Young Intellectuals: Why Are They Leaving Russia and Do They Plan to Come Back?1
Author: Lyubov Borusyak
Source: Social Sciences, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 4-23
Abstract. This article is based on the results of a pilot online survey of 115 young well-educated Russians who left Russia and are now living abroad. The study has shown that a considerable number of them will not come back. They do not want to change their identity; they identify themselves mostly with Russian or world culture rather than with the culture of the country of residence even if they do not like the sociopolitical and socioeconomic situation in Russia.
They actively communicate with their families in Russia; they have friends in the new country, many of them Russian speakers. They value Russian culture, yet the social institutions, democracy, security, professional growth and quality of life in the new country are much better. Many of them do not agree with Russia’s policy and refuse to feel responsible for it; they resolutely separate themselves from the state. Definition of their own status (expat, emigrant, etc.) is of no importance; they pay no attention to it as a leftover of the old, non-globalized world.
Keywords: young Russian intellectuals, emigration, education in Russia and abroad, identity, self-identification, culture, language, ethnicity.For a long time, the subject of the new wave of emigration from Russia remained on the margins of sociologists who chose to discuss its scope [7; 8; 5; 1]. The results of local studies of life of Russian emigrants in various countries (France, Israel, Finland, etc.) were published with special attention to their adaptation and self-identification [2; 4; 9]. Recently, the subject of brain drain from Russia has moved to the center of the academic and public discourse. Fundamental studies appeared in quick succession after a long period of inattention: the monograph by Sheila Puffer, Daniel McCarthy and Daniel Satinsky, Hammer and Silicon: The Soviet Diaspora in the US Innovation Economy  and the report by John Herbst and Sergey Erofeev, The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain published under the aegis of the Atlantic Council . The academic community, the press and social networks actively discussed the results of the All-Russia public opinion poll carried by the Levada Center in December 2018 : 17% of those who live in Russia would like to emigrate; the share is much higher (41%) among the younger generation. These figures do not change much in the course of time: in 2012, the share of potential emigrants was 20%; in 2015, 16%; a year later, 19%. The Gallup Institute, which carried out its own poll in December 2018, got the more or less similar figures—20% of those ready to leave Russia .
Even if these sentiments did not change much compared with the previous years and more that 1% of Russians are making practical steps, according to Denis Volkov , these figures suggest the term “population exodus.” It seems that this assessment of the situation stirred up the number of studies and publications. The authors of The Putin Exodus have pointed out: “For instance, in 2017, the United States hit a twenty-four-year high of Russian asylum applications. At the same time, the level of brain drain has been quoted as doubling during 2015-2017” [3, p. 7]. The number of Russian citizens who take part in Green Card Lottery increased by 4.3 times between 2010 and 2018 to reach the figures of 434 thousand, or 0.3% of the total population [10; 11; 12]. The authors, however, preferred to ignore the fact that these figures were much lower than in other post-Soviet states: in 2018, 441 thousand citizens of Moldavia (with the total population of 3.55 million); 1,450.5 thousand citizens of Ukraine and 2,114.5 people from Uzbekistan took part in Green Card Lottery. In fact, in these countries with considerably smaller populations than in Russia the number of potential emigrants is much bigger. Mikhail Denisenko, chair head at the Institute of Demography, National Research University—Higher School of Economics, pointed to this in his report at a seminar: “In Russia, the number of permanent resident cards issued in the United States remains the same. The number of such documents issued to Ukrainian citizens demonstrated a huge growth; they are issued mainly in one country (Poland). There are no more or less important changes in Russia” [1, p. 10].
It seems that the term “exodus” as applied to current emigration from Russia is an overstatement even if its real dimensions are unknown. According to some sources, 10.6 million have already left post-Soviet Russia  which is an obvious exaggeration; other sources quote the figure of 4.5 million  while the report quoted above spoke of 1.6 to 2 million [3, p. 1]. The official figures supplied by the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) are frequently criticized as false. There are no, and cannot be, exact figures since a huge amount of Russians who leave the country to study or work abroad carry their Russian passports for a long time even if they do not plan to return. Not all of those who leave the country intend to stay abroad forever; there is a great number of those who are not sure at all about their plans. Are they emigrants? On the other hand, the number of those who having received foreign citizenship remain citizens of Russia and continue living in Russia is steadily growing. The second citizenship it nothing more than an alternate airfield so to speak, and it is acquired to either leave that country if the political situation becomes unbearable or for visa-free travels around the world. There are no and cannot be reliable information; all quoted figures are nothing more than assessments. As Denisenko said in his report: “Much has been said and written about emigration yet the subject and its details remain vague and enigmatic partly due to the fact that the published assessments are frequently highly contradictory” .
The current wave of emigration (no matter how the word is understood in this context) is justly described as highly educated, successful and caused not so much by economic but by political reasons. “Unlike the 1990s wave, this Exodus has not been caused largely by economic frustration. And in contrast to earlier waves, it takes place at a time of open borders” [3, p. 1]. S. Puffer and coauthors [6, p. 140] have pointed out that the emigrants of this wave “had already been successful in their home countries.” Let me point out that they live in the age of the Internet and other high technologies what are making the world increasingly global.
We decided to poll the better educated part of the young Russian emigrants to find out why they left the country; to ask them about their self-identification and culture, to ask whether they actively communicate with the Russian-speaking community in their new country and with their relatives and friends in Russia; and what faults and advantages they left behind in Russia and what they have discovered in the new country of residence. This group looks the most interesting in the context of what has been said and written about brain drain: the fact that the better educated and active young people are leaving Russia in huge numbers cannot but cause concern: the future of Russia is endangered. We use the terms “young intellectuals” and “elite” with a certain share of conventionality because they enrolled in graduate schools of the world’s top universities—Harvard, MIT, London School of Economics, etc.—in stiff competition with hundreds of rivals from America, Britain and other countries or were employed by the leading world companies, which is not easy at all. Upon graduation, they will be able to count on professorship in the most prestigious universities of Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.
Description of Studies and Sampling Specifics
Our online questionnaire of 45 open questions was the first step; we asked young people who either belonged to the target group or had friends among its members, viz., graduates of the best Russian universities who continued their education in or were employed by the top universities of the United States and Europe. We got 200 addresses on Facebook, sent references to our online-questionnaire with an invitation to take part in the poll and asked them to mail these references to friends and acquaintances. We expected the snowball effect and we got it.
In view of this method of sampling and the small number of the respondents, the methodological status of our poll and its results is especially important. The above has made it clear that it is not a massive public opinion poll, which makes the usual question about the representative value of sampling irrelevant. We did not pose ourselves the task of building up a sampling representative in relation to any or general entity nor to carry out any statistically important measurements and assessments.
The nature of our poll can be described as a pilot cultural research project that is qualitative in its aims and in the nature of obtained information. Our aim was to find out was happens to the values of members of one of the sub-elite groups who left Russia, fell out of Russian everyday life and were submerged into the Western academic environment; how these values changed into configurations and meaningful constructs in the minds of these young people. The main conclusions suggested by the results of our poll are related to certain basic patterns of Russian culture, which can change when in contact with an alien culture or oppose changes.
In total, we got answers to all questions from 115 people (44% of men and 56% women); 19% of whom left Russia not more than two years before, 29%, 3-4 years, 18%, 5-6 years, 16%, 10 years and more. Two-thirds of our respondents were not older than 30; half of the polled were married, 30% had children. More than half of the respondents described their political views as liberal; other spoke of themselves as neutral or as supporters of other political ideas.
The majority of them graduated from Moscow State University, HSE University (Higher School of Economics), Moscow Physical-Technological Institute (MPTI), New Economic School (NES), St. Petersburg University and Novosibirsk State University (NSU),2 that is, from the top Russian universities. There are two or three graduates from the Russian State University for the Humanities, Financial University, the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia and Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University). Thirty-five percent of them received humanitarian education in Russia, 27%, economic; mathematicians, physicists and IT specialists comprised 28% in total, etc.
Over half of them (57%) went to other countries (the USA, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, etc.) to enroll in graduate schools; others arrived to find employment or for other reasons. Our respondents were attracted by the same countries that attracted young intellectuals from all other corners of the globe, which means that they have successfully integrated into worldwide processes.
The majority of the interviewed were of high opinion of education they received in Russia: 38% spoke of it as excellent, 26%, as very good (which means that two-thirds were quite satisfied), 30% assessed their education as good, and only 6% spoke of it as of an average quality. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents were convinced that best of the Russian universities provided education of the world level and that there was not many of them in the country (mainly those enumerated above). The highest assessments came from people with mathematical education, education in natural sciences and IT technologies. This was typical of Soviet times as well. The high assessment of education in economics is a new phenomenon. In post-Soviet times, the list of universities that provide high quality economic education appreciated abroad consisted of the Higher School of Economic and the New Economic School. The number of graduates from the European University at St. Petersburg and the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences was too small to be involved in the project. In Soviet times, graduates of economic universities had practically no chances to move high on the career ladder at American firms and universities (they are not mentioned in Puffer’s survey). Today, economic education at top Russian universities is highly appreciated: some of the Russian universities stand high in the rating by subjects. For example, the HSE University occupies a place in the second half of the first hundred in the university ranking by Economics-Econometrics ; the NES and Moscow University occupy places in the first half of the second hundred. Moscow University is 34th in the world ranking by subject Mathematics; St. Petersburg University belongs to the second hundred in the same ranking; Moscow University occupies 26th place in the world ranking by subject Physics; the Moscow State Physical-Technological and Moscow Engineering Physics Institute belong to the top hundred.
Practically all those who do not assess their education as excellent or very good, graduated from either second-rate universities or studied humanities (mainly women) or sociology. An absolute conviction of the high quality of their education is very important for the members of this group: it adds confidence and conviction of their right to enroll in graduate schools of top universities or be employed by biggest companies. “I am here by right!” this is what all respondents said: they do not suffer from a social inferiority complex.
Why Did They Leave and Do They Plan to Return?
We all know that, unlike in the 1990s, this wave of highly educated emigrants is weakly connected with economic reasons. Puffer and her coauthors and the authors of The Putin Exodus deemed it necessary to point this out. Our respondents, likewise, were not driven by money; more than half of them wanted to continue their education in best graduate schools. They were convinced that baccalaureate and, partly, master’s programs of the best Russian universities trail behind where the quality of education supplied by the top universities of some other countries (the United States in the first place) was concerned. PhD and master’s diplomas of good foreign universities widen the territories of employment at universities or in business, which makes the world much more accessible. The desire to work in a big transnational firm came second among the answers. Others wanted to see the world, to acquire new experience and new impressions; still others married foreigners: “We are a family and we emigrated not because we did not like the situation in Russian economics but because we wanted to live in a different country, widen our horizons and acquire new experience.”3
Few of the emigrants left Russia for political reasons; the majority of them did this after 2014. Before that, politics was not of such importance. In this respect, our information differs from what the authors of The Putin Exodus wrote. They are convinced that 2012 became the turning point and refer to the mass rallies in Moscow and other cities. “This emigration sped up with Putin’s return as president in 2012” [3, p. 21]. From that time on, annual emigration topped the highest figures since the early 2000s. This might be true for other groups of emigrants but the dynamics of applications for green cards does not confirm this: the number of applicants increased some time later. While in 2015 the number of applications increased by 25% against 2013, their number increased by 58% between 2016 and 2018. Some of the respondents, the majority of them liberal-minded people who had taken part in protest actions, were convinced by the reunification with Crimea and the Ukrainian developments that emigration was the only option. The events of 2012 were important, but not the decisive factor. Few of our respondents wrote that they had decided to leave the country when the protest actions of 2011-2012 had brought no results. At the same time, many of the respondents wrote that they had emigrated for other than political reasons. Their desire to remain in a different country was heated by the reunification with Crimea. “I left for purely academic reasons; the political situation merely tipped the balance in favor of staying.” “I left Russia not for political reasons. When thinking about the situation in Russia you become aware that you will never return, not even for big money.” Having pointed to the fact that at the moment of departure they did not think it was a final decision, they added that after 2014 they changed their opinion and do not want to come back.
Only 36% said that they had left Russia for economic and/or political reasons. One out of six left partly under pressure of these factors; practically half of the emigrants never associated their decision to leave Russia with either economic or political situation. Those fed up with economics spoke about the volatility of exchange rate, poor state of the financial sector, low wages in the sphere of science, badly equipped laboratories, etc. They were displeased with many things in the political situation: lack of “basic constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly”; “The political situation was boring (I did not have my own representatives either in the State or the Moscow Duma)”; “The stuffy political atmosphere”; “No freedom and the steadily shrinking possibilities to express independent opinion. Political risks,” etc.
The majority, however, had no bad premonitions about their future in Russia: 60% of the respondents gave a positive answer to the question “Do you think you will be able to realize your abilities in Russia and be successful?”; 20% answered that they were not sure of their future or gave negative answers. One out of five was firmly convinced that success in any sphere was possible only outside Russia. Other believed that they would be successful in science and in business, consulting, finances and the IT sphere. Some of them went ever further: they pointed out that high competition in science and business in the West meant that it was much easier to become successful in Russia. Those who wrote that they could be partly successful specified that their chances in Russia were not bad at all, especially in science, but the wages were considerably lower.
We asked the control question in the form of a projective question: “Do you agree with the fairly widespread opinion that today highly educated young people cannot fully realize their abilities in Russia?” The answers were divided into three approximately equal groups: 33% gave negative answers; 38% answered partly negatively, and 29% agreed. About one-third of highly educated respondents believe that they had no chances in Russia and that they left it for this reason; 28% thought that their career and prospects were much better than of their friends in Russia. Others thought that they were living perhaps in equal conditions and their Russian friends had their advantages and their share of problems. More often than not, this is explained by the fact that a well-educated person can be successful and tap his talents to the fullest everywhere, including Russia where such people are rare: “There are such chances in Russia as well yet the share of talented young people is very small. Those who graduated with me had problems with employment; those who graduated from second-rate universities had problems of that sort. In other countries these problems are practically unknown.” The respondents pointed out repeatedly that in Russia rivalry in all spheres was lower than in the West and that people with good starting characteristics (level of education) had no real rivals. On the other hand, business in Russia is a dangerous occupation, which equalizes the chances: “In Russia lower competition is a big advantage, yet you have to work with poorly motivated people. The United States offers more chances for self-realization in many spheres yet you are aware of your rivals every day; they all are capable and well educated people from all corners of the world.”
Only one-fourth of those who left Russia were convinced that they would never return. By the time of our poll, the situation was different: the number of those who did not want to come back doubled; half of the polled said that their return was either impossible or hardly possible, mainly because of political changes. The share of those who will not return under any circumstances is approximately equal to the share of those who said this on their last day in Russia—30%. Today, there are 20% of those who say that they will contemplate this possibility if the political situation in Russia changes but they do not believe that it is possible. “If regime changes and the new government is oriented toward democratic principles and development of higher education.” “When all Cheka men are convicted.” “When there is progress in the political situation (rotation in power, political competition), reform of the judicial system and a lower share of the state in economics.” “Regime change is necessary,” “Change of people in power is necessary,” etc. “Regime change” as a factor that will give a chance to go back was the most popular but looked practically unrealizable.
The less politicized part of the respondents might be attracted by favorable economic circumstances: “I think that I probably would come back for a couple of years [the words “for a couple of years” were italicized by the respondent—L. B.] if offered a really good job”; “Yes, if offered an interesting and well-paid job in Moscow”; “Yes, I’ll come back in a couple of years when I get American citizenship and if there are conditions for realization in Russia”; “If the career chances are equal (a purely hypothetical situation) [the author italicized words in brackets—L. B.] I would prefer Russia”; “I might come back if the working and living conditions in Moscow are the same as now in the United States.”
These people might come back if offered good or better conditions than abroad but they do not look at this as the final variant. In the same way, many of them do not look at the country they live in as the terminal point: having lived in one country and never thinking of themselves as immigrants they do not think of Russia as the country where they will go to stay forever. After quite a while in another country, the majority of them do not think that spending one’s life in any country (including Russia) is a norm. Possibilities and the market of attractive proposals look limitless. In this sense, they can be called people of the world; the freedom of choosing the country and occupation are highly important. There were several respondents (nearly all of them women) who said that they had left Russia temporarily and would come back.
What Can We Call You? The Term Emigration Has Become Too Vague
When talking about emigration we normally mean that people move from the country where they lived permanently (motherland) to another. This concept is similarly treated in scholarly writings. In the global world, this concept has become vague. Only one-fourth of those who left Russia to study or work in another country are convinced that they will never return. The rest of the answers are divided into two equal parts: half of the respondents believe that they will return, while the other half do not think about the future.
In the globalized world, the market of education and professional activities for the young intellectual elite is much wider than national borders. This has nothing in common with the past, when emigrants burned bridges, so to speak. The answers of those who never wondered whether they were leaving Russia forever are especially interesting. Indeed, when making what looked like a fateful decision—the change of the country, language, way of life, etc.—they never thought of this as the most important decision in their lives. To quote one of them: “I should say that the move from Moscow to Berlin was not that different from moving from Moscow to Novosibirsk. But the conditions in Berlin are much better.” There were people who had been much more agitated by their move from their native city to become a Moscow student than by moving to the United States or Netherlands. Moving to Moscow, they left behind their homes for the first time in their lives and had to learn how to live on their own. They changed countries as adults and, therefore, the change of country did not come as a major shock to them. There were problems caused by inadequate knowledge of everyday languages (the knowledge of academic tongue was adequate to say the least); they had to cope with everyday problems and different mentalities but this was not scary. The main thing is that many of the highly educated young respondents did not perceive the change of the country of residence as an event of great importance but rather as one of many events in the normal course of life full of grieves and joys. The world is global—this is a norm. This means that today young people no longer think of emigration when moving to another country: it is part of normal life for any member of their social group.
I have already written that half of the interviewed insists that they left Russia not because self-realization was next to impossible or because the economic and political situation in the country left much to be desired. They wanted to continue their education in one of the top universities, to find a more interesting job with good career perspectives. They think that while the borders remain open there is no need to look far into the future—there is always time to do this.
Since their new status needs no assessments, there is no need to deliberately complicate the issue, which means that no definitions are needed. The traditional self-identification “emigrant” sounds obsolete and related to the distant (from their point of view) times when those who crossed the border lost their relatives and friends, and could no longer correspond with them, much less meeting them. These people found themselves alone in a new and incomprehensive world. Today, the situation is different. First, the absolute majority of our respondents knew that they had a job or a place at a university; some of the women went to their foreign husbands. Second, they knew that they would live on modest (especially in case of PhD students) yet adequate incomes. Third, by the time of departure many of them had registered themselves in Russian-speaking communities on social networks and had already acquired information on how to rent housing and cope with other everyday problems. Fourth, the majority went to the places (universities and big companies) where there were enough Russian speakers. Fifth, contemporary technologies allow them to stay in contact with relatives and friends in Russia if they wish. This does not fit the habitual Soviet image of an emigrant, which explains why the majority do not think of themselves as emigrants. One-fourth of the interviewed applied the term emigrant, immigrant and expat to themselves: some of them are young men who left Russia for political reasons or women married to foreigners or school graduates who had moved to another country together with their parents responsible for the decision.
Some of the respondents do not talk about themselves as emigrants for formal reasons: they can live in another country for a long time while remaining citizens of Russia; they have no residence permit (this applies to PhD students). Having completed the course they should think about the country of their future residence. One of the respondents, a PhD student who did not complete the questionnaire, said: “My home is where there is work.” Few of the respondents speak of themselves as emigrants because they know that they can return to Russia; not attached to any country they prefer to preserve their national identity as an anchor of sorts.
One-fourth of the respondents (mainly men) spoke of themselves as students or professors or said that they were temporarily settled outside Russia; women defined themselves as temporal residents. Nearly half of the respondents never asked themselves who they were or could not define their status, hence a variety of answers: “I am a representative of the global labor market. I can work anywhere while keeping my Russian passport”; “I joked when calling myself an emigrant. There are no strict borders in the academic world. I am a Russian scientist based in the US/Canada”; “A young specialist of the international level”; “citizen of the world”; “We are Russians who live abroad. Emigration suggests loss of contacts with the country you have left, which does not apply in our cases”; “I do not look at myself as an emigrant; none of my friends in Russia or in other countries use this word. I am a Russian student in France.”
Interestingly, there are many who do not name themselves at all, without problematizing their status. “I cannot determine myself by any term. Moving from one city to another or one country to another for employment is nothing out of the ordinary; we do not need a special term.” This means that terms as markers are necessary if the norm is overturned; “nothing out of the ordinary” means that the norm is in place.
The respondents who had reached the highest professional status as quoted by Puffer and her coauthors4 were clearer about their identities even if the question proved to be far from simple even for them. Some of them identified themselves through their ethnicity (mostly Jewish: the emigrants from the Soviet Union and partly those who had emigrated in the early 1990s). For obvious reasons our respondents are different: intellectual emigration is no longer ethnically tinged and stems from common reasons.5 Others point to mixed (Russian-American or American-Russian) identity; there are people who call themselves Russians (citizens of Russia) after many years in the United States: “I am Russian… I will be Russian by nationality and identity” [6, pp. 324-270, 334-337, 339].
Nobody of our respondents spoke about complete blending of their identity with the country of residence, probably because they had not lived in the new country long enough to obtain a new identity; many, however, did not want this. One of the expats said in an interview: “I do not need their culture, I have my own.” However, identity is connected with cultural affiliation as the beginning and end of identity. Language and culture, rather than nationality and religion, are the cornerstones of the identity of our young respondents, even if not all of them were ethnic Russians: the ethnic factor was dismissed as unimportant.
One out of seven respondents (mainly women, some of them married to foreigners) spoke of their mixed identities: “I think that it is 50/50. I speak Russian, which is a great part of Russian culture”; “70/30”; “Culture is a great word. I mark the New Year as earlier, but Catholic Christmas also. I speak Russian to my child and English to my husband. I am Russian but I am absolutely comfortable to be a citizen of this country”; “I am split, which is good and probably bad in certain respects”; “I am no longer this or that. I am aware of a strong influence of both cultures, and I deliberately try to select the best from both. This is a process.” Slightly more respondents (18%) spoke of themselves as citizens of the world or insisted that Russia was part of Europe and that, therefore, there was a common European culture: “Both are European cultures. I cannot say that their values differ greatly”; “I changed many countries and I am cosmopolitan”; “I am a bearer of a contemporary international liberal (as opposed to conservative) culture”; “I was and remain a European,” etc.
An absolute majority (nearly 70%) looks at themselves as bearers of Russian culture, basing their identity on it and not rejecting it. The majority cherishes it and wants to preserve it. “I am a representative of Russian culture even though I read American books, listen to American music and watch American films. I, however, pay a lot of attention to what is going on in Russian society; I read Russian books and listen to Russian music.” “I am connected only with Russian culture. My heart responds to Russian literature and Russian music. I am aware of my place in Russian society.” “I am and want to remain Russian.” “I am Russian and will remain Russian my approach to work and creativity is Russian and this is a great part of my success here.” “I am bearer of Russian culture and do not plan to change this.” “I am a bearer of Russian culture in the first place because I speak Russian, because of my education and upbringing in Russia, because of my attitude to my work, family, other people, money, wealth, happiness, etc.”
By the time of our poll, half of the respondents were married mainly to compatriots. When asked whether it was better to marry Russians or local people, the absolute majority answered that this was not important and that love was all that mattered; one out of five (mainly men) said that marriage with compatriots was preferable because of common mentality, a factor of great importance. Some men said that it was much harder to start a family in an alien country; they wanted their children (born and still unborn) to speak Russian and be familiar with Russian culture. Many of them think that otherwise there will be a socio-cultural gap: “I want my children to speak Russian and know Russian culture, so that I will be able to communicate with them freely and they will understand me better”; “Yes, I want to; I can’t imagine parents who do not want their children being like them”; “I would like my children know the language and culture of their parents (to a certain extent, this is the duty of parents).” Some respondents went even further: “If I have children I want them to become Russian people.” They wanted not only to preserve their basic identity but also to transfer it to their children, who would probably never settle in Russia.
Others think that Russian culture is valuable and that, therefore, it should be transferred to children who otherwise will lose a lot: “I wanted them to have ideas about Russian culture as a precious part of world culture”; “I will do my best to teach my children Russian, teach them to appreciate great Russian culture”; etc. Some were more pragmatic: belonging to two cultures created certain advantages for children. All of them, however, are fully aware of the fact that children living outside Russia will be assimilated, whether they want this or not.
One of the respondents admitted that having moved to another country, she realized that she was Russian and a bearer of Russian culture. For young and highly educated expats, this is more important than thinking of themselves as emigrants, expats, etc. Moving from one country to another, they preserve their identities, which boost their confidence together with good education they received in Russia. Their belonging to Russian culture is another factor. For the absolute majority the importance of these anchors cannot be overestimated. The same can be said about communication with Russian-speaking friends in the country of residence, with relatives and (to a smaller extent) with friends in Russia. The authors of The Putin Exodus wrote that the polled emigrants demonstrated intensive ties with the country of exodus. They use the latest communication media to remain in contact with families and friends [3, p. 11]. Puffer and coauthors, likewise, pointed to close ties with the families in Russia and the Russian-speaking diaspora in the United States preserved for many decades [6, p. 368].
Ties with Russians and Ties with Russia
The predominant Russian identity presupposes personal contacts with compatriots and communication through IT technologies. Many of those polled (62%) said that they remained in active contact with compatriots in the country of residence; 13% assessed their contacts as not very active; 20% as not active at all; only 5% attached no importance to this. The high share of those who communicate with compatriots in the country of residence in Russian is explained by the specifics of this group of emigrants. They are either university students or employees of big companies; in both cases, there are emigrants from different countries, including Russia.
Those who described the degree of their communication with Russians as not very active or nonexistent are mainly young people who found themselves outside the Russian-speaking diaspora: “There are practically no Russians”; “Not a lot, because there are no Russians around. I am always very glad to meet an interesting Russian-speaker. My English does not allow me to use the wide variety of deep meanings as I can do in Russian. I miss this very much.” They would like to talk to compatriots but have no chances. This is especially true of women married to foreigners and living in small European towns.
A quite small group deliberately avoids Russians: “I practically do not communicate with Russians and do not seek their company. I do not think that this is important. In fact, every time I meet Russians I am confronted by what I wanted to leave behind in Russia. I do not understand why these people move to another country if they start building Russia around themselves.” This marginal position is typical of those who left Russia for political reasons or were forced to emigrate; they speak of themselves as emigrants who left the country forever and want to part with their identity.
On the other hand, there are people who outside the university or the office communicate predominantly or even only with Russians, thus building a “small Russia” around themselves: “Normally I socialize with Russian speakers in my free time”; “Emotionally rich communication is possible only with Russian speakers”; “I communicate practically only with Russians.” This is a psychologically comfortable position even if tinged with escapism: these people are not ready to accept a new culture and a new lifestyle and integrate into them; that is, they use the bonuses of living in another country but do not change themselves. Certain respondents were open: “I have become fully adapted to the life in a different country, but I don’t feel part of its fate and its society”; “I have integrated, there is no doubt about it, but I can’t say that I am part of life of the country I live in. I am still much more bothered by news coming from Russia than the news from the United States; I am more concerned about Russian problems and I understand them better than the problems of the United States.”
They obviously want to divide their lives abroad into private (like the one they left in Russia) and professional. This is obvious at the level of language: everyday Russian is combined with professional English (another language, depending on the country of residence). To different extents, everyday communication in Russian is typical for the majority of the polled: this is one the anchors that keep their original identity in place.
The majority remain in active communication with Russians in Russia and other countries through IT technologies: three-fourths of the respondents said that they actively communicated with near and dear ones living in Russia on social networks, Skype, WhatsApp and other messengers. As time goes on, the ties with relatives remain strong and communication active. On the other hand, communication with friends in Russia survives, yet according to many of our respondents it withers away with time. People find new friends in the country of residence yet frequently keep in touch with the closest friends despite the distances; they are consolidated if expats visit Russia from time to time. Personal meetings revive, to an extent, old friendships. Relationships with relatives remain, despite the distances, even if the personal meetings are rare. If the family relationships are close and warm, young expats visit Russia as frequently as possible. Young women miss their families more than young men do. This probably means that ties with grandparents are much stronger than friendly contacts, since relatives are irreplaceable.
Identities and contacts with the motherland are supported by an interest in everything that is going on in Russia. The absolute majority (three-fourths) of the respondents are very interested in what is going on in Russia and closely follow all relevant information; one out of six follows the news from time to time. For some people, events in Russia preserve their relevance for a long time as much more important than the news about the country of residence. To a certain extent, weak interest in the news about the new country is caused by an absence of a firm conviction that they have come to it forever. Largely, however, this is determined by the dominant Russian identity that pushes the news about the new country aside. It is no wonder that some respondents publish on social networks their assessments and analyses of events in Russia intended for their friends in Russia and to Russian-speakers in other countries, a virtual diaspora of sorts. Sometimes they share their opinions about soccer matches of the Russian Premier League. They acquire knowledge about life in Russia through the Internet-media. The majority of the respondents are liberal minded, and they prefer the social networks where they correspond mainly with likeminded people. These are YouTube (and Navalny Live) and Meduza. Some of them watch TV Dozhd, read news feeds and certain papers: “I closely follow the news mainly in the social media and read Meduza, MediaZona and RePublik”; “I read Meduza, Vedomosti, Kommersant”; “I open Meduza every couple of days; watch YouTube”; “I read Meduza and watch Dozhd.”
Responsible for Russia?
Practically all our young respondents live in the United States and European countries as the relationships between these countries and Russia are deteriorating. On the one hand, the majority disagree with Russia’s policies; on the other, they love Russia and its culture and are aware of themselves as part of Russia. This is a far from simple situation: if you do not reject your Russian identity, you should decide whether you are responsible for its policies or not. According to the poll, the respondents keep their attitudes to Russia and its domestic and foreign policies and Russians strictly apart. This explains why many of them who find Russia’s policy scandalous do not feel and do not want to feel themselves responsible for it. They are convinced that they represent the country and society, but not the state. Some of them deemed it necessary to stress this point in the questionnaire.
This explains why 70% of the interviewed answered that they were not ashamed of coming from Russia: “No, I do not feel personal responsibility for the sins of my state” (man who lives abroad speak of Russia as “my state”—a point of special interest). “Only idiots feel ashamed of their countries”; “No, citizens are not responsible for what political leaders are doing”; “No, I never identified myself with the state”; “No, I love my country very much,” etc. There is another reason why they do not feel responsible for the state and its policies, do not feel shame or guilt as people who came from Russia; few of them were aware of negative feelings of others because of their Russian origin—12% assessed such cases as rare, 6% as frequent: “Have you heard about Russophobia?” (respondents from the UK and the Netherlands).
This is probably explained by the special status of the majority of the interviewed: they are mainly PhD students and students of the world’s top universities, or employees of the biggest international firms. People from all over the world here study and work next to them, so long ago there were rules of communication that do not discriminate against people from any countries: “No, there is multiculturalism everywhere”; “No, I have no contacts with the contexts where this is possible”; “No, I have never encountered that. I think that many educated people try to live without prejudices and assess people by their actions rather than by gender, nationality and other things”; “Never. Bad relationships belong to big politics; there are no negative feelings at my personal level. There are only jokes about Russian spies and Russian mafia”; “Never, people keep politics and people strictly apart”; “No, but I think that there are people who have negative opinions but they never betray them in personal communication. This is bad manners.”
Those who are sometimes ashamed of being Russian (there are 30% of them) are divided into two groups. Members of the smaller group say that they are ashamed when witnessing far from decent behavior of Russian tourists abroad. This means that they are ashamed of people, not the state: “Not all Russian are aware of decent behavior. It is so unpleasant to see drunken Russians in the streets”; “I feel ashamed when I see compatriots behaving inadequately.” These are more or less common lamentations; those who say this do not apply them to themselves.
The second and bigger group of the “ashamed” assumes responsibility for state politics and feels ashamed. “It is not shameful to come from Russia; I feel ashamed of what its leaders are doing”; “This is all about Russia’s aggressive policies”; “I feel ashamed of doping at the Olympic Games; of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and support of Assad”; “Yes, I was ashamed when they poisoned Skripal and when later a chance victim of Novichok died.” Here is a typical comment: “At first I felt ashamed of being Russian but later I was relieved to realize that nobody blamed me as a Russian. I was mainly ashamed of political decisions made in Russia.” In other words, if others do not blame you, you have the right not to feel responsible.
The majority of the respondents pointed out that they are frequently asked about the country from which they arrived. People want to know what they think about political issues, sometimes are interested in Russian culture, cuisine, climate; two-thirds of the questions are about the president. This is the main subject: “What I think about Putin, what people in Russia think about Putin”; “They want to know what I as a citizen of Russia think about Putin”; “Is Putin popular?”; “People want to know what Putin thinks and what I think about him”; “They want to know what I think about Putin, whether he is a tyrant who kills people and the richest man in the world”; “Could Putin influence elections?”; “Sometimes people (not Russians) say that they like Putin, which makes the talk a bit unpleasant because I do not share these feelings,” etc. Sometimes our respondents feel that people in other countries know little about Russia, that the country is associated with Putin. This explains why people are worried by interference in American elections and the Skripal poisoning; sometimes this is discussed casually like the weather: indeed, what else can you discuss with a Russian? Many of our respondents do not like this: they would like to move away from the state and its politics; they appreciate Russian culture but nobody asks them about it.
What is More Important: Russian Culture or Western Institutions?
The old and new countries were equally attractive for the young educated expats who took part in the poll, yet the advantages they discerned were fundamentally different and mutually complementary (see table).
In the new country, the highly educated respondents appreciate, first of all, the sociopolitical and socioeconomic factors, their own chances and prospects of high quality of life and housing. When talking about sociopolitical factors they point to freedom, democracy, smoothly functioning institutions and respect for laws. “Freedom” is the most frequent word, followed by “democracy” and observation of the “rules” by the state (“Here all people are respected in everything—be it good roads or fair trial”) where people feel confident and secure: “Here I have no feelings of being devoid of rights and I am not afraid that the state machine will squash me”; “Here I feel more confident and much calmer.” The young respondents are fully aware of their career advantages; they know that they will be adequately paid and that their lives will be comfortable. People are rarely discussed; normally they are described in general terms—polite, welcoming; sometimes the respondents talk about new, including Russian, friends. Politeness and welcoming are more related to confidence and security than to communication. The most frequent response to the question about what they do not like most of all in the new country is “people”—they are cold and egotistical. A young man who lives in Britain wrote the following: “Here I like everything except people.” In the group “other” our respondents included cuisine, nature, multiculturalism and the fact that homosexuals were not persecuted.
When talking about Russia, they pointed to emotional and sociocultural factors as things that they appreciated more than anything else. Russian culture, which they love and value highly in all its forms, is on the top of their appreciation scale. There are practically no detailed answers about culture; the respondents do not hold forth about favorite authors or painters. The answers are either very short or contain lists of favorite genres: “Culture, great people, history”; “Culture, literature, painting, cinema”; “Our literature and science, history and the Russian language”; “The Russian language and culture”; “Architecture and culture”; “Culture, literature especially”; “Culture—language, music, poetry, literature, church culture and Petersburg that I love.” The answers are short mainly because “everybody knows what this is all about”; values do not need specifications. The majority spoke of literature, which was very typical of a literature-centered culture, but many respondents also mentioned music, theatre, museums, architecture, etc.
More than a third of our respondents spoke of very important feelings that could be called nostalgia and that were very hard to put on paper: “This is the only country that I can call my motherland”; “Snow in winter. This is hard to describe”; “Memory of my past”; “Some vague feeling of the motherland that I have discovered having spent several years abroad”; “Absurdity, madness, unpredictability and the feeling of fullness of life”; “This is my home.”
Over half of the answers testify that the respondents cherished people (“common people” and, of course, relatives and friends), more than anything else in Russia.
In “people in general” they appreciate “emotionality,” “openness,” “sincerity,” “warmness,” “staunchness,” “fortitude and delicacy”; “the speed and method of thinking”; intelligence was also mentioned as one of the values. The respondents demonstrated strong feelings when talking of relatives and friends. When talking about Russians expats quoted the most popular clichés. Living in Russia, they would have selected other words, they would have been less nostalgic, less warm and less banal. They would have spoken less frequently about people as a special value. This means that the expats translate common and banal ideas about Russians and foreigners: some are good at a distance (polite) while others, at close contacts (emotional and sincere).
In the minds of the respondents, the merits and faults of Russia and of their new country of residence are balanced: law, order, democracy and freedom in the new country and culture in Russia. Nobody mentioned culture when talking of the new country. This is explained by the desire to preserve identity, which explains, in turn, the lack of readiness or desire to feel and accept the culture of the new country. They talk of Russia with warmth, and they sound rational when talking about the new country; they talk of Russia with love, and of the new country with respect.
In the context of open borders, young emigrants can preserve inner harmony. They live in favorable sociopolitical and socioeconomic conditions, they are free, they respect the state they live in, they move higher on the career ladder, they live in comfortable conditions while preserving their belonging to their basic culture and staying in close contact with relatives and friends in Russia. This makes life in other countries preferable for the majority of expats.
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1 I want to thank Grigory Frangulidi, Kirill Levinson and Kirill Borusyak for their assistance in setting the project going.
2 I should say that the most successful emigrants from the Soviet Union and Russia (their interviews can be found in the monograph by S. Puffer and her coauthors), as well as many of our respondents are mainly graduates of Moscow State University, St. Petersburg University, Moscow Physical-Technological Institute and the New Economic School and remained loyal to them for the rest of their lives. The Physical-Technological Institute for example was worth a chapter in the monograph. In post-Soviet times, this list was extended only with the HSE University and the New Economic School.
3 Here and elsewhere the quotes are italicized.
4 Puffer and coauthors discuss identity of emigrants in Chapter 9, Part II of their monograph.
5 Those of our respondents (there were few of them) who immigrated to Israel were not driven by ethnic or religious reasons.
Translated by Valentina Levina