Estimates are that more than 200,000 people have already crossed Russian borders since Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine. It looks to be the start of a mass exodus of well-to-do and middle class Russians that could further decimate the economy.
ST. PETERSBURG — Lining up to board the 6:30 a.m. bus from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, all his future packed in a single suitcase, a young Russian explains why he’s chosen to leave his native land, using a brutal movie metaphor: “Someone in this country has put a contract out on my life.”
The hitman in this plot is, of course, Vladimir Putin: Since the Russian President launched his invasion of Ukraine, a growing number of citizens back home have been grappling with the decision to stay or go.
Adapt to a repressive world at home with fears of military conscription, an absolutist crackdown on free speech and a looming economic crisis triggered by unprecedented Western sanctions — or try to leave the country for uncertain horizons abroad.
Oligarchs head to U.S. or Gulf
According to one Russian economist, since the start of the war, more than 200,000 people have already crossed Russian borders by land into Finland, Estonia and Latvia, or have caught one of the few remaining flights to countries that have not yet barred Russia from its airspace, such as Turkey, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. The sudden wave of emigration has prompted transport prices to surge to double, triple, in some cases even quadruple what they were prior to the start of the war.
This mass exodus is part of a long-term trend of well-to-do and middle-class Russians emigrating that has been picking up since 2012. For many, the war has just worsened their general feeling of anxiety living in an increasingly repressive state. In a survey by a project of the Russia-based non-governmental organization Takie Dela before the invasion, the number one reason to leave Russia for 64% of respondents was security.
Most Russians have neither the means nor inclination to even consider emigration.
The five-hour-long queues at ticket booths and border crossings the past two weeks suggest that people’s fears are weighing more heavily than the costs. The elite, the oligarchs, the politicians, are largely protected by their positions, or have the means to flee to America or the Gulf region.
Others, like one woman interviewed by Holod Media did, are selling all their possessions for a flight out of the country to start life somewhere else with nothing. Most Russians, notably those who live in small towns and on the outskirts of cities, have neither the means nor inclination to even consider emigration.
Act of protest
The imposition of sanctions is a considerable burden on well-off Russian parents, many of whom have opted for international schools in Moscow, St. Petersburg, which have begun to shut as Western countries are unilaterally shuttering their businesses in Russia. Pearson Edexcel, the main international examination body, last week suspended all operations in Russia and Belarus.
Beyond the economics, the exodus is now also the only means left for Russian people to express their opinion. It is a final sign of protest that Dmitriy Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, has called “un-Russian.”
For those staying, and whose children are schooled by the state, it is harder than ever to receive an education which is not monitored and blinkered by state ideology. Russian liberal daily Novaya Gazetareported that a schoolteacher was suspended last week for a post on Instagram: "So, I have my own opinion! And not only me, many teachers have their own opinion. And you know what? It clearly does not coincide with the opinion of the state."
His issue: being forced to teach state-prescribed curriculum. “You need to live in such a way that your conscience does not torment you.” The penalty for disseminating what the Kremlin views as false information about the war — 15 years in prison — is not just an assault on free press, but one that is disturbing the moral sense of many in Russia.
Students at Moscow's Higher School of Economics
Losing human capital
Furthermore, last week’s departure of international businesses is already blowing holes in the Russian economy and is expected to leave thousands of workers who have remained in the country unemployed, in what could become the country's worst economic crisis since the end of the Soviet Union.
“The Russian economy will rapidly lose human capital, and the rate of its outflow may be higher than in the 1990s,” wrote Vladimir Gimpelson, head of the Moscow Higher School of Economics’ center for labor market studies. Combine this with the exodus of educated and skilled specialists possessing years of expertise, and Russia may be left with a concerning gap in its workforce and economy which could take years to rebuild.
The extent of the sanctions has gone far beyond what was expected.
This crisis has two potential solutions in the eyes of the Kremlin — the first, the nationalization of foreign business property, being the most likely, as reported by Kommersant last Friday. Its aim: supposedly to prevent mass-unemployment, though simultaneously strengthening the Kremlin’s grip over independent businesses.
The second, in response to the loss of tech industry such as Apple and Netflix, is to turn to China as their primary partner. For a long time, the FSB security services were worried about letting the Chinese into Russian communications, but in desperate times there is no room for such misgivings.
The Kremlin has declared that the risks of unemployment caused by Western sanctions were calculated in advance. This assertion, though, has already come under fire, as the extent of the sanctions has gone far beyond what was expected. Much has been made of the millions that Russian oligarchs stand to lose, though it is clear that the real losers will be those who own or work in small businesses with little to no government support.
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