For the many Russians fleeing the Putin regime, the collapse of their world is a personal tragedy. It’s also a tragedy for Russia, as Putin is flailing against the history of modern economic development.
London: In the largest exodus since the Bolshevik Revolution, 100 years ago, Russians are leaving their country in droves. Last week, Russia’s Федеральная Служба Безопасности (FSB), the internal security service, published data showing that nearly 4 million Russians left the country in the first three months of 2022. Reasons given varied from work to business, tourism or simply “private”. Many of those flying out went to popular tourist destinations in countries which declined to join Western airspace closures, such as Egypt (351,435), Turkey (363,849) and the United Arab Emirates (263,519). Others went in significant numbers to former Soviet countries, particularly after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Georgia accepted 38,281 Russians in the first quarter of 2022, a nearly five-fold jump over the same time last year. The same happened in Tajikistan, with 40,054 arrivals (8,857 in 2021), and Kazakhstan, with a doubling year on year from 122,330 (2021) to 204,947 (2022).
What has not been published, so far, is the number who have returned to Russia. Many of those going to holiday destinations are likely to have returned, of course, but growing evidence indicates that vast numbers fled the country out of opposition to the war, or simply to escape rumoured border closures, martial law or mass mobilisation, all of which have so far not materialised. Whether or not they will ever return will depend on their views on the aftermath of Russia’s war, which so far look extremely grim.
Moscow is clearly worried by this mass departure. Last week as the human rights organisation, Perviy Otdel, reported that FSB agents have started asking the relatives of Russians who fled the country to “persuade” the new émigrés to return. In some cases, the agents carried out “operational and investigative measures”, looking for “treasoners”, spies or just “war accomplices”. Echoes of the Stalinist era.
Of those 250,000 or so who are known to have escaped Putin’s regime this year, many are creative professionals, such as journalists, managers, business people or political activists, who feared arrest and imprisonment under a new law that punishes “public dissemination of false information” about the war, with 15 years in jail for those even uttering the word “war”. They have good reason to fear, as already thousands of their number who remained in Russia have already been charged and detained.
A letter from Vladimir Kara-Murza, leaked to me from his pre-trial detention centre in Moscow last week, gives a flavour of the conditions in which they are kept. “Everything that I once read about in dissident memoirs, which seemed like an echo of the distant past, is now before my eyes every day”, he writes. “The rumble of doors in the corridor, the jingle of the overseer’s keys, the convoy checks, and the Soviet anthem blasting away every morning, nothing has changed since the times of Vladimir Bukovsky and Anatoly Sharansky (dissidents imprisoned during Soviet times). All prisoners are just amazed that in our country in the 21st century they can be locked up for just saying the word.” He continues: “One prisoner while standing facing the wall next to me said quietly ‘probably it would have been best to have kept silent’, but then answers his own question, ‘no—you can’t be silent—all the evil in the world is done with the consent of the silent ones’.”
Kara-Murza is an opposition politician who served as vice chairman of Open Russia, an NGO founded by Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then as deputy leader of the People’s Freedom Party in Russia. He’s not the only prominent Russian detained under the new brutal law. In his letter he writes: “The other day I found myself in prison transport with Aleksey Gorinov, a deputy (politician) of the Krasnoselsky District—he was charged with the same criminal article as me, as was former Moscow police officer Sergei Klotov, the St Petersburg artist Sasha Skochilenko, a teacher from Penza, Irina Gen, the publisher and former deputy from Gorny Altai, Sergei Mikhailov, together with dozens of other people from all over Russia. Please don’t forget them—these are the people who are saving the honour of our country today.”
With such an insight, it’s no wonder so many have decided to leave their Motherland. Who wants to live in a police state under the control of a tyrant? Just as millions fled Russia after the 1917 revolution, the current war has made people realise that the future they believed in no longer exists. Life has changed for ever and exile could be permanent. The exodus has not been confined to writers, computer professionals and the media. A huge number of top Russian managers, including the deputy head of Aeroflot and two top executives of the state-owned bank, Sberbank, have also fled. In fact, the brain drain is so serious that in the past few weeks the Russian government introduced new rules preventing any executive in the banking industry from leaving the country. The result has been a slew of resignations by nervous bankers. Top officials believe that this drain of human resources will be catastrophic for the country’s banking sector and will accelerate Russia’s economic isolation and decline. So much for Putin’s chilling threats of cleansing Russia of “scum and traitors” who are “free to leave”.
Washington has been quick to take advantage of the opportunity, at the same time weakening the Putin regime. The US has relaxed immigration rules to attract the brightest and best qualified Russians into a new and prosperous life in America. Under the new rules, US employers and sponsors can invite Russians outside the current quotas for specialists, quotas which are already four-times oversubscribed. Russia’s loss will be a huge gain for America, just as it was in the 20th century, when exiled Russians brought to America enterprises such as Hollywood and Google, among many others.
For the many Russians fleeing the Putin regime, the collapse of their world is a personal tragedy. It’s also a tragedy for Russia, as Putin is flailing against the history of modern economic development. The wealth of modern nations is overwhelmingly generated by human beings and their capabilities. Natural resources have accounted for a shrinking share of global output for the past two centuries, and there is no end in sight. For all its vaunted oil and gas riches, Russia’s export earnings were actually lower than Belgium’s last year. Like other Western democracies, Belgium manages to augment and unlock the economic values residing in human beings. Putin’s petro-kleptocracy is woefully inept on both counts.
When he does pay attention to demography, Putin obsesses over head-count. “One hundred and forty-six million people for such a vast territory is insufficient”, he said at the end of last year. Russians haven’t been having enough children to replace themselves since the early 1960s. Birth rates are also stagnant in the West, but in Russia the problem is compounded by excess deaths; Russians die almost a decade earlier than Brits. In the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period when I lived in the country, there was an orgy of suicides and alcoholism, particularly affecting the men. The deaths kept piling up. Men were falling or perhaps jumping off trains and out of windows, drowning in lakes, poisoning themselves with too much alcohol, or dropping dead at absurdly early ages from heart attacks and strokes. Once the Soviet Union was abolished, Russia managed to maintain its population size only by inward migration, when ethnic Russians returned from the now-independent periphery.
In an attempt to improve numbers, Putin in 2006 launched policies to encourage larger families, but again last year lamented: “We have a little more than 81 million able bodied people, a number we must increase in this decade for economic growth.” But the Russian population is still dwindling, with just 1.5 children per woman. This means that in the next decade, Russia’s population is forecast to decline by around 300,000 per year, though some suggest that the decline will be much faster, perhaps 12 million in the next 15 years.
If the incorporation of Ukraine’s 41 million into a wider Russia was one of Putin’s plans, it has clearly backfired. The war has solidified a sense among Ukrainians that their identity is distinct and they are in no way Russian. The invasion has turned the pro-Russian sentiment upside down in Ukraine, changing it from 83% to less than 10%. Meanwhile, with sanctions starting to bite in Russia, the funds for generous payments to parents to have more children will no longer be possible. On the contrary, the economic hardship which Russian families will now endure as a direct result of the invasion is likely to further depress childbearing. Now add to this the emigration problem caused by the war, the tens of thousands of young men dying in the war, most in their early twenties, and President Putin has created the perfect demographic storm for his country.
It was said in Soviet days that dissidents were trying to change the unleaveable, refuseniks to leave the unchangeable. Putin’s Russia, running out of subjects, seems unchangeable but, for now, it remains leavable. That’s why it’s dying out.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.