The mood of Russia
Time to shove off
The Soviet Union was undermined by stagnation and a sense of hopelessness. Is the same thing happening again?
Sep 10th 2011 | MOSCOW | from the print edition
IN 2000 a group of young Russians, just back from their studies in America, started the website WelcomeHome. Ru. “Life in Russia is becoming more normal. It is possible to live here, make a career and bring up children. Many of those who had left have come home. We are among them,” the site read. It was a typical reaction by young Russian professionals to the growth, opportunities and promise of stability from Vladimir Putin, the new president. Soon, after years of capital flight, money started to flow back into Russia.
Twelve years later, as Mr Putin appears to be preparing to retake his presidential office for another 12 years, the mood is starkly different. WelcomeHome. ru is dead. Instead, a new popular blog has sprung up on a Russian social network.
It is called “Pora valit”, which means roughly “Time to shove off”. Its few thousand users exchange stories about how best to leave Russia. The blog’s title sums up perfectly the mood among Russia’s urban and educated class.
Emigration is the talk of the town. Dmitri Bykov, a popular and prolific author, dedicated a recent weekly feuilleton to the flight of money and people and the travelling ban imposed briefly on two opposition politicians, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov. The Soviet government punished dissidents by expelling them, Mr Bykov quipped. “Now they punish them by keeping them in.”
A recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre shows that 22% of Russia’s adult population would like to leave the country for good. This is a more than threefold increase from four years ago, when only 7% were considering it. It is the highest figure since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when only 18% said they wanted to get out. Those who are eager to leave are not the poor and desperate. On the contrary, most are entrepreneurs and students.
The Levada Centre recently conducted a survey of people aged 25-39 living in large cities and earning five-to-ten times the average income in Russia. Almost a third would like to emigrate permanently. They are not dissidents or romantics. Half say they have no interest in politics, a third are Kremlin supporters, most work in the private sector and have done well over the past decade. “These are not just people who would like to leave Russia, but people who have the means to do so,” says Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Centre.
These figures do not necessarily indicate a brain drain. Mr Gudkov, who has been measuring Russia’s emigration over the past 20 years, says the number of people who will actually leave is probably small. Among the young and well-off, only 6% have filed for a visa, are negotiating a contract or have applied to study abroad. (Though, given Russia’s unfavourable economic and social trends, it can ill afford to lose even a small number of its best educated young people.) What these figures really show is a startling level of frustration with the state of the country. “This is a cardiogram of Russian society,” says Mr Gudkov. If so, things are going badly.
The suitcase syndrome
In some ways, the urge to leave now may seem odd. Mr Gudkov says that what he calls the “suitcase mood” usually spikes either in anticipation of a crisis or just after one. After the financial crisis in 1998, for example, his emigration indicator went up to 21%.