How many Russians really want to emigrate? (OP-ED)

Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS
Among the things Russia inherited from the USSR was the image, enduring in western media to this day, of being a place everyone just can’t wait to get out of. This hasn’t been true for many years.

In January 1991, The Washington Post published an alarmist op-ed: the Russians were coming! Millions of them. In reality, the opposite happened: 1991 ended up being the inspirational year of new opportunities in Russia. By year’s end, the USSR had fallen, and newly independent Russia was receiving more migrants than it produced. This continues to be true today. Yet, The Washington Post continues to perpetuate this false alarmism: it claimed in August 2019, that “a staggering 44 percent of young Russians want to leave”. Really? Let’s dig deeper.

The enduring image of exodus

Whether the numbers of people wanting to leave the Soviet Union were as significant as the West assumes, we will never know. But, as one of those who grew up in the Soviet Union and has fond memories of their youth, I think it is a wrong question to ask. There were certainly people who believed that opportunity for them lied elsewhere. But the majority of Soviet people did not really want to leave - more likely, they were just looking to finally do some traveling. People wanted to go - not because they hated where they were, or specifically wanted to be somewhere else - but because the Iron Curtain meant they couldn’t. It was a freedom of choice that some of them were longing for, not abstract “freedom”. 

Yet, we have to acknowledge that most of the migration from the Soviet Union was outwards. The numbers were not staggering, but exit restrictions discouraged applications, except for family reunions, and opportunities for defection were limited to those few who had managed to go abroad. The alarmist article in 1991 also claimed that exit visa applications in the Soviet Union grew in its final years, and puts it down, it seems, to the economic devastation [due to the then-ongoing liberalization reforms]. It completely misses the point - most people’s desire to leave the USSR was never due to economic conditions, and it still wasn’t in 1991. 

The opportunity to travel, that increased due to liberalisation reforms, was indeed taken by many. Our family took our first ever European holiday in Spring 1991. We took the train, and then a ship, all the way to London, and found it full of Russians. They were shopping and telling tales of life in the USSR at parties - but they were not emigrating or defecting. There was no longer any reason to. And we were all safely back in Russia by the time of the infamous coup d’etat attempt in August 1991. 

Elderly Russians play dominoes on the promenade at Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York City, 1989

Comings and goings

By January 1992, newly independent Russia had been instantly transformed into a migrant receiving country. The seemingly frantic migration of the time involved ethnic Russians stuck in the “wrong parts” of the Soviet Union at the time of its demise into 15 independent states (it had been abruptly announced that Russian citizenship would automatically be bestowed on those Soviet citizens who were residents of Russia as of February 6, 1992, a deadline some scrambled to make, but many missed).

Then, to the extent that the economic devastation of the USSR’s break-up was a factor in anyone’s desire to relocate, it was more so people on the periphery of the former USSR that were seeking a better life in Russia. This wave of migration amounted to an average of 1 million people between 1992-1995, about 500,000 annually between 1996-2000, and continued afterwards at a rate of more than 100,000 people per year, as shown in this study. Today, Russia remains the primary migration destination for economic migrants from those same former Soviet republics in Middle Asia.

But there were also returning emigrants. Quite a few people who had previously left the USSR, were actually expelled - for example, Nobel prize winners, poet Joseph Brodsky and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The latter triumphantly returned to Moscow in 1994 and lived out the rest of his days as a patriarch of Russian culture at home. Many Jews who left for Israel, did it only to join family members there - and once it became clear that going back and forth was possible, and the Internet had become more widely available, they came back. Israel’s migration ministry estimates that more than 100,000 Soviet immigrants to that country have returned home, while other estimates put the number of returnees to Russia from Israel at more than 30,000. 

Russians greet Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Magadan airport in 1994, as he returnes after 20 years in exile

There was a third group, who had defected, as they felt, from the totalitarian rule of the Soviet Communist party - many of them never found any use for their talents abroad, other than to criticise the Party from afar, and were at a loss of reasons to remain abroad, once that party had been banned in November 1991 (it was reconstituted later). Yes, the 1990s in Russia were “wild”, but they were also extraordinary. Moscow at the time felt like the place to be. From then on, Russian emigration more or less evolved into a class of global Russians, many of whom kept a close connection with the homeland.

What does “leave” mean now?

The latest Washington Post “Russian exodus” series installment is a bit fuzzy on what “leave” means. The authors admit that the alarmist sub-heading (“A staggering 44 percent of young Russians want to leave”) includes numbers taken from a recent Gallup poll. The report says, verbatim: “a new high of one in five Russians (20%) now say that they would like to leave Russia if they could”, and this leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Here are the first two that come to mind.

1. According to Gallup, 17% of Russians wanted to leave in 2007. In this time, what percent actually left and did not come back? If it’s a negligible number, then what does this poll measure, exactly? Gallup speculates that the trend “could accelerate the population decline [in Russia]”, predicted by the UN. But the UN makes its predictions on the basis of current demographic trends (eg. more Russians currently dying than are being born). The effects of the increase in people who “may or may not want to go live in another country for a while” from 17% in 2007 to 20% in 2018 will do nothing to accelerate the predicted population decline  - and not just because most won’t actually leave, or not leave permanently. Even if they did, this would not matter, because, according to most estimates, Russia currently still has more immigrants, than emigrants, just as it has had for the past 30 years. 

2. What does “if they could” mean, exactly? Is something keeping them from leaving? Unless Gallup conducted their poll in prisons, Russia no longer stops people from leaving, and it’s proven to be a winning strategy - they go, see that it’s no better (or that it's worse), and return to tell others. Russians are relatively low-risk applicants for visas to western countries and refusal rates are modest. Many live seasonally in expat enclaves, such as Goa, Montenegro or the coast of Spain.

If Gallup were talking to the people who brought up emigration as a dreamy alternative to their real life, like every Hollywood movie character that plans to retire on a sandy seaside somewhere off the grid, then their numbers might be increasing, because more and more Russians think they will one day be able to afford to do so. If it is being bogged down with well paying jobs, property and active social life that prevents them from leaving, then the poll was not asking the question that The Washington Post pretends it was. This clearly isn’t the number of school teachers in Moscow who wish they could be washing toilets in Detroit instead. 

The “staggering” number of 15 to 29-year-olds wish to “migrate”, WaPo claims - but they do not say “emigrate” for a reason. The newspaper spices up its article with a mention of opposition rallies in Moscow, protests against the construction of a church in a Yekaterinburg park, and debates about pension reform, concluding that “these numbers illustrate the widespread dissatisfaction in Russia with the country’s current state of affairs”. 

Implying that zoning issues and changes in the retirement age will cause almost half of those under the age of 30 to flee is ridiculous. Gallup negatively correlates the “desire to emigrate” with President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating, but every first year grad student knows that correlation is not causation. Much as “I am moving to Canada” is a popular meme among Americans, we all know that presidential approval ratings have virtually nothing to do with actual emigration. Most people stay and vote for someone else next time around. 

Once it had a go at “the regime”, the newspaper acknowledges that the real predictor of the positive indication of desire to leave in the poll were “pre-existing transnational links” of the respondents, and the answers mirrored those links. In other words, people who already had relatives living in certain countries, would consider going to those countries. Wanting to be where your relatives are, is the exact opposite of simply “wanting to leave” (e.g. wanting to be anywhere but the place you are now), and, in my view, indicates a trend for gaining experience of traveling abroad and a more international outlook, rather than permanently abandoning your homeland.

The “transnational links” in the poll’s terminology were also the connections forged when the survey respondent visited, studied or worked overseas in the past. In other words, people who already chose to come back to Russia from abroad, are counted in this propaganda piece as those desperately wanting to leave it. 

Street cleaning in Moscow is almost universally carried out my Middle Asian migrants

Greener grass all around

The internet is full of reports about residents of rural Afghanistan, who are hoping to cross into neighboring Tajikistan in search of a better life. This “coveted” land of opportunity, in turn, has seen major economic migration to Russia in recent years - Tajik citizens in Moscow mostly work as street-sweepers, taxi drivers or construction workers, playing the same proverbial role in the Russian culture as Mexican immigrants do in the United states, or migrants from poor Eastern European countries do in Western Europe. 

I was born and grew up in Moscow. One day, during the endless nomadic journey of my own immigration to the United Kingdom, I showed up to claim my belongings from a storage locker on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. The clerk asked, “where are you from?”,  аnd immediately cut me off: “No matter, actually. I am sure anywhere is better than here.” There I was, having sacrificed so much to be in the UK, and the indigenous residents seemed to not share my enthusiasm for their country one bit.  

The point of the above is, that seeking to better one’s conditions is an instinct that is embedded in the evolutionary principle. As humans, we seek ways to improve whatever we have, and it says virtually nothing about the quality of our present conditions. Considerable numbers emigrate from all countries each year, including Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, among others - and, driven by similar desire to continue improving their lives, many return. And surely, even higher numbers everywhere daydream about seaside retirement! 

The world is a never ending whirlwind of migration - just as wild animals constantly migrate in search of new pastures, so do we. Our ability to limit this urge through self-control and rationalization is what separates us from wild animals. Awareness of having a choice to leave your homeland, that is, essentially, measured by the Gallup poll in question, goes nowhere near giving The Washington Post a reason to frame its results as a newest installment of their 30-year long “Russia is so bad, everyone is getting out” campaign.

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