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Exile, Brain Drain, and Colonialism: Perspectives on Contemporary Russian Emigration

Yasmine Mitashvili-Rayyis | Critique | October 11, 2022


Status and Characteristics Contemporary Russian Emigration The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a significant wave of emigration from Russia. According to ‘Ok Russians’,’ a new non-profit group for migrants, an estimated 300,000 Russians have left as political refugees and economic migrants as of mid-March. With the E.U., U.S., and U.K., having closed their airspace to Russian flights, migrants head for countries where flights are still permitted and visas are not required. The majority of new migrants have settled in Turkey (24.9%), Georgia (23.4%), and Armenia (15.1%). Other major destinations include the United Arab Emirates, Central Asia, and the Baltic states. These migrants tend to be young and well-educated professionals, leading some economists to suggest that Russian brain drain is worsening. Among the migrants who are employed, self-reported polls indicate that 45% work in the I.T. industry, 16% are in the arts and culture sector, 16% are managers, 14% are accountants and teachers, and 8% are journalists. The ‘first wave’ of migration was largely composed of those openly opposed to President Vladimir Putin’s regime, feeling an immediate risk of political persecution for violating the Kremlin’s suppression of public dissent. The current ‘second wave’ is composed of people who took longer to leave, due to familial responsibilities or in-person business. Russia’s new ‘state betrayal’ law states anyone expressing support for Ukraine could face jail sentences of up to 20 years. In March, new legislation passed in Russia can imprison people for up to 15 years for sharing information about the war which authorities deem to be ‘false,’ such as even using the word ‘war.’ The Russian Committee in Defense of National Interests has also begun publishing an online list of Russians who left the country, denouncing them as “cowards and deserters.” As Russia increases its penalties for dissidence and the economy is increasingly affected, this shift in human capital is showing no sign of subsiding. Russians’ interest in the topic of “emigration” on Google quadrupled between mid-February and early March and searches for “travel visa” have almost doubled. As the number of contemporary Russian émigrés continues to expand, it is increasingly crucial to collect data on this shift and its subsequent impact on both Russia and emerging host communities. Framework for Analysis This paper aims to examine the several lenses of analysis that can be utilized to characterize and evaluate the current wave of emigration from Russia. The exploration will draw from the following frames; 1. The fleeing of intelligentsia, as experienced by Revolutionary Russia and, more recently, Revolutionary Iran. 2. The ‘Brain drain’ of Russia’s ‘mass intelligentsia’ or educated and financially-mobile populations, similar to human capital flight in China. 3. From the context of Georgia, occupation or neo-colonialism, as the heightened presence of Russians is often interpreted by their new host communities. Though no singular frame will provide a complete reference for understanding this new movement and resettlement of Russian populations, each one can provide insight into the possible future of this trend and what it means for Russia, as a whole. The Ghost of Revolutionary Past The initial facet of this analysis is rooted in Russia’s revolutionary history. Experts on global migration and Russian population are calling the current exodus Russia’s single fastest since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, when millions of intellectuals and economic elites fled the establishment of the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution of 1917 divided the intelligentsia and the social classes of Tsarist Russia. Some Russians emigrated, the political reactionaries joined the right-wing White movement for counter-revolution, some became Bolsheviks, and some remained in Russia.[i] Non-Bolshevik intelligentsia was labeled as class enemies and was expelled from society by way of deportation, forced labor, or execution. The Russian Civil War (1917–1923) saw a wave of substantial emigration. From 1917 to 1920, an estimated 900,000-2 million people, spanning all classes and backgrounds, left for other Slavic countries and Turkey.[ii] Between 150,000 and 200,000 found their way to Constantinople (now Istanbul), alone. Though a significant percentage of White émigrés (белоэмигрант, byeloemigrant) may have been described as monarchists, many adopted an “undetermined” or “apolitical” position. Many others believed it was their duty to remain active in combatting the Soviet Union, forming various organizations with the hopes of liberating Russia.[iii] In the 20th century, from the status class term ‘Intelligentsia,' sociologists derived the term ‘Mass Iintelligentsia’ to denote the increasing population of educated adults, with discretionary income, who pursued intellectual hobbies such as book clubs, and were vocationally engaged in production, distribution, interpretation, and criticism of cultural value.[iv] While the Revolution-era political camps of ‘Whites’ versus ‘Reds’ are not completely transposable with the current Russian war in Ukraine, the Russian public’s response to the invasion might have created a class that could be titled the new White Russian émigré. Within the contemporary context, this mass intelligentsia can be understood as a proxy for a tech intelligentsia.[v] This contemporary White Russian émigré faces similar government clampdowns on political dissent and inflammatory rhetoric against those deemed ideologically compatible with the ‘new normal.’ Nevertheless, their migration is not always a renouncement of the political actions of the government or its leaders; yet again, some might be undetermined, some entirely apolitical, some primarily driven by economic reasons, or a variety of other positions. The solitary unifying factor for this new intelligentsia is, chiefly, access to the necessary resources for migration, such as information, money, and support networks. Most of the people leaving are those who can afford to, including Russia's well-educated urban middle class. In 1917, Russia was in the midst of a civil war, but contemporary emigration is occurring at a time when there is no war within Russia, itself. The consequence of this expatriate trend on the future fate of Russia is subject to ongoing scrutiny. More pressingly, what does this emigration mean for war-time attitudes in both Russia and beyond? From Russia to Beyond Moving beyond a comparative analysis of Russia’s Revolutionary-era migration, similarities, differences, and lessons can be drawn from international contexts. In Iran, a history of revolution, war, government upheaval, and sanctions have triggered ongoing waves of emigration, with lasting impacts on the country’s economy and political future. In China, a global superpower with a similar population makeup to that of Russia, a brain drain among the highest educated groups is challenging the government to rethink how human capital is managed. In Georgia, host to increasing Russian migration and with a past of Soviet occupation, local communities are struggling to reckon with their political affiliations, anxieties, and the severe economic impact on their new neighbors. Revolutionary Shifts: From Iran to Russia Oleg Itskhoki, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles reported that more educated, middle-class Russians are likely to leave over Western sanctions and warned that Russia may resemble Iran, whose economy has been crippled by sanctions. This problem has plagued Russia for years; the country's ‘brain drain' is its mass emigration of highly trained and highly educated citizens to new regions, particularly Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and the US. The Atlantic Council, an international-affairs think tank, found that as of 2019, as many as 2 million people have left Russia since Vladimir Putin became president.[vi] They stated that brain drain, along with general isolation, is likely to dramatically reverse the country's advancements in recent years, becoming an increasingly important problem for Russia, as it has been for Iran. As foreign academic, technological, and financial institutions break off their relationships with Russian one, Itskhoki hypothesized that emigration will only accelerate. “Educated people do not like living in a dictatorship with censorship and other limitations of basic human rights, and this results in brain drain,” Itskhoki summarized. He added that it will also “reduce consumption demand because these are the people that do a lot of consumer spending, and they will not support that once they leave.” With a zero average economic growth over the last 12-plus years, the future is likely to be difficult. In fact, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a top regional development bank, expects the Russian economy to contract 10% this year. Elina Ribakova, Deputy Chief Economist at the Institute of International Finance contextualizes this data by explaining that “The people who are either leaving or planning to leave are highly educated and generally young. This is our most productive part of the labor force that is disappearing.” Russia is facing a progressively clear human capital problem, though they are hardly alone in this dilemma. The 1979 Iranian revolution, following the expulsion of the Shah of Iran and the Pahlavi dynasty under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, led to a period of political persecution and emigration. The wealthy and educated classes, and from the capital of Tehran, dominated the first phase of post-revolutionary migration.[vii] The emigration rate increased at the close of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, due to political crackdowns as well as economic and social disintegration after the eight-year conflict. Driven by government repression and a struggling economy, large numbers of Iranians continue to flee. The departing scientists, scholars, writers, and other intellectuals are attracted by the stable economic and educational opportunities abroad. In 2006, the IMF reported that 180,000 people leave Iran each year due to a poor job market and oppressive social conditions. It is estimated that over 25% of Iranians with post-secondary degrees live and work abroad, adding up to a total of 4 million Iranians living overseas. Similar to the case of Russia, the Iranian diaspora is very mixed, split along ideological, social, ethnic, and religious lines as well as borders. According to the United Nations, the U.S. is home to the largest community, with over two million Iranians, though substantial communities are also found in Turkey, Western European nations, Canada, and Australia.[viii] In October 1979, months after Iran redefined itself as an Islamic republic, Ayatollah Khomeini remarked on the large numbers of well-educated people who had left the country. “They say the brains escaped. Let them escape, they are not educated people, and are treacherous brains,” Khomeini said. “It does not matter if they are university scholars; they are the ones who are pro-Western civilization, let them go. We do not want their services and contributions.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who can be characterized as holding a similar cult of personality as the Khomeini once, made a similar statement; Putin recently declared that emigration was "a natural and necessary self-cleansing of society” which "aids that the Russian people” who would “always be able to distinguish true patriots from bastards and traitors.” This common hostile attitude towards educated professionals and academics makes alternate countries more attractive to many of the affected and able populations. Emigration is depriving Iran of the brainpower that could propel a struggling economy, worsened by international sanctions. After years of U.S. sanctions, Iran’s economy has contracted an estimated 4.99% in 2020, steadily shrinking since 2017. Iran is unable to retrieve billions of dollars sitting in banks in Iraq, China, and South Korea due to the sanctions. With a population facing unemployment and a crumbling economy, choices are increasingly limited. Critics say this “brain drain” has contributed to stagnation in expertise, innovation, and productivity, holding back advancements in Iran’s economy and cultural institutions. From 1979 to 2019, Iran’s population has doubled to 83 million people, but over the same period, Stanford University researchers have estimated that the population of Iranians abroad has grown nearly threefold. Unstable and unfavorable local conditions have been unsuccessful in recouping this crucial human capital, a bad omen for the Russian government. Moreover, Iran’s population is marked by pessimism towards its future, indicating no likely change to this trend. Gallup’s Potential Net Migration Index, taken between 2015 and 2017, found that over one-quarter of highly educated Iranians would leave the country if they could. The new population of Russian migrants seem to share this pessimism. A reported 43% of sampled Russian émigrés plan to stay in their new countries, 18% plan to move on, 35% felt confused, and a mere 3% plan to return to Russia. The majority of them also have a gloomy vision of the near future, with 72% believing that their living conditions will deteriorate and 70% believing that their political situation will not improve. This pessimism and growing numbers of emigrants abroad indicate that the shift in Russian populations is unlikely to be entirely temporary. China, Russia, and the Human Capital Problem Brain drain, also known as human capital flight, is the emigration of highly trained and educated people from a particular country. The exodus of the contemporary Russian mass intelligentsia is a heavy blow to Russia’s workforce. Amid worsening business conditions, increasing rejection of the war, and departing friends, the tech sector is among several professional services industries that have seen a departure of talent from Russia’s larger cities. According to the Russian Association for Electronic Communications, in the tech sector alone, an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 professionals left in the first month of the war, with a further 70,000 to 100,000 expected to follow soon thereafter. This is about 10% of Russia’s tech sector, a highly mobile, educated, and globally in-demand workforce. Russia has barred citizens from leaving with more than $10,000 in tow, in an attempt to dissuade migration and keep their money homebound. This might provide insight into why technology specialists are overrepresented among the emigrants, as in the face of these regulations, as well as sanctions on Russian Visas and Mastercard, young professionals with saving in cryptocurrency found themselves in more flexible conditions. Such substantial departures of talent threaten to undermine a host of Russian sectors, from the state media apparatus, to aerospace and aviation industries already reeling from Western sanctions. The tech and start-up ecosystem was already withering under escalating government interference and censorship. China has become a major player in global economics, but despite a rapidly growing workforce, it is also struggling to maintain qualified professionals. The reason for this emigration is believed to lie in the increasing opportunities abroad, as well as censorship and lack of certain freedoms at home. Data from 1992 revealed that 70% of Chinese students who studied overseas never returned to their homeland.[ix] Since 1978, over 1 million Chinese students attended universities located abroad, yet fewer than 275,000 have returned.[x] This trend stands to undermine China's technology competitiveness. U.S. top technology companies receive equal amounts of workers from the U.S. and China, with the source of talent nearly evenly divided between the U.S. (31%) and China (27%). Likewise, 88% of Chinese PhDs in artificial intelligence eventually work in U..S., drawn by the historically higher salaries and benefits of U.S. institutions, in addition to academic prestige. Therefore, Chinese human capital flight seems to be characterized by greater pull factors of the Western destinations, rather than the greater push factors in the context of Iran and Russia. A further difference is the proactive attitude of the Chinese government to this problem. Unlike Iran and Russia, which denounces ‘deserters’ and ‘ideological incompatible’ professionals, China has been working on alleviating its push factors, viewing brain drain as a strategic weakness. This is proving effective, as according to updated data from 2021, 83% of these students are now returning to China after their education abroad. Unlike Russia’s stagnation, China’s economy continues to improve, especially within the advanced technology sector, rendering it progressively more attractive to top talent. Additionally, while China and Russia are facing similar shifts in human capital, the former has 1.3 billion more people, with a population growth of 0.26%. Russia’s shift is additionally exacerbated by a decreasing population growth of -0.2%. Though Russia has started to offer increased benefits to dissuade brain drain, it is unlikely to sufficiently change its rhetoric or criminal penalties to dissuade the flight of the more politically-inclined emigrants. A recently passed bill grants exceptions for army service and income tax for tech workers. The effectiveness of this measure is yet to be determined. Russians in Georgia: A Case of Neo-Colonialism While migrants from Georgia, Armenia, and Uzbekistan typically moved to Russia for work, now, to a degree, it is the other way round as young, professional Muscovites seek their futures in Tbilisi and Tashkent. However, responses to new Russian-speaking communities have been pessimistic. Jeanna Batalova, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, explained that “Russia is viewed as the aggressor, and that attitude is passed down onto the émigrés. Even if they [Russian migrants] are against the system, public sentiment can be transferred to the new arrivals.” Indeed, there is a well-precedented fear among certain host countries that an influx of Russian migrants could make them a target for a future Russian invasion. Local communities do not want Russia to launch another invasion driven by the manufactured claim of protecting their diaspora, as was the case for the “liberation” of Donbas,” an Eastern Ukrainian territory, that is home to a significant number of ethnic Russians. Countries like Georgia, Armenia, and the Baltic states, which have a history of suffering at the hands of Russian aggression and have existing concerns over their national security, are particularly anxious. In Georgia, the fear that President Putin might claim Russian citizens abroad need protection has been salient since 2008, when this excuse was used to justify sending troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008. To date, 20% of Georgian territory remains under Russian military occupation. According to Georgia’s Economic Minister, Levan Davitashvili, an estimated 100,000 Russians have fled to Georgia, overall, making up 44% of the foreign citizens in Georgia with temporary residence permits. According to Georgian Interior Minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri, more than 30,400 Russians have entered Georgia since the start of the war and up until March. In the public halls of Tbilisi and Batumi, new arrivals are not only applying for residency, but also registering businesses. An early August study revealed that 13,500 Russian companies are registered in Georgia, half of which have been registered since the onset of the war.Further, 93% of the companies registered since March are individual enterprises owned by Russian citizens who moved to Georgia “to live and for business”. Russians also hold 40% of the registered real estate owned by foreigners. Beyond statistics, this new Russian-speaking presence is increasingly palpable. According to one Russian asylum seeker in Georgia, “You go to buy something for dinner, you walk into the supermarket or into a shop and you hear Russian words and see Russian faces. In cafes, everywhere. It's a new reality for Georgians, too.” The Georgia government has not imposed sanctions on Russia over the invasion, but an overwhelming majority of Georgians voice support for Ukraine. A recent survey found that 87% of Georgians view the war in Ukraine as “their own war with Russia.” Less than 14 years since the Russian invasion of Georgia, Georgians are uneasy about the dramatic influx of Russians. Ukrainian flags can be seen in all corners of Tbilisi and there are regular protests and vigils for Ukraine in Batumi. There have even been numerous reports of Airbnb hosts refusing to rent their properties to Russian and Belarusian citizens. Since February, the vox populi of Georgia has been making itself clear, seemingly at odds with the official state position of the Georgian government. The increasing instability of the Georgian housing market, especially in the capital of Tbilisi, has been a source of great anxiety for local communities, heralded as substantiation of the negative attitude towards new Russian communities. Rent prices in central areas of Tbilisi have increased by two or threefold from the existing pandemic-influenced inflated rates.[xi] Meanwhile, many property owners are seizing the opportunity to replace their former tenants with wealthier newcomers. The budget of Russian migrants tends to outweigh the financial capacities of people earning local salaries, threatening the established communities with eviction. Additionally, the influx of refugees from Ukraine further accelerated the competition for housing. This price inflation is felt most strongly by start-of-career professionals and students. In April, student protests erupted at Tbilisi State University (TSU) over the increasing lack of affordable housing options.[xii] Due to the lack of a minimum wage in Georgia, students are often forced to work the equivalent of a full time job without the ability to generate sufficient income for monthly rent. This problem is further exacerbated by the inability of the government to provide strategic solutions, stemming from the lack of state-owned housing stock and legal instruments to regulate the market.[xiii] As local wages continue to stagnate, financially flexible Russian emigrants are seen as clear threats to the Georgian family, drawing on the history of colonial exploitation by both imperial and revolutionary Russia. The Georgian Tourism Industry Alliance, which unites 29 associations, has called for visa requirements for Russians, which have been abolished since 2012. The desire to enforce a visa regime against Russian citizens is echoed in public sentiment, coming from the perspective that many incoming Russians are not politically persecuted and, in fact, support the official government position concerning the occupation of Georgia and the war in Ukraine. Many believe the flow of Russian citizens wishing to migrate to Georgia should be regulated by limiting visa-free travel, at the very least. Nodar Rukhadze, a civil rights activist at the Tbilisi-based ‘Shame Movement’, an anti-Kremlin group, is among those concerned, adding that the increased Russian presence poses potential security and calling for the introduction of a visa regime and background checks on new arrivals. Said Rukhadze, “Sadly, we cannot differentiate between who is pro-Putin's regime and who isn’t.” Indeed, according to a recent independent poll, 58% of Russians support their country's military actions in Ukraine and only 17% think Russia had initiated the escalation of conflict with Ukraine. Though the argument can be made that the increased Russian presence is positive for Georgia’s economy, this line of reasoning has yet to be proven and a determination on this point requires future insight. As of now, the increased anxiety of Georgian communities and outpour of support for Ukraine indicates that many Russian emigrants are likely overstaying their welcome. After all, what does it mean to be an emigrant in a territory that is already 20% occupied by your home country, if not that you are an occupier? Conclusions In conclusion, an integrated analysis of immigration figures, interviews with experts, activists, and displaced persons, sheds light on those who have decided they can no longer live in Vladimir Putin's Russia and are trying to flee amid the president's war in Ukraine and political crackdowns. For the Russian government, the preliminary data indicates that emigration should not be taken lightly. Taking Iran as a model, amid sanctions and ongoing economic stagnation, continued human capital flight tells of a bleak future for core sectors of the Russian Federation. Preventive measures and regulatory lessons can be learned from the model of brain drain in China, though the most significant transformation can only arise from a significant revision of Russia’s foreign policies and guiding political ideologies. By all accounts, this substantial level of internal transformation is unlikely, though not unprecedented in Russia’s tumultuous history. For the Russian emigrant, whether driven out by political persecution or economic factors, it seems crucial that their privilege within their new host countries, especially those with a history or ongoing presence of Russian occupation, is understood. To be an emigrant in such a context is, inherently, to have access to resources like education, money, support networks, etc, that many of their compatriots and host community members do not. By some measures, the new Russian émigré can be identified as a kind of export; a form of ‘soft power.’ The foreign physical occupation of a former colonial space is less violent than tanks and soldiers, but slightly more salient than Dostoevsky and Pushkin. The dynamics between these emigrants and their new host communities are yet to be codified and are continually subject to economic and war-time shifts, highlighting the ongoing importance of rigorous data collection and appropriate accounting. What is learned from this significant shift in Russian human capital will be crucial in understanding the future of the Federation and the countries whose fates are so entangled with it. As of now, the future is undetermined, and important lessons prevail from the past.


[i] Berlin, Isaiah. A Remarkable decade. Published in: Russian Thinkers, Penguin UK, 2013, ISBN 978-0-14-139317-9 [ii] Berlin, Isaiah. A Remarkable decade. Published in: Russian Thinkers, Penguin UK, 2013, ISBN 978-0-14-139317-9 [iii] Пётр Боборыкин. Подгнившие "Вехи". Сб. статей В защиту интеллигенции. Москва, 1909, с. 119–138; первоначально опубл. в газете "Русское слово", No 111, 17 (30) мая, 1909 ( [iv] Nethercott, Frances. 2022. The Intelligentsia is Dead, Long Live the Intelligentsia! Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Soviet Dissidence and a New Spiritual Elite. Russian Literature. 130: 29-50. (30.09.2022) [v]ibid. [vi]Herbst, John and Erofeev, Sergei. 2022. The Putin Exodus: The New Russia Brain Drain. Atlantic Council. Eurasian Center. (30.09.2022) [vii]Mohabbat-Kar, Rasa. 2015. Identity and Exile. The Iranian Diaspora Between Solidarity and Difference. Heinrich Boll Foundation. (30.09.2022) [viii]ibid. [ix]Chang, Parris and Deng, Zhiduan. 1992. The chninese brain drain and policy options. Studies In Comparative International Development 27: 44-60. (30.09.2022) [x]ibid. [xi]Zimmermann, Philipp. 2022. Protests at Tbilisi State University: Student Housing and Educational Equality in Georgia. Heinrich Boll Foundation. (30.09.2022) [xii]ibid. [xiii]ibid.

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