Russia’s emigration: is there a problem?

“For more than a century, Russia has suffered periodic waves of mass emigration. Now it could face yet another one, perhaps leading to the largest brain drain the country has experienced in 20 years. According to Russia’s state statistical agency, 350,000 people emigrated from Russia in 2015 — 10 times more than five years ago. The outflow began in earnest in 2012, driven mostly by political friction in the country, but Russia’s current economic crisis has accelerated the pace.

As highly skilled Russians emigrate, the future of innovation and private business in the country has been called into question. Meanwhile, migrants from mostly Muslim former Soviet states are entering Russia in search of work, altering the ethnic and religious composition of the population and heightening tension in the process.

In nearly every decade of its history, Russia has watched large portions of its population head for foreign shores. Between 1880 and 1914, 2 million Jews fled the Russian Empire, seeking refuge from pogroms. The Russian Revolution then sent roughly 1.4 million refugees fleeing the country, including some of the empire’s brightest minds: Nobel Prize-winning writer Ivan Bunin, author Vladimir Nabokov, helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky and artist Marc Chagall, among others.

It is difficult to get reliable migration statistics for the early Soviet period. All five of the Soviet statistical chiefs between 1926 and 1940 were shot, and under the Soviet government, demographic statistics became more propaganda than science. But generally, emigrants found their way out of the Soviet Union in three major waves over the union’s lifetime. During World War II, 700,000 to 1 million Russians — mostly anti-Communists, Soviet prisoners of war or those dodging the draft — fled the Soviet Union to settle in the West. Decades later, about 2 million Jews emigrated mainly to Israel and the United States, seeing an opportunity when Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev somewhat relaxed the Kremlin’s monitoring of the Soviet Jewish community. Then, with the loosening of border controls in the 1980s, people began to move across Russia’s border in both directions. Three million ethnic Russians living in the Soviet and Communist bloc outside of the Russian republic returned to Russia. At the same time, leaving the country were 700,000 ethnic Russians, along with 300,000 Soviet Jews — a number that jumped to over 1 million after the bloc’s collapse.

The rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin brought emigration from Russia to a relative crawl. Between 1999 and the mid-2000s, living standards in Russia quadrupled, the country’s economy stabilized, and the overwhelming popularity of Putin’s administration put an end to political turmoil. Russia’s renaissance had begun. As a result, emigration by ethnic Russians was consistently outpaced by the number of immigrants pouring in, particularly from former Soviet states. After peaking in 2000, the number of Russian emigrants dropped from about 146,000 that year to a mere 32,000 in 2009, even in the middle of an economic crisis.


But that trend appears to have reversed. Since 2012, the number of Russians leaving the country has steadily climbed, from 36,774 in 2011 to some 350,000 in 2015. The new wave of migration began in 2011, when parliamentary elections were widely deemed fraudulent and Putin announced he would return for a third term as president. Together these events sparked mass protests, and the Kremlin cracked down on the instability with a series of harsh policies and restrictions. In 2012, Russia introduced laws limiting foreign funding to companies or foundations in Russia — the so-called foreign agents laws.

As Russia has slipped ever deeper into economic recession, the type of Russian leaving the country has changed. Today’s emigrants are neither the poorly educated Russians who left at the fall of the Soviet Union nor the political intellectuals who have been migrating since 2012. Instead, the current wave consists mainly of doctors, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and teachers. Health care reforms in 2014, which resulted in layoffs of 7,000 medical staff in the Moscow area alone, drove even more educated people out of the country in search of work. According to Rosstat, most of today’s emigrants are going to the United States, Germany, Canada and Finland.

The loss of highly skilled workers will hamper the Russian economy for years to come. Russia’s educational and health care systems will further decline. Innovative companies and projects will largely set up shop outside Russia’s borders, and private enterprise in the country will diminish substantially. Russia already lags woefully behind the world in average money directed toward research and development, but losing the people behind such efforts will accelerate the trend. As a result, Russians will continue to depend on state-run industries and energy revenue to stay afloat, making the whole country vulnerable to outside shocks, such as changes in oil prices.

Russia’s current population of 143 million is expected to decrease by 10 percent by 2030, mostly because of the shrinking ethnic Russian population due to a low number of births, poor health care and emigration. At the same time, Russia’s Muslim populations have been booming over the past decade. The Chechen population has risen by 5 percent, and the Dagestani population has increased by 13 percent.

Meanwhile, more Muslim immigrants are making their way into Russia, driven by economic downturns in their own countries. Though official state data indicates that approximately 240,000 immigrants enter Russia each year, Russia’s Center for Migration Studies puts this number at more than 400,000, factoring in illegal immigration. Most immigrants come from the Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, according to Rosstat. Russia already hosts the second-largest number of migrants after the United States, some 11 million or nearly 8 percent of the population. According to an investigation by Russkaya Gazeta, about 30 percent of students in Russia will be children of immigrants or guest workers by 2020. This means that children of immigrants will start moving into more educated jobs than their parents and attempt to assimilate more into Russian society”.


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