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Russia’s ‘Brain Drain’ and the Propspects for Regime Transformation

by Gordon M. Hahn

The US government, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL), is claiming a sharp spike in asylum claims from Russian citizens, hitting a 24-year high in 2017, jumping nearly 40 percent from the previous year ( While if true, this is almost certainly an indication of growing dissatisfaction with the government of President Vladimir Putin in some parts of Russian society, despite his majority support. However, it may not be an indication of growing instability, in fact, quite to the contrary.

One of the main drivers of revolutionary forms of democratic regime transformation, according to contemporary social science, is the lack of sufficient social mobility for middle class youth that often emerges in authoritarian countries with high or rising levels of higher education. This factor is a potential driver of regime change in Russia. However, another factor in Russia – a significant rate of ‘brain drain’ – deprives this factor of its potential robustness. This factor is usually ignored because brain drain analyses universally emphasize the socioeconomic developmental implications of brain drain (for example, see Stratfor, They also tend to ignore political implications beyond instability potentially caused by poor regime socioeconomic performance.

Revolution theory has gone beyond simple and sometimes incorrect explanations such as low GDP, economic decline, high inequality, corruption, and political repression. While revolutionary and transitional forms of regime transformation always have multiple causes, multicausality does exclude the importance of some factors over others and the role of highly interrelated (grouped or groups of factors) playing a sometimes pivotal, ‘tipping point’ role. Samuel Huntington’s groundbreaking study Political Order in Changing Societies (1968), which examined regime destabilization in developing countries, demonstrated that the core of revolutionary movements are urban middle class university students and graduates, who become alienated from their states and societies and push for change. Counterintuitively, therefore, the 2011 Arab Spring occurred precisely because of recent decades’ economic success story. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria and other MENA countries had been making steady progress in reducing extreme poverty, hunger, and child and maternal mortality, expanding prosperity, and boosting school enrollment. Most MENA countries attained their Millenium Development Goals. Average GDP per capita in Egypt increased by nearly 40 percent from the 1990s to the late 2000s and by 47 percent in Tunisia. 

There was just one problem with the success: the growth rate in educational attainment far outpaced other developing regions. By most definitions, the middle class grew in size by a factor of several times in most MENA countries, comprising as much as 75 percent under some definitions of ‘middle class.’ Here, we can supplement Huntington’s theory with Jack Goldstone’s demographic theory of revolution, which posits that high population growth rates are instrumental in creating large pools of unemployed young males – the stuff revolution is made of. In 2009, Tunisia’s youth unemployment rate was around 30 percent, and in Egypt it was about 25 percent, with unemployment mostly concentrated among the educated. This, however, was along-standing fact of Arab life, so what other factors sparked the demand for change? It is argued that Internet access and growing disdain for official corruption, combined with real and perceived wealth and income inequality exacerbated discontent among the unemployed. Much youth discontent plus much youth free time and energy gives you revolution. 

Why is Russia different from this revolutionary scenario? First, Russia’s urban youth unemployment rate is low, with most such unemployment in mid-sized and small towns and villages. One reason urban middle class youth unemployment is low is due to something those hoping for regime change in Russia point to as a fundamental failure of the Putin regime. The Kremlin’s failure to provide competitive opportunity and lifestyle for Russian youth is driving a massive Russian brain drain abroad (see Table below).


Table 1. Out-Migration from Russia, 1997-2016.


Year .                     Number Emigrating


1997                               232,987

1998                               213,337

1999                               214,963

2000                               145,720

2001                               121,166

2002                               106,685

2003                                 94,018

2004                                 79,795

2005                                 69, 798

2006                                 54,061

2007                                 47,013

2008                                 39,508

2009                                 32,458

2010                                 33,578

2011                                 36,774

2012 .                             122,751

2013                               186,382

2014                               310,496

2015                               353,233

2016 .                             313,210


SOURCE: See ‘Mezhdunarodnaya Migratsiya”,


The Table above demonstrates a major spike in out-migration from Russia in the wake of the 2011-2012 ‘white ribbon’ pro-democracy demonstrations. Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency and reversal of the political and discursive thaw, legislative liberalization, and foreign policy ‘reset’ during the presidency of Dmitrii Medvedev seems to have disappointed the pro-democracy, pro-Western youth leading to a massive exodus from 2012-2016. On the other hand, the boom oil economy of the mid-2000s saw a drastic fall in out-migration during Putin’s second term and through Medvedev’s ‘perestroika 2.0.’ Out-mgration more than triples in 2012 with Putin’s return to the Kremlin. This is a year before the downturn in oil prices, so that the beginning of the exodus cannot be attributed to the resulting economic decline, which began in 2013. The economic downturn because of falling oil prices could have intensified the flow of out-migraton but it did not re-start it. More shocking is that out-migration nearly tripled again from 2012 to 2015. From 2010 to 2015 it increased ten-fold.

Of course, other Eurasian countries — such as Ukraine — have out-migration problems. Even some democracies, like India, have a similar problem. Silicon Valley is filled with Russian, Indian and Chinese emigres’. In those countries as well, out-migration might contribute to stability in politics but dampen economic prospects leading to a long-term political problem.

Also, some of the de-revolutionizing effect of out-migration by educated youth might be mitigated by the potential role a Russian diaspora can play in assisting regime change movements, much as many non-Russian, indeed anti-Russian diasporas from among the the ethnic groups of the former Tsarist empire, the USSR and the communist bloc do. They can lobby Western governments to more aggressively target Russia for regime change, finance opposition forces back in the old homeland, and perform other subversive functions. Nevertheless, the exodus is more likely to weaken rather than strengthen Russia’s already weak pro-democracy movement.

In sum, instead of voting for pro-democratic forces and/or fomenting unrest, Russia’s discontented, highly educated, highly skilled university graduates tend to move abroad to find suitable work. The departure of these ‘best and brightest’ removes the most talented potential organizers and leaders of revolution. This is especially true when many young Russian emigres are computer technology, Internet marketing, and social network specialists — an important cadre for making revolution in the information age. It is important to recall that the ‘white ribbon’ demonstrations were a manifestation of discontent among the so-called ‘creative class’ in Moscow and in some other large urban centers. The creative class is now exiting with its feet instead of marching with them. In this way, the Russian regime with help from the attractions of the West for educated urban youth have wittingly or unwittingly reduced the likelihood of democratic regime change in Russia, confounding the hopes of those who hope for evolutionary or revolutionary transformation of the way Russia is ruled.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California,

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014).He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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