. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brain Drain: Youths Shun Russia for Life in West

As the Delta Air Lines flight from New York taxied toward the gate at Sheremetyevo Airport, Maria Mikhailova checked her lipstick, fluffed her hennaed hair and heaved a dejected sigh, snapping shut her mirrored compact.

"I hate my country," the 21-year-old economics student said as she gazed with disgust toward the dimly lighted terminal. "I'm excited about seeing my family again, but I just cannot live here anymore."

She was just back for a visit after her first three months at Harvard -- an educational opportunity unthinkable for Russians not long ago and one that has cost her hard-working parents dearly.

Her disdain for her homeland could prove to be fleeting, a natural youthful preference for peace and comfort elsewhere while Russia works through its post-totalitarian growing pains.

But if Mikhailova and thousands of other young people from the urban elite now studying abroad opt to stay there, the exodus would exact a heavy toll on Russia's hopes for a democratic future.

The real price for their foreign education may come not in the form of a tuition bill but in the loss of the contribution that the best and the brightest could make here.

Like many members of the emerging privileged class who have come of age at a time when Russia has open borders, Mikhailova has had the chance to compare the hardships at home with the abundance abroad and has concluded that a life of sacrifice is just not for her.

"I want to live in America or England or France, but not here," she said with finality. "I don't believe anything good will ever be created in Russia."

Among the first beneficiaries of Russia's newfound capitalism, children of those who thrive in that climate are leaving the country in droves to study in security and start careers where they might be better rewarded. Disillusioned by what they see as the stunted growth of democracy and a neo-Communist drift, the teens and twentysomethings of Moscow and St. Petersburg are using their parents' prosperity to escape.

The threat of being drafted for duty in deadly Chechnya, the explosion of crime and violence in Russian cities, the corruption of their once-respected educational institutions -- all are cited by the young people and their parents as reasons to give up and get out.

Already drained of its vaunted scientists and artists since the barriers to emigration fell, Russia could now be threatened with the loss of its most promising young people.

Estimates of the number of Russian students abroad are hard to come by because there is no central agency here overseeing foreign study. But more than 2,000 visas are issued for Russian students by the U.S. Consulate each year; many times that number are thought to be enrolled in private European institutions. The only deterrents for young Russians who decide to stay abroad are the legal and economic conditions they encounter in other countries.

Evidence of the exodus is mostly anecdotal, but virtually every successful businessperson encountered in Moscow argues that the best investment one can make for one's children is foreign study to give them language skills that will be needed for the best jobs in the future.

And with terrorism spreading deep into the heartland and hostage-taking incidents in the cities almost a daily occurrence, sending young people away for their education gives many parents a sense that they are protecting them.

"Many new businessmen here are in a position to send their children abroad for education," said Alexander Shevchenko, head of the Moscow office of the international student exchange program Youth for Understanding.

Common among both the rich kids and the offspring of hard-working intellectuals amid the current insecurities is a weakening desire to return to try to build a better Russia.

"I don't feel any obligation to this country," Masha Zarakhovich, 20, a junior on scholarship at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, said during a visit home for the winter holidays. "The only patriotic feelings I have are for my parents, for the apartment where I grew up, for my friends -- certainly not for the government. I hate the government."

Those whose expectations of freedom and opportunity were forged in the heady decade since reform supplanted repression in Russia say they feel little loyalty to a country that has been engaged in political and military folly as long as they can remember.

For others, it is the grime, moral corruption and criminal infiltration of society that deter youths from planning for a future here.

Dmitry Bogatyrev, who is studying civil engineering at Moscow State University, argued that the quality of higher education has suffered tremendously in recent years because the economic crisis has fostered bribery and cheating.

"At MSU, a diploma costs $10,000 [for a bribe]. Everyone knows this. At lesser schools, you can buy one for $7,000," said Bogatyrev, who attended high school in New York while his father, a television correspondent, was working there. "These degrees used to mean something, but not anymore."

Random crime has soared in the years since Russia threw off hard-line communism, but the more heinous attacks are aimed at the newly rich.

"For the very wealthy and successful, having their children away in Europe or America is not just prestigious, it's a matter of comfort," said Shevchenko, the exchange program director. "They don't have to worry about them being taken hostage."

While parents hope for improvement and students ponder contingencies, Russian education officials acknowledge the risk and consequences of a youthful brain drain.

"Of course we are concerned," said Mikhail Myasnikov, chief of the foreign relations department of the State Higher Education Committee. "It always hurts to lose something that belongs to you, especially your young people and their idealistic values. But once we decided to become a democratic country, we had to come to terms with this problem."

Myasnikov blames crime, insecurity and the war in Chechnya for hindering the growth of a sense of commitment to Russia among the young.

"When television shows Russian soldiers in a war zone and themselves not understanding why they are shooting at other citizens of Russia, this hardly encourages a sense of patriotism," he said.