Highly qualified middle-class professionals, feeling ignored by the country's economy and political system, are emigrating in search of greener pastures.
Andrei and Nadezhda are, by any measure, successful professionals and a happy family. They are the kind of people who are supposed to be the mainstay of new Russia and the driving force of its resurgence. Except that they are planning to leave this country for good.
They live in the ancient Russian city of Vladimir, about 200 km east of Moscow. Andrei, 40, and Nadezhda, 36, have decent jobs, a two-bedroom flat and a car, and are raising two daughters, aged 10 and 4. Four years ago they took a firm decision to emigrate. Why?
“We don't see a future for us here,” says Nadezhda. “Once a military and industrial giant, our country today is reduced to a raw material appendage to other economic powerhouses. Look at our shops: You won't find any goods made in Russia. Our well-being depends on the price of oil and on decisions taken by politicians and economists in other countries. We don't feel we are needed here.”
Results of a survey
This harsh indictment of the situation in this country is shared by many Russians. A survey conducted last year by the respected Levada Centre found that 50 per cent of Russians do not think there is future for them in Russia, while 63 per cent said they would like their children to live elsewhere.
Andrei and Nadezhda are part of a new emigration wave from Russia. There are no reliable emigration statistics, partly because the departures are hard to document. According to the Federal Migration Service, almost 30,000 left Russia in the 11 months of last year. However, the figure includes only those who gave up their Russian passports, whereas most émigrés retain Russian citizenship. The Auditing Commission, last year, estimated on the basis of tax returns that almost 1.25 million Russians had left during the past decade. Other estimates put the number of émigrés at 2 million. The shocking fact is that the exodus from Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union is comparable to that in the wake of the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution. In those days Russians fled violence and hunger. Today their motives are different.
The first post-Soviet emigration wave, when an estimated 1.1 million left Russia in the 1990s, was largely attributed to the lifting of Communist-era travel restrictions and the country's painful transition to a market economy. It was baffling though when the outflow picked up again during Vladimir Putin's presidency in the 2000s. After all, under Mr. Putin, Russia overcame the chaos of the 1990s, posted steady growth and saw people's incomes rise significantly. However, economic growth has been largely confined to the extracting industries, limiting opportunities for self-fulfilment. The corrupt nexus of Russian business and the state became overwhelming, stifling competition and producing a new breed of billionaire bureaucrats. Many felt that the political regime increasingly resembles the Soviet Union where people had no say in government, the Parliament was decorative and elections were a sham. At the same time, the notion of social justice for which the Soviet Union was famous has all but disappeared in new capitalist Russia. Over the past decade, Russia earned an estimated $1.6 trillion from the sale of oil and gas alone, or more than $11,000 per head of its population, but the money landed in the pockets of the privileged few. Moscow today has more billionaires than any other world capital, but across the country, over 21 million people out of the population of 142 million live below the minimal subsistence level. Last year, the number of poor people increased by two million compared with 2010, according to Rosstat, the State statistics committee.
“In Russia, incredible riches of the oligarchs contrast with the lack of social security, quality medicine and education for the people,” complains Nadezhda, who was 18 when the Soviet Union collapsed and can compare life then and now. “Today crime, drunkenness and narcotics rule the roost. We are totally alienated from the state; we can't change the government through elections.”
Who could have imagined two decades ago that Russians would be leaving their country in search of social justice and security? Yet, this is what Andrei and Nadezhda hope to find in Canada.
“We want our children to have good education, good jobs and social security; we want them to live in a country governed by law and caring for its citizens,” says Nadezhda. But it could take several more years for that dream to take shape as emigration to Canada involves a long and cumbersome process.
Focus on middle class
What is worrying about Russian emigration is that it is fuelled by the middle class. Andrei is a skilled mechanic and electrical engineer. Nadezhda has two university diplomas in accounting and management. They say job opportunities in their home city of 350,000 people are far and few between. While they await their passage to Canada, Andrei, like many other people in Vladimir, has taken a better paid job in Moscow. He commutes to the capital twice a week to work in 24-hour shifts.
“Big industrial enterprises that used to employ the bulk of the workforce in Vladimir either closed down in the 1990s or split into small companies,” says Andrei. “It is still possible to find a job, but the pay is low and people go to Moscow in search of work.”
Last month, the 250-year-old Gusevsky Crystal Glass Factory, the main employer and tax-payer in Gus-Khrustalny, a town of 60,000 residents less than an hour's drive from Vladimir, went bankrupt and fired its remaining workers. Once famous for its beautiful designer crystalware, Gus-Khrustalny, which means Crystal Goose, has recently made headlines as a town controlled by criminal gangs. The scandal broke out when residents complained to Mr. Putin of mass extortion racketing that was patronised by local police.
In absolute terms, emigration from Russia is not that big when compared with many other countries. Moreover, it is offset by the influx of immigrants from other former Soviet States. The problem is that the country has been haemorrhaging highly qualified and entrepreneurial cadres, the cream of society, whereas the bulk of newcomers are unskilled labourers from Central Asia.
Professor Anatoly Vishnevsky of the Institute of Demography at the Higher School of Economics has estimated that more than 1,00,000 researchers with academic degrees had left Russia over the past two decades and the outflow continues.
Some of the best Russian universities today serve as a free source of talent for foreign laboratories. Seventy per cent of students at Novosibirsk State University plan to leave the country after they get their degree, according to research conducted by the Novosibirsk branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
A poll conducted by the All-Russia Centre for Public Opinion Studies (VTsIOM) last year revealed that the number of people ready to leave Russia for good has grown fourfold since the breakup of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. Today, 21 per cent of Russians consider emigration as their chance for self-attainment and a better life. Among the educated young people, the share of potential emigrants is staggering — 39 per cent.
In contrast to the 1990s, when Russians mostly headed in the Western direction, today they are also looking to the East. Tens of thousands of Siberians, mostly small and medium-size businessmen, have moved their businesses and families to China to escape bureaucratic pressure and extortion at home.
“I think the era of doing honest business in Russia has ended,” said Ivan Smolin, a businessman from Krasnoyarsk now living in Harbin. He says he had left because the business and political climate in Russia was suffocating.
“I left to escape stagnation. I felt it was impossible to change things. You can be successful only in two cases: if you dodge taxes or sit on the oil pipe [do business in hydrocarbons].”
Cynics say the Kremlin is only too happy to see the disgruntled leave the country and this is one reason why it has been pushing for a visa-free travel arrangement with Europe. The country that lives off its oil and minerals does not need that many qualified specialists anyway.
Protests and political system
Mass protests against rigged parliamentary elections in December showed, however, that many educated urban Russians, instead of packing their bags, are now ready to pack the streets to demand reforms and freedoms.
The peaceful protests have already prompted the Kremlin to promise pro-democracy reforms and 25 million new skilled jobs over the next decade. This generated hopes that many potential emigrants would delay, if not rethink, their departure.
Andrei and Nadezhda, however, do not believe that things could change in Russia in their lifetime. They showed me a recent news item in a local paper.
The paper reported a fire in a municipal district administration in Vladimir that destroyed all ballot papers of the December parliamentary election from two polling stations, where Mr. Putin's party received over 90 per cent of the votes (twice the average for Vladimir). What is more, the two polling stations never opened on the election day. Police blamed the fire on faulty electrical wiring.
“What changes can we hope for in a country where authorities act with such impunity,” asked Nadezhda. “Putin's decision to return as President has only strengthened our resolve to emigrate.”