ASU study examines the exodus of Russia's educated

Panel event discusses research into 'brain drain' occurring in protest to the war

A group of people shown from behind with a blue gradient.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, millions of Ukrainians fled their country. They were not the only ones on the run. 

Within three months of the invasion, in what was described as a "brain drain," a wave of nearly 1 million highly educated Russians made their way to countries in the surrounding regions. 

“It was an unprecedented wave of migration,” said Gaukhar Baltabayeva, a PhD student in Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

Who were these migrants? What prompted their exodus? And what did their departure mean for the country they left behind? 

These were some of the questions explored during a webinar held Tuesday titled “Quiet Opposition: The Political Significance of Russian Migration to Central Asia and the Caucasus following the 2022 Ukraine Invasion.”

The event was part of the 2023 Spring Speaker Series organized by ASU’s Center on the Future of War and co-sponsored and partially funded by the ASU Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

Baltabayeva, together with Margaret Hanson, assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, hosted the talk, which focused on their ongoing study of Russian migration. Daniel Rothenberg, professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies and co-director of ASU’s Center on the Future of War, moderated the discussion. 

What was especially unusual, said Hanson, was “the level of out-migration from a country that's instigating the conflict, but not actually seeing direct conflict on its territory.”

Breaking down the demographics

Principal investigators Hanson and Baltabayeva began studying the exit of Russians in May 2022. Participants in the study were recruited through personal networks, encounters and Facebook groups. The project was also funded by grants from the Social Science Research Council and ASU’s School of Politics and Global Studies.

Based on in-depth interviews with 47 Russian emigres, they discovered distinct consistencies in the demographics of those who left their country at the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Participants ranged in age from 25 to 40 and highly educated; more educated than most of the population of Russia. 

The majority of migrants were in the tech or media digital industry and all worked remotely, which was key. It allowed for mobility and economic stability. 

The migrants were all opponents of the current Russian regime, which caused polarization along generational and geographical lines. Many had been detained by the Russian government for being politically active. 

And while none of those who exited had suffered physical harm, the stress of the war took a toll on many.

“I felt bad in terms of my general mental state (after the war began),” reported one respondent. “I felt absolutely unstable. I couldn’t work. I constantly flipped through the feed and the news, at times, absolutely terrified me.” 

Many felt torn: “I love my country, but I hate the government,” another participant shared. 

Ironically, it was not just the war that sent Russians packing. Most of the respondents had contemplated leaving their country for a long time. Their physical departure may have been precipitated by a mental detachment from the Russia of earlier generations. 

“... being Russian means being overly patient, obscenely patient … they endure endlessly,” said another respondent. 

“The war was the breaking point,” Hanson explained. “Many saw it as their last chance to escape.”

Driven to unlikely destinations

Migrants settled in places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, as well as Georgia and Armenia. All countries were former Soviet Republics. 

They are not wealthy countries nor do they have the kind of liberal democracies that usually attract those fleeing oppression.

Rothenberg asked why migrants chose these countries. 

According to Baltabayeva, most migrants were coming from major cities and moved to central Asia where they could enjoy a high standard and low cost of living. They saw the cultures as familiar and many people spoke Russian — a legacy of their Soviet past. 

The migrants could continue to work remotely in their jobs without having to uproot in any extreme way, and many did not have sanctions or passport issues to contend with, Baltabayeva explained.

Effects on Russia

The data collected for the study was clear about who the migrants were, why they were leaving Russia, where they were heading and how it benefited them.

But does it harm Russia? 

According to Hanson, migrants consistently noted that there was widespread support for the war inside Russia. They believed the Russian propaganda machine, bought into the proposed necessity for the war and were not the kind of people who would show any resistance to Russia’s aggressions.

“This raises some really key questions about current and future migration and other issues,” Hanson said. “Because in many ways these highly educated young people in these kinds of fields are exactly who would have led opposition movements in autocracies or who we would expect to be sort of the backbone of any opposition to the regime and to the war.”

“But instead, we have hundreds of thousands of them leaving, potentially reducing the amount of repression the Russian government needs to engage in.” 

“So, I think this is a question worth considering,” Hanson said. “Whether allowing many of these people to leave is something that actually benefits Russia?” 

Top photo from iStock.

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