Putin’s Failure to Hold on to the Educated Could Be the World’s Gain

Since Russia’s war on Ukraine began, press reports have focused on the exodus from Russia of antiwar scientists, engineers and information technology experts. But the vast majority of the Russian people are staying put, and actually rallying behind President Vladimir Putin.

According to Levada, Russia’s most respected independent pollster, the share of all Russians who said they would like to relocate outside of Russia fell in late March to 10 percent from an average of 19 percent in three earlier polls since 2019.

Even among people with higher education, the percentage who would like to relocate was the same, 10 percent, according to a spreadsheet that Levada sent me. (Some people may have been afraid to tell the pollsters of their dissatisfaction, given Putin’s crackdown on dissent, but I’m betting the numbers are directionally right.)

Why does this matter? Because Putin may be betting that as long as a strong majority of Russians support him, he can afford to lose the malcontents. He may even be glad that some are going. The autocrat is not erecting barriers to keep the intelligentsia from leaving, although he has offered tax breaks, subsidized mortgages and postponement of conscription into the armed forces to keep tech workers at home.

He may live to regret his nonchalance. “There is no doubt that there is long-lasting damage. The whole wave of recent emigration is the most productive slice of the Russian society,” said Konstantin Sonin, an economist with the University of Chicago 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 sort of a strong economy. When Russia is cut from the international trade, when people are leaving, it seems to him that this is going in the right direction, the acceptable direction.”

If Russia achieves political stability by ridding itself of smart people who oppose Putin’s rule, Sonin said, “the stability will be achieved at a very low level of production and consumption.”

Russia has suffered from brain drain for at least a century, in part because it produces top-notch university graduates, yet usually hasn’t had 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 that includes such giants as Igor Sikorsky, a pioneer in helicopters; Simon Kuznets, a Nobel laureate in economics; artists and composers such as Irving Berlin, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Nabokov, and businesspeople such as the Wonskolaser brothers, better known by their Americanized name, Warner Brothers.

Starting around 2010 the brain drain eased because the Russian economy was performing well. Some Russians even went home. But the invasion of Ukraine has once again yanked the plug out of the drain hole. Most of the exiles today are going to nearby countries, including Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the Baltic nations.

The United States has been tougher to get into because visas are scarce. In March the Department of Homeland Security granted Ukrainians “temporary protected status” for 18 months, enabling them to stay and work in the United States without a visa — but it has not done so for Russians.

In a shift, however, the Biden administration asked Congress last week to suspend for four years the requirement that Russian scientists applying for H1-B visas have a sponsoring employer. The measure would apply only to Russian citizens with master’s or doctoral degrees in science or engineering fields such as artificial intelligence, nuclear engineering or quantum physics. They would have to undergo security vetting.

That’s a smart move. Western nations are making a mistake if they don’t hold the door open to Russian scientists because of opposition to Putin, said Alexandra Vacroux, who is executive director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. “If they’re leaving, they’re the best and the brightest and the bravest,” she said. “It’s important not to brand all the Russians as the baddies in the world.”

Mara Kuvaldina, a Russian with a doctorate in experimental cognitive psychology who works at Columbia University Medical Center, has protested against Putin and said she fears going home to St. Petersburg to visit her mother. She participates in a network of scholars in the cognitive sciences who help fellow academics fleeing Russia, Ukraine and Belarus find jobs in the West.

One goal is to help the scholars “integrate into a new social environment abroad and give them opportunity to get back to normal life,” Kuvaldina wrote in an email.

John Holdren, who was Barack Obama’s science adviser for all eight years of his presidency, told me he worked with the State Department to “reduce obstacles on our side to people with very valuable skills from many countries.” He said some of those efforts were rolled back by the Trump administration. “It’s an important part of U.S. science policy to be welcoming,” Holdren said.

For Putin to drive away some of his nation’s greatest minds is lunatic. But as someone once said, never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.

Number of the week

-2.1 percent

This decrease 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 median forecast for economic growth for all of 2022 is 0.7 percent. Strengthening growth is a high priority for President Jair Bolsonaro, who is being challenged for re-election by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The official industrial production number is set to be released by the government on Tuesday.

Quote of the day

“I see the world through equilibrium glasses; I don’t think they fail me very often.”

— Fischer Black, “Exploring General Equilibrium” (1995)

Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].

Back to top button