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Understanding War-Induced Emigration From Russia

One of the clearest indicators that “something did happen” is the surge in emigration from Russia – what we refer as “war-induced emigration”. The scope and qualitative difference of it is felt by its participants in different ways.

© Vasily Shramkov

As a historic event of enormous proportions, the war against Ukraine has had a dramatic impact on Russia’s economic and political standing as well as on ordinary Russian’s lives.. The unfolding drama changed the state of the entire Russian culture, as well as the state of mind of individuals. The basic plans for the future of many people have changed – even those who considered themselves living “outside of politics”.

One of the clearest indicators that “something did happen” is the surge in emigration from Russia – what we refer as “war emigration”. The scope and qualitative difference of war emigration is felt by its participants in different ways. At the same time, outside observers see them from different angles, so the topic of emigration is very broad and intertwined with the more general topic of “war and society”.

In this op-ed, which opens a series devoted to the topic “war and the Russian society,” we limit ourselves to analyzing official statistics and famous people’s assessments of new departures.We also touch upon the significance of such data for shaping attitudes towards war emigration from the lens of civil and cultural actions, as well as opposition politics.

“Emigration sensation” of early 2022 against the general trend of departures from Russia

Recently, loud headlines appeared in the Russian media: “According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), 3.88 million people left Russia in the first quarter of 2022.” Some were indifferent to this figure, while for others interpreted it as a negative reaction of Russian society to the war in Ukraine. However, how reasonable is it to use these data for political assessments?

Let us take a look at the comparative numbers. According to Rosstat and the years preceding war emigration, each of which has its characteristics. Let’s start with 2018 as “relatively normal”. Further, it is important to take into account that 2019, the year of the Moscow Case, was characterized by a certain outflow of politically active citizens from the country. In 2020, theCOVID-19 pandemic occurred, when the population practically did not move around the world. In 2021, the pandemic situation improved, but this had little effect on the freedom of movement of Russians: many countries did not recognize Russian vaccines, required quarantine, fresh PCR tests, etc. Finally, we take the beginning of 2022 with the notorious 3.88 million people who left.

First, how was this number calculated? Quite a simple method of summation. It includes absolutely all categories of trips: tourism, private, business, moving to permanent residence, vehicle attendants and military personnel. Let’s compare the data on the departure of people in recent years.

Graph 1: Statistics on departures from Russia based on Rosstat data since 2018.

As you can see, the peak of departures each year falls on the 3rd quarter (July-August-September), i.e., the most popular vacation months. It appears to be more smoothed – against the backdrop of a general sharp decline in departures – in 2020. This figure suggests that a huge share of the officially recorded international mobility of Russians is tourism. As the world recovers from the pandemic, so does the usual pattern of tourist border crossings . However, 3.88 million departures from Russia in the first quarter of 2022 are quite small compared to pre-Covid years, although it is noticeably higher than the first quarter of 2021 (2.66 million departures). What does this mean, given that the surge in emigration is visible to everyone in the last month of the three statistically recorded by Rosstat? Based on the observed events, it is logical to assume that within the figure under discussion, due to March, the share of politically motivated departures is higher than in any other quarter in previous years. However, since we do not know the real shares of those who go abroad for permanent residence, based on Rosstat data by years, we can only assess the number of those who recently emigrated for political reasons via indirect evidence.

There are several caveats in using the Rosstat data. First, in the case of the figure of 3.88 million, with manual recalculation, there is a significant difference – minus almost 68 thousand people. This investigation is out of the scope of our analysis.. Second, the most frequent departure motivations is “private trip” (55.44%), and the least frequent is “moving for permanent residence”. Only 11 people (out of 3.88 million) went to Kazakhstan, and 1 person who went to Turkey declared the latter. Such a breakdown of statistics does not allow us to draw reliable conclusions about the number of emigrants. When crossing the border, people are not inclined to declare their intention to stay for a long time or permanently reside in another country, since doing so entails obligations: for example, according to the legislation of the Russian Federation, a citizen who has a foreign residence permit is obliged to notify the officials of its presence.

Another caveat is that one person can leave several times during a quarter, with each trip included being recorded and contributing to the final statistic of total departures. . Lastly, it is impossible to know exactly how many people left Russia via gray trails, for example, through Belarus.

Thus, it is difficult to rely on Russian statistics even in the field of accurate data on the number of border crossings, all the more so on its basis, it is impossible to talk about the number of people who emigrated because of politics.

How many Russians emigrated because of their political convictions?

A very difficult issue that worries many is the question of the proportion of the politically conscious population in Russia, especially those who are “against Putin.” One way to assess the proportion is to look at the increased flow of politically motivated emigrants. Let us give some examples.

Consider the statement Yulia Florinskaya, a leading researcher at the RANEPA Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, in her commentary to Meduza: “Now they are trying to estimate [fresh emigration] in some millions: 500, 300 thousand. I don’t think in those categories – and the way these estimates are made seems questionable to me.”

Opposition politician and former State Duma member Gennady Gudkov spoke about political emigration in the context of official data for UA TV: “…Political migration among the four million flow is a minority. Although there is a large flow of political migrants.”

Alexey Navalny’s colleague Leonid Volkov assesses the current migration wave as follows on the Popular Politics YouTube channel: “When you read social media, it seems to many that everyone just left. …It is a myth. And this is a huge lie. And that’s the wrong feeling that only forms in the social media bubble. According to various estimates, from 300 to 400 thousand people left, which is approximately 0.3% of the population. Talented people left, artists left, managers left, journalists, and political activists left. This is a huge blow to the future of Russia. Especially if they won’t come back.”

It should be noted that the flow of Russian citizens leaving and staying abroad during the current war and because of it can either increase or decrease. Political scientist Yekaterina Shulman, in the Status podcast, notes: “Political regimes of our type not only do not prevent anyone from leaving but encourage this departure.” However, although in general, this may be fair, a situation is becoming more and more likely when it becomes more comfortable for the Russian authorities to repress dissidents without letting them go abroad, and many Russians, and not only politically motivated ones, will have reduced resources to emigrate.

Over time, additional ways of assessing real emigration should appear. For example, data on bank account- or national SIM card openings can give a more realistic picture of trips not for vacation purposes but for long-term residence abroad. Also, the data of other countries on the influx of Russian immigrants should be replenished and streamlined. A more accurate picture of war emigration will help those who will carry out cultural, civic, and political work with those members of the new diaspora who are concerned about the end of the war and the fate of their country of origin.

How will understanding the nature of the war-induced emigration help Russian society?

We found that it is impossible to make reliable conclusions regarding the purpose of emigration relying on official statistics alone. At the same time, any non-statistical estimates of migration flow in the conditions of war, expressed by representatives of the Kremlin, should be considered in advance as false. This is how one should treat the statement of the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Mikhail Mishustin about the recent return of 85% of IT specialists to the country.

Importantly, despite all the disputes about the nature of war-induced emigration, there has been a consensus on its two main parameters. First, even if “only” 300,000-400,000 people left the country in a few weeks of 2022, this is much more than the once-troubling figure of 350,000 for the whole of 2015 as a delayed reaction or the annexation of Crimea. At the same time, the information disseminated in 2016 by the Stratfor agency and presented as a radical increase in emigration was the data of the same Rosstat, including the return migration of labor migrants from Central Asia in the calculation. At the same time, the assessment of the scope of war emigration may soon be revised upwards with the help of indirect accounting of official statistics.

Secondly, in addition to recognizing the unprecedented surge in emigration, observers agree on its nature. Based on the assessments of independent experts and public opinion leaders, it should be defined as political, associated with the desire to leave for a long time due to the political actions of the Russian state. As for the economic problems that encourage many to emigrate, at the moment, we cannot say that all new emigrants are aware of their political nature. For a better understanding of the features and capabilities of the new diaspora, both practical work with it and systematic research about it are needed.This necessity was pointed out in the report “Putin’s Exodus”. Do not underestimate the tried and tested methods such as surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups – especially among those who have left Russia and wish to join the active part of the expat community. This will not only provide useful and honest information but will also help to establish links between people of similar worldviews.

At the same time, it is important to research the role of war emigration not only among the diaspora but also in Russia itself, where a large number of those who disagree with Putin’s policy remain. It is important to discuss and study the problem of maintaining communication between those who remained and those who left.In particular, some can be involved as collectors of fundamentally important information, while others can broadcast it to the world community in a quality manner.