Since Russia’s war on Ukraine began, press reports have focused on the exodus from Russia of anti-war scientists, engineers and information technology experts. But the vast majority of the Russian people remain seated and support President Vladimir Putin.
According to Levada, Russia’s most respected independent pollster, the proportion of all Russians who said they would like to move outside of Russia fell to 10 percent in late March, from an average of 19 percent in three previous polls since 2019.
Even among people with higher education, the percentage who would want to move was the same, 10 percent, according to a spreadsheet Levada sent me. (Some people may have been afraid to tell pollsters about their dissatisfaction given Putin’s crackdown on dissent, but I’ll bet the numbers are trend-setting.)
Why does this matter? Because Putin may be gambling that as long as a large majority of Russians support him, he can afford to lose the malcontents. He may even be happy that some are going. The autocrat puts up no barriers to deter the intelligentsia from leaving, though he has offered tax breaks, subsidized mortgages and deferments from military service to keep tech workers at home.
Maybe later on he will regret his carelessness. “There is no doubt that there is long-term damage. The whole wave of recent emigration is the most productive part of Russian society,” said Konstantin Sonin, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy who moved from Russia.
“Putin has a very specific worldview” that opposes globalization, Sonin told me. Putin believes “that an autarkic, centralized economy is a kind of strong economy. When Russia is cut off from international trade, when people leave, it seems to him that this is going in the right direction, the acceptable direction.”
If Russia achieves political stability by getting rid of smart people who oppose Putin’s rule, Sonin said, “stability will be achieved at a very low level of production and consumption.”
Russia has been brain drained for at least a century, in part because it produces first-rate university graduates, but usually lacked an economy capable of putting their skills to good use. The United States and other countries have long benefited from immigrants from what was the Russian Empire, including some from what are now independent nations. In the United States, these are giants like Igor Sikorsky, a pioneer of helicopters; Simon Kuznets, a Nobel laureate in economics; composers and authors such as Irving Berlin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Nabokov; and businessmen such as the Wonskolaser brothers, better known by their Americanized name, the Warner brothers.
Around 2010, the brain drain started to subside as the Russian economy was doing well. Some Russians even went home. But the invasion of Ukraine has once again pulled the plug out of the drain hole. Most exiles today go to nearby countries, including Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic States.
The United States is more difficult to enter because visas are scarce. In March, the Department of Homeland Security granted Ukrainians temporary protected status for 18 months, allowing them to stay and work in the United States without a visa — but it hasn’t done that for Russians.
In a shift, however, the Biden administration last week asked Congress to demand that Russian scientists applying for H1-B visas suspend a sponsoring employer for four years. The measure would only apply to Russian citizens with a master’s or doctoral degree in scientific or technical fields such as artificial intelligence, nuclear technology and quantum physics. They should undergo a security screening.
That’s a smart move. Western countries are making a mistake if they don’t keep the door open for Russian scientists because of opposition to Putin, said Alexandra Vacroux, executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. “When they leave, they’re the best, the brightest, and the bravest,” she said. “It’s important not to label all Russians as the bad guys in the world.”
Mara Kuvaldina, a Russian with a doctorate in experimental cognitive psychology who works at Columbia University Medical Center, has protested Putin, saying she is afraid to go home to St. Petersburg to visit her mother. She is part of a network of cognitive science scientists who are helping fellow academics fleeing Russia, Ukraine and Belarus find work in the West.
One of the goals is to help the scientists “integrate into a new social environment abroad and give them the chance to return to normal life,” Kuvaldina wrote in an email.
John Holdren, who was Barack Obama’s scientific advisor for the eight years of his presidency, told me he worked with the State Department to “reduce obstacles on our side for people with very valuable skills from many countries.” He said some of those efforts were reversed by the Trump administration. “It’s an important part of US science policy to be hospitable,” Holdren said.
That Putin is chasing some of his country’s greatest minds is insane. But as someone once said, never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.
number of the week
This drop is the median estimate of the change in industrial production in Brazil in the 12 months through March, according to a survey of forecasters by FactSet. The average forecast for economic growth for the whole of 2022 is 0.7 percent. Boosting growth is a high priority for President Jair Bolsonaro, who is being challenged for reelection by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The official industrial production number will be released by the government on Tuesday.
Quote of the day
“I see the world through a pair of balancing glasses; I don’t think they let me down often.”
— Fischer Black, “Exploring General Balance” (1995)
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