COMMENT: Russia’s ‘brain drain’ – not what you expect

By bne IntelliNews November 17, 2014

Mark Adomanis in Washington DC -


People have been proclaiming a “brain drain” out of Russia for most of the past decade. Every time Vladimir Putin cracked down on a rival or engaged in some policy that the West deemed inappropriate, a flurry or articles would appear proclaiming that Russia’s “best and brightest” were heading for the exits.

The escalating Russia-West confrontation over Ukraine has spurred another volley of these stories. As Bloomberg recently reported (emphasis added) there is a: “growing brain drain as Russia’s worst clash with the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War accelerates an exodus of capital and its brightest minds in finance and technology. More people emigrated from Russia in the first eight months of 2014  203,659 – than in any full year under Vladimir Putin’s rule, according to the Federal Statistics Service.

At first glance this sounds downright terrifying. More people left Russia in eight months than in any year since 2000! If true, if Russia’s business class had decided en-masse that it was better off elsewhere, it would mean that the wheels have really started to fall off of the Putinist system.

The reality of the situation, however, is quite a bit murkier and the official statistics cited by Bloomberg present a much more complicated situation than “everyone is leaving for London.”

First, some background information. Russia has had an overall level of positive net migration for its entire post-Soviet history. The first eight months of 2014 have not been an exception: according to the same Rosstat data cited by Bloomberg, in January-August Russia gained roughly 150,000 more migrants than it lost.

This figure is actually lower than it was in 2013, 2012 or 2011, when during the analogous time of the year, Russia gained roughly 200,000 people. The fall in net migration is clearly not a good sign, and it does suggest that Russia’s recent spate of terrible economic news has slowed the movement of labour into Russia from other former Soviet states. 2014’s figure, though, is substantially better than 2010’s and essentially indistinguishable from the levels registered in 2009 and 2008. It’s just not that much of an outlier compared to recent history.

How can it be possible, though, that Russia’s net migration was broadly in line with recent experience if the number of people leaving Russia was, as noted in the Bloomberg article, “higher than any other year in Putin’s presidency?” Because, although it might seem strange, more people have also been entering Russia.

In January-August, 361,384 people were registered as having arrived in Russia from other countries (roughly 90% of whom came from other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States). The analogous figure for 2013? 315,350.

The expression “brain drain” is rarely defined with much specificity, but it’s generally taken to mean well-educated and successful Russians leaving the Russian Federation for somewhere in Western Europe or North America. The number of people decamping for the “far abroad,” the Russian expression denoting anywhere outside of the former Soviet Union, increased from 22,430 in 2013 to 31,186 in 2014. This is an increase, to be sure, but one that is rather modest in magnitude for a country of 144mn people.

And even with this increase in departures, Russia still had a positive net migration balance with the far abroad. No that’s not an error: in total more people came to Russia from countries outside the former Soviet Union than left. Considering the enormous outflows that Russia recorded in the early and mid-1990s (when upwards of 250,000 people a year left for the US or Europe), the current situation is very different.

A close look at Rosstat’s numbers suggests there is simply a lot more “churn” going on within the Commonwealth of Independent States. In particular, there is a lot more back-and-forth movement of people between Russia and Central Asia. This could reflect a change in Rosstat’s methodology or it could reflect underlying demographic and economic pressures in “the stans” (youth unemployment remains frightfully high and the region’s population is growing quickly). Increasingly rapid movement of workers to and from Uzbekistan, however, is simply a very different process than the one hinted at by Bloomberg and other people bemoaning a “brain drain.”

Unless its economy stabilizes in the very near future, Russia could face a very serious shortages of highly-skilled labour. With the ruble plunging and the danger of recession looming over everyone, it’s entirely possible that successful businessmen and entrepreneurs will decide that their futures are best pursued in other, more stable, countries. But according to the data, a “brain drain” is a potential future problem not an existing one: the number of people actually leaving Russia for the US or Europe remains small by any possible reckoning.

Even taking the recent trends into account, Russia remains a positive net-migration society and one of the world’s most popular destinations for labour migrants.


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