Nikolai Starikov – How Russian Liberals Create Russophobe Myths

Nikolay Starikov, heroic destroyer of Russian liberal myths!

Nikolay Starikov, heroic destroyer of Russian liberal myths!

Do you remember the growing chorus of voices in the Western media speaking of a “growing wave” of emigration from Putin’s Russia? Those 1.25 million liberal professionals who have fled that neo-Soviet abyss in the past few years? As it turns out, not only are these stories complete fabrications – in a previous post, I revealed that the actual statistics (as opposed to hearsay) indicate that emigration has fallen to record lows – but they originate with the Russian liberal media.

The words of a government official, whose department has nothing to do with migration, was egregiously MISQUOTED to give the impression of a huge outflow in the past few years whereas he had been talking about the entire post-Soviet period! Nonetheless, too lazy and/or ideologically biased to do basic fact-checking, this false narrative spread into the top Russian liberal media outlets and from then on into Western publications (with their equally lazy and Russophobic hacks) such as Julian Evans for Wall Street Journal and Simon Shuster for TIME.

The full meta-story of how the Russian liberals orchestrated this “Second Wave of Emigration” meme is reconstructed in painstaking detail by Nikolay Starikov in his blog post How Liberal Myths are Created. My translation follows:

The recipe is simple: a little manipulation, a few lies, and a lot of emotions. And that’s all – yet another calumny on Russia is ready. Let us get to the bottom of this kitchen cooking liberal myths about our country.

A myth is always created in several stages:

STAGE 1 – The “Careless Citation”

Radio Echo of Moscow, Sat. Jan 15, 2011, program “Dura Lex.”

In the studio we have Mikhail Barschevsky and Chairman of the Audit Chamber Sergei Stepashin. They are having a nice discussion and congratulate each other on the New Year.

Sergei Stepashin feels himself comfortable and says the following in his discussion with Barschevsky:

BARSCHEVSKY: … You now speak of innovations. But, in reality, by abusing human rights – ordinary rights, such as security, not providing judicial protection – we lost a lot of talented people to brain drain. People who may now have been very useful for innovation.
STEPASHIN: Well I have the exact figures. 1,250,000 people, who are now working abroad. They aren’t the least able of us….
BARSCHEVSKY: You mean not plumbers?
STEPASHIN: Well, they are academics, specialists.
BARSCHEVSKY: 1,250,000?
STEPASHIN: 1,250,000. About as many left after 1917.

So what did Stepashin actually say? He said that 1,250,000 Russians work abroad. They are educated academics and specialists.

Now pay close attention – the Chairman of the Audit Chamber didn’t say a word about when these people left the country. The conversation was about something else – that today some 1,250,000 smart Russians work abroad. But when did they leave? Throughout the entire post-Soviet era! (And likely, including the period of the late USSR).

Sergey Stepashin has to be more careful with his numbers, and his words – especially on account of his position, and on that radio station! [AK: Echo of Moscow is one of the main media voices of Russian liberals].

STAGE 2 – Quote Manipulation and Myth Creation

After the radio program the liberals did two things:

(1) They began to present the 1,250,000 figure as originating from an authoritative source – the Chairman of the Audit Chamber. As if our Audit Chamber concerns itself with counting the numbers leaving the country. [AK: Obviously, it doesn’t; that’s the job of the Federal Migration Service]

(2) They presented this figure not as the numbers of Russians working abroad, but as the numbers of Russians who took leave of Putin’s Russia. I hope the difference is clear.

Thus the myth creation process from Stepashin’s carelessly phrased words began to spread in earnest. Here are a few randomly chosen Internet headers:

The middle class leaves Russia. “According to the Audit Chamber’s figures, some 1,250,000 emigrated from Russia in the last few years.”

Consequences of the Putinist decade: clever people scrambling out of Russia. “The country is submerged under a new emigration wave. 1,250,000 people left for the West. Once again people are running out of Russian en masse. If we believe the calculations of Sergey Stepashin, the Chairman of the Audit Chamber, 1,250,000 Russians left the country in the past few years.”

Soon after, this process is reinforced not just by simple “parrots,” but by more qualified commentators. Their goals are the same – the creation of false information in support of their thesis that “all that we had is now gone.”

1,250,000 emigrants. Why is Russia leaking human capital?” asks the title of a program on Radio Finam FM. It begins thus: “According to Chairman of the Audit Chamber Sergey Stepashin’s calculations, in the last few years 1,250,000 emigrated out of Russia. And this is only the official statistic.”

The radio show-manipulators invited Dmitry Polikanov, the Deputy Director of the Central Executive Party Committee of United Russia. But for him and for all its listeners, this 1,250,000 figure is already presented, as the OFFICIAL NUMBER OF EMIGRANTS IN THE LAST FEW YEARS.

This is how they frame their question: “Dmitry, please tell us, is not the younger generation off United Russia party leaders the least concerned about this statistic, or is it considered to be within reasonable bounds, and irrelevant? 1,250,000 people left our country in the last few years, but don’t worry – that’s nothing to worry about.”

It’s a smart approach – how exactly is a young United Russia functionary is supposed to argue with the Chairman of the Audit Chamber? For nobody has the time or desire to read the original source and realize that what Sergey Stepashin talked about, wasn’t in the least related to how leading liberals quoted him.

The liberals always exploit our big weakness – the majority of normal people don’t know the rules of information warfare. They can’t even imagine that liars may intentionally distort and outright falsify words and facts. And the liberals feed off this. They brazenly LIE.

Just remember – don’t trust any numbers put forwards by the liberals. In most cases, it will either be based on lies, or intentional manipulation. Check them; refute them.

But the young Polikanov accepted those liberal figures at face value and didn’t dispute the figure of 1,250,000 who LEFT IN THE LAST FEW YEARS. And in so doing, he in a way confirmed them. And that’s all that “independent” journalists really require.

Because now they can link to that discussion too: here was a United Russia functionary, and he didn’t dispute that figure, hence he agreed with it. And thus that 1,250,000 just left the country is the truth.

After that this figure seeps into the blogosphere, and becomes a common motif. A clear example of how normal life in “Putin’s Russia” is impossible.

Soon after Moskovskij Komsomolets joins in, which employs that famous “literatus” Aleksandr Minkin. He writes an article under the title Flight from the Tandem: “The Audit Chamber officially reported: “In the last few years, 1,250,000 people left Russia.” The wave of emigration is not a lot less than the one after 1917. This statistics are confirmed by the Director of the Federal Migration Service Romodanovsky: “About 300,000-350,000 Russians leave to work abroad every year.” How many of them return he didn’t specify.”

Regular as clockwork, Minkin is lying big time. The Audit Chamber didn’t officially report anything about emigration, nor can it because it isn’t its sphere of responsibility! Minkin isn’t only repeating Stepashin’s distorted words, but he is also creatively manipulating the speech of Konstantin Romodanovsky. The FMS Director actually said this: “Every year more than 300,000 people leave Russia, of whom 40,000 – for permanent residence abroad.”

That is, only 40,000 people permanently leave the country. The others study, work, travel, and return. The state statistics service Rosstat has very similar figures.

But let’s be honest, unlike “independent” journalists. Where to they go, where do citizens “flee” from their “bad” life in Russia? Of course, they leave for the “civilized world.” So let’s take the numbers of those leaving for the so-called “Far Abroad” (AK: Refers to the world outside the former USSR). After all it’s not like our countrymen are leaving for a better life in Moldova or Georgia.

1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Left for FA 86026 82327 87156 63408 59596 54586 47937 42778 33689 18799 15684 13394

So what we have is that in the past 12 years, some 605,380 people left the country. And the trend is for this figure to decrease with every passing year.

Unfortunately, Rosstat doesn’t give figures for 2009 and 2010 (AK: It does, but you have to dig into their database; this trend has continued, and as of this year the migration balance between countries like Germany and Israel has even turned positive!). But in 2008 some 39,508 people left Russia, out of whom 13,394 left for the Far Abroad. Is it even possible to imagine that in 2009 and 2010 there began a flood of 1.2 million when in the previous year there were less than 40,000?

STAGE 3 – Smearing the Country

And now Novaya Gazeta strolls by, all very randomly and independently. [AK: NG is the most hysterically liberal and knee-jerk anti-Putin paper].

After the previous stage of myth creation and “legitimization,” NG confidently states: “A high ranked bureaucrat has shed light on the unprecedented human flight out of Russia at the end of the 2000’s. The Chairman of the Audit Chamber Sergey Stepashin back in January gave a figure – from 2008, some 1.25 million Russians in the economically active part of the population. And the outflow continues. Although Stepashin predictably didn’t delve into its causes, the current emigration wave unconditionally enters the list of deferred achievements of the “eight years of Putinist stability.””

Read this Novaya Gazeta article. Pathos, photo. The general tone: All we have is gone, the Russia, that we have lost.

And now remember back – what did Stepashin actually say?

Do you still trust the liberal media?

All that said, for us this history with the lies and distortions so eagerly spread by the campaigners “for our freedom and yours” is only another reason to soberly analyze the emigration out of Russia of those people, who may be of use to it.

Let’s summarize:

  1. Some 1,250,000 of our countrymen, who left in the past 20 years, are now working abroad. Many of them are well educated and talented.
  2. The brain drain out of Russia continues. But, bearing in mind that the figures are falling year by year (reaching 39,508 in 2008), we can confidently say that the scale of this emigration is continuously declining.
  3. It is also clear that the vast majority of our brain drain happened in the periods of “reform” and “liberalism” – when effective managers and those same liberals destroyed science and industry – and not at all in the past few years.
  4. Sergey Stepashin should not relax when interviewed by Echo of Moscow. He should watch his words carefully, anyone of which may be used against Russia in the information war.
  5. Under no circumstances should one trust figures cited by the liberal mass media and “independent” journalists. They will deceive you, like rogue traders cheat on unwary customers in a bazaar.
  6. Cross check everything yourself, think independently. The main instrument for this is common sense.
  7. You have to love your country. This love will help you separate lies from truth.

End of translation

There is also a STAGE 4 – the Western Transmigration. In this episode, the hacks who populate Western journalism reprint Russian liberal talking points, but being every bit as lazy and ideologically Russophobic as the liberasts (and in some cases not even knowing the Russian language) checking the provenance of these stories isn’t exactly their first priority. It’s not even on the to do list.

Hence articles such as:

Hence what begins as liberal manipulation in the dregs of Russian media spreads to marginal newspapers such as Novaya Gazeta, and from then on to the heights of what passes for Western “journalism.”

PS. Compare also with liberal slandering of Russia on Russia’s demography by Nezavisimaya Gazeta and how the liberal media played up the specter of a wave of crisis-induced abortions in early 2009 even as abortions continued to fall and fertility to rise. Truly there is no end to Russian liberal lies.

EDIT: This article has been (re-!) translated into Russian at (Как российские либералы создают русофобские мифы).


  1. Great job ! I also made a french version with some changes, quoting you and Starikov !

    • Cool, thanks!

      And I also notice this isn’t the first time you wrote about it too.

      • Shortest version for RIA !

        • Alexander Mercouris says:

          Why by the way so much focus on emigration from Russia? If the total number of people who have emigrated from Russia since 1990 or thereabouts is 1,250,000 then Russia has seen far less emigration than say Poland, where by some estimates around 2 million have left the country since 2004, not to mention Bulgaria whose population was just under 9 million in 1988 and has now fallen to 7.3 million largely one suspects because of emigration. Russia has of course a much bigger population than either Poland or Bulgaria.

          • Betrlomanus says:

            To turn the attention the other way…. From the situation in Eastern Europe which is significantly worse than in Russia despite enjoying the membership in EU, Nato and the “benefits “ of western “civilization”……

            • Poland is much closer to Western Europe, and a member of the EU. This makes migration for Poles much easier and more convenient than it is for Russians. A Pole can move to Germany and easily come home on holidays. I wouldn’t consider mass Polish migration in comparison to Russian migration to mean that Poland is somehow worse off then Russia is.

              • Polish workers in western Europe are on the low rang of the ladder. You make it sound like they are all doctors and engineers.

              • Plumbers and carpenters are paid relatively well. Anyways, my point is that because it is so much easier and more convenient for Poles to work in the West than it is for most Russians to do so, number of emigrants is not a valid measure of each country’s relative well-being.

  2. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Dear Anatoly,
    I notice that the western articles to which you have provided links indulge in the western habit of giving anecdotal information. Forgive me if I also do so in a way that contradicts them. Since my information is based on people I happen to know and is therefore a random sample it is probably more representative of attitudes by the Russian middlle class to emigration than the people mentioned in the articles:

    1. My best Russian friend did a post graduate degree at Cambridge University. For a while he worked at various British banks. He became disillusioned with the corporate culture he found in the west, returned to Russia and is now much happier and professionally more successful as a senior officer in a Russian chemicals company;

    2. Another Russian friend considered emigrating to Canada in the 1990s. He thought better of it and stayed in Russia where he is now a very successful metals trader;

    3. A third Russian friend obtained an MBA at a top British business school. He chose to set up his own business in Russia where he works as a venture capitalist. He feels that prospects there are much better than in the west;

    4. A fourth Russian friend lives in Denmark not because he chose to emigrate but because he works for a UN agency. He had previously worked in Russia. He took his post not because he chose to emigrate but because the job offer was attractive.

    5. A fifth Russian friend is I believe like you the child of sientists. She has never considered living or working in the west. She now lives and works in Moscow in the theatre world.

    6. Another woman Russian friend has also to my knowledge never given any thought to emigrating. She is a film producer. Unlike the others she has had her run ins with the authorities (though nothing serious) but is happy to work in Russia and has no thought of living anyhere else.

    7. Lastly, I have one Russian friend who does live like me in Britain. This is not because she chose to emigrate. It is because she fell genuinely in love with a British man and is now happily married to him and lives with him in Britain where he has his business. Her son from an earlier marriage has however chosen to go back to live and work in Russia and has just got married there.

    All of these people are middle class professionals. All of them speak English. They are people I have known since the mid 1990s when I first became involved in Russia. It has been instructive to follow their careers and to see how their attitudes have changed from one of despair about the state of their country to one of pride and confidence in its future.

    Lastly I would add one very final point. My friend who works in the chemicals company has pointed out to me that one very obvious reason for preferring to live in Russia is the very low level of personal tax there (currently just 13%). He points out to me that this gives him a much higher disposable income than he would have on the same salary in the west. He would therefore have to earn much more than he does to achieve the sort of life style he now has in Russia and he does not think that is is realistic. He tells me that other Russians think as he does and that this advantage in terms of disposable income caused by the low rate of tax has greatly increased the sense of self confidence Russians like him feel when they now visit the west and when they compare their situation with westerners who work in the same fields as they do..

  3. Betrlomanus says:

    An excellent piece of information. Interesting, the story about 1,25 million “liberal professionals” fits much better the situation concerning Ukraine and Georgia – isn’t there approximately 0,5 milion Georgians and at least 1 mil Ukrainian gastarbeiters in Russia. Maybe something to write a piece about – How western Myths about Russia in reality correlates much closer to the true about wests own satellites…..

  4. According to the western media the media in Russia is controlled by Putin. Interesting how the “liberal” media in Russia can be so brazen if it is “oppressed” by Putin. I guess they are like typical compradors and feel bold since they have western patrons backing them up.

  5. In Russia there is a saying. “Trust, but verify”.

  6. Good day! I am very grateful to you for this article. This is such a shock to see the truth in American media. I’m very impressed, because usually the American pseudo-liberals (actually psychopaths) are still in the Cold War. And, unfortunately, they podkidyvayut of their funds and money Russophobe provocateurs. You have identified anti-Russian resources, “Echo of Moscow” and “Novaya Gazeta”. In this list you can make many more such resources. Such as “The New Tims”, “”, etc. And as a foreign language, but Russian-speaking American-funded pseudo liberals Internet channel “Pik” (Georgia). But I want to assure you that the vast majority of Russian citizens are aware of this. And we do not care about the aggression of the West, we cultivate true freedom. Once again, thank you!

  7. donnyess says:

    “BARSCHEVSKY: … You now speak of innovations. But, in reality, by abusing human rights – ordinary rights, such as security, not providing judicial protection – we lost a lot of talented people to brain drain.”

    No, the Yukos people were something less than brilliant and certainly not innovative. The reason top talent is leaving Russia is because Putin has decided that oil, gas, nuclear, sports are more important somehow. It’s because incubation (funding) of key strategic industry isn’t happening in Russia. If NATO manages to separate Russia from its oil and gas customer base, the times could get very interesting for Putin and the United Russia party, and right soon too.

    • Why yes; that WOULD be interesting. I’d be very interested myself to see how NATO intends to separate the world’s largest energy producer from its customer base. I daresay they’d love to – I just don’t see how it could realistically be done. Invite them all to switch to American shale gas? Good luck with that. If you plan to separate a group of customers from their source, you have to offer them a reliable new supply at a more attractive price. The USA, at least, is not in any position to be throwing money around in such an effort, and judging by the precarious positions of some of its members, the EU is not either.

  8. Go get ’em, Tolya!! it’s ALWAYS a good idea to choose your words carefully when being interviewed, because even the most benign and sympathetic host will misquote you if it suits his/her purposes, to say nothing of the ideologically opposed who are already planning how they will spin what you say. After all, they’re trying to sex it up a little for their viewers/readers, and numbers are chronically boring. If only you could make those numbers talk!

    This takes away a cherished plank from the Russophobic platform, and casts the remaining tropes in doubt. Well done to you and to Starikov.

  9. hah ) i’m russian young liberal bussinesman and want to live outside of Russia…Just one reason of it !!! VERY BAD WEATHER in 7 month of year =(((
    and i think many peoples who’s left Russia had a same reason, living in Tai or any sourth countries…

    • Grigory says:

      Funny to hear that with +34 in Moscow;)
      My personal opinion is – i want to work for some time outside of Russia to gain some lifestyle & professional experience. MAYBE i will live abroad. But i will never tear relations with Russia. There also an opinion in Russia that there is not so good in the west now and not so bad at home. I’m a game mechanics & math programmer – kinda liberal professional;)

      • Petri Hekkala says:

        You will never return to live Russia permanently.

        • Grigory says:

          Maybe;) But i will never leave Russia permanently – will always have relatives, friends and colleagues here

          • Petri Hekkala says:

            The problem is that you pay taxes to government that is likely not friendly to Russia.

            • Grigory says:

              in a return i’m using some social infrastructure of this country that costs so much, that some of those countries will have technical default in a nearby future…;)

              • Petri Hekkala says:

                Let’s be serious here. Wouldn’t you rather give your work output and your tax money to Mother Russia than some western country?

  10. Grigory says:

    + you always pay for experience and education..

  11. grafomanka says:

    I know Russian business people who are not wanting to move abroad themselves, but they strongly want their children to move abroad because of higher standard of living, (also they tend to have a very rosy picture of Europe). Russia seems to be good for risk takers and people with strong character, but for regular folks EU is preferable, I have the impression many would leave if given the chance.

    • I know several Russian university and institute professors and they are pretty consistent in describing the dramatic decrease in quality in the incoming students year after year, and general degradation of the educational system; corruption seems to have gotten worse and gets worse with every “reform.” Departments are cut based on how much bribe revenue they bring in from students whose parents buy grades, rectors build homes abroad, at one institute literally a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of inpatient psychiatric hospitalization (but a nephew of a well-known politican) was given a department in order to fulfill his fantasy of being a brilliant unrecognized genius his field, etc. The “Wild East” craziness of the 90’s is no less wild now, in Russian academia and has actually probably gotten worse post-Yeltsin, at least according to those working there. So it makes sense for many Russian to send their kids abroad to study. Such a shame, given the excellent level of education during the Soviet times.

      • grfomanka says:

        I know for sure that there are many talented and passionate people in biological sciences in Russia, they just don’t have enough money.
        The level of funding is apparently even smaller than in soviet times. Makes you appreciate what idiots sit in the Kremlin – putting money into some expensive Skolkovo instead of increasing funding for research centers that already exist.

        • I agree. The sad thng is that because of this ituation bright young people are much less likely to become professors or researchers than in the past – at least not in Russia. What will happen the last generation of people raised in Soviet times (now in their forties) retires? Who will work in the institutes and universities then? Unfortunately I’m not too optimistic about a country when its higher education is in shambles.

  12. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Reading some comments to this post, I just want to add one point which some of the comments I feel touch on, which is that it is entirely normal and in fact healthy for well educated and ambitious young people to want to study and work abroad. I know of many British professionals who do precisely this. For example I have two British friends who currently live and work in Moscow and another British friend who is currently living and working in Shanghai. Unless one imposes the sort of restrictions on foreign travel that existed under the USSR such movements are not only inevitable but are part of the everyday fabric of modern life. The fact that people want to broaden their experience and improve their careers by choosing to study and work abroad does not in and of itself translate into a rejection of their country or a political statement. Discussion of this topic in this way in relation to Russia serves as a further example of the way in which all commentary about Russia is grotesquely over politicised so that normal every day activities that happen in every country are invested when they happen in Russia with a significance they do not have.

    • +1;)

    • Indeed. Everything connected with Russia, strongly politicized. To say more – only politicized, the other aspects of the place is not there. This is in large part thanks to Russophobic resources. And of course their customers from abroad, are still raving Cold War. I’m tired of so much that he asked for forgiveness from God, and wished them a speedy escape into another world.

    • Okay, those are exceptions. One finds occasional American students in Russian medical or stomotological institutes too. However, there aren’t entire “British colonies” in Moscow or Shanghai, as there is a Russian one in London. The USSR’s educational system was second to none; now, many smart Russian students such as smart Latin Amerricans or Indians leave for the West.

      • Alexander Mercouris says:

        In what sense are they “exceptions”? They just happen to be people I know. There are now as it happens substantial expatriate western communities in both Moscow and Shanghai as I have been able to see for myself. As for the Russian community in London, no one denies that there was substantial emigration from Russia in the 1990s when the country was in crisis and it was largely during that period that the Russian colony in London developed. However its size should not be exaggerated. It is much smaller than other immigrant communities including the one from Poland (and this is not a comment or a criticism of Poland!) or I suspect, though I have no comparative figures, the one from somewhere like Cyprus, which is of course a much smaller country than Russia. As it happens London because of its nature as a global financial centre draws lots of professional people from many places. Just this evening I happen to be seeing two French people who live and work here. What is the big deal about that? As for your general point about smart Russians choosing to abandon their country and go west the figures from Rosstat quoted by Anatoly refute it.

        • I was talking about the many people who can afford it, sending their kids to study in Britain or the USA or elsewhere outside of Russia not about migrating laborers. How many wives of children of rich Russian live abroad rather than in Russia? Why was it such a big deal that Putin’s children were educated in Russia? Shouldn’t it be assumed that most people’s kids would be educated in their own country? I suspect that a much higher percentage of the Russian elite through upper middle class send their kids to study abroad than do a percentage of American or British families of similar background. Anecdotally I can name many such cases among Russians; I have hardly heard of such cases among Americans.

          Given the excellent level of education that existed in Soviet times (reflected, among other things, in the successes of those who emigrated) this speaks to a pretty dramatic degradation of standards.

          • grfomanka says:

            Rich Russians are impressed with ‘world famous’ British private schools. And true, Britain has great private schools but their state schools are widely believed to be crap. Not sure it would be good if Russia ended up with such a system – good expensive schools for the privileged. But it seems to me that things are going this way.

        • Alexander Mercouris says:

          I have just done a quick check and I find that according to the British authorities the number of Russian born people in Britain is about 30,000 as against around 70,000 from Cyprus and 500,000 from Poland. The number from Poland is widely assumed to be an underestimate with some claiming that the true number is around a million. I do not have the figures for Germany but I would guess that the numbers of Russians and Poles who at one time live and work in Germany is proportionately about the same as in Britain with Poles substantially outnumbering Russians. As Poland is within the EU it is of course much easier for Poles to come to Britain and Germany than it is for Russians and I want to stress that I am not making an anti Polish point. However Poland (in contrast to Russia) is constantly held up in the western press as eastern Europe’s poster boy with a democratic political system, a booming economy and an excellent educational system. Nonetheless as we see lots of people choose to leave it. Why then is the much lower rate of emigration from Russia, which appears from the latest figures to have practically run its course, such a big political issue when the much higher rate of emigration from Poland is not?

          • Alexander Mercouris says:

            To answer your point, I happen to know of lots of Britons and Americans who go to study abroad or who have studied abroad. My best and oldest friend, who is British, did a Master’s Degree in Canada. Another friend of mine teaches at Oxford University where at any one time there are lots of American students, far more than Russian. Bill Clinton, who was President of the United States, studied in Oxford. Needless to say the great majority of these people could be described as coming from elite backgrounds. I know of other people who have gone to study in Paris and I know of one person who studied in Moscow. As I said before this is totally normal and healthy. Russia does not (thank goodness) have a network of highly expensive elite private schools comparable to those in the US, Britain and Switzerland to which the international wealthy (including some wealthy Russians) send their children but then neither do countries like Germany and France. From what I know of people who have dealings with such schools the number of Russian students in them is small. On a more general point I think you both idealise the Soviet educational system and exaggerate the undoubted problems of the present Russian educational system. The same friend of mine who teaches in Oxford has done courses in Russian universities and was generally impressed by the standards she found there whilst I have heard accounts of favouritism happening in Russian universities during the Soviet period. Nor I am afraid is educational corruption unique to Russia. I was involved a short time ago in one of the top London law schools (I do not want to name it) and I was astonished by the rampant corruption (including the sharing out of exam answers) that I found there.

            • For every Briton studying in Canada there is probably a Canadian sudying in Britian; likewise with the USA. The USSR was the world’s second superpower. It’s consumer culture was quite undeveloped (so one wouldn’t expect foreignors to come to Russia to study business or economics or finance etc.) but, when the Cold War ended and borders opened, one would have expected large numbers of Westerners to study medicine or the sciences, fields in which Russia was not behind. This did not happen, and even after the 90’s the situation did not improve. Check out rankings, the top Russian univeristy comes in at #93, well behind several Chinese universities (and dozens of American and British ones).

              An example from a couple of years ago, not the 90’s but well into Putin’s time, illustrates the degradation. I’m leaving all names out. A guy from the provinces, a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of multiple psychiatric hospitalizations who claims to be an unrecognized genius in his field (but never graduated anywhere with an academic degree) is brought in to teach at a respected university. Within a year or two he becomes head of his department, where students are forced to learn his absolutely “unique” theories which consist of nonsense formulas. Legitimate acadeics withinthe department, some of whom had been teaching for thirty years, lose their jobs when they protest having to do this. Around this time a major corruption investigation of the university’s rector disappears. The schizophrenic is a close relative of powerful politican; obviously the investiagation was a great opportunity to make someone’s beloved if troubled relative happy – and who gives a damn about what the next generation of Russians will learn.

              I have not heard of anything remotely as bad happening at a Western university. Have you?

              And then there is the more mundane corruption – bribes to get grades (usually paid not to teachers but to administrators) where typically the hard-working poor students gets 3s but somehow the rich student who doesn’t go to class gets 5’s. Where there is money there is corruption and violence, so in the administrative posts or in terms of department heads actual researchers or scientists have been replaced by gangsters with fake, bought degrees. In one sad case, a brilliant practitioner in his medical specialty, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, author of hundreds of studies, was pushed out of being head of his department by a Cauasian with a sketchy degree who spoke poor Russian, and had only a couple publications (likely written by someone else). The victim tried to go to court, experienced so much stress during his battle to keep his job that he ultimately suffered a heart attack and went into retirement. Russia’s loss. This sort of thing has been happening over and over again. and, for whatever reason (perhaps it took longer for the criminal elements to realize that education was lucrative, and they spent the 90’s attacking other elements of Russian society) it has accelerated post-90’s

              I could list many more examples but you get the idea.

              • Alexander Mercouris says:

                Since you have challenged me I will make a short(ish) answer:

                1. I am afraid I am as cynical about university rankings as I am about credit ratings. Russia’s credit rating is ridiculously low and I suspect that its university rankings are also unfairly low.

                2. The story of the paranoid schizophrenic is horrendous. However I certainly do know of ignorant and unqualified people who have been given senior academic positions in British universities and I am afraid I also know of cases of academic bullying and oppression.

                3. I have already touched on the question of academic corruption in a British law school in a previous comment.

                In saying all of this I do want to make it clear that I fully recognise and accept that the Russian educational system suffers from very serious problems. However one must be wary of the myth of the Golden Age. In every country I know (certainly in Britain) people constantly complain of falling educational standards. Moreover they have been doing so for as long as I can remember. They were already doing so when I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s. As for Russia in Chekhov’s The Boring Story the university lecturer who is the narrator discusses (and rejects) the suggestion that the standard of students is declining. That was written in the 1890s! Anyway I doubt that this issue has much relevance to the question of emigration.

              • The university ratings ARE a scam. If you go by them, you will get the impression that the University of Lancaster or the University of Reading are equivalent to the University of St.-Petersburg, while Phystech isn’t even on them. That is ridiculous on too many levels.

                One demonstrative example: the outcome of global programming contests, which teams from Russia and China regularly do as well or better than US teams. This is an objective measure.

                In contrast, the THES or ARWU rankings are reputational measures, much like the Corruption Perceptions Index, and as such only useful for gauging the prestige of these institutions in the minds of global elites.


                You can go even further back than the 1890’s, actually.

                The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint … – Peter the Hermit, 1274AD.

                The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers. – Socrates, 5th century BC.

                We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control. – 6000 year old Egyptian tomb.

                Logically, if these are all accurate observations, the average human IQ should be equivalent to that of a slug by now! 😉

              • The programming competition is just three people from each university. It is objective but not comprehensive – in 1983 it was won by 3 guys from the University of Nebraska and I doubt that that university was anywhere near to being one of the top universities in the world that year.

                Unfortunately, ranking systems around the world, not just western ones, give Russian schools fairly bad ratings. ARWU is Chinese, right? The ARWU ranks MGU at #74; it is the top-ranked Russian universrity and it does worse than universities in the USA, Britain, China, Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, France, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and Israel. Phys Tech wasn’t on the list but may not have been considered (we can assume it is roughly comparable in quality to MGU though?).

                ARWU bases its rankings on objective measures – Nobel prizes won by professors and alumni, number of publications, numbers of citations of works produced there, and per capita performance. Based on these criteria 73 world universities performed better than the top Russian one. I suspect its methodology might not appeal to everyone, perhaps something can be tweaked here or there, but I doubt doing so would improve the rankings drastically or move MGU from 74 into even the top 20.

                I mentioned the example of a former department head pushed out against his will. The former department head had hundreds of publications, was an MGU grad, was a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and was passionate about his field. He did not allow bribes (he wasn’t in it for the money anyways), he taught and conducted reseach, spending 60+ hours a week on his job. The new guy, with a likely bought degree from Dagestan or some similar place, with something like 2 publications (probably written by someone else), is at work 1-2 days a week, presumably just long enough to supervise whatever bribery scheme is in place. Colleagues claim he knows almost nothing in his field. This case wasn’t exceptional. It shows the nature of how Russian post-secondary education has transitioned from Soviet times to modern times. Do you think the new students who study after the previous guy’s essentially forced retirement will be better educated than the older students?

                I understand that complaining about the youth is a universal phenomenon but this doesn’t necessarily mean the complaints are always wrong wherever they occur.

                Another anecdote – an academic inspector showed up a university recently. She was a very pretty girl, in her late 20’s, who had already achieved 2 doctorate degrees (not even kandidat – doktor nauk!) The question was whether this girl upon whom the professional fates of many people devoted to their academic disciplines depended, was a daughter or a girlfriend of some important politican. Those that spoke to her certainly did not come away with the impression that she was some incredible genius or prodigy.

                There are problems everywhere in the world, but I haven’t heard of episodes in the West even coming close to those in Russia in terms of corruption and degradation.

              • Guys, let’s continue the discussion here.

          • grfomanka says:

            Poles have the right to legally work in EU and I suspect if Russians had it, a lot more of them would emigrate. The kind of jobs that Poles do in Britain, construction etc. in Russia are done by immigrants from the ‘south’. So it’s all about wage levels.
            I think immigration from Russia is more of a big deal because of Russia’s ex-superpower status, so western press likes to point out that Russia’s not going to return to it’s former glory.
            In contrast, things in Poland can only get better.

            • When the western media stops spewing such wishful thinking then perhaps it will have some credibility. Otherwise it is basically inane cold war propaganda. There was a piece in the Atlantic Monthly around 2003 that was already hysterically absurd at the time and even more so today. Yet they keep on cranking out this BS day and day out. Do they really think that through some diffusion process Russians will start to believe this nonsense?

            • Alexander Mercouris says:

              Dear grfomanka,
              The question of why more Poles have emigrated from Poland than Russians from Russia is in the context of this discussion entirely beside the point. Possibly more Russians would emigrate if Russia were in the EU. Who knows? My point is that for whatever reason emigration from Russia, which is now declining, has been much lower than emigration from Poland, which by the way is also now declining. Given that this is so, why is emigration from Russia reported as a catastrophe and as a comment about the Russian political and economic system whilst emigration from Poland is not? In my opinion the reason for this is not the one you give but rather the intense hostility with which Russia is regarded in the west (and by the west’s liberal fellow travellers in Russia itself) whilst Poland by contrast always gets a good press.

          • Polish workers needed permission to work in Germany, that was not the case in the UK were they have almost the same rights as British citizens , so my expectations are that there are a lot more Poles in the UK than in Germany. (IIRC Germany & Austria could keep the borer closed till 2011, but if it is until 2011 than they still do it)

            However Poland is constantly held up in the western press as eastern Europe’s poster boy with a democratic political system, a booming economy and an excellent educational system

            I think you have a very peculiar vision of what the Western papers write about Poland.Can’t remember that i every read something about the Polish education system but booming economy is often used with “Those Poles will go back home” which they wont and political system is with thank god they didn’t re-elect those righwing twins.

            • Alexander Mercouris says:

              Dear Charly,
              I am going to make this absolutely my last comment on this post since I am worried that I am starting to sound off like a bore! Whilst it is certainly true that there was quite a lot of criticism of the government of the Twins this was criticism of a totally different order from the criticism that is routinely made of Russia. No one in the west disputes that Poland is a democracy and let me say clearly that I do not dispute it either. As a matter of fact I attended a lecture by a former BBC correspondent in Poland a few weeks ago who spoke of the “vibrant democracy” there. By contrast Russia is routinely misrepresented (including by the same former BBC correspondent) as basically a cruel and corrupt dictatorship and this perception informs the way in which the subject of emigration from Russia gets reported.

              • You are right except maybe the bore part. But i wanted to say that what they write about Poland is also negative.

                Foreign journalists don’t write to inform but to acknowledge the existing prejudice. So for example Russia is a cruel and corrupt dictatorship and Africa is dying from hunger.

  13. @AP,

    I’m continuing the universities discussion here for convenience.

    The programming competition is just three people from each university… in 1983 it was won by 3 guys from the University of Nebraska.

    Yes, it’s not a perfect measure (though cherry-picking a single result from 1983 isn’t the best way to make this point; far better to count total amount of medals won over, say, the past decade, and the results make more sense).

    There are other rankings that test the knowledge of graduates. In one of those – conducted by ARWU, incidentally – measuring math problem solving skills of recent graduates, the top three were all Japanese, the fourth was MIT, and fifth was MGU.

    Unfortunately, ranking systems around the world, not just western ones, give Russian schools fairly bad ratings. ARWU is Chinese, right? The ARWU ranks MGU at #74; it is the top-ranked Russian universrity and it does worse than universities in the USA, Britain, China, Netherlands…

    AP, let me ask you this directly: do you truly believe that the quality of education in MGU or St.-Petersburg State is comparable to, or worse than, the University of Lancaster or the University of Reading?

    ARWU bases its rankings on objective measures – Nobel prizes won by professors and alumni, number of publications, numbers of citations of works produced there, and per capita performance. Based on these criteria 73 world universities performed better than the top Russian one.

    With the partial exception of Nobel Prizes (which are somewhat politicized), these measures – particularly in the West – are all highly skewed by (1) English-language advantage of Anglo-Saxon institutions, (2) cliques of academics writing irrelevant papers citing each other, and (3) the emphasis on churning out mass quantities of papers as an indicator of quality and hence eligibility for grants, etc.

    Here’s a telling statistic – about 50% of published papers are never read by anyone other than their authors and referees. So how could a measure like “number of published works” have much meaning?

    This case wasn’t exceptional. It shows the nature of how Russian post-secondary education has transitioned from Soviet times to modern times. Do you think the new students who study after the previous guy’s essentially forced retirement will be better educated than the older students?… Another anecdote – an academic inspector showed up a university recently.

    The plural of anecdotes isn’t data. Though objective time series data for the quality of Russian graduates doesn’t exist (though they can be expected to have gone down since the 1980’s by dint of a big increase in the numbers of people going through tertiary education, i.e. more students from the lower half of the IQ bell curve going to college will – ceteris paribus – depress the average quality of the graduate body), they do exist for Russian primary and secondary education via international standardized tests such as PISA, TIMMS, and PIRLS. They all show that Russian education at the primary and secondary level seems to have remained at about the same level over the past decade, becoming neither worse nor better. Bearing that in mind, why should tertiary education be any different?

    There are problems everywhere in the world, but I haven’t heard of episodes in the West even coming close to those in Russia in terms of corruption and degradation.

    I don’t think anybody is arguing that Russian academia is more corrupt than in the West, what we are questioning is absurd conclusions such as that the best Russian universities are equivalent to, say, British polytechnics-upgraded-to-“universities.”

    I do not work in the Western academic system, however I do have experience of it (as a student) and know well some people working there. I too can throw out anecdotes, such as:

    (1) “Hard scientific” courses even at the most prestigious British and American universities being substantially less demanding of students than at the foremost Russia and Chinese institutions. I did this by “comparing notes” so to speak and that much is undeniable. (That said, Western universities are undoubtedly better at making education relevant to the workplace).

    (2) I will omit names here, obviously. In the one British polytechnic-upgraded-to-“university” where I have a close contact, there exists a corrupt system where oil rich Arab states send students who do no work whatsoever (i.e. should be failed) – literally don’t turn up to most classes – but get passed nonetheless. If they’re not, the Arabs would send their students (and MONEY!) to some other middling UK institution. Everybody “understands” this. Nobody fails them. Their degrees might as well be from a diploma mill for all the real knowledge and social benefit they represent.

    (4) The student body as a whole is woefully unprepared and should not be at university. In the second year of a technical course, the instructor gave a basic mathematics test. About half couldn’t solve very basic arithmetic questions, giving answers such as a/(a+b) = a/a + a/b = 1 + a/b. And he was supposed to teach them differential equations!

    (5) Most of the high ranking people in the department do a few utterly irrelevant publications per year (under their own name, in reality written by research fellows) and devote their energies to more lucrative consulting businesses they run on the side. One Russian (with a history of serious publications) who toiled as a research fellow for a few years in the early 2000’s for no reward ended up emigrating back to Russia in disillusionment.

    (6) This institution is supposedly the rough equal of St.-Petersburg State (ARWU) or even MGU (THES)!!

    Now, note that I’m not dissing the entire British higher education system based on these anecdotes. In many respects it remains excellent, albeit the consensus is that the imminent cuts are badly planned and will have destructive effects. I just hope that it will provide some perspective to those who think serious corruption doesn’t exist in Western academia or that ARWU / THES university rankings adequately reflect reality.

    • Alexander Mercouris says:

      I cannot make too many comparisons with the Russian educational system since I have no direct experience of it. Again my impressions are largely anecdotal. I would say this

      1. One Russian I know who did a postgraduate degree at the University of Cambridge told me that he also found the course less rigorous than he expected. He did his first degree in a Russian university. Interestingly enough this was not one of the very top tier of Russian universities but an institute in Vladivostok. Nonetheless his observation was also that science teaching is less demanding and rigorous in Britain than in Russia. Bear in mind that Cambridge is supposed to be Britain’s top university in science.

      2. I am afraid that the examples of academic corruption that you give in the former Polytechnic, if not typical, are becoming more frequent. The law school I have mentioned is a very prestigious institution that trains professional lawyers (solicitors and barristers). I was astonished by the level of corruption I found there and the extent to which answers for exam papers were being openly bought and sold. I should not have been. The financial rewards of a legal career are now potentially so enormous that ambitious students and their parents are not going to let the small matter of obtaining a qualification stand in their way!

      3. Viz your reference to the way Arab students basically buy their degrees, I can give one example from the same law school that might interest you. There was a Georgian student who could barely speak English let alone write it. On the rare occasions when he attended classes he seemed to have no idea what was going on. To everyone’s incredulity and to the resentment of some students he nonetheless repeatedly passed difficult law exams. His secret? He was known to have some sort of connection to Saakashvili’s government (which had only recently come to power) and on several occasions he turned up in the company of a woman who was widely believed to be his Foreign Office minder. By contrast the girlfriend of one of my Russian friends is struggling to pass her law school in Russia because (he tells me) she doesn’t work hard enough. The point is that by Russian standards he is a wealthy man so if the system was straightforwardly corrupt he would presumably be able to buy the degree for her. To my certain knowledge the possibility has never so much as crossed his mind (or hers).

      As a general comment Russians I know are no worse educated than Britons or Americans. They tend to be less urbane but this seems to be down to cultural difference. They also seem to remember their old universities with affection. Most Russians I know went to university during the Soviet period but such younger Russians as I have met do not strike me as being any less educated than the ones who passed through the educational system before. What they do tend to be is more self confident and outspoken. They also strike me as more openly patriotic though that may simply be a chance reflection of the conversations I have had with them.

      I will make one last comment: Neither the American nor the British school or university systems have been through a crisis remotely like the one Russia’s school and university system went through in the 1990s. In a time of hyperinflation academic and teaching salaries are especially hard hit because they tend to be fixed and those who hold academic and teaching posts do not have allternative means of support. Russia in the 1990s not only suffered from prolonged hyperinflation but also a collapse in state spending on schools and universities. That after such a crisis the system is still grappling with problems is not surprising. The miracle is that it survived at all.

    • Thanks for your response! My wife’s mother and stepfather, both members of Russia’s Academy of Sciences and lifelong academics at top universities, have been staying with us for a few weeks so I’ve had my fill of horror stories. It would have been nice to share with them your impressions from Britain; the in-laws idealize the West a bit, not knowing as much about it. Their impression of Russia currently, which they do know quite well, is that generally,with some limited exceptions, things have gotten so bad and continue to get worse to such an extent that they fear for the future of Russia’s higher educational system. They have been personally too patriotic to jump ship (despite havng recieved lucrative offers from Western institutions) and toil away but they are upset by the destruction of what had once been a first rate academic environment and one of the few undeniable achievements of the Soviet system.

      The situation with the Arabs in Britian buying their degress is awful, but in Russia such a phenomenon has taken on a new level because such corruption involves not only students but faculty and administrators. It’s not only students graduating with bogus bought degrees, but professors and department heads getting positions in Russia with such degrees and using those positions to get the bribe money. In one Moscow institute, for example, all but two department heads are from the Caucuses. Brilliant reearchers and teachers with legitimate Soviet-era degrees from places such as MGU have been replaced by 30- or 40-somethings with degrees from places such as Dagestan, who speak heavily accented, undeucated Russian. These guys as department heads then bring in their relatives and friends…and the Russians and Jews find themselves squeezed out. Imagine if in Britian those Arabs witht heir money didn’t just get their degrees and went home but became heads of academic departments, professors, and administrators of the British universities themselves. You see how much worse that is?

      About MGU – one of my wife’s friends is a professor there. From what I hear, MGU has become spotty. Some departments are excellent, others are not. Their economics school is first-rate. MGU has a satellite campus in Switzerland which is, from what I hear, an utter joke and a playground for rich Russian kids, where nobody learns anything (although some smart people have been enticed to work there as babysitters for good money). Supposedly several, but not all, departments in Moscow have gone this way as well. I don’t know anything about the British universities you mentioned but an overall MGU ranking in the 70’s doesn’t seem all that crazy to me.

      You make a valid point about the English language resulting in favorable results for insititions from English-speaking countries. However, according to the ARWU there were about 17 universities from non-English speaking countries that ranked above MGU. I’m not so critical about the publications; many are on obscure topics but the information is still reflects some new discovery, no matter how minute. Whether the actual author was the professor or an assistant, it is still a product of that institution. Number of publications is a more objective, measurable piece of data than is a judgment of which publications are more worthy than others, and Nobel prizes are probably correlated, even if somewhat roughly given politics, with the signifcance of output. I still view the significance of winning at programming olympiads to be slight, given the very limited scope of this olympiad and the limited number of participants. The fact that consistantly small teams of computer programmers from Russian schools beat small teams of programmers from other schools doesn’t mean that the education as a whole is superior or even comparable. To make an analogy: small numbers of American runners, jumpers, etc. may be the best in the world as reflected in Olympic gold medals but this doesn’t mean that Americans generally are the most athletic and fit people in the world.

      BTW overall I agree with your article about the myth of Russian emigration. A lot, probably most, of the Russians who study in England or the USA do come back now. My wife gladly would have, had we not met. I simply thought I’d share this bit about higher educations specifically.

      • Not all non-English speaking countries are the same. It is a lot easier for a Swede to write English than it is for a Korean.

      • grafomanka says:

        My grandfather is an academic in Russia and in his field (sociology and anthropology of Russia’s indigenous people) he cherishes freedom that was not available in soviet times. He and his colleagues are happy about the way things are now.
        Besides, the culture of cheating and plagiarism did not just appear in the 1990ties. I think the education system in Russia, unfortunately, facilitates it (as far as I know – memory based, difficult exams you can resit many times vs UK system – easier, but only one resit possible).

        • Because your grandfather’s field has less possible commerical applications his impressions make sense. From what I understand, however, the academic environment in the humanities in the last years of the USSR was quite free – more free than in the modern PC-dominated western academic environment in such fields (I have heard this from people working and studying in both environments). There were some limitations in terms of having to pay lip service to Marxist principles in official publications but everything could and was said during lectures and debates with no concern about saying the “wrong” thing.

  14. Alexander Mercouris says:

    Chinese universities have problems with corruption as well. See by way of example this article
    This is not a criticism of China. Merely a statement that problems exist everywhere.

  15. Thanks for an excellent and informative post! Unfortunately, these lies are being propagated all over the world. I found the following piece in today’s issue of a major Swedish daily newspaper, in a rant about the “bleak future” of Russia due to Putin’s nomination as presidential candidate:

    “Many young, well-educated russians will also join the over one million who have already moved to the West. The emigration wave during the last three years is already reminiscent of that which followed the russian revolution in 1917.”

    (My translation from:

    I was wondering where the author got this crap from, until your post explained exactly how this myth was created.

    • Yes, bizarrely, the number of references to this “emigration wave” just keeps increasing and increasing, long after it was debunked.

      Go to liberal discussion sites and they’re full of stories about friends and friends of friends who are deciding to finally leave Rashka. It’s like some self-perpetuating meme now.

  16. Leon Lentz says:

    Russian demographics has a particular feature of a much greater gap between male and female life expectancies than in all other countries in the world. This gap was 14 years in the nineties and has presently shrunk to 12 years. This is due to alcohol related deaths to which Russian men are more prone than women. The effect of alcoholic men dying out in the harsh days of pro American Yeltsin’s regime is now showing: the death rates are significantly lower. One can expect this trend to continue resulting in decreasing this gap even further, perhaps to 5-6 years in the next decade. The anti alcoholic/anti smoking measures in Russia may help.

    Contrary to the author’s assertion, the birthrates are not low at all, by European standards they are relatively high, but it is mostly due to Caucasus region migrants from the South of Russia. Mass resettling of Caucasus Muslims into Moscow is responsible for the natural growth in that city as well as for increased crime. There is work to be done to increase the birthrates of ethnic Russians.

    The author should be aware that we live in a finite area on this Planet and the runaway population growth is the cause of most problems humankind is presently facing, so the goal of every society is not growth, but stable, perhaps very slowly declining population, something which Russia has already achieved.

    However, Russia, unlike Western Europe has an extremely thin population density due to a large land mass and no natural barriers providing for secure borders and this may require a slight reorientation in its goals of improving demographics: a population stabilized at 150 mln, which is slightly more than all time maximum achieved in 1992 would be a better ultimate target than the current 143 mln.