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Learning for Freedom and the Global Russian Creative Force

Referring to some big names in contemporary Russian culture, the famous gallerist Marat Gelman recently mentioned to TV Rain that “a considerable part of the country’s identity resides outside the limits of Putin’s jurisdiction but in fact lives in Russia anyway”.1 This statement seems to be of even higher relevance today than three years ago when the report “The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain” came out.2

The sociological research informing our report traced the development of the Russian emigration since 2000 and, especially, since 2012, the pivotal year of Putin’s return as president. It established that, as of 2018, the new Russian diaspora members were increasingly aware of the global economic, technological, and cultural trends from which they learned to benefit, as well as of the political controversies in the country of their exodus. Our study showed that, while the emigration continued at a moderate pace with the economic opportunity pull still being stronger than the political push, its participants were quite alert to the ideas of the Russian non-systemic opposition.

Through surveys and focus groups, we found that the prodemocratic sentiments among the Putin Exodus were particularly characteristic of its later part, namely among those who witnessed the further Kremlin crackdown on democracy in 2012 (the “Bolotnaya case”) and 2014 (the annexation of Crimea). Such respondents demonstrated that they were better equipped not only for more intensive communication with like-minded people back in Russia but also for various activities in support of the political protests there, especially if the country were to face some “dvizhukha” (turmoil, popular commotion, Aufruhr). As it turns out now, after the 2020 unprecedented mass protests of the Belarusians both inside and outside of Belarus, the interest of the Russian diaspora in “dvizhukha” at home can be considered especially indicative of its possible further political dynamics. It is of special importance for evaluating the diaspora’s potential for protest participation and organization that we take into account the phenomenal mobilization and consolidation of a typologically closest post-Soviet diaspora in the face of the unlawful power retention by Lukashenko, Putin’s fellow dictator.3

Much has also changed in Russia between the release of the report and the time of Gelman’s remark. On the one hand, the emigration’s pace has by now sped up and it became even more political. Since the suppression of the protests around the Moscow Duma elections in 2019, the Putin political system has evolved from electoral authoritarianism when the ruler’s legitimacy is sustained due to satisfying some popular economic and political needs to full-fledged dictatorship when any public politics is virtually banned. Following a long-term decrease in the system’s legitimacy caused by its corruption-induced mishandling of the economic problems and later of the pandemic, as well as by its deepening disregard of the citizens’ rights and freedoms, a systemic “regime change” was initiated by the Kremlin. It was finally sealed in 2021 in the form of imprisonment, after an unsuccessful state assassination attempt, of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s chief opponent, and the criminalization of his emphatically legalist movement.4 The other instruments of regime change like the new threats to Ukraine and the heightened confrontation with the West were launched as auxiliary and are currently employed to intimidate the international discourse on freedom suppression and corruption in Russia. All in all, this regime change has led to an increased flight of cultural capital from Russia.

On the other hand, since today more of the country’s creative force – whether in science, the arts, entrepreneurship, or civic and political activism – takes root in the free world, new possibilities arise. The new global transparency and interconnectivity can be used by this growing force more massively in transcending the geographical boundaries and avoiding the political repression to feed into the global Russian democratic movement including the country of its origin. This way, to use Gelman’s terms, the more of Russia’s identity resides outside the limits of Putin’s jurisdiction, the more of it lives in Russia.

Yet, while the prospects of the Russian global democratic movement are no longer hindered by past technological and cultural limitations and while its diasporic efforts can now be brought to a new level, its efficiency more than ever depends on its self-education efforts. A critical driver of such education is the discussion which has been widening among the relatively younger and more creative Russians who have been leaving the country lately. What is important about this discussion is that the question whether the Russians are at all capable of being free is being replaced by the question of how to help the process. This discursive change should be welcomed as a movement away from what can be called “liberal Russophobia”, a version of victim-blaming that cherishes the idea that “any nation deserves its government.”

Fortunately, this way of thinking has been withering away with the generational change in Russian society that affects the opposition’s views and behavior. We can see that the younger political practitioners and civic activists are more concerned with making sense of how the apathy or, in scholarly terms, the learned helplessness of the Russians is actually learned. The renewed oppositional agenda should address issues such as why freedom is not free, how to work with the historical trauma to mobilize against the injustices of today, how victims can turn into survivors, and what can be the structures of solidarity. But it is also time to more actively employ the instruments of social science to make better sense of how state-mafia systems function, how disinformation industries can be fought, how the trade of corruption and fear can be confronted, and how the tectonic changes in the social values can be harnessed to help achieving liberal democracy.

In solidarity with the idea coming from another Gelman (spelled Gel’man), the political scientist writing about “undeserving/unworthy government” (a reference to the concepts of bad and good government in political philosophy),5 I would suggest that it is time to proactively reflect on the fact that the current political system in Russia is not worthy of its more intelligent and morally more advanced society. Instrumentalizing this understanding to help further delegitimization and peaceful dismantling of an outdated political system is a task of closer collaboration between the active and creative younger Russians and the social scientists.

Although learning for freedom is equally important for those who seek it on both sides of the Russian boarder, I should specifically point out the role of the new, younger diaspora in this process because today “emigrants represent an increasingly critical category of transnational political actors.” We know how efficiently their recent experience can combine, in Albert Hirschman’s terms, both exit (emigration) and voice (protest). Indeed, emigrants matter more and more, as modern research shows,6 as the modern world is becoming more globalized, more interconnected, and more transparent.

Meanwhile, the main threats to a better future of this technologically more advanced but culturally and politically insecure world are better dealt with by those who have a first-hand experience of where these threats are coming from.


[1] The related episode of Marat Gelman’s interview to TV Rain: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CZSXfrpBv7a/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

[2] Herbst, J. E., Erofeev, S. (2019) The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain. The Atlantic Council.

[3] Erofeev S. (2021) “Aufruhr und Frust: Die Mobilisierung der russischen Diaspora” (“Uproar and Frustration: The Mobilization of the Russian diaspora”), Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, 2021, no. 10.

[4] Erofeev, S. (2022) “С новым строем! В 2021 году Россия перешла от электорального авторитаризма к полноценной диктатуре” (“The Regime Change is Done: in 2021 Russia shifted from electoral authoritarianism to full-fledged dictatorship”), The Insider, January 18, 2022 (https://theins.ru/opinions/sergei-erofeev/247593).

[5] Gel’man, V. (2019) Недостойное правление. EUSPb Press.

[5] Ahmadov, A. K. and Sasse, G., “A Voice Despite Exit: The Role of Assimilation, Emigrant Networks, and Destination in Emigrants’ Transnational Political Engagement”, Comparative Political Studies, 41(1), August 2015, pp. 1-37.