Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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St. Petersburg Times
November 6, 2001
Even the Birch Trees Want To Emigrate
By Vladimir Kovalyev

SOMETHING very weird happened last Tuesday evening on the Russian-Finnish border. A piece of land about 800-square meters in area with two five-meter-high birch trees on it broke away from the Russian bank of the Saimaa Channel and silently drifted off toward the Finnish coast. "It was moving at an average speed of five kilometers per hour," RIA-Novosti reported.

"Why wasn't I on that island?" sighed a friend of mine after reading the report. Russian by nationality, she is one of many, many people I know who want to find a different place to live.

This remark sent me on a search for some statistics on the number of Russians who have left the country for good over the last 10 years. I remember this summer when there were rumors that the United States intended to abolish visas for Russian citizens and a friend said to me that "the day after that happened, President Putin would find nobody to talk to on Moscow streets."

What I discovered was that, according to government figures on the Polit.ru Web site, 1.1 million Russians emigrated between 1989 and 1999. Of those, 605,800 settled in Germany; 289,800 in Israel; 114,000 in the United States; 18,200 in Greece; 8,700 in Canada; 7,200 in Finland; and 32,000 went elsewhere.

And this is just recent history, of course. About 10 million Russians left the country during World War II, and about four million managed to slip out during the first years of Soviet rule, before 1938. In other words, about 15 million got out before immigration even became legal. Or, put another way, if the Communist revolution had come to some Scandinavian country instead of to Russia, that country would be empty by now. Maybe little islands with birch trees would be floating in the opposite direction.

But things aren't all bad. Experts say that about 400,000 more people enter Russia each year than leave it. So, in terms of raw numbers, Russia isn't likely to be depopulated any time soon.

However, the figures say that about 50 percent of the Russians that leave the country are young and highly educated. Most of those coming here are people from the republics of the former Soviet Union, China or Vietnam - many of whom have minimal educations and are happy to take any work they can get. The Moscow city government reports that it has 400,000 such immigrants, mostly working illegally at construction sites or city markets.

Such figures make our nationalists scream about the "national crisis" and the "brain drain," but there really isn't anything that can be done about it. Economics and politics push people to move around and, while it may be bad for "nations," it is hard to argue against individual people doing what is best for them.

A public-opinion survey in 1990 revealed that about two million Russians were ready to go abroad immediately if they were given the opportunity to do so. Now, we see that more than half of them found that opportunity.

Of course, that doesn't mean that they all found what they were looking for. I am especially concerned about those who went to Germany, a country that - according to press reports and a recent Deutsche Welle survey - doesn't much care for immigrants.

Nonetheless, people always think the grass is greener on the other side and there is no point in talking about the difficulties one might encounter in other countries. As long as bits of Russian land are floating away, there will be people like my friend who are ready to go along for the ride.

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