A diaspora is a terrible thing to waste
There have been diasporas ever since the Old Testament, and, leaving aside their tragic nature, no two mass exoduses have been alike. In the twentieth century, the world witnessed Jews escaping from pogroms, the Bolshevik revolution, and then Hitler; African-Americans migrating en masse out of the Jim Crow South; and Vietnamese fleeing a war-torn country. In this century, Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans have fled failed liberations and brutal sectarian wars; Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans have been walking away from poverty and violence; and, now, millions of newly arrived Ukrainians in Europe and elsewhere are wondering when or even if they will ever go home.
For some countries, diasporas also are not new. Just ask the Russians. For three-quarters of a century, Stalin's NKVD and its successor, the KGB, kept close tabs on expatriate Russians, constantly worrying about the threat they might pose. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin's security service, the FSB, is continuing the tradition. According to recent FSB estimates, almost four million Russians left the country in the first three months of this year.
Obviously, FSB statistics are hard to verify. But the sheer magnitude of this year's departures is striking. Compared to the first quarter of 2021, Russian arrivals in Georgia and Tajikistan increased fivefold, and they grew fourfold in Estonia, threefold in Armenia and Uzbekistan, and twofold in Kazakhstan. Moreover, Latvia and Lithuania together took in some 74,000 Russians, and popular tourist spots like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey welcomed just under a million. Nearly 750,000 people crossed into the Georgian region of Abkhazia, one of Putin's vassal territories.
While some of these travelling Russians doubtless returned home, the total number of departures in the first quarter is remarkable. It represents nearly two percent of the country's population, and that doesn't even count the Russians who have left for Europe or other parts of the world. The FSB isn't tracking these departures just to pass the time. From the October Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian diasporas were flies in the ointment of the worker's paradise. While Russians had already started to flee in the wake of the failed 1905 revolution, these numbers surged when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 and during the subsequent civil war. "Little Moscows" cropped up across Europe.
This history was repeated in the 1990s, but with a twist. Not only did the collapse of the Soviet Union leave 30 million ethnic Russians outside Russia's borders (primarily in the Baltics, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine), but several million more emigrated to Europe, Asia, and North America, producing the second major diaspora in the space of a hundred years.
Do such large expatriate communities really matter? That depends on your point of view. In the 1920s, exiled Russian monarchists, rightists, and assorted military veterans – the losers in the five-year-long civil war – continued to conspire against the Bolshevik regime. But they continued to embody all the divisiveness that had led to their earlier defeat. Likewise, in 2011, the German historian Karl Schlögel argued that today's Russian exiles lack the political structures to organise, and thus have little potential to effect change in their home country.
But Schlögel also identified an important difference between the émigrés and refugees of the 1920s and Russia's twenty-first-century expatriates: today's diaspora includes the most dynamic and entrepreneurial elements of Russian society, from business managers and information-technology specialists to scientists and artists. Their flight abroad represents a major brain drain. Igor Zubov, Putin's deputy interior minister, warned of this problem in June, when he asked the Russian parliament to allow more foreign IT workers to enter the country. In his testimony, he revealed that Russia was short some 170,000 IT workers, contradicting official claims that most of those who left had already returned home. The Russian Association for Electronic Communications has painted a similar picture. Industry insiders forecast that 10 percent of Russian IT workers may leave in 2022.
It's not just techies. As in the 1920s, hundreds of Russian journalists, writers, actors, filmmakers, and artists have also fled abroad, often resuming the same work in their countries of refuge. Investors and entrepreneurs, too, are leaving. Henley & Partners, a British firm that brokers citizenship deals for wealthy clients seeking to change their nationality, reports that 15,000 millionaires are expected to leave Russia in 2022. Most will try to domicile in Malta, Mauritius, or Monaco, where inviting beaches and lax tax laws welcome immigrants who come with cash.
Whether skilled professionals and Cristal guzzlers are leaving because of their opposition to Putin or for personal economic reasons, what matters is that they are depriving Russia of critical talent and capital. That is why the Biden administration has proposed legislation to loosen visa requirements for Russian IT workers and scientists with advanced degrees. And other countries and companies are making similar efforts to harness the benefits of the new Russian diaspora.
But these efforts will yield mostly private economic and financial gains, while the political potential of the diaspora remains untapped. If Western countries want to support Ukraine and confront Russian aggression, they ought to be doing more to bring together Russia's expatriate intellectual and financial capital, forming a real community abroad that can communicate with, and potentially influence, Russians back home.
A century ago, some 300,000 Russians – businessmen, writers, artists, and others – created Europe's leading "little Moscow" in Berlin, and by the mid-1920s, the city had some 150 Russian political journals and 87 publishers. Some of these were Soviet enterprises, but most were not. As Schlögel notes, the Russian exiles were attracted not only by Weimar Germany's freedom but also by its strategic location. It was a place where books, magazines, and political tracts could find their way into the new Soviet state.
In today's wired world, this episode in the history of print may sound quaint. But that is only because we have exponentially more powerful tools with which to disseminate information. Ultimately, only Russians can shape their country's fate. But the West has ample means at its disposal to help those who want change in their homeland.
Kent Harrington is a former senior CIA analyst and has served as a national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA's director of public affairs.
Copyright: Project Syndicate