Russians protest by emigrating, not demonstrating

Kathy Lally / The Washington Post /


Published Mar 9, 2011 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

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.”

Young professionals most likely to leave

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.

Only one way out

Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the government’s Audit Chamber, which oversees public spending, estimates that about 1.25 million Russians in this country of 140 million have left in the last few years. Gennady Gudkov, head of the security committee in the lower house of parliament, puts the figure at 96,000 a year. He told a Russian newspaper that small-business people are reportedly leaving in great numbers because working here is too difficult.

“There is only one way out,” Gudkov said, repeating a joke he has been hearing. “And that is Sheremetyevo 2,” the major international airport.

President Dmitry Medvedev drew attention to the so-called brain drain in October, when two emigre scientists born and educated in Russia won the Nobel physics prize. They work in Britain, where they have attracted a number of other Russian-born scientists.

“We need to make an effort so that our talented people do not go abroad,” Medvedev said, adding that the government had failed to invest sufficiently in research. He has been trying to recruit foreigners to make Russia more competitive.

A better life abroad

Cheap travel opportunities have only whetted the appetite. Artyom Borychev, deputy IT manager for the state television complex and graduate of a prestigious Moscow technological institute, traveled to the Indonesian island of Bali a year and a half ago and was so overwhelmed by the sun, water and congenial lifestyle that he decided to move there.

He leaves this month for an administrative job at a Russian-run surfing school, where he plans to learn the business. Eventually he hopes to set up a company of his own.

He already has cut his hair into a shaggy surfer style, and he’s dazzled at the prospect of trading endless cold, dark winters for sunshine and fresh fruit and fish, but that isn’t all that is drawing him away.

“The main reason is that I don’t feel I will have a good future here,” said Borychev, 28. “I have worked in six different companies, starting when I was still in school. But everywhere it was the same. You can work well, you can work poorly, but you stay in the same place. Why work hard if it won’t get you anywhere?”

Many people, he said, feel that’s normal.

“I don’t think it’s normal,” he said, “and I am going to leave.”