Why smart Russians are leaving their country behind

  • Article by: LEONID BERSHIDSKY  , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: June 17, 2013 - 11:33 AM
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Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, center right.

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The regime of Vladimir Putin has always presented successful, liberal-minded Russians with a quandary: To what extent are they willing to put up with an authoritarian government in return for making a life in their native country?

Lately, a number of well-known Russians have decided that the bargain isn’t worth it.

Sergei Guriev, a highly respected Russian economist, quietly left Moscow last week to join his family in Paris, where he plans to remain. He asked to be struck off the list of candidates for the supervisory board of Russia’s largest bank, the state-controlled Sberbank. He mailed in his resignation as head of the New Economic School, a research and learning institution with the best economics faculty in Russia.

In terms of public profile, Guriev is the closest thing Russia has to Paul Krugman. He is a serious academic with more than 1,600 citations in international publications, according to Google Scholar - about 75 times fewer than Krugman’s, but respectable for Russia. He writes a widely read newspaper column, and has advised the government on matters of public policy.

The advisory role backfired for Guriev. In 2011, then- President Dmitri Medvedev’s Human Rights Council gave Guriev and other experts a tough assignment: Analyze the verdict in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest individual and, since 2003, a prisoner convicted of economic crimes. An avowed political enemy of Putin, Khodorkovsky has stood two trials. In the most recent one, in 2011, he was convicted of stealing a vast quantity of oil from the subsidiaries of Yukos, the hydrocarbon conglomerate he controlled.

In their report, the experts ripped into the verdict, saying Khodorkovsky was convicted for what amounted to standard business practice. Guriev wrote that what the judge considered theft was merely transfer pricing, used by all holding companies to concentrate profits at the corporate center. The report provided ammunition to Khodorkovsky’s lawyers appealing to the European Court for Human Rights, and to former Yukos shareholders suing in the West for damages caused by the company’s demise. It was an embarrassment to Putin and the Russian courts.

In 2012, the Investigative Committee, Russia’s FBI, started delving into the backgrounds of the reports’ signatories, looking for Yukos funding. They found that in 2003, the New Economic School had received money from a Yukos-financed foundation. Guriev was away lecturing at Princeton at the time, and he says he had no hand in either receiving or spending the money. Nonetheless, the investigators keep looking for conflicts of interest. The digging has intensified ahead of Khodorkovsky’s scheduled release in October 2014.

In an interview with Kommersant FM radio, Guriev said that on April 25, investigators demanded access to his personal emails since 2008. “It took them two days to copy them,” he said. “I write a lot of emails, so it must have been 40 or 45 gigabytes.” According to Guriev, his interrogators hinted that he was under scrutiny because of his “political activity” and asked pointedly whether he intended to emigrate. After consulting with friends close to the ruling elite, Guriev decided that it was no longer safe to stay in Moscow. “I think my family deserves for me to stay out of prison,” he told Kommersant FM.

Guriev’s emigration caused a storm of anguished comments from other liberals, as well as dismissive ones from Putin supporters. “This is not just a big loss,” economist Irina Yasina told radio Echo Moskvy. “It’s a very bad sign for educated people in their 30s and 40s who hoped they would be needed in their country.”

Maxim Trudolyubov, opinion editor for the daily Vedomosti, which has run Guriev’s columns for the last ten years and even published them as a book, wrote that Russian authorities “will now have more time to catch real criminals. Readers will have fewer good columns to read and more time for their families. What else? Our ties with the outside world are being severed, that’s what.”

Political scientist Vladimir Guelman saw a parallel with recent reprisals against independent sociologists for receiving foreign funding. “It is hard to say how long the purge of disloyal scientists will go on and how far it will go,” he wrote on Slon.ru. “There are no objective obstacles to this purge in today’s Russia.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, fiery pro- Putin commentator Mikhail Leontyev dismissed Guriev as a “banal economic thinker.”

“Maybe this really is a case of evil people persecuting a guiltless one. I do not know,” Leontyev wrote in his magazine, Odnako. “But the scientific, public and social role of this individual appears negligible to me.”

Putin and Medvedev were similarly disparaging. “Godspeed to those who leave,” Medvedev, now Russia’s prime minister, told a gathering of managers on May 29. “I do not mean to say you are not needed, but if that’s the path you see for yourselves, why should we hold on to you?”

Putin commented on the Guriev case during a Russia-EU summit on June 4. “I only recently heard his name,” Putin was quoted as saying by the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. “He works in economics, so let him do it anywhere he pleases.” The president added, “I don’t know if he has any problems with the law. If he’s done nothing wrong, he is 100 percent safe, 100 percent.”

Putin’s guarantee didn’t impress Guriev. “As a free man, I have the right to disagree with the president’s assessment of my risks,” Guriev said in the Kommersant FM interview.

Guriev was only the latest public intellectual to declare his disenchantment with living in Russia. Earlier, the writer and editor Masha Gessen, who authored a popular book on Putin, “The Man Without a Face,” said she was leaving for New York with her three children.

“It’s one thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s risky and difficult; I think in many ways it’s enriching them, and I’m glad my kids have that experience,” she said in an interview with the Lumiere Reader. “It’s another thing to bring up your kids in a place that’s hopeless. Now that I’ve lost hope, I need to take them out.”

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