Russia’s Brain Drain

Intellectuals are fleeing as Soviet-style censorship returns.

A red passport of Russia sticking from a pocket of blue denim jeans. Russian passport, Russian tourist travel concept image.

Two stories in the major press provide a glimpse inside Russia.

WSJ (“Fleeing Putin, Thousands of Educated Russians Are Moving Abroad“):

Hundreds of thousands of professional workers, many of them young, have left Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, accelerating an exodus of business talent and further threatening an economy targeted by Western sanctions.

Those leaving the country include tech workers, scientists, bankers and doctors, according to surveys, economists and interviews with emigrants. They are departing for countries including Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. More are expected to follow.

A mid-March survey by OK Russians, a nonprofit helping people leave the country, estimated that around 300,000 workers had departed since the war started in late February. While precise counts of the number of people leaving Russia aren’t available, some economists have reached similar conclusions about the scale of the outflow. Around 500,000 people left Russia in 2020, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency.

“The people who are either leaving or planning to leave are highly educated and generally young,” said Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist at the Institute of International Finance. “This is your most productive part of the labor force that is disappearing.”

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a top regional development bank, expects the Russian economy to contract 10% this year.

It added that people leaving Russia, coupled with reduced investment and trade, would result in lower long-term productivity growth. Spending on information technology is expected to drop sharply.

While Russia has encouraged dissenters to leave, it has also acted to stem the outflow of professional workers. President Vladimir Putin signed in March a decree granting a waiver from military conscription to people employed in the tech sector. Russian authorities are also offering tax breaks, cheaper loans and preferential mortgages to entice tech workers to stay.

While this is being framed as a reaction to the Ukraine invasion, it’s a longstanding trend that’s taken off:

I can’t help but think it’s at least tangentially related to this WaPo story (“Russian students are turning in teachers who don’t back the war“):

When Irina Gen’s students in western Russia asked why a European sports competition had barred them from attending, the 55-year-old teacher let loose with a tirade against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“So long as Russia doesn’t behave itself in a civilized way, this will go on forever,” she fumed, adding that she endorsed the European ban. Russia “wanted to get to Kyiv, to overthrow Zelensky and the government. This is a sovereign state,” she said. “There’s a sovereign government there.”

Little did she know that her students were recording her outburst and that a copy would make its way to law enforcement, who opened a criminal investigation March 30 under a new national law banning false information about the military.

Gen is one of at least four teachers recently turned in by students or parents for antiwar speech, in some of the starkest examples of the government’s quest to identify and punish individuals who criticize the invasion.

It’s a campaign with dark Soviet echoes, inspired last month by President Vladimir Putin, who praised Russians for their ability to identify “scum and traitors” and “spit them out like a fly.”

“I am convinced that this natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country,” Putin said March 16 in a televised speech, accusing the West of wanting to use a “fifth column” to destroy Russia.

In the last several weeks, a list of “traitors and enemies” has cropped up online, published by the Committee for the Protection of National Interests, a shadowy group claiming a duty to expose public figures who support “anti-Russian” sanctions and political pressure.

The regional government of Kaliningrad sent text messages to local residents urging them to report “provocateurs and scammers” who were undermining the “special operation in Ukraine,” according to the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. And a string of activists, journalists and opposition politicians have found the word “traitor” and vile graffiti painted on their front doors.

“After a rather significant period of freedom … fear has returned to Russian society, and informants have become more active against those who express disagreement with the authorities,” said Nikita Petrov, a longtime historian at the human-rights group Memorial, which a Moscow court abolished in December after years of government pressure on the group.

War opponents can easily run afoul of the law given the new censorship rules. Recent additions to the criminal code make it illegal to discredit the armed forces or to spread “fake” information about the military — which in practice means anything contradicting official government reports.

The cases of children informing on teachers recall the young Soviet folk hero Pavlik Morozov, who, legend had it, betrayed his father to the authorities for anti-Soviet activity. Generations of Soviet children were encouraged to be like Pavlik, to show loyalty to the state above all else.

That’s not exactly a climate hospitable to thinking people.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    …and cue up, “The Russian State educated these people and they cannot leave until they have repaid our investment in them!”, in 3…2…1

  2. Michael Cain says:

    Where are they all going? What are they doing when they get there?

  3. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Where are they all going?
    Anywhere they can.
    Lots making it out overland to Finland, others getting to the ‘Stans, then trying to get out from there to anywhere else.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Cain:

    From what I’ve read, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey. Those are places that they can still get flights to. Whether the plan is to stay there, ? Those in northwest Russia are reportedly traveling by land to the Baltic states and Finland. I suspect the goal for many is to reach western Europe and North America, though I suspect that they would have a more welcoming reception in countries in central Asia and Africa. Those would benefit from the talent influx.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In the same vein: The Putin Generation is Fleeing Putin’s Russia

    ISTANBUL — At a hostel down a cobblestoned street not far from Istanbul’s fabled mosques and cathedrals, a young Russian restaurant worker named Misha was smoking cigarettes on the balcony.

    Misha quit his job on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, swiftly packed his bags and left Moscow without a clue when he will be back. Only 24, for the last few weeks he has shared a $10-a-night bunk room with three other guys. He estimates his money will last about a month.

    “I decided without a second thought — That’s it,” he told me. “I thought, ‘I am 24 years old, I have arms, legs, I am not dumb, well, I probably won’t perish.’”

    Misha isn’t a jet-setter; in fact, this is his first trip outside of Russia. When I asked him what surprised him most about life outside Russia, he said: “I don’t feel scared when I pass by police officers, even if they are holding guns. I just feel safe.”
    Tens of thousands have landed in Istanbul, because Russian flights can reach Turkey without crossing into European airspace and Russians don’t need Turkish visas to visit.

    As a result, you can now hear Russian on the streets and on lines that form in front of ATMs — with Russian credit cards disabled, Russian refugees are living on any cash they can withdraw from ATMs. Inside coffee shops, you can overhear Russians exchanging tips on cheap places to stay, how to open a bank account or the best places to exchange currency.

    Under Turkish law, they can only stay for 90 days. What will happen to them next is a topic in the cafes, bars and hostel lobbies where they also gather to discuss the political developments in their homeland. Most still have friends and families who are left in Russia.

  6. Kathy says:

    Can we be certain among all these fleeing Russians, Vlad hasn’t snuck in GRU or FSB types to carry out chemical weapons attacks on unsuspecting targets? What vetting is being done and how thorough is it?

  7. Tlaloc says:

    The expression “eating seed corn” comes to mind.

  8. JohnSF says:

    If the FSB (or more likely GRU) wanted to that and the FSB/GRU was competent, they’d probably get them out on false papers as, say Kazakh nationals, or whatever.

  9. Scott says:

    I found this long article on The Bulwark from LTG Hertling to be quite good and well worth the read. Compares the Russian and Ukrainian armies from a training and preparation perspective.

    I Commanded U.S. Army Europe. Here’s What I Saw in the Russian and Ukrainian Armies.

    A couple of quotes:

    The Russian barracks were spartan, with twenty beds lined up in a large room similar to what the U.S. Army had during World War II. The food in their mess halls was terrible. The Russian “training and exercises” we observed were not opportunities to improve capabilities or skills, but rote demonstrations, with little opportunity for maneuver or imagination. The military college classroom where a group of middle- and senior-ranking officers conducted a regimental map exercise was rudimentary, with young soldiers manning radio-telephones relaying orders to imaginary units in some imaginary field location. On the motor pool visit, I was able to crawl into a T-80 tank—it was cramped, dirty, and in poor repair—and even fire a few rounds in a very primitive simulator.

    While I knew the Russian tankers had experienced battlefield trauma during their final days in Afghanistan and were more recently dealing with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, to include firing a tank round at their own Parliament a year earlier, I came away from my first formal exchange with the Russian Army doubtful they were the ten-foot-tall behemoth we thought them to be.

    That last sentence jumped out at me. I think I wrote a few months back that when I attended Air Force Officer Training School in 1980, we sat through a presentation about Soviet armed forces called something like: “Are These Guys Ten-Feet Tall?” Short answer was no. And it laid into the corruption of the military, the government, and society. The Brezhnev era.

    What was true then is true today. Provides some hope.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    The war in Ukraine has been very good for the West.

    Russia will never fully recover, their demographic picture is already alarming, they’re losing their largest oil and gas market, their weapons manufacturers look second rate, their supposedly terrifying cyber force hasn’t even whimpered, and their military has been exposed as incompetent and corrupt. Now, they’re suffering an accelerated brain drain, and if the early stories are true and Finland and Sweden are joining NATO, Putin just managed to create a 1300 kilometer long border with NATO. St. Petersburg will be just 100 miles from NATO tanks.

    Vladimir Putin is the gift that keeps on giving.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott: It’s good to know there are some constants in history. Like the Russian military carrying on the concept of a Potemkin village.

  12. Barry says:

    @Kathy: “Can we be certain among all these fleeing Russians, Vlad hasn’t snuck in GRU or FSB types to carry out chemical weapons attacks on unsuspecting targets? What vetting is being done and how thorough is it?”

    It’s really hard to stop that, when moving from a more closed to a more open society.

  13. Sleeping Dog says:


    Over the last month, European countries, the US, Canada and Mexico have declared hundreds of suspected Russian intelligence assets persona non grata. These a people that over decades have developed sources and knowledge of where to look for secrets. It will be at least a decade to recreate that network, if the host countries allow Russia to back fill those positions.

    By far most of these spies were attached to the embassy, consulates and various trade and economic development groups. Sending even a hundred agents out with the new diaspora, won’t make much difference because they will not have an official capacity to probe for loose lips.

  14. Jen says:

    @Kathy: GRU has plenty of officers serving in Russian embassies around the world.

    I mentioned when the invasion of Ukraine began that I knew of some US companies with tech workers based in Russia. One of those companies has offered to relocate any Russian employees to other countries. I can’t imagine that this is widespread, but I was surprised that a US company made an offer like that, it’s going to cost them a lot of money. Not sure how the visas etc. would work, but apparently the company is going to handle all of that.

  15. Jen says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Yes, many of those officers have been PNG’ed. But I’m equally certain that there are some who remain, and also there are likely many overseas under non-official cover.

    We probably don’t want all of those folks to go back to Russia, as there are probably some who are feeding us info.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    A lot of my Russian friends saw the writing on the wall a LOOOONG time ago and vamoosed out of Russia in the early 2000s.

    What’s crazy is that Russia has managed also to demolish what used to be a damn good science and technology education/research system. There used to be a large number of brilliant Soviet scientists who believed in communism as opposed to capitalism. What do they have now? An education system where rich students bribe their professors for higher grades or get Daddy’s mafia to threaten them. How does anyone think Russia will be able to stay at the cutting edge of anything from now on, especially when anyone with a brain gets the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible? Putin will have Potemkin laboratories with Potemkin engineers. And Potemkin airplanes that will fall out of the sky. I used to admire Soviet scientists. The greats, like Lev Landau. Now? The only ones we hear of are the ones who have already moved abroad.

    That’s the trouble with corruption: it kills all systems.

  17. Sleeping Dog says:


    In an article I saw, by and large, they are allowing the station chiefs and their staff to stay. Yes, there are assets that have no official capacity. In the last day or so, I saw headline that the FBI arrested a woman who they claim is a Russian agent.

  18. DK says:

    Could the West trade these Russians with the Putin-brained Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Andrew Sullivan?

  19. gVOR08 says:

    @DK: Putin’s delusional, but not enough to want them.