If the Ukrainian crisis ends up isolating Russia in the world, it may lead some of Russia’s best and brightest to pursue opportunities abroad. Can Russia deal with this challenge?


It remains to be seen if the Ukrainian crisis will spur "brain drain" in Russia. Photo: Shutterstock

Russia’s potential isolation in the world as a result of the Ukraine crisis might trigger another “brain drain” of the type that occurred after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Quite simply, the nation’s top talent might decide that there are better opportunities elsewhere in the world where economic and intellectual prospects are more enticing. This is a problem that may result in a $1 billion loss - at a minimum - for the overall Russian economy, according to an upcoming Russia Direct Report that will be available in May.

It’s a potential problem that Russia was already facing before the situation in Ukraine, due to the changing patterns of migration brought on by globalization. Global migration increased from 175 million in 2000 to 232 million in 2013, and over the long-term, migration will continue to shift into nations with expanding economies. This looks like a dangerous signal for Russia, which is now facing lowered economic forecasts as a result of sanctions from the West.

In the early 1990s, Russia lost between 60,000 and 80,000 scientists, the RD Report points out. According to other more conservative estimates, at least 25,000 scientists left Russia between 1989 and 2004 and about 30,000 were working abroad with temporary contracts.

As Sergey Kapitsa, the famous Russian scientist, said referring to the 1990s, the last 10 years saw the loss of nearly 1,500 talented specialists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, one of Russia’s most prestigious universities. That is roughly equivalent to 20 percent of all of its graduates.

“The cost of training such specialists in physics or mathematics at world market rates is about $1 million each,” Kapitsa said. “Hence, we exported from just one university nearly $1.5 billion worth of personnel.”

Victor Sadovnichiy, rector of Moscow State University, claims that about 15 percent of graduates leave the country every year.

All this looks even more discouraging amidst the departure of Pavel Durov, the founder of the “Russian Facebook,” from Russia. As Durov told the Russian media, he doesn’t plan to return to Russia because of political pressure, censorship and the lack of opportunities to do business in the country.

The problem is aggravated by another troublesome trend: More and more Russian students studying abroad are too reluctant to come back. And the Ukrainian crisis makes the situation worse and may have changed the minds of those who previously planned to come back.

Vasily Lvov, a student at City University of New York who studies Comparative Literature, is sure that foreign and domestic policy factors are bound to catalyze a “brain drain.” As a doctoral student of Moscow State University, he left Russia to get a degree in the U.S. before the Ukrainian crisis. Recent events have seriously discouraged him. 

“I don’t see my departure from Russia as a final decision,” he said. “After all, as a post-graduate student of Moscow State University I can apply my skills in Russia. Yet the question is not where to apply skills, but where to bring up children.”

Lvov clarifies that an increasing number of students may leave Russia not only because it is falling behind other countries in some fields, but also because they are afraid for the future of their children who will have to live in “a country ruled by a bunch of people from the political elite.”

Yegor Lazarev, a Russian postgraduate student who now studies at Columbia University, argues the Ukraine crisis might catalyze “brain drain” from Russia, but it will not be the major reason why Russian specialists will decide to stay abroad.

“A lot of my friends firmly decided to leave the country or, at least, they are now thinking about it,” he said. “Personally, I believe that Russia’s interference in Ukraine is alarming, yet it won’t be the reason why I will not come back to Russia: After all, it’s my country, not the country of Putin. However, after getting a Ph.D. in the U.S., I hope to find a job in one of the U.S. universities just because social science is much more developed in the U.S. than in Russia or Europe.”

In contrast, Alexey Potemkin, a post-graduate student of Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO-University), argues that the Ukraine crisis is hardly likely to spur “brain drain.” He sees Russia as “a country of opportunities for self-realization” with good social mobility. He believes in a rosy future for Russia and its high economic potential despite geopolitical factors and economic sanctions.

“The desire to leave the country to study abroad is highly likely to result from students’ romantic and rosy perception of life abroad,” he said. “After all, many got foreign experience as tourists and exchange students.”

Potemkin argues that such experience doesn’t reveal all the routine problems that Russians may face after emigration. “In the end, you understand that you are a foreigner in a country,” he said, pointing to the tough competition that one faces after graduation. 

“You can graduate from Harvard or Georgetown University, but at the same time, you shouldn’t forget that, while looking for a job, you will have to face tough rivalry from your university peers. In a country with a highly developed entrepreneurial culture, it will be much more difficult to be competitive. Meanwhile, if you come back to Russia after getting a prestigious education abroad, you – as a unique specialist – will be in high demand among headhunters. You will have a lot of chances to find a good job.”

Dr. Dan E. Davidson, President of American Councils, a U.S. education NGO that deals with cultural and academic exchange, seems to echoe Potemkin's view.

"My own sense of Russian youth, and I have worked with a large number over the years through the U.S.-Russia exchanges, is that they tend to come back from study overseas with a deeper sense of patriotism and appreciation of their country than before they left," he said. "From a practical point of view, when a young person goes abroad to work, assuming they have the necessary visas and permissions, they must compete with Americans for jobs, and the job market right now in Europe and the U.S. is none too good."

Russia needs to minimize the effect of the Ukraine crisis

Meanwhile, experts in education and soft power are also concerned about the impact of “brain drain.” Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School who introduced and legitimized the term “soft power” in 1990, argues the Ukraine crisis will damage Russia in the long run.

“Not only will capital outflow be encouraged, but human capital may flee,” he warns. “This brain drain can hurt Russia’s prospects for economic reform and growth. Many of [then President and current Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev’s proposed reforms were headed in the right direction but were blocked by corruption and vested interests. Now in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, they look less likely than ever.”

Likewise, Jack Goldstone, a prominent U.S. sociologist and a professor at George Mason University, argues that geopolitical factors such as the Ukrainian crisis do, in fact, spur brain drain.

“To the extent that actions in regard to Ukraine have led to a sharper and more one-sided media attack on the West, both capital flight and "brain drain" (human capital flight) are likely to increase,” he warns. “The most progressive, cosmopolitan and successful Russians are those most likely to have investments or interests in Western business, scholarship and culture. To the extent that they feel that ties to the West are frowned upon, or even personally risky, they are likely to move their assets and talents out of Russia if they can.” 

At the same time, Goldstone highlights “brain drain” is not so much a result of the geopolitical tensions per se, as of Russia's internal campaign to project an image of the West as hostile and negative.

“Loss of artistic and intellectual freedom spurred much out-migration of artists, scholars, and scientists during the Cold War, when leaving Russia was far more difficult than today,” he said.

Goldstone believes that it would be tragic if the same pattern repeated today, and it would be far more costly to Russia in terms of the country’s isolation.

“For any country, international contacts are a lifeblood of stimulation, fresh ideas, and opportunities,” he said. “So many will try to leave simply to avoid such isolation and the harm it does to creativity and opportunity.”

Andrei Kortunov, General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), predicts that in the near future the outflow of talented and creative people might be the case because of the political situation in the country and economic challenges.

“Historically, brain drain is accompanied by capital outflow from a country,” he said. “And in this situation there will be two major factors that fuel this trend. If Russia’s economy has stagnated, with Europe and the U.S. gradually getting out of the economic crisis, it will increase ‘brain drain’. Political factors will also play a role: An ideological rejection of Western values will frighten liberal, more educated and creative people.”

At the same time, Kortunov stresses that not all students will leave Russia forever: Some of them will leave, only to return back. He argues that, in order to encourage their return to Russia, the authorities should minimize the negative consequences of the Ukrainian crisis.

“First, Russia should look for a new economic model because the previous one is very outdated,” he recommends. “Second, the authorities should change the ideological and political climate, ease conservative sentiment among political elites and be more tolerant to liberal-minded people to cerate comfortable conditions for their living.”

According to Goldstone, Russia should not to respond to the Ukrainian crisis in a way that provokes an excessively “anti-Western” attitude in Russia or external sanctions that would deeply isolate the country.

“What is crucial to progress is to make sure that even where there are issues of conflict, no power is so aggressive and uncompromising as to create a wholly adversarial relationship with others,” he said. “Russia will always pursue its own interests, as will the U.S. and Europe. But doing so within the framework of international law, and without imposing pervasive animosity toward others, will bring greater rewards in the medium to long run.”

Davidson argues that "there is probably nothing anyone can do to stop a young person who has made up her/his mind to move away from their home region, if long-term prospects in another region of the home country, or another country look brighter."

"But before things get to this stage, teachers, parents, universities, and governments can take steps to make sure that young people are not cut off with contact and exchange with the rest of the world," he concluded.

UPDATE: This article was updated on April 25, 2014 to include commentary from comments from American Councils President Dr. Dan E. Davidson.