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.

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