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A first detail of color: a member of the Kyrgyz Parliament has urgently called on the Bishkek government to start a national program to create jobs and install temporary housing for highly qualified Russians, especially in the field of IT&C arriving daily, waves-waves, from Russia. It is an episode that shows that even a poor Central Asian nation that massively exports cheap labor to large construction sites or fast-food restaurants in Russia has the quality of a safe haven for thousands of well-trained and educated Russians. fleeing the earth from the cataclysm – not only externally but also internally – caused by the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s armies. A text written for Bloomberg by Leonid Bershidsky, a well-known former Russian journalist who emigrated to Germany in 2014, immediately after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
The phenomenon can no longer be described as a “brain drain” – it is, rather, a centrifugal bubble towards an exit, whatever it may be.
Konstantin Sonin, a Russian-born economist at the University of Chicago, estimated the number of Russians fleeing the country in the first 10 days after the invasion to about 200,000. They have taken the path of Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey or any other country that receives visa-free Russian citizens on its territory.
True, this is a small number compared to the 2.8 million refugees who left Ukraine at the same time, but the Russians, as citizens of the aggressor nation, do not need to rush terribly hard to save your life. At least for now.
The robot portrait of the Russian “refugee”
Those who left Russia are, to a large extent, people who think they would have a lot to lose if they stayed: houses, cars, comfortable incomes and tight savings over the years that are difficult for them to access, given the draconian conditions imposed on Russian banks and capital by recent regulations.
And they leave everything behind, and most do so because they no longer want to have anything to do with Putin’s imperialist cardboard project and no longer want to be associated in any way with his war crimes. Others are leaving because they can no longer imagine living in the Soviet-style autarchy to which Western sanctions have condemned Russia.
The new wave of these hasty departures confirms an upward trend in emigration from Russia, highlighted in recent years. Even according to official Moscow statistics, which chronically underestimate the number of migrants compared to data reported by their destination countries, Russia lost 1.2 million people in 1992 and 1993, the first two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. marked by conflict and hyperinflation. Many of them were highly qualified academics and professionals who continued to make their mark on their higher education in many fields of science and technology in the countries where they settled.
Gradually, emigration slowed to a minimum around 2011, towards the end of Dmitry Medvedev’s relatively decent and hopeful presidency, and before that year’s fraudulent parliamentary elections, which brought tens of thousands to the streets in protest. of people.
After the protests calmed down and Putin began to tighten the domestic screw again, the flow of Russian emigrants – again, mostly educated and middle-class professionals – returned to speed.
In 2014, with the annexation of Crimea, an exodus began. Although it is not reflected in official statistics, as many of those who left kept their Russian houses and passports, data from other countries confirm this. Germany reported 23,352 new residents from Russia in 2014, down from less than 20,000 in 2011.
In 2019, a report by the Atlantic Council, a well-known think tank in Washington, estimated the size of Putin’s “exodus” since 2000, somewhere between 1.6 million and 2 million people.
More than half of them settled in the West, taking advantage of the possibility of concluding employment contracts and student exchange programs, and a considerable number of them even received political asylum.
There are people who have not left Russia in search of a more comfortable lifestyle, but rather in the hope of regaining their freedom and taking advantage of the intellectual opportunities offered by the West. Bershidsky calls it the “wave of disappointment.”
For about 15 years – a short but eventful time – it seemed to these people that Russia could be a new country, one that looked to the future and had ceased to do so to the past, one that used its enormous talent pool to progress, not destruction. However, everything turned out to be an illusion. Vladimir Putin has shattered this vision year after year as repression has grown, in direct proportion to resentment of official ideology.
Vladimir Sorokin, whose dystopias written in the mid-2000s, “Prophet’s Day,” and the “Sugar Kremlin,” foretold with frightening accuracy how far Putin’s Russia will go, is now in Berlin. Grigory Chkhartishvili, an elegant Russian-Georgian writer best known for his cops and fascinating historical fiction books, mostly signed under the pseudonym Boris Akunin, imagined Russia returning to its pro-Western roots. progress in the new post-Soviet stage of the country. He’s in London now.
The last dagger
The invasion of Ukraine, eight years after that of Crimea, has taken away all hope. It’s too late to talk about disappointment today, stronger words are needed, Bershidsky said.
“My Russia has given birth to fascism in good faith,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who chose to go into exile in Putin’s captivity in Russia, recently wrote on Twitter.
New fugitives seem disillusioned, disoriented, and often ashamed – they are ashamed to call their Ukrainian friends or volunteer to help Ukrainian refugees, because that would mean looking them in the face. Some of these emigrants are among those who greeted and praised the annexation of Crimea eight years ago, without firing a gun. Surveys at the time showed that an overwhelming number of Russians supported Russia’s action and did not consider it illegal.
But the Russian bombs falling on Ukrainian civilians turned out to be too much, even for them.
“A true Russian will never be ashamed to be Russian. If someone says that, then he is not Russian and we have nothing to say, “said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
The shame of being Russian
However, the new emigrants can do nothing to stop being Russian. As they start looking for a home and a job, their name, accent and passport will expose them. Together with those who came in other previous waves, they will also fully feel the anti-Russian sentiment that Putin planted in the West.
A violent episode took place the other day in Berlin, when someone set fire to the gym of a German-Russian school. California Democrat Congressman Eric Swalwell has called on Congress to “expel all Russian students from the United States,” and British lawmaker Roger Gale says all Russians living in Britain should be “sent home.”
Unlike previous waves of emigration, Russians now arriving in Western countries are often seen as accomplices to Putin’s regime. They waited too long to leave.
However, like their predecessors, they will integrate into their new homelands. They will write codes and essays, make music, do research in science labs, put into practice all the science they have learned at home. They will contribute to the progress of other societies, precisely in this period that is just beginning and in which Russia will probably have to face the most serious and unknown challenge of the last century: building a self-sufficient but viable and almost self-sufficient economy. of the most sanctioned country in the world.
Even Putin seems to understand what negative selection can do to his great projects.
In mid-February, when the invasion plans were well under way, he ordered ministers and heads of agencies to find ways to attract foreign academics to state research institutions. Russian intellectuals took his idea lightly, calling it ridiculous. Now, that sounds pretty absurd.
Smart people have been voting with their feet all these years, because Putin’s vision of greatness insults their intelligence. Paradoxically, even this faulty vision of his would require that at least the brain show minimal viability. But the invasion was marked by serious failures of strategy, tactics and training. The intellectual poverty of the Putin regime was thus exposed. Fear and violence do not create a favorable environment for the manifestation of clear thinking.
Even though Russia still has many smart people – thousands of graduates of the country’s best universities who have signed petitions against the war have not yet emigrated – their brains are not available for the regime. Meanwhile, the analytical capabilities of think tanks, ministries and the intelligence community are being affected by something similar to institutional stupidity.
As a man who witnessed the noisy collapse of the Soviet Union, Bershidsky says this is not a sustainable situation.
“I am almost certain that I will see the reversal of this brain drain during my lifetime, once Putin’s edifice collapses. Then it will be time for another attempt to bring Russia to its senses. In the end, one of these attempts will be successful. “