At January’s Gaidar Forum, Sberbank chief and former minister German Gref said what everyone knows but officially no one wants to admit: that “downshifter” Russia is losing its best and its brightest to Europe and the US. “Our most terrible export, and our largest export, which we must stop, is the export of brainpower,” he said. “We don't count how many we export each year, but I fear that in terms of losses it is the biggest of our exports.”
True, but sadly Gref didn’t go far enough.
Brain drain and brain freeze
The precise number of Russians emigrating permanently, or at least long term, is unclear and highly contested, with figures ranging from 20,000 to 200,000. However, it is not simply about raw numbers of those leaving – or desperately trying to leave – the country. Rather, it is that those who are leaving tend to be those with the highest professional and technical skills and potentials, from writers to programmers, financiers to scholars.
Many entrepreneurs are looking to set up or move their companies abroad, for example. The causes include the direct impact of Russia’s economic crisis and political disillusion, but also knock-on effects. There has been a resurgence in predatory corruption, for example, as officials scramble to make up the shortfall in their real incomes, and a new wave of theft of intellectual property rights, as old-style corporate ‘raiding’ adapts to an age in which ideas are more valuable than real estate.
Likewise, some 50,000 Russians went to study abroad for their higher education in 2014. From my own, admittedly anecdotal experience of teaching some of them, I feel the majority actively plan not to return when their studies are over, or at least are willing to consider a permanent or temporary sojourn away from the Motherland. It is telling that the Russian government’s admirable scheme offering bursaries for 1,500 students to study in top universities around the world so long as they undertake to return home after has proven very unsuccessful. Most of the bursaries were never taken up. It is not that students don’t want grants – it’s that they don’t want the strings attached.
Even those brains not draining are freezing. In the new climate of patriotic mobilization and economic constriction, it is proving harder and harder for many to express their views, but also develop their ideas and provide the most effective input into policy.
Gref’s interjection was noteworthy for its candor, and there are certainly others such Aleksei Kudrin likewise willing to speak their minds about the problems facing the country, while still apparently able (so far) safely and comfortable remaining within it. The trouble is that their number is few and their impact on policy appears negligible. Many others who once would have been considered to be of the “patriotic opposition” such as Sergei Guriev, formerly rector of the New Economic School, have left. So now the conversation appears shaped by the kind of lumpen and complacent knee-jerk boosterism evident in the Duma or on TV, where problems are all in the past, policy prescient, and happy times just over the horizon but coming into sight any day now.
This affects debate and governance at every level. It is impossible to know quite what Putin himself is told, but what hints and whispers do emerge suggest a man increasingly shielded from much of the bad news, not least by functionaries and courtiers who have learned that this is the safest course. Likewise, public officials are often protected from the true levels of scrutiny and even derision that their ideas and pronouncements deserve. And many business leaders are saved from the savage verdict of the market by state subsidies and direct and indirect support. With internet freedoms under attack and continued pressure on the media, the whole scope of the public conversation in Russia – which has often been lively, vibrant, informed and irreverent – is itself fighting a tide of de facto and self-censorship, orthodoxy and banality.
Meanwhile, Russia’s appeal to foreigners with ideas and expertise is also under pressure. Ruble salaries are increasingly unappealing, especially to those who might contemplate at some point leaving, and who therefore have to consider the state of their 401k or savings account. While Russian institutions of higher education fortunate enough to be identified as national research universities have some funds and capacity to attract smart foreign talent, they face not just economic but even ideological challenges these days. As a foreigner who spends much time in Russia and enjoys it, I was surprised and depressed by how many of my colleagues at last year’s annual conference of the US Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies simply did not want to travel to Russia, let alone work there. Why? Because of the current political situation.
Overall, then, today’s Russia risks infantilizing itself, not just cutting itself off from the latest social, economic and technological thinking in the world, but also from being able to talk and think properly about its present challenges and future prospects.
The brain war
Perhaps what is needed is for this to be put in terms that this Kremlin understands: there is a war of ideas, imagination, invention and efficiency going on, and Russia is losing. This is actually addressed in the new National Security Strategy that Putin signed on the last day of 2015. It makes a strong case that the state of Russia’s economy is a crucial security issue, and along with regional imbalances and economic instability, notes “a lag in the development of advanced technologies” as a problem.
Where are these technologies going to come from without the tax base to pay for R&D, high-quality education to train new generations of specialists, engaged and enthusiastic scientists not spending most of their time applying to jobs abroad, and the structures for supporting such work, from venture capital to the protection of intellectual property? The days when the Pe-2 light bomber could be designed in a World War II sharashka (a technical research centre within the Gulag system), rushed into production in factories using prison labor, and then deployed to war, are long since gone.
The trouble is that it is easier to try to staunch the flow – and there is already talk of the hated exit visa being restored – than to find ways of attracting and retaining the people Russia needs. Back in 2011, Putin warned that, “people with good training – valuable specialists – are an intellectual product. Figuratively speaking, these people are a commodity,” and Russia was experiencing a trade deficit in this commodity. However, the responses have largely been negative, and Russia seems no country for young men and women with ideas and ambitions that fall outside the narrowing parameters of the state and the economy it still dominates.
This is, after all, a vicious circle: a paucity of imagination and an unwillingness to create an environment conducive to the free-thinking, the genuinely entrepreneurial, and the innovative is not just the problem, it is also the reason why the state has no answers to the problem.
Consider the Skolkovo Innovation Center. On the one hand, this seemed a great idea – a high-tech incubator that could nurture the dreams of Russian innovators and the state alike. But even before bureaucracy, corruption, disillusion and then sanctions strangled it, there was already a fundamental problem with the idea. If you have to create some micro-state in order to foster certain values, aren’t you pretty much giving up on the rest of the country? Wasn’t this just the 21st century answer to the sharashka?
It is a cliché, but it is a justified one, to say that Russia has phenomenal human capital. In his 2009 State of the Federation address, then-president Dmitry Medvedev, the man who tried to make modernization a mantra and instead left it as punchline, rightly said: “Our country has always had an abundance of innovative, progressive, and talented people… and we need to do everything we can to make these specialists want to work here in their own country.”
His specific plans – not least Skolkovo – were in many ways naïve and implausible. But nonetheless, the irony is that in this respect Medvedev, a president whose main interests were legal reform and technological innovation, may actually have been addressing Russia’s real security needs far more effectively than the macho, guns ‘n’ glory Putin, who has so comprehensively overshadowed and marginalized him.
Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and Director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows (http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/) and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.