As thousands of Russians descended on a park in central Moscow this week to protest against disputed elections won by Vladimir Putin‘s United Russia party, Alexey Kovalev began to feel something. “I could feel the buzz I felt in 1991 when I was out in the streets with my parents. I was watching the news, reading Twitter and called my London friends,” said the 30-year-old, who lives in London. “We felt kind of outraged, helpless. We thought of taking a plane and flying to Moscow.”
Instead, he and fellow Moscow native Konstantin Pinaev decided to organise a protest in central London, which both have called home for the past few years. It will be held at Old Palace Yard in Westminster , to coincide with a Moscow protest expected to gather tens of thousands. They expected 20 people to sign up – by Friday evening, more than 600 said they were ready to go. As Putin has tightened control over Russia – stifling independent media, overseeing rampant corruption, squashing liberal representation in government – Russia’s educated, urban elite has been flooding out of the country and seeking opportunities elsewhere.
It is mainly they who are organising demonstrations around the world in support of Russia’s nascent protest movement, which represents the same generation. Similar ones will be held in New York, Boston, Berlin, and around a dozen other cities.
“In the 90s there was a saying – that people emigrated for sausage,” said Kristina Urosova, who emigrated to London from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk two years ago. “Those of us leaving now have plenty of sausage, we’re economically successful people – we were well-paid, owned flats, had good friends and good jobs.”
What Urosova, 28, said she didn’t have was security – she was scared of police, fed up with demands for bribes and unwilling to start a family in a system that is, as she put it, “corrupt from top to bottom”. The government, she felt, no longer represented her.
“In the beginning, Putin did a lot, but for the last five or six years, we see that the authorities don’t care about anything but their personal enrichment,” she said.
Urosova is not alone. After a 13-year decline, emigration from Russia increased slightly last year, according to the Federal Statistics Service, with 33,578 people registered as having left the country. According to the Federal Migration Service, more than 300,000 Russians leave each year – around 40,000 to seek permanent residency elsewhere. Independent experts believe the number is even higher.
Emigration became a particularly popular subject of conversation after 24 September this year – the date it was announced that Putin would seek to return to the presidency in a March vote following four years as prime minister. Websites began popping up, helping people with questions on emigration – a popular one became “Pora Valit”, or “It’s Time to Shove Off”.
Anton Nossik, a prominent internet entrepreneur who has held a series of seminars on how to emigrate, says it’s a natural outgrowth of the political system has built. “You’re not writing to Congress to fix things – you don’t have a say,” said Nossik, who emigrated to Israel for a time after the fall of the Soviet Union. “It’s a logical consequence of the existing political model, where people don’t matter.”
Urosova, and others who plan to attend the Saturday rally in London, say they live with the hope that things might change. “When I left, I thought it was for ever because I didn’t think that Russia could change,” she said, an internet project manager in Russia now studying for a degree in computer science. Her husband, with whom she emigrated, is a software developer at an investment bank. They are expecting their first child. “It’s not perfect to live in a country without our own language, our own culture,” she said. “We would want to raise our child in our own country. If Russia changes, I would be on the first plane back.”