With its ‘brain drain’ caused by Ukraine war, where does Russia’s future lie?
More than 13 million Ukrainians have been displaced by fighting since February 2022 — half of them internally and half abroad. Some 3 million went to Russia, 1 million of whom were forcibly deported or kidnapped; about 1.5 million went to Poland; 1 million to Germany; and lower numbers went to other European countries and North America.
Hundreds of thousands of young Russian men, some with their families, fled Russia to avoid conscription. Many drove their own cars, a few bicycled, and some paid exorbitant prices to fly out — many to Turkey.
Thousands of scientists and other intellectuals, along with hundreds of ballet dancers and other artists, left or tried to leave Russia, ashamed of Vladimir Putin’s wars and unhappy with his repression. Some Russian scientists worry that “there is no future for science in Russia.”
More than 10 percent of Russia’s tech workforce left the country in 2022. Many found office space in Armenia, with good access to the internet and international banking. The mass flight of tech workers turned Russian information technology into another casualty of war. Meanwhile, Russia struggled under an unprecedented wave of hacking, puncturing the myth of its cyber superiority. It is possible, of course, that Putin was glad to be rid of malcontents and to pursue autarky, supported by the many Russians who seemed to approve of his every word and deed.
Vadim Smyslov, a former editor at GQ Rossiia, described what led him to move to Tbilisi: “As a journalist, I wanted transparency. But while soldiers on the southern front seized Ukrainian villages, people on the home front were being muzzled. Russian media were prohibited from calling the war anything other than a ‘special military operation.’ On March 3 , Putin signed into law a bill banning ‘fake news,’ with fines of up to €13,000 and 15 years in prison. The police began to stop people on the street to search their phone chat histories for the words ‘war,’ ‘Ukraine’ and ‘Zelensky.’ In Moscow, a man was detained for holding a bank card that had the word ‘mir’ [peace] printed on it — the name of Russia’s equivalent of Visa and Mastercard. Another man found himself in a police cell for wearing sneakers that were blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.”
Having flown to Tbilisi with his hiking backpack, Smyslov began to spot the faces of people he had once written about —among them, Kantemir Balagov, a filmmaker twice nominated at the Academy Awards; the noted biologist Ilya Kolmanovsky; the contemporary artist Dagnini; sculptor Nikita Seleznev; and literary bloggers Zhenya Kalinkin and Daria Kasyan. Smyslov learned that the cult Russian rock singer Zemfira flew to Paris immediately after giving a performance in Moscow that she ended with the song, “Don’t Shoot.” From Paris, Zemfira continued to speak out, writing a track called “Meat,” about a war that turns “people’s bodies into rotting flesh.” Her friend Renata Litvinova shot the short anti-war film, “When Will You Ever Learn?,” in which she recites the lyrics, in Russian, from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
Smyslov recalled that, in 2015, “the newspaper RBC published an investigative piece on Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, and less than a year later, the editor-in-chief, Maxim Solius, was fired. … In 2021, journalist Andrey Zakharov discovered that Putin had fathered an illegitimate daughter. Six months later, Zakharov was declared a foreign agent. He left the country after noticing that he was being followed in Moscow. … In 2017, the regime turned on another director, Kirill Serebrennikov, whose films had been selected to compete at the Berlin, Venice, and Cannes film festivals. Ever since, Serebrennikov has been under investigation in Russia for fabricated charges of large-scale fraud. … Letters of support for the director were written by such cultural figures as Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.”
But Serebrennikov left for Berlin. The Bolshoi Theater removed his production Nureyev from their program — the story of Rudolf Nureyev, another artist who fled the Soviet Union, in 1961, for Europe, leading Soviet newspapers to call him a “traitor to the Motherland.”
Ilya Kolmanovsky, the scientist, also in Tbilisi, articulated the magnitude of Putin’s crimes. “It’s one thing for Putin to be a mafioso dictator who has his opponents killed from time to time,” he explained. But now we’re talking about “the embodiment of evil that has the capacity to destroy the world. [W]ith time, people will come to understand that Putin’s invasion was also an attack on Russia.”
Germany is a major destination for Russians and Ukrainians fleeing the war — a contrast to the 18th century, when Peter the Great and Catherine the Great imported Europe’s best and brightest. For decades, the Russian Academy of Sciences consisted mainly of Germans. Evidently blind to the big picture, Putin says that he, like Peter, is merely taking back Russia’s historic possessions. Now Putin pushes back to the West the very people on whom Russia’s future depends. Some 200 Russian and Ukrainian dancers are training with the Berlin State Ballet, which even provides them with shoes.
Perhaps these potential émigrés in Berlin will follow the path of Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes transformed dance theater from Paris to New York to San Francisco to Australia, with its synergy of world-class choreography by Michel Fokine and George Balanchine; costumes and sets by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Léon Bakst and Natalya Goncharova; and dancing by Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova — all done to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.
Diaghilev never returned to Russia; his Ballets Russes never performed in the land of his birth. This would resemble the case if Louis Armstrong and his orchestra toured Russia but chose never to come home. A later generation of Parisians and New Yorkers enjoyed and learned from the dance marvels of Soviet-era defectors Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and today, Natalya Osipova. At Nureyev’s funeral in Paris in 1993, Oleg Vinogradov, artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet, observed, “What Nureyev did in the West, he could never have done here.” When Osipova joined Britain’s Royal Ballet, she cited the broader, more diverse repertoire as her primary motivation.
Where is the cultural milieu that gave humanity the symphonies and operas of Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov? Their works are still played — often by Russian masters with superb technical skills — but where is the deep creativity that spawned “Swan Lake” and “Boris Godunov”? When I look at the Metropolitan Opera’s productions of “Prince Igor” or “Eugene Onegin,” I weep for the culture that spawned them but is no more.
It goes without saying, of course, that a country’s artistic achievements do not somehow compensate for its criminal brutalities, past or present. But some might say, what is there to live for if not art?
Walter Clemens is an associate of Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and professor emeritus of political science at Boston University. He is the author of several books, including “Can Russia Change?” and “The Republican War on America: Dangers of Trump and Trumpism.”
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