Brain drain hammering Russia, more than 2,500 scientists have already left

A lab worker at the North Arctic Russian Federal University in Arkhangelsk. Thousands of mostly young scientists have left Russia after the war in Ukraine. (Atle Staalesen / The Independent Barents Observer)

By Elizaveta Vereykina, The Independent Barents Observer 

At least 2,500 scientists have left Russia since February 24, 2022, the online publication Novaya Gazeta Europe reports based on their research.

The international exchange and building of connections have always been important part in any science. However, now in Russia, the situation is different – many scientists are leaving for good. First of all, as experts point out, the colossal brain drain is due to the increasing isolation of Russia and the total persecution of dissent.

The Barents Observer spoke with two scientists about why they left Russia after February 24, 2022 and what it means for the state of the Russian science.

Vladimir Marakhonov, Russian physicist with PhD in physics and mathematics. In the 1980s – 1990s he worked as a researcher at the Ioffe Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. An independent scholar now, in the interview with The Barents Observer, Vladimir explained why he left Russia for Finland in September 2022.

Vladimir, why did you leave Russia?

Vladimir Marakhonov: We discussed the situation after February 2022 with my colleagues and agreed that a catastrophe and madness is happening.

The danger arose not only for people around but for the whole world. And it is impossible to remain silent about what is happening in Russia now. But now in Russia, you are forced to shut up and sit quietly. Or speak out with extreme caution. Because they can arrest you and send you to prison… They can declare you a traitor with all the consequences.

BO: Who do you think is mostly leaving Russia now?

Vladimir Marakhonov: The trouble is that it is primarily smart people who leave. In Russia, unfortunately, there is now a tradition where not the smartest people are placed in leadership positions, but those who look in the mouth of their superiors, ready to do whatever is asked of them. And when the boss, roughly speaking, is a thief and unprofessional, he selects thieves and unprofessionals to work with. The same is happening in science.

The professionals find themselves out of the game. They are not promoted and they are disgusted to work in such an environment. They begin to look for another place and often this place ends up being abroad.

BO: In your opinion, is the figure of 2,500 realistic?

Vladimir Marakhonov: I think that the number of those who left may be higher, but it is difficult to calculate accurately. You never know whether this or that person has left forever.

In the 1990s, many scientists left Russia because they didn’t get paid properly. In my laboratory in the late 80s – early 1990s, half of the employees left for the West.

Now in Russia, they pay more for science, but at the same time in Russia, for example, the number of cases of treason is growing. And above all, against scientists who were engaged in international cooperation. And even with China. It turns out that everything is being done to make Russia slide into dependence on China in science and for the import of scientific equipment, but at the same time, scientists in Russia are arrested for giving lectures in Harbin. (For example, the case of Dmitry Kolker. )

And even if there is a good salary, scientists see that it is unknown what will happen tomorrow. Many people feel uncomfortable not being able to say what they think. They prefer to pack up their belongings and leave if possible.

BO: The country’s authorities periodically declare that the sanctions are not scary and that they can cope on their own…

Vladimir Marakhonov: It’s easier said than done. It is now impossible to organize an effective scientific work by the resources of a single country. Especially when it comes to experimental science, for example, nuclear physics. It is a very capital-intensive activity.

The Large Hadron Collider on the border of Switzerland and France, for example, cannot be built by one country alone because you won’t get enough money. Therefore, scientists and scientific organizations from different countries interact with each other.

Also, when you do some research, it should be evaluated by a large number of colleagues. If there is no mutual review, then stagnation occurs, which leads to a sharp decrease in the level of development. And now Russia’s connections with international scientific journals are being cut off.

An example of cooperation between Russia and Western science, for example, was in Skolkovo – essentially a joint project with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of the most serious American universities. Sanctions were imposed and everything fell apart. All this is a disaster for Russian science.

The Barents Observer also spoke on condition of anonymity with a 35-year-old assistant professor of history at a university in Norway. She left Russia, where she worked at one of Russia’s leading liberal universities, in November 2022.

BO: Why did you leave Russia?

I felt scared. I was in total shock when Russia started bombing Kyiv for the first time.

I also saw that after the war, my normal academic world was collapsing like a house of cards. After the war, all joint projects with foreign organizations or universities suddenly began to be canceled. After February 24, we received messages almost every day that one or another cooperation was suspended.

Meanwhile, international cooperation is crucial for science. Science cannot develop in isolation. Even during the Cold War, there were many scientific contacts through the Iron Curtain.

I left because I wanted to preserve my sanity and my own development. Development is only possible through conversation and dialogue. In Russia I can’t talk, I have to constantly control what I say, there is constant self-censorship. If, for example, I suddenly want to research the history of the queer movement in Russia, I understand that this will end up with a prosecution or a prison term. Working like this is psychologically difficult and dishonest.

I remember the moment when I saw a student at our university wearing military boots and stripes with the letter Z (a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) on it. I was shocked and realized that I had to leave as soon as possible.

BO: Is the figure of 2,500 realistic in your opinion?

Yes, a lot of people I worked with left. At my former university in Russia, the entire research centers were closed after the war. About 30 of those employees are now abroad too. For most of them, these are just temporary positions;

finding a permanent job in an academy abroad is not easy for them now. But they have nowhere to return to.

And this is one of the most terrible consequences for Russia.

Related stories from around the North:

Norway: Isolated Russia invites faraway countries to Svalbard science center in Pyramiden, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Foreign Ministry university MGIMO signs deal on Svalbard, The Independent Barents Observer

The Independent Barents Observer

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