Brain Flight, an Enduring Problem for Russia

di Quentin Cyr - 19 Giugno 2019

Moscow, Russia

Brain Flight

An Enduring Problem for Russia

One will often hear the name Emmanuel Todd mentioned by political actors and academics in Russia. The French anthropologist and demographer who, in 1976, discerned the stagnation of the USSR and its inevitable collapse. Todd relied on a plethora of statistics, some more indirect such as a large import shipment of shoes for the right foot, to deduce the holistic inadequacies of the system (Todd, 1977). Today the exodus of qualified Russians from the county is one such worrisome indicator, a number which has exploded in the past five years. The economic future of the country depends on these workers’ contributions to the system and authorities struggle to adopt the reforms most likely to convince them to stay.

State of affair

Brain flight is defined as skilled or educated labour emigrating from a country without intentions of return (Vladimir A Iontsev, 2017). The governmental agency RossStat states that in recent years over 100 000 citizens leave the country for destination in Western Europe, Israel, and North-America (Rosstat, 2017). Over 40% of those leaving the countries are taking with them a higher education diploma  (Russia’s Brain Drain on the Rise, 2018). Meaning of the 2.7 million citizens living abroad, 800 thousand of them have a post-secondary education reports the agency.

The numbers concerning qualified technicians are much harder to estimate but there is fear that they are also numerous, as their skills are no less important for the continued recovery Russia has begun nearly 20 years ago. The number of Russians looking to leave their homeland took a sharp turn following the re-election of Putin to the kremlin in 2012 and seems to have been sustained by the political climate built following the Russia’s involvement in Ukraine in 2014.

Historical Trends

Emigration waves from Russia to the west are nothing new. The end of serfdom, and the Jewish pogroms of the late 19th century led to the departure of a couple millions which were followed by the white emigration fleeing the revolution and subsequent civil war, ending in 1922. Due to the tight population control imposed on the citizenry during the USSR, only a period in the 1970, is notable for its emigration towards Israel and America (John Herbst, 2019).

This period liberalization of travel under Brezhnev was almost exclusive to Jewish citizens traveling to Israel.It would only be after the first tremors born of the failures of Perestroika that Russian once again would begin mass migration. The period between 1989 and 2000 would not only see most travel laws lifted on Russian citizen, but the economic conditions in the country would only go from bad to worse until the nadir of 1998. Nearly three million Russians would leave during this period.  As the state began to restructure itself and Russian society began to heal from the dark period of the 90s aided by high petroleum prices, yearly emigration which stood above 200 thousand in 1999 would be as low as 39 thousand only a decade later (Brain Drain Is Sapping Russia of Its Talent, 2016).

The 90s

As mentioned earlier the migration wave of the 1990s was the result of a comprehensive collapse of civil society in Russia. Not only did the communist institutions disintegrate but the pursuit of liberalism yielded a degradation of most aspects of Russian civil society. The decade began with a constitutional crisis when, then president, Yeltsin unleashed a cannonade on the democratically elected parliament. Followed by a disastrously kleptocratic nationalisation of state assets which popularised the term “Gangster Capitalism”, a collapse of social services and life expectancy (below 60 for males), and punctuated by a defeat of the red army to Chechen rebels.

Needless to say, Russia, at the time, lacked what is called “Pull Factors” (Sjaastad, 1962). Russia first faced a loss of its educated citizenry during that period, the motivation being principally economic. The Russian state lost its capacity to invest in research and development, the universities, and social programs requiring skilled labour like the medical sector; the private sector showed a complete incapacity to make up for those shortcomings during the same period. Nonetheless the economy’s contraction was not limited to added value job and the share of older emigrants with low qualifications was higher at the time than it is now (Ivakhnyuk, 2004).  It is important to note that whatever the sociological background of the emigrants the motivation behind their exodus was predominantly expressed as economic (John Herbst, 2019). This would come to change over time.

Reconstruction and Reversal

According to official statistics, the drop in Russian emigration did not lag far behind the administration change in the Kremlin (Rosstat, 2017).  This linear decreasing trend, alongside improvements in other areas, would continue until 2009 and would also serve as a seal of approval for the Kremlin and its policies (John Herbst, 2019). The reasons behind this reversal are rather simple to grasp. The Russian economy experience and average growth of 8% over the same period until the crash in oil prices experienced in 2008 (Russian Federation worldbank Data Catalog, 2018). Russia would reclaim authority over many economic sectors namely oil and gas, and use the rising tax income to reinvest in broader swats of civil society, a comprehensive growth strategy which granted access to employment for those lesser qualified workers. A notion of rising national pride also contributed to Russian’s renewed attachment for their country.

A survey of graduating students performed in 2004 at Moscow State University, one of Russia’s foremost institution of higher learning, nonetheless suggests that the new paradigm fell short of meeting the new graduate’s expectations (Ivakhnyuk, 2004).  Many showed intents of pursuing work in their field outside of Russia proper, and many others have already begun the emigration process, citing a fear their field would not provide a career path in the country but also a diminishing regard in Russian society for the scientific and academic professions. The former may be explained by the sluggish growth of the private sector in the early 2000s, and the second as an inevitable side effect of capitalism.

The Tipping Point

Despite emigration continuing it downward trend, this 2004 study along with other surveys over the 2000s suggested a vulnerability within this sociological caste (John Herbst, 2019). A sensibility to the right social stimuli which explain the renewed exodus of 2012.

With the help of a well catered to sovereign fund and skillful crisis management, one may argue Russia avoided tragedy following the 2007 financial crisis. The economy nonetheless took a hit over the same period, GDP dropping by 400 billion U.S. dollars in a single year (World Bank Russian Federation Data Catalog, 2018).  It is only as of 2012 that the numbers of emigration begin to rise again, from under 40 to 125 thousand, four years after the return of economic growth. It was the same year that then vice-president Vladimir Putin won his third bid for the presidency. Many at the time foresaw a failure of the political class to reform. Within two years, emigration numbers reached 350 thousands per annum (StratFor, Brain Drain Is Sapping Russia of Its Talent, 2016), a clear parallel with Russia’s growing international Isolation following its repatriation of Crimea.

A closer look at the new emigrants

As mentioned earlier, skilled and educated Russians now make up more than 40% of the exiting population (Russia’s Brain Drain on the Rise, 2018). A greater proportion than any time prior.  Making out the exact reason is rather difficult. While few will fail to see coincidence of this exodus with prolonged putinism at home and increasingly forceful foreign policy on the international stage; economic conditions have remained difficult for this social class.

These Russian are for the most part recent graduates and young professionals (John Herbst, 2019). They, unlike previous generations, have been raised in a society where notions of liberalism and democracy were upheld as ideals. The realities of the Soviet Union and state control appearing instead as an authoritarian conservatism. They may not have experienced the troubles of the 90s with the same difficulty their elders did and therefore avoided the same disillusionment in those ideas.

Where Russians emigrate from

They also predominantly originate from Russia’s two major urban and academic centers of Moscow and St-Petersburg. These cities tend to be more open to the world in general and are overall more tolerant of so called progressive values than other parts of the country. It is no surprise then that it is where the leading demonstrations against Putin’s return in 2012 were held. In a bout of tragic irony by promoting the development of an educated class, the administration is also promoting a class defiant of their policy.

Economic conditions for learned professions have also failed to show satisfactory growth. Not only does the country seem to them as bogged down into a political impasse and isolated from its western peers, but sanctions and regressions have also stunted their hopes to improve their material condition. As per a survey of the State Financial University half of Russians expect they will never achieve a living salary (Around 60 000 Ru/Mo) (Half of Russians Say They’ll Never Live to See a Decent Salary, 2019), and compared to their western counter parts learned professions in Russia lack painfully far behind. A Russian doctor will, for example, earn little more than most American minimum wages (Novasia, Brain drain in Putin’s Russia 2017).

Implications for Russia

The country tends to be well represented in areas of scientific discoveries (Brain Drain Is Sapping Russia of Its Talent, 2016). Physics Nobel laureates, and Field medal recipients are just two striking examples. One will also notice that a particularity of those recipients is usually their dual nationality or the fact they performed their research in a foreign institution.

Russia has been falling behind other developed nations in terms of research and development, investment barely breaching 1% of GDP compared to the Germany and the USA’s 2.8%(Brain Drain Is Sapping Russia of Its Talent, 2016).  The quality of its institutions fails to offer graduates a career path. A failure which is all the more striking as Russian education and culture produce a respectable number of youth with these aspirations. Since the Russian private sector is similarly atrophied, the investments made into forming these qualified professionals benefit foreign economies in the end.


Regardless of the reason for their departure, this is a price Russia cannot afford to pay. This educated youth is supposed to be the backbone on which the country’s modernization is build. The future entrepreneurs of an economy in dire need of diversification. Instead, this suggests that the country has already begun to regress, indeed they have fallen behind the 43rd rank in high tech exports (Виноградова Юлия Сергеевна, 2015).

Russia has been struggling against a negative demography for three decades, and looking at plural indicators we discover they have critically improved in such areas as birth-rate, suicide rate, life expectancy and income (Razodovsky Ye, 2015). Unlike the period Todd described in the final fall, it is probably not collapse we can foresee for Russia but instead an inability to grow beyond the status quo. These emigrants appear to have been motivated by factors beyond economics, and express a discontent with the limited involvement of civil society in Russia’s political life. Maintaining stability alongside political reform has historically proven to be a challenge in Russia. This balancing act will probably prove to be the indispensable achievement of Putin’s last term.



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Anon., 2016. Brain Drain Is Sapping Russia of Its Talent. [En ligne]
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Vladimir A Iontsev, e. a., 2017. The problem of “Brain Drain” In russia and member states of the eurasian economic union. RUDN journal of economics, pp. 510-517.

Ye, R., 2015. Suicides in Russia and Belarus: A Comparative Analysis of Trends. Asta Psychopathologica, pp. 1-7.


Author: Quentin Cyr

Autore dell’articolo *Quentin Cyraddetto a questioni euroasiatiche. Dr. in Scienze politiche e studi sulla Russia della Dalhousie University Halifax in Canada. Master in Economia Politica euroasiatica alla Moscow State Institute of International Relations in RussiaCome sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.

* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.