Russia’s New Brain Drain

Jun 19, 2014 at 12:36 PM ET

Alexei Antipov is a Russian success story. A 30-something businessman in Moscow, he owns a nice home, drives a respectable car and spends vacations abroad with his wife and children a few times a year. On the surface at least, he has every reason to be thrilled about his life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But Antipov wants out.

“I want my children to grow up in a fairer country, one where the rule of law is more or less observed,” he says, as he sits drinking imported beer in a central Moscow cafe. “I used to think it was possible to build a better society in Russia, but I’ve basically lost all hope now. It’s time to leave.”

Antipov—who asked that I use a pseudonym for fear of unwanted business problems—is not alone. A growing number of Russia’s best and brightest seem eager to leave their homeland. But unlike past brain drains in modern Russia, which were more about economics, the reasons behind this exodus have more to do with politics than money.

Today online forums and websites here are full of advice on how to emigrate, while reports say lines at the Israeli embassy in Moscow have reached lengths not seen since the dark days of the early 1990s, when devastating economic reforms plunged millions of Russians into poverty.

While only a tiny number of “ordinary Russians” are planning to leave the country, according to a recent opinion poll, almost one in every four Russians with a higher education are currently looking to emigrate. The figure rises to nearly one in three among those who describe themselves as “well-off.” And of those who say they are planning to move abroad, 31 percent say they want to provide a “worthy and hopeful future” for their children.

“Right now, the Russian middle-class is living very well—as never before in history,” says Sergei Guriev, a prominent Russian expatriate economist, in an email. “But many people are worried about political turbulence.”

Guriev, an opposition supporter who recently moved to Paris, is among Russia’s most high-profile new expats. Another is Pavel Durov, the founder of the successful VKontakte social network website, often described as Russia’s Facebook. In a statement explaining his departure, Durov said he had been forced out of the company over his refusal to cooperate with the security services, and that it was now under the “full control” of Kremlin-friendly figures. He also named “the absence of honest and fair courts” as one of the reasons why he would not be returning home, though he has yet to find a new home.

Russia’s latest brain drain began in earnest last year after it became clear that the grassroots opposition against Putin had failed to force political and social change. Some six months earlier, as Putin made his controversial return to the Kremlin, some 80,000 protesters had filled central Moscow to rail against his inauguration. “They ruined my big day,” Putin was widely reported to have said. “Now I’m going to ruin their lives.”

What followed next was a series of smear campaigns and Soviet-style show trials against his opponents, which left some protest leaders and their most vocal supporters under house arrest or behind bars. The crackdown dashed the hopes of many middle-class Russians who had wanted their country to part with its repressive legacy and move closer to Europe.

“Every person of a certain social grouping has had their own moment in recent years when they finally lost hope that they would feel good in this country in the foreseeable future,” said Alexander Gorbachev, editor of the opposition-friendly Afisha magazine, this month as he prepared to move to the United States. “For me, that moment was the sentencing of Pussy Riot.”

But the jailing of the anti-Putin punk activists was just the beginning. Since the start of the year, the Kremlin has passed laws restricting freedom of speech and online dissent. Meanwhile, Putin and his cohorts have transformed state television into an unabashed platform for anti-Western propaganda.

Now many fear that restrictions on foreign travel are next. Earlier this month, for instance, Putin signed off on a law that makes it a criminal offense to fail to disclose dual citizenship. And millions of police and state security employees have already been banned from travelling to countries that have extradition agreements with the United States.

It remains to be seen if wider travel restrictions will come to pass. But with Putin’s approval ratings soaring, Russia is clearly becoming a polarized place, split firmly between a majority who revel in Moscow’s growing international clout and a minority made up of increasingly beleaguered Kremlin critics. A recent opinion poll found that a mere 18 percent of Russians are certain that opposition to Putin is even necessary.

Few expect the recent wave of emigration to change anything. If anything, opposition sympathizers suggest that hard-line Kremlin officials are likely to celebrate the departure of members of the “troublesome” creative and middle classes. “The Kremlin doesn’t care because it doesn’t consider the likes of me Russia’s best and brightest,” says well-known Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky, who publicly announced his departure to Germany this month. “[To them], we’re the traitors, the fifth column.”

Vitaly Milonov, a pro-Putin lawmaker who wrote Russia’s controversial “gay propaganda” law, seems to agree. “Russia won’t lose anything if the entire so-called creative class leaves,” he says. “What’s the creative class anyway? For me, a woman who gets up at 5 a.m. to milk a cow is creative because she produces something. Not some guy with a stupid haircut who sits in a cafe all day long writing in his blog.”

For Antipov, the Moscow businessman, it’s remarks like Milonov’s that have left him more determined than ever to leave for Europe. “I always knew what kind of a person Putin is,” he says. “But I didn’t think things would go this far. Nothing good is going to happen here for a long time.”

Marc Bennetts is the author of Kicking the Kremlin (Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin), published by Oneworld Publications.