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Road block at Lithuanian - Russian border
State border between Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad

Two lines of walls are growing around Russia. One line of fortifications is being erected by the Russian authorities to keep people in the country. The other is being built by Western countries to keep Russians out.

For an average Russian, European visas and visas to many Western countries are generally hard to get. Some countries, including Estonia and Latvia, have introduced citizenship-based restrictions for Russians. Academic ties with Russian scientists and scholars have been severed by the very institutions that would have been better off maintaining those ties. Russian professionals, including engineers, are often discriminated against by the very corporations that would have benefited from hiring those professionals.

Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine. Everything that can be done to push Russia into withdrawing its forces from Ukraine’s territory should be done. Building barriers against Russians, including well-educated and capable Russians, does not help this cause. In fact, it is doing the opposite.

The Kremlin and Western countries are effectively working on the same project—keeping Russians inside Russia and pushing them into participating in the war economy and the war itself.

 

Who Leaves, and How Many?

Given the current politics, an appeal to invite more migrants may sound out of place in the United States, let alone in most of today’s Europe. The West has long grown allergic to new waves of incoming migration. Yet it probably makes sense to take a look at the kinds of people who want and, crucially, can afford to leave Russia. This latter point is important. In light of all the internal restrictions, the current visa regimes, and general attitudes toward Russians in the West, only those with enough skills, adaptability, and some means can leave the country.

By various accounts and estimates, between 800,000 and one million people fled or left Russia after the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If we control for the populations of the illegally annexed Ukrainian territories, Russia’s population would be anywhere between 135 and 140 million. One million is less than 1 percent of Russians. 

Is this a lot or a little? Most of those who oppose the war do not talk to pollsters. Yet even with this caveat, 10 to 20 percent of Russians have taken the risk and said they were against Russia’s war against Ukraine. Even the most conservative estimates of the numbers of those polled who are thinking of emigrating show that many fewer people have left Russia than could have, provided more opportunities existed. 

A recent survey by an independent NGO, Freedom Degree, shows that the largest group among those who left Russia are childless couples with both partners aged thirty-six years or less. These are mostly well-educated representatives of the kinds of occupations that are least protected from repression (human rights advocates, journalists, social scientists). They are also the most in-demand and adaptable professionals: IT specialists, engineers, researchers, and teachers. 

Among those who have left, only 20 percent do not have a higher education. Nine percent of those who emigrated are undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students. A similar share of those polled are planning to study at universities in the West.

At least 2,500 scientists left Russia after the outbreak of the war against Ukraine, a Novaya GazetaEurope study reported yesterday. The researchers note that young scientists are the most likely to leave. The largest outflow, 23 percent, was from Moscow’s universities, including the Higher School of Economics, Moscow State University, the Skolkovo School of Business, and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology; the last is one of the most important sources of talent for academia and tech companies worldwide. 

 

The Berlin Wall Serves as a Comparison—to a Point

My conversations with friends and colleagues who remain in Russia evoke similarities with the situation in East Germany in the late 1950s. Many in Russia realize that the government is seeking to put people under the supervision of special services in order to bind them to military service and jobs. 

The Berlin Wall is a textbook—and extreme—example of a barrier designed to keep people from leaving a certain territory, city, or country. It was, in essence, a camp or a prison fence. While Berlin ended up in the Soviet-occupied zone, the city itself was divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the Allied powers (the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France).

From the late 1940s to 1961, when the wall was built, Germans could move freely between the sectors of Berlin because there was no physical barrier separating them. By the late 1950s East German authorities had realized they were losing those who were most needed by the regime as the most qualified and young were moving to the West. The Berlin Wall was thus not only a political but also an economic undertaking. 

But there is a fundamental difference between the Russia of today and the East Germany of seventy years ago: Russia does not have its own "West Germany" or any generalized “West” that would accept Russia’s malcontents. In the years before the wall was built and the border fortified, that is, from 1945 to 1961, more than three million people fled East Germany for West Germany. And East Germany’s (the GDR’s) population was about 18 million as of 1950. This is more than 16 percent of the population.

 

Russia’s Two Walls. Let’s Tear Down One

This historical example is extreme, yet it is instructive. Fewer than 1 percent of the population have left Russia, most of them highly educated and motivated individuals who had to overcome two major barriers. 

One is Russia’s modern “Berlin Wall,” an exit barrier that is currently being built in the form of digital infrastructure that includes unified databases, face recognition software, and biometrics checks at the border. The centralized digital ecosystem that the government is currently putting together includes possibilities for electronic summonses to military recruitment offices, ignoring which may result in dire consequences for the “offender.” This is “progress”: no concrete, metal, or barbed wire, just smartphones. 

The second barrier is Western entry restrictions, particularly citizenship-based restrictions on Russian immigration, the latter being illegal according to EU law. Thousands more scientists would consider leaving if given the opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of professionals, including highly skilled IT specialists, would be available if they saw clear pathways for employment abroad. 

One last point: if you are afraid of Russian spies posing as IT people or journalists, wholesale restrictions won’t stop them anyway. It makes every sense to tear down this second wall, an entry wall, while the first wall, an exit wall, is still being built and while the opportunity still exists to attract a large pool of talent to Western economies.  

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more