Russians line up for visas outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Moscow — Over a bottle of vodka and a traditional Russian salad of pickles, sausage and potatoes tossed in mayonnaise, a group of friends raised their glasses and wished Igor Irtenyev and his family a happy journey to Israel.
Irtenyev, his wife and daughter insist they will just be away for six months, but the sadness in their eyes on this recent night said otherwise.
A successful Russian poet, Irtenyev says he can no longer breathe freely in his homeland, because "with each passing year, and even with each passing day, there is less and less oxygen around."
"I just can't bear the idea of watching [Vladimir] Putin on television every day for the next 12 years," the 64-year-old said of the Russian leader who has presided over a relatively stable country, though one awash in corruption and increasing limits on personal freedoms. "I may not live that long. I want out now."
Irtenyev and his family have joined a new wave of Russian emigration that some here have called the "Putin decade exodus."
Roughly 1.25 million Russians have left the country in the last 10 years, Sergei Stepashin, head of the national Audit Chamber, told the radio station Echo of Moscow. The chamber tracks migration through tax revenues.
He said the exodus is so large, it's comparable in numbers to the outrush in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
"About as many left the country after 1917," he said.
They don't leave like their predecessors of the Soviet 1970s and '80s, with no intention to return. They don't sell their apartments, dachas and cars. They simply lock the door, go to the airport and quietly leave.
The reasons are varied. Some, like Irtenyev, chafe at life under Putin's rule, which seems all but certain to continue with the prime minister's expected return to the presidency next year. But for many others, economic strictures are the prime motivation. With inflation on the rise, and the country's GDP stuck at an annual 3% growth rate the last three years — compared with 7% to 8% before the global economic crisis — Russians are feeling pinched.
Russian nuclear physicist Vladimir Alimov, who now works at the University of Toyama in Japan, said he couldn't survive on the $450 monthly salary of a senior researcher at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"Yes, I miss Russia, but as a scientist I couldn't work there with the ancient equipment which had not been replaced or upgraded since the Soviet times," Alimov, 60, said in a phone interview. "Here in Japan, I have fantastic work conditions. I can do the work I enjoy and be appreciated and valued for it, everything I couldn't even dream of back in Russia."
The wave of emigration, which has included large numbers of educated Russians, has grave implications for a country of 142 million with a death rate significantly higher than its birthrate. A study published this year by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development called Russia a waning power and predicted its population would shrink by 15 million by 2030.
Experts believe that 100,000 to 150,000 people now leave the country annually and warn that the exodus reached dangerous dimensions in the last three years.
"People are going abroad for better college education, for better medical help, for better career opportunities, believing they will come back someday, but very few actually do," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst with the Institute of Geography. "The intellectual potential of the nation is being washed away, as the most mobile, intelligent and active are leaving."
Lev Gudkov, head of Levada, also sees a political dimension. "The worst thing is that people who could have played a key role in the modernization campaign proclaimed by the Kremlin are all leaving," Gudkov said. "But it appears that the Kremlin couldn't care less if the most talented, the most active Russians are emigrating, because their exodus lifts the social and political tension in the country and weakens the opposition."
But Valery Fyodorov, the head of VTsIOM, says the current emigration has very little to do with politics.
"A majority of those who want to leave the country are already quite successful in Russia," Fyodorov said. "They simply want to live even better and try something new."
"However, I must admit that life in Russia has not been really improving in the last three years, and that of course applies pressure and encourages talk of leaving," he said. "But that is much more connected with economic crisis problems and consequences rather than politics."
About 20% of Russians are thinking about leaving the country and trying their luck abroad, according to various Russian polling agencies, from the independent Levada Center to the Kremlin-friendly VTsIOM. Among 18- to 35-year-olds, close to 40% of respondents say they'd like to leave.