A recent Gallup poll made headlines in Russia with the revelation that a record 20 percent of the population wanted to leave their country. Among younger Russians, the figure was far higher: For 15- to 29-year-olds, a staggering 44 percent indicated that they would like to migrate.
Where did they hope to go? Germany (15 percent) and the United States (12 percent) were the most popular destinations mentioned in the poll. Migration intentions do not equal actual immigration, of course, but these numbers illustrate the widespread dissatisfaction in Russia with the country’s current state of affairs.
Young people have also voiced their discontent at home. They were at the forefront of recent protests in Moscow demanding that independent and opposition candidates be allowed to run in local elections this September. Protests in Yekaterinburg in May put a momentary end to the construction of a church in one of the inner-city parks. And large-scale protests in 2018 against pension reforms suggest broad dissatisfaction with the socio-economic conditions, and the regime’s difficulties in managing societal expectations.
Who wants to leave Russia?
Based on our survey research, we find that having a connection to a person living in another country or having spent time abroad — what we call “transnational links” — is a good predictor of whether a young person wants to leave Russia and where she might want to move. These transnational links also provide interesting clues about attitudes toward Russian foreign and domestic politics, making this analysis a potentially crucial — and underdiscussed — feature of the Russian political landscape.
At the Berlin-based Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), we conducted a survey in 2018 that focused on the younger cohort, ages 16 to 34. Our online survey includes 2,000 respondents who live in the 15 Russian Federation cities with a population of 1 million or more. The quota-based sample draws on an actively managed larger Russian consumer panel.
In the ZOiS survey, 54 percent of respondents voiced the intention to migrate — of these 50 percent consider moving within the Russian Federation, 21 percent contemplate moving to a European Union country and 7 percent to the United States.
What do we know about young people who say that they would like to leave Russia? There’s a strong correlation with preexisting transnational links — a previous migration experience, having family or friends abroad, having traveled beyond Russia or receiving financial remittances from friends or family living abroad. We noticed a strong link between travel experience and preferred migration destination, though our data does not allow us to specify the causal direction of this correlation.
About 20 percent of our survey respondents currently have transnational links to the European Union, about 21 percent to other former Soviet states, 12 percent to the United States/Canada and about 6 percent to Asia. The younger a person, the higher his/her chance to have transnational links. Higher income and education levels as well as being based in Moscow or St. Petersburg also increase the likelihood of having transnational links.
And there were some other interesting aspects. Our analysis revealed that young Russians who would like to move to an E.U. country are significantly less likely to have voted for Vladimir Putin, and tend to live in Moscow or St. Petersburg — underlining that international connectedness of these two cities.
We also noted that those with a denser transnational network — those who traveled more or have more international contacts — are more likely to voice an intention to go abroad, including to other countries of the former Soviet Union. Transnational linkages with particular regions across the world are correlated with these regions being named as the preferred migration destinations. Conversely, those with few or no transnational links pegged their migration intentions within the Russian Federation.
Are there broader foreign policy implications?
Do transnational links also have foreign policy implications? Our survey includes a question about the country with which young people would like to see Russia have closer relations. The most frequently mentioned individual country is China (28 percent), followed by the United States (19 percent). E.U. countries as a whole were mentioned by 19 percent of respondents, with Germany (7 percent) claiming the top spot.
The degree of transnational exposure appears clearly linked to the reported foreign policy preferences. Disentangling the various types of transnational links, we find that in particular those who have family members living in a particular country or region favor Russia’s closer relationship with that country or region. The effects are strongest for relations with the European Union, the United States and Canada, and countries of the former Soviet Union. Travel experiences in the E.U. and the former Soviet Union are also correlated independently with a respondent’s foreign policy orientation toward either region.
Transnational links and domestic politics
Do transnational links also shape domestic political attitudes? We find that those with transnational links to the European Union and the United States or Canada are significantly less likely to have voted for Putin, as are men. The same held true for respondents with a higher level of education. Overall, transnational links are clearly linked to lower trust in the Russian Orthodox Church, the security apparatus and the local mayor — and, somewhat counterintuitively, nongovernmental organizations. Why NGOs? This likely echoes general skepticism about Russian institutions and politics.
Drilling down even further, those with E.U./North America links are also less likely to trust Putin. And we also noted a strong correlation between transnational linkages with the European Union and the perception that domestic protests are a legitimate form of political behavior.
A growing challenge for the Russian regime
The survey findings point to shifts in Russian society that are likely to require responses by the political regime. It’s not possible to predict if and when anyone’s migration intentions might materialize, but these findings flag an important challenge for the Russian regime. Unfulfilled economic and political expectations of the younger generation could lead to higher migration rates, and the loss of highly qualified labor. This calls for a new narrative to appeal to young Russians across the country who also increasingly turn away from badly paid jobs in the state sector and are very visible in the ongoing protests in the run-up to the local elections in Moscow.
Félix Krawatzek is a senior researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin, an associate member of Nuffield College, and author of “Youth in Regime Crisis: Comparative Perspectives from Russia to Weimar Germany.” (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Gwendolyn Sasse is the academic director of ZOiS, professor of comparative politics at the department of politics and international relations and at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies at the University of Oxford and a professorial fellow at Nuffield College.