, драться так драться, чего в жопу-то орать!

        • I originally wrote a response, but on second thought have deleted it because it’s clear the discussion is going nowhere. You demand an absurd burden of proof from this blogger – far higher than of the WSJ, for instance – that can only be met with migration statistics series based on socio-economic status, education, and age structure (which don’t exist, at least not at Rosstat’s site); and even if I were to find them, you’d most likely find something else to nitpick over. I stand by my assertion that I provided c. ∞ more “relevant specifics” than Evans’ anecdotes (which are worthless because of biased sampling) and bow out of the discussion.

          PS. The statistics I provided aren’t “gross”, they are net.

          • The statistics I provided aren’t “gross”, they are net.

            No, your first graph shows both gross immigration and gross emigration.

          • Which is by way of background, to let people know that net migration is positive (easy to realize by noticing the difference between the immigration and emigration graphs).

            The main graph that constitutes the locus of the argument is entitled “Russian Emigration: The End of the Brain Drain” – that is, because it illustrates people flows between Russia and the main developed countries – which quite explicitly shows net migration.

            I’m really wondering if you genuinely don’t notice these things (as opposed to every other commentator in this thread, even though most don’t have your (supposed?) scientific background); or if you’re just desperately grasping at any straw in an attempt to save face. Which is it?

            • Haven’t you “bowed out of this discussion”? Even a beginner troll like you should know better than coming back (twice already) after “bowing out” in tears.

              But okay, since you insist, I agree my wording was a bit ambiguous — I should’ve said “gross (as opposed to detailed) emigration/immigration statistics”. Sorry about that, but you in turn strangely seem to get every ambiguity the wrong way.

  3. When the USSR was in the midst of its worst period of repression in the 1930s the western pundits were singing its praises. When things had vastly improved by 1960 they were howling cold war hate. Communism is dead, but western russophobia is alive and strong. It’s so predictable its boring. Next they will be harping about bread queues.

    • Yalensis says:

      “Next they will be harping about bread queues…
      And trying to get ballerinas to defect to West in order to practice “artistic freedom”…

  4. Petri Hekkala says:

    Thanks Anatoly, this is good info.
    I would appreciate a direct link to these Rosstat stats that you are providing though.

  5. Petri Hekkala says:
    • Scowspi says:

      Interesting. There’s actually been a sizable Russian community in the Czech Rep. for years; I knew some of them when I was living in Prague 2001-02. In Karlovy Vary, they even have bilingual street signs.

      • Petri Hekkala says:

        I actually had a debate about this in a Finnish message board.
        Some poster first claimed that hundreds of thousands of Russians are emigrating annually. Then I made a reference to Rosstat statistics which say that only 30,000 Russians emigrated last year. His response to this was that most of the Russians leaving Russia do not inform authorities about their departure because of fear that their property in Russia will be seized, and thus they are not included in Russian migration statistics.

        Anatoly, Yalensis? What is your take on this claim?

        • That MBK lawyers’ press releases or La Russophobe are his news on Russia?

          I have never heard anything about this.Nobody has a right to just take your property. Of course some violations can and inevitably will happen, but you’re not insured from them even in countries as big on the whole “rule of law” thing as the US (see foreclosure fraud).

          • Petri Hekkala says:

            He did not name his source. He just claimed that most of the people who move out of Russia are not included in any statistics. They officially still live in Russia but really live abroad.

          • I’m not an expert this and perhaps yalensis or kovane can expound further, but AFAIK the immigration data from Rosstat comes from the Federal Migration Service. As they monitor air terminals, rail and major road crossings, you’d have to make an effort if you want to avoid notice. I’m sure its possible, but what’s the point?

            In any case, if it were the case that hundreds of thousands were leaving annually, it would surely have been reflected in the 2010 Census (which, as you know, only counts people who are present in Russia at the time). So I, for example, would not be on it. But preliminary results showed Russia’s population to be 143.0mn, as opposed to the expected 141.9mn. So either 100,000’s *aren’t* leaving every year, or immigration is far far higher than reflected in the figures.

        • Yalensis says:

          Sorry, Petri, I have no clue if such a thing is possible! I do personally know some middle-aged Russian citizens who live in America half the year with their grown children (who, in this case, happen to be figure-skating or gymnastics coaches) to help out with grandkids, etc., and then back to Russia for the rest of the year. I have no idea how that works, or what kind of visa they would need. Dubious they could just slip out of Russia without getting their passports stamped. Somehow I can’t envision these very law-abiding babushkas and dedushkas sneaking under the barbed wire at the border…

          • They should watch out for the machine gun towers and the mines!

            • Yalensis says:

              The babushkas, in particular, can be very nimble…. Some of them are ex-gymnasts. 🙂

          • Funny that you mention gymnastics coaches in your post. Where would American women’s gymnastics be without ex-Soviet gymnastics coaches (and sometimes their offspring)? One of the top gymnastics coaching centres in the US is the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy where two Olympics Games champions (Carly Patterson and Anastasia Liukin) trained and which is run by Liukin’s father Valery, a former Soviet national team member, and his business partner Evgeny Marchenko.

            It seems like most former Soviet national gymnastics team members washed up in the US during the chaotic Yeltsin years. Maria Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova and Natalia Yurchenko work as coaches at gyms in the eastern United States and Tatiana Gutsu also coaches somewhere in the Midwest. Dmitri Bilozerchev coaches at Ohio State University. As far as I know, Svetlana Boginskaya runs a home-based gym clothing business and Yurchenko and Olga Bicherova (based in France where she works as a coach and sports journalist) may be partners in it.

            The only Soviet gymnast living in the US I have been able to find anything about who did not go into a gymnastics-related career is Tatiana Lysenko who qualified in law at the University of San Francisco and was admitted to the California State Bar in 2005.

            A great deal is made of Bela and Marta Karolyi in having built up the profile of women’s gymnastics in the US to the extent that the US is the leading country in that sport but their training methods have long been recognised as abusive in both the US and Romania, though not openly. They are not above playing the media to their advantage as well. I’d say they are long past their best as coaches and seem more interested in working American gymnastics politics for their benefit. Incidentally quite a few former Romanian national team members (Nadia Comaneci, Teodora Ungureanu, Daniela Silivas, Aurelia Dobre, Trudi Emilia Eberle-Kollar) also coach in the US. I haven’t been able to find very much about those Romanian gymnasts who competed for their country in the 1990s but some of them were involved in a Playboy-related scandal and Lavinia Milosovici was not able to get work as a coach for a long time (she also had a child who died very young). On the whole though the Karolyis’ public profile overshadows the bigger contribution the ex-Soviets have made to American women’s gymnastics to say nothing of the Americans’ own considerable efforts.

            And of course we all know who works for United Russia, got elected to the State Duma in 2007, works as deputy chairwoman for the State Duma’s Youth Affairs Committee and said she would run for the Russian Presidency in 2012?

  6. This is a good piece. The truth is in-between – young entrepreneurs do leave Russia, practically everyone I know above a certain level of ambition or intelligence has either left the country or obtained second residence. Even people who belong to the nomenklatura, Russia’s thieving class, have shipped their kids abroad – some to the enemy countries like the US and Britain – and got residence in places from Montenegro to Britain. I linked to the article from my facebook account because it is a brilliantly written, well-researched piece that rebuts a great deal of enemy propaganda in this case the problem of migration, which does exist and which the makes the Anglo-American media scum gloat with joy – they gloat over all Russia’s problems, some real which they are incapable of understanding, the rest are their own propagandist inventions.

    • It is standard for the nomenklatura to ship their kids abroad. Name me one country that doesn’t. Even Americans do it it.