Russians protest by emigrating, not demonstrating

Artyom Borychev on Prospekt Mira in Moscow. Feeling a lack of opportunity in Russia, he is leaving in March for Bali.
Artyom Borychev on Prospekt Mira in Moscow. Feeling a lack of opportunity in Russia, he is leaving in March for Bali. (Kathy Lally - Washington Post)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 21, 2011; 10:16 AM

MOSCOW - 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.

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