Russia Is Losing Its Best and Brightest
Highly educated Russians are racing for the exits—but does Putin care?
Overall, the most alarming recent trend is the emigration of students and recent graduates, driven by low salaries for young researchers, housing issues, substandard research facilities, an inadequate overall scientific environment, low social prestige for scientists and lack of effective government measures to improve the situation. The problem then compounds: the emigration of Russian scientists leads to declining production of PhDs in the next generation, as measured by admissions and graduates. The resulting shortage of mentors encourages the next generation to follow and pursue doctoral studies abroad.
Skolkovo, a Kremlin-created Silicon Valley imitator just outside Moscow, was supposed to plug the leak, but several Russian observers now call Skolkovo an “incubator of emigrants.” More and more, investment in Skolkovo and its resident firms is coming from Russian state-controlled entities rather than from abroad. Financing for high-tech start-ups has always been scarce in Russia, and the local market for products limited, but the situation has been exacerbated by the ruble’s plunge and Western sanctions freezing Russia out of capital markets. Home-grown Russian venture-capital funds now invest almost entirely in Russia, unwilling to support start-up founders looking to build internationally oriented businesses. It’s no surprise that Russian social media is full of groups with names like “Time to Go?”, offering commiseration and advice for Russian professionals, especially those in high tech, contemplating a move.
With an eye to implications for economic development, some recent government actions appear designed to keep Russian talent at home. In October 2014, the government cancelled the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), a twenty-three-year-old high-school program that had supported twenty-three thousand Russian students to study in the United States. Putin has complained about foreign organizations “working like a vacuum cleaner” to lure the most talented Russians abroad. A spring 2015 survey of Russian students found 39 percent either considering or definitely planning to live and work abroad after graduation. A government scheme to offer full scholarships for 1,500 students to study in top universities around the world—in exchange for an ironclad commitment to return home—has been undersubscribed, the return-home clause a deal breaker. The government has recently doubled the stipend in hopes of filling the slots; the jury is still out on whether that will be enough. In the meantime, many Russian firms are reportedly disinterested in the program’s graduates, who will return from abroad full of “foreign ideas.”
Russian science and engineering, if not the entire “creative class,” including small- to medium-sized business owners, is increasingly relocating abroad, prompted by shifts in the country’s political environment over Putin’s third term. Not all the smart, young entrepreneurs are walking out the door, of course, but the exodus appears perilously close to a threshold that could matter. Combined with underlying demographic processes simultaneously hollowing out the working-age population, the implications for Russia’s economic and social development are stark. The only saving grace may be the continued ties—apartments, bank accounts and remittance flows, family—loosely binding those who have left to a country that, at core, they still love. But until and unless the current occupant of the Kremlin is gone, and although his regime may be pleased in the short term with the more compliant human capital that’s left behind, the long-term price appears quite high. Russia’s chief sustainable comparative advantage—its brainpower—is drifting away.
Judy Twigg is Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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