Russians protest by emigrating, not demonstrating

March 8, 2011

While protesters have been marching in the Middle East demanding liberty, Russians have been mostly silent. Instead of packing the streets, some have been quietly packing their bags, pursuing freedom in a new wave of emigration.

The departures are not easily documented because they are mostly unrecorded, but they have become the talk of the independent press and professional circles here. Russians blame their malaise on an authoritarian system in which political limits have settled over society as a whole, dead-ending career opportunities.

“There is a general feeling that a wall has gone up,” said Dmitri Oreshkin, a geographer and political analyst who described the new wave of emigration in a widely quoted Novaya Gazeta article at the end of January. “Everyone is asking me if it’s time to leave.”

He described the exodus as the sixth wave in less than a century, and differing from earlier waves because those departing intend to return when opportunities improve — though they rarely do.

“They really do not want to leave,” he wrote in his article. “But here they have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no hope.”

Oreshkin said the young, talented and ambitious are most likely to leave — professionals like Natalya Kuzmina, a 29-year-old cardiac intensive-care doctor who departed Moscow in January.

Kuzmina was working and training in a Moscow hospital, feeling as if she was learning little and going nowhere, coming up against the very wall Oreshkin describes. The hospital had no money for professional journals; the science and technology were behind the times. “I realized if I wanted more education and training,” she said, “I had to leave.”

Kuzmina, who is not Jewish, got a five-year residency at a Jerusalem hospital, where she describes herself as thriving. “I am learning a thousand times more,” she said.

The Russian government, she said, allocated money to the Moscow hospital where she worked, but it never filtered down to where it was needed. “Every institution is corrupted,” she said. “We cannot move anywhere. We are stuck.”

Kuzmina plans to return in five years, but Oreshkin said such career moves often become permanent. “They create a life there,” he said, “and they don’t return.”

In the Soviet era, emigration was a daring and irreversible public act that required getting an exit permit, renouncing citizenship and leaving most family and worldly goods behind forever. Today’s emigrants often set off temporarily to study or for a contract to work for a year or two elsewhere. They return home frequently to visit and only gradually make themselves emigrants.

Yuri Surov, a 41-year-old translator who has been in Canada since 2003, has begun to hear from friends in Moscow asking for advice on emigrating. “My friends complain all the time — not enough opportunity, not enough money, not enough good jobs,” he said.

He returns to Russia frequently, visiting his parents and friends. “It’s not like I’ve burnt bridges,” he said.

Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the government’s Audit Chamber, which oversees public spending, estimates that about 1.25 million Russians in this country of 140 million have left in the last few years. Gennady Gudkov, head of the security committee in the lower house of parliament, puts the figure at 96,000 a year. He told a Russian newspaper that small-business people are reportedly leaving in great numbers because working here is too difficult.

“There is only one way out,” Gudkov said, repeating a joke he has been hearing. “And that is Sheremetyevo 2,” the major international airport.

Brain drain

As chief of the migration laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Zhanna A. Zayonchkovskaya has studied previous waves of emigration, including in the 1990s, when as many as 6 million people left. But her desire to research this one puts her up against the wall others are confronting.

“Brain drain is a very urgent topic now,” she said. “We would like to study it, but we cannot get the money to do it.”

President Dmitry Medvedev drew attention to the brain drain in October, when two emigre scientists born and educated in Russia won the Nobel physics prize. They work in Britain, where they have attracted a number of other Russian-born scientists.

“We need to make an effort so that our talented people do not go abroad,” Medvedev said, adding that the government had failed to invest sufficiently in research. He has been trying to recruit foreigners to make Russia more competitive.

Zayonchkovskaya works out of a 20-story building that looks as if it hasn’t been touched since it was built in the 1960s. Wooden sills are cracked and peeling, parquet floors are worn gray. Talented young graduates look for work elsewhere — the youngest members of her team are in their 40s.

“I think there is emigration,” she said, “but maybe not as much as earlier. What I do see growing is the emigration of schoolchildren. They are sent to boarding schools and then university. They will never come back.”

Sending children abroad to study has become increasingly popular among those who can afford it. In the nine months before September 2010, British officials in Moscow issued 9,241 student visas, up from 8,319 for the same period in the previous year.

Older people look for a way out by buying property in less expensive countries, such as Bulgaria, renting out their more expensive Russian apartments to support themselves. For Siberians, China has become a popular destination.

Inexpensive travel

Cheap travel opportunities have only whetted the appetite. Artyom Borychev, deputy IT manager for the state television complex and graduate of a prestigious Moscow technological institute, traveled to the Indonesian island of Bali a year and a half ago and was so overwhelmed by the sun, water and congenial lifestyle that he decided to move there.

He leaves this month for an administrative job at a Russian-run surfing school, where he plans to learn the business. Eventually he hopes to set up a company of his own, though not necessarily in Bali.

He already has cut his hair into a shaggy surfer style, and he’s dazzled at the prospect of trading endless cold, dark winters for sunshine and fresh fruit and fish, but that isn’t all that is drawing him away.

“The main reason is that I don’t feel I will have a good future here,” said Borychev, 28. “I have worked in six different companies, starting when I was still in school. But everywhere it was the same. You can work well, you can work poorly, but you stay in the same place. Why work hard if it won’t get you anywhere?”

Many people, he said, feel that’s normal.

“I don’t think it’s normal,” he said, “and I am going to leave.”

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