Nov 28th, 2023, 10:00 AM

Russia is Experiencing 'Brain Drain'

By Caleb Klubben
Image Credit: Caleb Klubben
A mass emigration of working citizens spells disaster for the pariah nation

Not since the 1917 Revolution, or the collapse of the USSR in 1991, has Russia experienced such a vast surge of emigration. But, the country’s economic woes have continued as new data reveals citizens are increasingly moving away from the pariah state, taking their diplomas, their labor, and their youth with them.

According to reports from the Russian policy analysis network Re:Russia, between 817,000-922,000 Russians have emigrated since the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, while others place the number closer to one million. A July 2023 report published by the French Institute of International Relations (ifri) further outlined the severe blow this phenomenon is set to inflict upon the Russian economy, revealing that a total 80% of those emigrating from Russia being college educated, with around 86% falling under the age of 45.

“It was and is a serious brain drain,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine and co-author of a 2019 study investigating Russian emigration told the Share America news outlet. “Those who left are by and large more educated and more enterprising. That is a net loss for the Russian economy.”

This brain drain has translated to a 20 year record low, with only 30% of the nation’s workforce currently under the age of 35, rendering 42% of the industrial firms across Russia unable to maintain an adequate number of workers, according to the Moscow Times. These shortages are not going unnoticed, with experts like Sergei Smirnov, economist from the Russian National Academy of Sciences telling the BBC, "There will be increasingly more demand for people to be able to fix cars or make shoes. I don't like apocalyptic scenarios but I believe this will lead to productivity within the Russian economy continuing to fall over time."

Classrooms are left empty after a mass exodus of young, educated Russians. (Image Credit: Caleb Klubben)

There are multiple factors motivating the mass exodus of young, educated Russians, ranging from an oppressive political climate to limited economic opportunity to forced conscription. A 2019 survey conducted by the Levada-Center, an independent sociological organization, found that 53% of the participants aged 18-24 indicated they wanted to emigrate from Russia permanently. 

The tidal wave of exiting citizens has ushered in a host of issues concerning wealth and population viability. According to Business Insider, 11.5% ($41.5 billion) of the total personal savings held in Russian banks was transferred abroad in 2022 alone, amounting to what has been dubbed a significant “capital flight” of funds from a nation whose economy and currency remains strained by Western sanctions in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

This relocation has also deepened concerns over population sustainability. With so many of its citizens leaving, Russia is struggling to fill the void. Data from the UN World Population Prospects reports that the current rate of immigration to Russia sits at 0.621 individuals (per 1000), resulting in an overall decline of -16.980% from 2022-2023. Analysis from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) places the total replacement rate for the Russian population at 1.6 children per woman, a total fertility rate (TFR) that falls shy of the suggested 2.1 replacement rate necessary for a nation to maintain a stable population.

With Russia’s economy continuing to sink as more of its educated and younger citizens pack up their wealth and make for the lifeboats, other nations have been quick to learn from Moscow’s mistakes, illustrated by the unlikely juxtaposition emerging between Russia and Indonesia. According to reports from the Atlantic Council, “Russia's slide and Indonesia's ascent are both driven in large part by the same thing: people. Russia is suffering from acute brain drain while Indonesia's labor force is growing." The same analysis predicts that Russia’s GDP will fall behind that of Indonesia by the year 2026, with the developing island nation replacing Russia as the world’s sixth-largest economy, as measured by purchasing power parity (PPP).

The council attributes this reversal in status to Russia’s haemorrhaging of skilled laborers coupled with a steady growth spurt among Indonesia's educated workforce. "In particular, Indonesia's educated professional class is growing while Russia's is shrinking. That contrast is what makes their soon-to-be swap on the list of the world's largest economies notable. The world's center of economic gravity is shifting."